THE Baptists have been very
careful, in all their Confessions, to define the character of those who
constitute a Christian church. Smyth says, "The outward and visible church
consists of regenerated and believing men, as much as men can judge thereof, who
bring forth fruits worthy of amendment of life, although hypocrites and feigners
are often hidden among the repenting" (Article lxvii). The Confession of
the Seven Churches says: "Jesus Christ hath here on earth a spiritual
kingdom, which is His church, whom He hath purchased and redeemed unto Himself
as a peculiar inheritance; which church is a company of visible saints, called
and separated from the world by the Word and Spirit of God, to the visible
profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized unto that faith, and
joined to the Lord and to each other by mutual agreement in the practical
enjoyment of the ordinances commanded by Christ their head and King." Other
and later Confessions agree in the main with both. But as "a holy and
sanctified people," acknowledging Jesus Christ as their sole governor and
king, they also regarded themselves as entrusted with the power of admonishing
the disorderly, or cutting off those who should "offend." The
Confessions of both sections of the Baptists are equally explicit on this point.
The Confession of the Seven Churches declares: "Christ hath given power to
His church to receive in and cast out any member that deserves it; and this
power is given to every congregation, and not to one particular person, either
member or officer, but in relation to the whole body, in reference to their
faith and fellowship; that every particular member of each church, how
excellent, great, or learned soever, is subject to this censure and judgment:
and that the church ought not, without great care and tenderness, and due
advice, but by the rule of faith, to proceed against her members "
(Articles xlii. and xliii). More briefly the Confession presented by the General
Baptists to Charles the Second, states: " that the true church of Christ
ought, after the first and second admonition, to reject heretics; and, in the
name of the Lord, to withdraw from all such as profess the way of the Lord, but
walk disorderly in their conversations, or in any wise cause divisions or
offences, contrary to the doctrine of Christ which they had learned."
This indicates the general basis on which the discipline was founded. But the discipline itself dealt with many other things besides the exclusion of unworthy members. There was a degree of oversight of the whole members, which appears little less than inquisitorial. The muster-roll of the members was called over on certain days, with almost military strictness, as if they were an army campaigning. And so, in a spiritual sense, they deemed themselves. In the Maze Pond church, and doubtless many others in the Seventeenth Century, it was customary, before the administration of the Lord's Supper, to read over the church register, each communicant answering to his name. Absentees were visited, and, if no satisfactory account were given, they were reproved. One day, fourteen were absent, and the messengers who visited them reported that certain of them were absent " under some inward discomposures," that one had to go into the country, and that others had " differences with a member of the church," which were now in the course of being removed. The Fenstanton church also adopted this rule: "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." The Broad-mead church "had all the members names engrossed in parchment, that they might be called over always at breaking bread, to see who did omit their duty." "For the prevention of jealousy," another church decrees that absent members were to "certify beforehand when any occasion hindered them from coming to the assembly." Even wives who might be "kept back by the threatenings of their husbands," were not excused, "unless they were restrained by force."
But while the men who were of "the Particular way" showed a commendable desire to preserve the purity of their several churches, the men of "the General way" carried their discipline to a degree of strictness which will now be hardly credited. The power to exercise this discipline was claimed by the whole church as such. "Mind well," says William Jeffery, "the power to judge of differences, and to deal with members, lies in the body, the church; not in the officers distinct, or apart from, the, church." "It is of necessity," says Grantham, "that the church of God hath power, and a holy way allowed of God, to purge herself from evil workers." They were, therefore, anxious that as many of the members of the church as possible should be present at their "meetings for discipline;" and a neglect of them, except for very urgent reasons, was deemed worthy of censure. The church at Canterbury, for example, agreed in 1668, "that in case any member neglect such meetings as are appointed for discipline, they shall send the cause by some member that day, or otherwise declare it themselves the next first day, and upon the failure of this, the person shall be reprovable."
Strictness of Discipline.
