committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

CHAPTER VIII.

Principles and Practice of the Denomination—Human Tradition Renounced—Freedom of Conscience Demanded—Personal Piety requisite to Church Fellowship—Purity of Discipline—Cases Cited—Mode of Public Worship—Plurality of Elders—Communion—Singing—Laying on of Hands—The Sabbath

 

Having thus brought down the history of the English Baptists to the end of the “troublous” period, we will close this portion of the narrative by a few observations on the character and state of the denomination, and some biographical notices of the principal ministers.

The distinguishing principle of the Baptists was clearly discerned by our British forefathers, and consistently maintained. They owned no master but Christ, no rule but His Word. Hence they were Protestants. When Protestants required submission to human forms, whether the Common Prayer-book or the Directory, they withdrew and became Dissenters. Differing from other Dissenters on some important points, they separated themselves, following the light of the Word, and endeavoring to render strict obedience to all the Lord’s injunctions. They acknowledged no authority in any “traditions of the Elders.” They abhorred all “will-worship.” They claimed the right to profess what they believed, and to reduce their faith to practice, and they demanded that all others should be allowed to exercise the same right; for religious freedom, in its broadest sense, was regarded by them as the inalienable patrimony of all mankind. No ex?ceptions were made. The magistrate was bound, in their judgment, to protect all, and to interfere with none, how?ever foolish, superstitious, or perilous to souls their opinions might be deemed, so long as they obeyed the laws in things civil, and refrained from disturbing the peace of society. As we have before remarked, they were in this respect far in advance of other religious communities, the Friends only excepted; and they had published their sentiments before the Friends were known.

Closely allied to these views was their requirement of true piety as an indispensable pre-requisite to Church membership. Whenever infant baptism is an introduction, directly or indirectly, to the fellowship of the Church, the process of corruption is at work. In national establish?ments it is unavoidable. No such communities can be pure. But Baptists have always maintained that religious character is essential to union with a Christian Church. The measures they adopt, in accordance with New Testa?ment precepts and precedents, afford the best guarantee for purity. They open the doors to the godly; all besides are excluded. If they are sometimes mistaken in their judgments—if, now and then, a fanatic or a hypocrite creeps in undetected—they are reminded that even in Apostolic times such cases occurred, and they take the earliest opportunity of expelling the intruder.

The discipline of the English Baptist Churches was in harmony with their doctrines. It was a commentary on a Corinthians 6:17. As they would not knowingly admit any to fellowship, who were not the subjects of regenerating grace, so they placed members under censure, or excluded them, for immorality, or any unscriptural or disorderly conduct, without respect of persons. We will adduce a few examples illustrative of their care in this matter.

The Broadmead Church would not admit Mrs. Bevis to fellowship, “by reason of her selling of drink, and some defects in her conversation about her husband’s debts that he had contracted.” The same church has this record of “Sister Watkins:”—“Tidings came to the ears of the church, that she walked disorderly and scandalously in the borrowing of money, up and down, of many persons—of some ten shillings, of some twenty shillings, of some more, some less, as she could get them to lend—and took no care to pay it again, promising people and not performing, spending much if not most of her time going up and down; and so did not work, or but little, to endeavour honestly to live, and eat her own bread. And thus, she walking disorderly and scandalously in borrowing, contrary to the rule (2 Thess. 3:6, 10, 12), the church, after her crime was declared, and proved to her face by divers in the church, and that they had heard she had so served some not of the congregation, they consented all universally to withdraw from her. Then the ruling elder, Brother Terril, declared to her, before the church, how that for her so sinning against the Lord, she rendered herself among the wicked ones, as Psalm 37:21, and, therefore, the church, in faithfulness to the Lord and to her soul, must withdraw from her, seeing she had by several of the members been admonished once and again, and by several together witnessing against her evil in so doing; yet she had lately done the like, so that there was a necessity upon them to do their duty. And also acquainted her that if the Lord should hereafter give her repentance of the evil that she should reform to the satisfaction of the congregation, they should be willing to receive her into full communion again. And then the sentence, by the said ruling elder, was passed upon her, viz.: That in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the authority He had given to the Church, we did declare that Sister Watkins, for her sin of disorderly walking, borrowing and not paying, making promises and not performing, and not diligently working, was withdrawn from, and no longer to have full communion with this church, nor to be partaker with them in the holy mysteries of the Lord’s Supper, nor privileges of the Lord’s house [that is ‘if she doth come to the meeting, not to be suffered to stay when any business of the church is transacted’]; and the Lord have mercy upon her soul.”1