The oversight of the several members was minute and persistent. Their general
conduct, their domestic life, their business, their connections in civil
society, their recreations, and even their dress, were all deemed legitimate
subjects for the strictest supervision. As it was impossible for one minister to
undertake any effectual superintendence of large societies, "the General
men" discouraged, in the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, the
formation of large churches. "A church ought not to consist of such a
multitude," says one of their earliest teachers, " as cannot have
particular knowledge of one another." The difficulty of supervision was
met, partly by the plurality of elders or ministers, and partly, when the
societies were large, by subdividing the church-members into districts, and
appointing to each a separate overseer. Sometimes the deacons undertook the work
of superintendence, assisted by some experienced member of the church. At
others, a number of district officers were chosen, under the general title of
"helps in government." Their duties were denned as "taking
particular care of each member in their respective divisions, of their
conversation and carriage; taking also a strict note of what disorders may
arise, and bringing them regularly before the monthly church-meetings." The
"meetings for discipline" were held monthly, quarterly, or yearly, as
the churches might severally determine.
The Broadmead church appointed a monthly meeting of the brethren only, to consider of persons or things amiss in the congregation, and so appointed the first sixth day of the week, or Friday, that should happen in any month; and afterwards it was altered to the first second day of the month.
Besides this formal oversight, by officers appointed for the purpose, each particular member was expected to report, at the earliest opportunity, any breach of good conduct on the part of another member, and any omission of this duty, or even delay in its execution, was declared to be "suffering sin in his brother, as obstructing his recovery, and bringing the church into communion with the sinner." To prevent, however, a frivolous or malicious use of this individual duty, the accuser was expected to state the case in writing, to sign his name to the accusation, and to hand a copy of the charge itself to the person accused. Some of these accusations are laconic enough. We give a single illustration, a literal copy of what was presented to the Baptist church, Dockhead, shortly after the Rev. Richard Adams removed from that church to become minister of Devonshire-square:—
"Sir,—I accuse Mrs. S of swearing and lying, and backbiting and in gratitude. "Dec. 11,1704."-ELIZA D—."
In this case, however, the accuser, according to the law of every Baptist
church, must already have twice admonished Mrs. S—; and on her refusal to hear
the second admonition, "Eliza W—"was expected to bring the matter
before the church. There are but very few cases on record of personal offences
being brought thus prominently forward; but in this instance Mrs. S—had been
guilty, not only of "sinning against" her sister, but "against
the Lord." "Sins which are committed directly against the Lord,"
says Grantham, "as idolatry, murder, whoredom, theft, drunkenness,
covetousness, swearing, &c., .... are to be punished with great severity,
and the church ought speedily to censure such evil-doers, as unfit for Christian
society, until reformed of such impieties."
Special meetings were held immediately for dealing with any notorious and scandalous cases. If the charges were proved, the offender was excluded from the society. The "ordinance of excommunication" was always regarded as one of solemn and impressive character. The elder, "by the authority of the church, and in the name of the Lord Jesus, delivered the offender to Satan, for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord." When the offender was present, this sentence was pronounced in the face of the whole assembly, was accompanied with fervent prayer to God for the offender's recovery, and with earnest and affectionate expostulations to the person excommunicated. If he refused to attend at the summons of the church, he was visited by the elders, or messengers specially appointed, and the sentence was then pronounced over him privately, with suitable counsels and admonitions. The records of some churches show that the offender, well knowing what was in store, often kept out of the way for months together, in the vain hope that he should be forgotten.
Here is an entry from a church book:—
"On the eight-and-twentieth day of the first month (1653), Edmond Maile
and John Denne met with John Martin, formerly of Hemmgford, but now of Ely, who
had been formerly admonished and reproved according to the rules of Scripture,
but yet remaining perverse and obstinate, and we desired that we might speak
with him, which he refused, and offered to go away, whereupon we desired him to
stay; and he staying, we spake unto him, saying: 'You have a long time absented
yourself from the congregation, denying the ordinances of God, for which you
have been formerly admonished, but have not given us any satisfactory answer,
but tell us that we have not God.' Here he interrupted us, saying, 'I say yet
that ye have not God,' and then he went away. Whereupon we follow him, desiring
to speak with him; but he said he had nothing to say to us; and offered to go
away. Then we said, 'What! are you afraid to encounter with the truth? ‘he
truth,' said he, 'I know none ye have;' and so he went away, whereupon we
concluded, considering his former answers to our admonitions, to go after him
again, and to excommunicate him; and, accordingly we went after him, and
speaking with him, did excommunicate him, for these ensuing reasons, namely:
first, for forsaking the assembly of the saints; secondly, for slighting and
despising the ordinances of God; thirdly, for despising and contemning the
reproof and admonition of the church."
The church did not consider that its duty was ended, when this formal excommunication had taken place. Certain brethren, mostly the "messengers " who delivered the sentence of excommunication, were appointed from time to time to search him out, and exhort him to repent and do his first works. "It is a great question," says Grantham, " how long a person under excommunication may be admonished as a brother. It may be answered: So long as he is not debauched in life, and there is any hope of his recovery; for sith this ordinance is for the saving of the soul, we are not to be impatient, but still as we may, call upon the sinner to remember from whence he has fallen, and to repent, and to pray for his return." These visits were often repeated, until hardened or undisguised profligacy rendered the case hopeless, or death removed the unhappy offender out of the reach of the good offices of the messengers.
Some sections of the Baptists thought the church had a power of inflicting a higher kind of excommunication, which entirely cut off the offender from all possibility of reconciliation, expressed by the misread words of the Apostle, Anathama Maranatha. But though they claimed this power, yet they esteemed it dangerous for any society to attempt to exercise it. The Orthodox Creed, in its thirty-fourth article declares, after referring to "the personal and private trespasses between party and party," "but, in case there be any wicked, public, and scandalous sinners, or obstinate heretics, then the church ought speedily to convene her members, and labour to convict them of their sin and heresy, and schism, and profaneness, whatsoever it be; and after such regular suspension and due admonition, if such sinners repent not, that then, for the honour of God, and preserving the credit of religion, and in order to save the sinner's soul, and good of the church, in obedience to God's law to proceed and excommunicate the sinner, by a judicial sentence, in the name of Christ and His Church, tendering an admonition of repentance to him, with gravity, love, and authority; and all this without hypocrisy, and partiality, praying for the sinner, that his soul may be saved in the day of the Lord; and under this second degree of withdrawing, or excommunication, to account him as a heathen or publican, that he may be ashamed. But upon the third, and highest act of excommunication, it being a most dreadful thunderclap of God's judgment, it is most difficult for any church now to proceed in, it being difficult to know when any man hath sinned the unpardonable sin, and so to incur total cutting off from the Church."
In addition to the excommunication of the offender before the assembled church, or privately by messengers, it was deemed necessary, to vindicate the honour of religion, that the separation of the offender from the congregation should be openly announced to the world. This was done sometimes during the next ensuing public services of the church; but in offences of a private nature, the excommunication was stated to the church members alone, and generally at the time of holding the Lord's Supper.
The Treatment of Heretics
Heretics were treated in the same manner. They were first privately
admonished; and on refusing to take note of the first admonition, were summoned
to answer the charges made against them before the assembled church. Here they
were allowed to defend themselves. In 1678, for example, a minister of the
church at Shad Thames was accused of preaching heresy. He was "desired to
come before the congregation, and vindicate his doctrine, and to be reclaimed
from so great an error." The minister obeyed, and after a full
investigation, was acquitted. The person who brought the charge was treated as
"a false accuser," and "ordered to make satisfaction." In
the year 1696, one of the nine persons appointed as the treasurers of the fund
by the first Particular Baptist General Assembly, was expelled from the church
at Petty France, London, for heresy. The record of this expulsion was as
follows: "Mr. Robert Bristow was rejected and cast out of the communion,
after much patience exercised towards him, and strenuous endeavours used to
recover him out of dangerous errors he was fallen into; namely, the renunciation
of the doctrine of the Trinity, and particularly the deity of Christ, and of the
Holy Spirit, and so rooting up the very foundation of the Christian
The General Assembly of the General Baptists had, again and again, to admonish men who, during the close of the Seventeenth Century, were beginning to preach Socinianism. In 1692, they say, "Upon the complaint made from the brethren meeting in and about Shrewsbury of persons teaching and maintaining doctrines contrary to the Articles of Faith, the Assembly have agreed that a letter should be sent to our brother Brown, and the rest of our brethren here, and also our brother, touching the same." This letter declares their advice to be " that they call in the assistance of the sister churches of their parts, and take such method to reclaim " these persons " as shall be judged most necessary." (MS. Proceedings of the Assembly.)