The Fenstanton Church made an order, “that if any members of the congregation shall absent themselves from the assembly of the same congregation upon the first day of the week, without manifesting a sufficient cause, they shall be looked upon as offenders and be proceeded against accordingly,” and “it was desired that if any member should at any time have any extraordinary occasion to hinder them from the assembly, that they would certify the congregation of the same beforehand, for the prevention of jealousies, &c.” Several members were excluded by the same church, at different times, for marrying irreligious persons, or such as were not “members of the congregation.” Joan Parker was excommunicated for “absenting from the assembly of the congregation,” for “running from her service, without the consent either of her master or dame, and letting herself to another man,” and for “contemning all reproof.” John Blows, a preacher, was not only absent on a day appointed for fasting and prayer, but was that day “at a great football play, he being one of the principal appointers thereof.” Being called to account for it, he was at first disposed to justify himself, but at length confessed that he had been wrong, and “promised to abstain from the like for time to come.” Nevertheless, as he had “dishonored the Lord,” “grieved the people of God,” and “given occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully,” it was resolved that “he should not be suffered to preach, until further fruits meet for repentance did appear.”2

The church at Warboys withdrew from Mary Poulter, “for forsaking the assembling with the Church and neglecting holy duties, and walking disorderly in pride and vanity; “and from John Christmas, “for not loving Ann his wife as he ought, and for speaking hateful and despising words against her, giving her occasion to depart from him by his unkindness” But “John Christmas, afterwards sending for Ann his wife again and promising amendment, after her coming again to him, desired to be a partaker with the Church, in holy duties, was joined in fellowship again.” “Mary Drage, for sundry times dissembling with the church, and out of covetousness speaking things very untrue, at length it being plainly proved against her in her hearing, and she having little to say for herself, was withdrawn from.” “Thomas Bass, for telling of lies and swearing, was withdrawn from.” “Ellen Burges, for lying and slandering of her relations, and counting them and her mother witches, which we have no ground to believe, was withdrawn from.”3

The church at St. Alban’s withdrew from “brother Osman,” because one day in harvest time “he did very shamefully with others betray his trust, and left his work, his master not being there, and went to an alehouse, where he spent most part of the day sinning against God and spending his money, which should relieve his family, unto excessive drinking.” A few months afterwards he “did, in the presence of the congregation, publicly declare his fall, acknowledge his sin, and manifest great trouble for the same. The church gladly embraced him again, believing that God had given him repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth; he was admitted to his membership.” “Sister Searly was by the church accused as to matter of fact. In the first place, she selling strong water let a person drink to excess; secondly, did give herself in marriage to a wicked drunkard, contrary to the rule of our Lord, who saith, ‘Let her marry to whom she will, only in the Lord;’ thirdly, and was married in the national way with common prayer, with all the Romish ceremonies to it. All these things being considered, the church did think it their duty to withdraw their communion, and yet she lieth under admonition.”4

Their religious services were simple. When the pastor was present, he preached; but in the times now under review, he was often in jail, or was compelled to hide himself from the pursuers. Then, prayer and exhortation occupied the time; any brother who felt disposed was at liberty to exhort. Generally, however, there was a sermon by a ruling elder, or by some gifted brother. Singing was not commonly practiced: many of the Baptists refused to join in that part of worship. In some of the churches the Lord’s Supper was observed weekly, or whenever they could meet unmolested on the Lord’s-day: in most the monthly observance prevailed.

There was a plurality of elders in many of the churches. As numbers increased, they judged it conducive to profit to increase the number of teachers, and thus avoid the inconvenience and loss which must accrue from placing a large church under the care of a single pastor. Probably there were not more than a hundred and fifty churches in England during this period, and many of them were small. But there were two or more pastors at Bedford, at Luton, at Farringdon, at St. Alban’s, at Portsmouth, at Bessel’s Green, at Ashford [four]; at Glazier’s Hall, Devonshire Square, and Mile End Green, London; at Norwich, at Hooknorton, at Bridgewater, at Bristol, and doubtless at other places. This shows a very commendable care for the spiritual interests of the Church.

In some of the churches there were “ruling elders,” sometimes called “teachers,” who preached when their services were required, and presided at the church meetings in the absence of the pastor. In the Broadmead Church, Thomas Jennings, who appears to have been an ordained minister, was the “usual administrator” of baptism; but any preacher, ordained or not, might baptize.

Strict communion was practiced in the majority of the churches, none but baptized believers being admitted to the Lord’s table. In some, however, the want of baptism was not regarded as a bar to fellowship, if there was satisfactory evidence of piety. The Broadmead Church, the churches at Bedford, Luton, Gamlingay, Hitchin, Tottlebank, and many in Wales—especially those founded by Vavasor Powell—were so constituted.

Under the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, the freedom which was enjoyed was improved by the churches. Itinerating excursions were frequently made by acceptable preachers, whose aim was not so much to proselytize men to their sect as to convert them to God. Great numbers were converted by their instrumentality. And the stated labours of many of the pastors were extensively blessed. The good work prospered in these days.

Freedom implies the right to differ. We must not be surprised at the lack of uniformity among our ancestors. There were controversies among them, which were not always carried on with courtesy and forbearance. These qualities were but little valued in the seventeenth century. The greatest virulence was displayed in the disputes about doctrines. The advocates of Arminianism contended with the Calvinists. The former charged the latter with uncharitableness, and were in their turn accused of latitudinarianism. Each looked on the other with a jaundiced eye. This controversy has ceased to rage. There have been tacit concessions on both sides, or, at least, an abandonment of certain extreme views—perhaps it would be better to say, incautious expressions.

The question of communion was another cause of agitation. Bunyan’s gentle temper was sadly ruffled by it. His zeal for open communion led him to speak in such disparaging terms of “water baptism” as no other writer of our denomination in that age would have ventured to employ. He was ably answered by D’Anvers and Kiffin.

Singing in worship was another subject of dispute. Strange as it may appear to us, many good men refused to join in it or to allow it. Benjamin Keach had great difficulty in introducing the practice in the church under his care. He wrote a book in defense of his views, entitled, “The Breach repaired in God’s Worship; or, Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs proved to be a Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ.” Ivimey observes, that, “in the present day, when this practice is universal, it will appear unaccountable that our forefathers should require arguments to prove the following particulars, viz.:—What it is to sing; that there can be no proper singing without the voice; ‘tis not simple heart-joy, or inward rejoicing, without the voice, a metaphorical singing mentioned in Scripture; no mental singing, as there is no mental praying! the essence of singing no more in the heart or spirit, than the essence of preaching, &c.; singing is a musical modulation or tuning of the voice, &c., &c.,—with a number of other particulars equally curious, and, to us, self-evident. Crosby says:—‘Though he had very great success in this controversy, yet it brought upon him much trouble and ill-will. When he was convinced that singing the praises of God was a holy ordinance of Jesus Christ, he laboured earnestly and with a great deal of prudence and caution to convince his people thereof; and first obtained their consent to the practice of it at the conclusion of the Sacrament in the Lord’s Supper, and had but two of the brethren in the church who opposed him therein. After his church had continued in this practice about six years, they further consented to practice the same on public thanksgiving days, and continued therein about fourteen years; and then, by a regular act of the church, in a solemn manner agreed to sing the praises of God on every Lord’s day, excepting about five or six persons who dissented therefrom: and if I am not mistaken, this was the first church that thus practiced this holy ordnance. But, so far was Mr. Keach, or the church, from imposing on the consciences of those few that dissented (though the church then consisted of some hundreds), that they agreed to sing when prayer was concluded after the sermon; and, if those few who were not satisfied could not stay the time of singing, they might freely go out and the church would not be offended at them; for they did not look upon singing the praises of God as an essential of communion, nor for the being, but for the comfort and well-being of a church.’ Notwithstanding this care and consideration, however, the malcontents would not yield. They withdrew, and founded another church, upon the same principles, singing only excepted; so difficult was it to remove long-standing prejudices.”5

Laying on of hands after baptism was practiced by some, but strongly objected to by others, and sometimes churches differing from each other on this subject refused inter-communion. In a Confession of Faith prepared by the General Baptists, and presented to Charles II. in 1660, the following is the twelfth article:—“That it is the duty of all such who are believers baptized to draw nigh unto God in submission to that principle of Christ’s doctrine, to wit, prayer and laying on of hands, that they may receive the promise of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:1, 2; Acts 8:12, 15, 17; 2 Tim. 1:6), whereby they may mortify the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13), and live in all things answerable to their professed intentions and desires, even to the honour of Him who hath called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.”6 Thomas Grantham, a celebrated minister in that connection, thus explains it:—“That as God has promised to give the Holy Spirit to all that are called of the Lord, so He hath appointed a solemn way wherein His servants and handmaids are to wait upon Him for the reception thereof, which way is the prayers of the Church, performed by her ministers or pastors with laying on of hands, and this, as a principle of Christ’s doctrine, belonging to them in the minority of their Christian state.”7 The practice was first introduced about the year 1645.

Some few believed in the perpetuity of the Jewish sabbath, but the majority observed the first day of the week, in common with Christendom in general.

Here and there, a church observed the washing of feet, and had a love-feast before the Lord’s Supper.

But, though in these and some other points the English Baptists were not altogether agreed among themselves, in one thing there was entire union. They were of one mind in resisting Anti-Christianism, even “unto blood.” They were united in pleading for the rights of conscience, and they shrank not from suffering. They could not all subscribe to the same confession, nor take part in the same ceremonies; but they were “of one heart and one soul” in readiness to “endure all things” for the truth’s sake. The plunderings and imprisonments they suffered were frightful, and will never be fully known. Some of their ministers were very cruelly dealt with. Francis Bamfield was eight years in Dorchester jail, and spent the last year of his life in Newgate, where he died. John Miller was confined ten years in the same jail. Henry Forty was twelve years in prison at Exeter. John Bunyan was in Bedford jail twelve years. Joseph Wright lay in Maidstone jail twenty years. George Fownes died in Gloucester jail. Thomas Delaune, and many other servants of God, died in Newgate.8

 

1  Broadmead Records, 211, 413.

2  Fenstanton Records, pp. 126, 169, 244.

3  Ibid. pp. 274, 278.

4  Ivimey, ii. p. 177.

5  History, ii. pp. 373-375.

6  Confessions of Faith, &c., p. 113.

7  Fenstanton Records, p. 157?.

8  For fuller particulars the reader is referred to Dr. Evans’s Early English Baptists (Bunyan Library).

 
 
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