The common "heresies" for which many were cut off from the General Baptist churches in the Seventeenth Century, were Quakerism, Calvinism, and Rantism.
In Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire especially, the Quakers gave the Baptist churches perpetual trouble. In the records of one church, the ever-recurring reason for excommunication is this:—"For slighting and despising all the ordinances of the Lord; saying, that they would not be in such bondage as to observe such low and carnal things." "For utterly denying preaching, baptisms, meetings, breaking of bread, &c." "For denying the Scriptures and the ordinances of God, and for affirming that the doctrine preached and received was not the doctrine of Christ, but the doctrine of the devil." Mr. John Denne and his companion were thus greeted by Thomas Ross, at Chatteris, when they went "to admonish him a second time:"—"Baptism we disown; preaching we disown; we disown you all, with the ordinances which you practice!" In some cases, the larger part of the village churches went bodily over from the General Baptists to the Quakers.
Occasionally, when admonishing or excommunicating the members of the church who had embraced the Quaker views, the Baptist messengers came into collision with the Quaker preachers. John Ray, for instance, tells us that in 1655, he went to Littleport "to degrade and excommunicate those two apostates, Samuel and Ezekiel Cater," who were "persons of eminence in the church"—elders, in fact; and after he had done this, he "went to the common meeting place of the town,"* "declared publicly for what purpose he had come," "preached Jesus, both in His person and ordinances," vindicating them "from those wicked whimsies and nonsensical interpretations which the Quakers put upon them," and that "when he had done, one of the Quakers did rail on him in such a foolish, rude, and frothy manner, that he turned away without answering thereto, lest he should be like him. At which, all the Quakers boasted and derided; yet all sober and good people approved it." [* That is, the parish church; sometimes called " The Stone House;" and by others, after George Fox, " The Steeple House."]
The Hexham church, in a letter sent on "1st day, 1st month, 1653," to the church in Coleman Street, London, "with our reverend brethren, Mr. Hanserd Knollys and Mr. John Perry," thus writes: "We are a people brought forth in these parts of the land where iniquity doth most abound, and many deceivers are risen up; yea, even swarms in these northern parts, especially of those called Quakers, whose pernicious ways many do follow; a generation whose main design is to shatter the churches of the saints, by stealing away the tender lambs out of the fold of the Lord Jesus; crying down the Scriptures, those sacred oracles of truth, as a dead letter, and crying up the lights within, as they call it; making great shows of self-denial in a voluntary humility, and of neglecting the body, which are very taking with the weak ones; all for a Christ within, nothing for a Christ without." In the following year Thomas Tillam tells the church at Leominster, in another letter, that while they at Hexham are " not any of them tainted with that Arminian poison that hath so sadly infected other baptized churches, those deceived souls, called Quakers, have been very active in these parts, and have seduced two of our society, and six of the Newcastle church." It is evident from this statement that the Calvinistic Baptist churches were as much afraid of Arminianism as the General Baptist churches were of Calvinism, and that they both suffered from the teachings of the disciples of George Fox.
The Broadmead Records give this quaint account of the spread of Quakerism in the time of the Civil War, and the defection of one of their number:—"Sathan deceived many profane people to embrace their upstart notions of Quakerisme, under a pretence of a great degree of holinesse, by hearkening to ye light within, which they called Christ (laying aside ye manhood of our blessed Redeemer); whereas that light is but ye light of nature, which in common is planted in all mankinde—ye same with that ye Indians and ye Blackamores have, and ye remotest Indians, which know not Christ, nor ever heard of him; and they omit ye light of ye Word of ye Lord, and ye light of God's Spirit, proceeding from ye Father, by ye Word, or Holy Scriptures. Thus smoake out of ye bottomless pit arose, and ye locust doctrine came forth, as it is written (Rev. chap. 9:2, 3, 4). At this time Dennis Hollister, a grocer in High Street, being a member of this church, the meeting for Conference on ye fifth day of ye week was usually at his house. And he was naturally a man of an high spirit, Dyotrephes-like loved to have ye pre-eminence in ye church; and at that time had great influence upon ye magistrates of ye citty, and by them was chosen to be a Paslia-ment man for ye City of Bristol; that is, one of them called by ye Little Parliament, in ye days of Oliver Cromwell, called Lord Protector, where as God alone was the Protector of His people (but we sinned). On this occasion Hollister, staying in London, had sucked in some principles of this upstart locust doctrine, from a sorte of people afterwards called Quakers; that when that Parliament was dissolved by Oliver, Dennis came home from London with his heart full of discontent, and his head full of poisonous new notions (as was discerned by some of ye members of ye church). And he began to vent himseife; and at one meeting of the church, after he came down, he did blasphemously say, 'Ye Bible was ye plague of England.' From that time ye church would meet noe more at his house." [Broadmead Records (Rev. N. Haycroft), pp. 36, 37.]
In the year 1657 the same church tells us that it was still "conflicting with this new, upstart error of Quakerisme, began (no doubt) by Sathan, and carried on by his instruments, Popish seminaries, Jesuits, and some apostate professors, that had not received the truth in the love of it, and by some ignorant, bewitched, and deluded people, that knew not whereof they affirmed. And such Quakers many times would come into our meetings on ye Lord's-day, in ye open publique places, called churches, which we had then the liberty to be in, during all ye time of Oliver's reign, and in ye midst of ye minister's sermon, they would, with a loud voice, cry out against them, calling them hirelings and deceivers, and they would say to ye people, that they must turn to ye light within, their teacher, and that was Christ within. Thus, with many other railing and judging and condemning words they would frequently trouble us, (shaking, trembling, and quaking, like persons in a fit of ague), while they spake with a screaming voice, and would not cease until they were carried forth of ye place, pretending they were moved by ye Spirit to come and warn us. Thus Sathan transformed himself like an angel of light, and strove against ye true followers of Christ." [Broadmead Records (Rev. N. Haycroft), pp. 47, 48.]
That any of their church members should hesitate or refuse to confess that Christ died for all men, was regarded by the General Baptist churches as "denying the faith," and was deemed a sufficient ground for exclusion. Their baptism also was pronounced invalid, if they held Calvinistic views, as Luke Howard points out in the passage quoted from him in an earlier part of this book. "Widow Wiggs, of Dunton, in the county of Bedford," was, according to the Records of the Fenstanton Church, first reproved for this, among other things, by John Denne; she was next desired "to come over to the following General Meeting at Caxton Pastures, on the third day of the fifth month (1653), to speak before the congregation. After the pros and cons were heard, "Widow Wiggs" was informed "that, seeing she would not be otherwise minded, the Church could not have any fellowship or communion with her." The same Records also tell us of one John Matthews, "a person of some eminency," who had been to Ireland since he had left Huntingdonshire, and had preached there, "having altered his judgment," was "reproved for his sin," and "exhorted to consider from whence he had fallen, and repent and turn to the Lord." "The things affirmed by" Matthews were: "that Christ died only for the elect, even such as either do, or shall believe on Him; that God hath, from the beginning chosen a certain number of persons to Himself, to which persons He cometh with such a compulsive power, that they cannot resist; and that God hath, from the begin.
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved