PART ONE: Origin of the English Baptists
Elder Sylvestor Hassell makes the following statement concerning the origin of Particular Baptists. "In 1633, September the 12th, the first Particular Baptist, or Calvinist, or Predestinarian English Baptist Church was founded in London, under the pastoral care of John Spilsbury, from those members of an Independent Church who rejected infant baptism; it was called Bond Street Church, and was in the parish of Wapping, London." Elder Hassell provides no further information as to the origin of this church so far as succession is concerned.
A more detailed account of the origin of Particular Baptists is Found in Underwood's History of the English Baptist. Though similar in outcome the circumstance is slightly different. First noting this group has its origin with Puritan and Pilgrim Father John Robinson, it reads, "In 1616 Henry Jacob and some of the exiled Independents returned to England from the Netherlands and began work in London. In 1633, John Spilsbury and a few others left this church, apparently because they had come to oppose infant baptism."
Robert Torbet provides additional details. His account indicates some twenty years after the Helwys group returned to England a friendly division occurred. In September 1633, by honorable dismissal, several members separated themselves from Helwys' congregation and formed an independent church constituted on Calvinist principles. Shortly thereafter John Spilsbury was elected their pastor. Within a few years this congregation came to be known as Regular or Particular Baptists. Their name was adopted based upon their belief in particular redemption.
Torbet's account also explains an apparent link up of the former Smyth and Robinson groups. He cites the presence of Lathrop as an early leader of the group formed in 1616. From this it may be assumed that the two groups merged when John Lathrop and his group left the fledgling General Baptist congregation. Thus, his reference to two branches under Henry Jacob may result from these separate origins, prior to a merger under the leadership of John Lathrop. One group was initially led by Henry Jacob, out of Robinson's Independents. The other group was led by John Lathrop, formerly with Helwys' General Baptist congregation, out of John Smyth's Separatists.
Torbet agrees with Underwood that Jacob was an Independent who left Robinson and returned to England in 1616. He gives the line of succession this way. The Particular Baptist were first recognizable as a separate group, with their own doctrine and practice, in 1638. They were first Independent Puritan Calvinists led by Henry Jacob. The church was aptly called Jacob Church. In 1622 Jacob moved to Virginia, where he died in 1624. After Henry Jacob, John Lathrop was pastor until his imprisonment in 1632. After his release from prison, he and about thirty members of his congregation fled to New England. The group which remained in England were led by two pastors. Cromwell's humorously named parliamentarian "Praise-God" Barebone led half the church which met in his house, Lock and Key, on Fleet Street. Henry Jessey cared for the other half. At this point, both Jessey and Barebone were still Puritan pedobaptists. In time Jessey came to accept believer's baptism and was baptized by Hansard Knollys who at the time was an Independent in sentiment, believing in baptism by immersion, but still a bishop with the Church of England.
B. R. White, in his work, English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century, notes that both Kiffin and Spilsbury were original members of the Jacob group, which was an outgrowth of the John Robinson Independents group.
In 1633 the Jessey group experienced a friendly split when Spilsbury and a small band left over the issue of baptismal authority. They did not object to infant baptism; however, they rejected the authority of Anglican Church baptism. In rejecting Anglican baptismal authority, the group made a transition from Independents to Separatists. (It is perhaps at this point where the former Helwys and Lathrop groups joined company.) They organized a separate church under the leadership of Samuel Elton. In 1638 another group left Jessey's church. This group believed only regenerates are qualified candidates for baptism. They are the first group out of Jessey's church to reject pedobaptism. William Kiffen was part of this group. Meanwhile, Spilsbury was chosen to replace Elton as pastor of the original group dismissed in 1633 from the Jessey's congregation. These two groups merged in 1638.
Thomas Crosby cites the earlier date, 1633, as the point at which the Particular Baptists were recognizable as a distinct denomination. Certainly, the group which later fully embraced the tenets of believers baptism and baptism by immersion is first seen as a congregation in 1633; however, at that time they still accepted the practice of pedobaptism. The doctrinal sentiment of the group which left Jessey in 1633 cannot be proven to be Baptist before 1638, after they merged with Kiffin. Spilsbury must have come to Baptist sentiment concerning believers baptism and baptism by immersion before he merged with Kiffin; but, according to Torbet, when Spilsbury left the Jessey church he was still a pedobaptist. The first documented evidence of his change in sentiment was after he merged with Kiffin in 1638. However, in practice, this group did not become a true Baptist Church until believers baptism and baptism by immersion became requirements for membership, which did not occur until 1641. According to Kiffin's manuscript, a group of members of this newly amalgamated congregation became convinced that baptism by aspersion (sprinkling or pouring) was unscriptural. This new view is known to have been held by Spilsbury, Kiffin and Richard Blunt, plus some few others. Blunt knew of Mennonites in Rhwynsburg, in the Netherlands, who practiced baptism by immersion. Because he spoke Dutch, in 1641 he traveled to Holland, where according to Kiffin's manuscript, he was kindly received and given letters for the new London congregation. It is believed the letters he received contained arguments in support of believers baptism and baptism by immersion.
Kiffin's manuscript, as paraphrased by Crosby, seems to demonstrate the Particular's desire to understand the proper mode and seek proper administration of the ordinance of baptism. "They could not be satisfied about any administrator in England to begin this practice; because tho' some in this nation rejected baptism of infants, yet they had not as they knew revived the ancient custom of immersion."
Though the context of Thomas Crosby's History of the English Baptists seems to imply that Blunt was baptized while in Holland, Crosby does not say so outright. He continues Kiffin's narrative in his own words, but makes no specific reference to Blunt being baptized while in Holland. "But hearing that some in the Netherlands practiced it, they agreed to send over one Mr. Richard Blount, who understood the Dutch Language: That he went accordingly, carrying letters of recommendation with him, and was kindly received by the church there, and Mr. John Batte, their teacher: That upon his return he baptized Mr. Samuel Blacklock, a minister, and these two baptized the rest of their company, whose names appear in the manuscript, to the number of fifty-three."
Neither does the continuation of Kiffin's original manuscript say Blunt was baptized in Holland. Regarding Blunt's return and the subsequent baptismal service, Kiffin wrote, "1640. 3rd Mo.; The church became to (sic) by mutual consent just half being with Mr. P. Barebone, & ye other halfe with Mr. H. Jessey. Mr. Richard Blunt with him being convinced of Baptism yt also it ought to be by dipping in ye Body into ye Water, resembling Burial & rising again 2 Col. 2:12. Rom 6:4, had sober conference about it in ye Church, & then with some of the forenamed who also ware so convinced. And after prayer & Conference about their so enjoying it, none having then to practiced it in England to Professed Believers & hearing that some in ye Netherlands had so practiced they agreed and sent over Mr. Rich. Blunt (who understood Dutch) with letters of Commendation, and who was kindly accepted there, and returned with letters from them Jo: Batte a Teacher there and from that Church to such as sent him.
1641, They proceed therein, viz. Those Persons that ware persuaded Baptism should be by dipping ye Body had met in two Companies, and did intend so to meet after this, all these agreed to proceed alike togeather And then Manifesting (not by any formal Words a Covenant); wch word was scrupled by some of them, but by mutual desires and agreement each testified:
Those two Companyss did set apart one to Baptize the rest; so it was solemnly performed by them.
Mr. Blunt baptized Mr. Blacklock yt was a Teacher amongst them, and Mr. Blunt being Baptized, he & Mr. Blacklock Baptized ye rest of their friends that ware so minded, & many being added to them they increased much"
From this account, together with Burrage's corrected reading of Kiffin's manuscripts, several historians understand that Mr Blunt baptized Mr Blacklock and Mr Blacklock baptized Mr Blunt, and the two proceeded to baptize the rest of the congregation; which was evidently composed of two companies or churches.
William A. Whitsitt concurs with Burrage's interpretation, concluding that Blunt was not baptized in Holland. He places the occurrence of the reformation baptismal service at the earliest in 1641.
B. R. White also agrees with Burrage and Whitsitt, maintaining that Particular Baptist transformation from Puritan Calvinist Separatists to Baptists was accomplished by self-baptism. He wrote, "Blunt baptized himself." He bolsters this assertion with an article written by Thomas Killcop in 1642. Killcop was a member of Spilsbury's congregation. However, his assertion may be incorrect due to misinterpretation of Killcop's article.
The article was published as a response to the Independents' criticisms of the Particular Baptists for practicing self-baptism. Killcop's article does not specifically deny that Blunt baptized himself after returning from Holland; however, neither does he admit that Blunt baptized himself. His defense of reinstitution of immersion and believers baptism is based upon a principle that God is able to spontaneously raise up a true witness. He wrote to the Independents, "every scripture which gives you warrant to erect a church state, gives us the same warrant to erect baptism since the one cannot be done without the other, for none can put on Christ (that is visibly by outward profession) but such as are baptized into Christ.
White noted the simplicity of Killcop's argument: "If scripture gave authority for the vital act of the reconstruction of the church it must surely do so for the smaller act of reconstituting the church ordinance of baptism."
Neither did John Spilsbury's response to the controversy deny self-baptism as a method for restoring the primitive ordinance; but, like Killcop, neither does he specifically support self-baptism. He addressed his argument from the attitude of assembled believers authority, noting that when God himself calls together a congregation as an assembled church, uniting them to Christ and each other, they are authorized by Christ to choose a member or members to perform baptisms. Spilsbury wrote; "as occasion offers and authorizes him or them to administer baptism upon the whole body and so upon themselves in the first place as part of the same." He continued a defense of the Particular's origin by asserting, "wheresoever a church doth rise in her true constitution, there are her ordinances and also power to administer the same; and where a thing is wanting there must be of necessity a beginning to reduce that thing again into being."
Torbet does not believe Blunt was baptized in Holland. He makes this assertion based upon the fact that the Dutch Baptists to whom he traveled seeking instruction were Arminian Collegiant, or Rhwynsburg Mennonites. He reasons the Collegiants would not have accepted Blunt as a candidate for baptism because he did not believe their doctrine, being a Calvinist. Conversely, he asserts that Blunt would not have offered himself for baptism at the hands of Arminians. Torbet lists Shakespeare's Baptist and Congregational Pioneers, pages 180-183, Kiffin's original manuscript, and Burrage's Early English Dissenters, Vol II pgs. 302 - 305, as his sources for this information.
While Kiffin's manuscript includes both Blunt and Blacklock in the list of new members in his account of the original baptismal service, his wording is vague. It does not specifically state if members were baptized or otherwise received. However, as this was a reconstitution of their church it is reasonable to assume the list is of those who covenanted together. The inexplicit language of the document, in part, may be due to the fact that Kiffin was not present when the baptismal service occurred. He may have been in prison for preaching without proper authorization.
Spilsbury and Knolly's names are absent from the list; however, it is known they were both identified with the group both before and after the baptismal service. Knollys was in Holland and Germany in self-exile during this period of the new church's history. It is unknown why Spilsbury is not included in the original membership list. A possible explanation is that Kiffin's membership list is actually a list of only those who were baptized that day. Spilsbury is believed to have been previously baptized by Knollys.
The wording of Kiffin's manuscript suggests there may have been some present who did not submit to baptism. Kiffin's statement, "he & Mr. Blacklock Baptized ye rest of their friends that ware so minded," could infer that some were not "so minded" and were not baptized by Blunt or Blacklock. It may be that Spilsbury, like Jessey, had already been baptized by Knollys. As believers baptism and baptism by immersion are clearly stated motives and principles of the formation of the Particular Baptists it seems unlikely they would admit or retain members who were unbaptized. This leads to the probability of other occasions of baptisms.
It cannot be disputed that early Particular Baptists believed in a principle of spontaneous reconstitution of the church. Both Killcop and Spilbury use this tenet as an argument in support of original baptism. In 1646 Hansard Knollys replied to a work written by John Saltmarsh which was critical of the Baptists' requirement of baptism by immersion. Saltmarsh believed baptism was Spiritual only, therefore mode was of no consequence. Knollys' reply reveals belief in a principle of mediation of baptismal authority directly from Christ. He believed that the commission to baptize is received directly from Christ without the necessity of a succession of authority; stating, "one can baptize as warrantably in his name as could any of his disciples."
It may be that Blunt was baptized in Holland, as Crosby so infers. It is certain he and Mr. Blacklock baptized several of their friends upon Mr. Blunt's return from Holland. The possibility of some not being baptized by Blunt or Blacklock is suggested by the writings of Killcop and Spilsbury. Also, Crosby's assertion that some Particulars practiced what he called "last method of restoring baptism." infers some were not baptized in the formal constitution of the church. He claims there was a general acceptance, among early English Baptists, of a practice of unbaptized persons baptizing.
Crosby asserts the early Particular Baptists believed in two methods of instituting a "reformation." He states both were acceptable to the English Baptists "at their revival of immersion in England."
1. The regular baptism method. "The former of these (methods) was, to send over to the foreign Anabaptists, who descended from the antient Waldenses in France or Germany that so one or more receiving baptism from them might become a proper administrator of it to others. Some thought this the best way and acted accordingly, as appears from Mr. Hutchinson's account in the epistle of his treatise of the Covenant of Baptism."
2. The Anti-succession method. "But the greatest number of the English Baptists, and the more judicious, looked upon all this as needless trouble, and what proceeded from the old Popish Doctrine of right to administer the sacraments by an uninterrupted succession, which neither the Church of Rome, nor the Church of England, much less the modern dissenters, could prove to be with them. They affirmed therefore and practiced accordingly, that after a general corruption of Baptism, an unbaptized person might warrantably baptize, and so begin a reformation."
It is interesting that Crosby quotes Spilsbury to support his argument that some early English Baptist practiced the anti-succession method of restoring baptism.
It must be noted that Crosby is very careful to distinguish between self-baptism and "the last method of baptism." He first denies that John Smyth baptized himself; then, discounts the significance of his self-baptism, if it did occur. He wrote, "But enough of this. If he were guilty of what they charge him with 'tis no blemish upon the English Baptists; who neither approved of any such method, not did they receive baptism from him." In his denial he is critical of self-baptism as a valid reinstitution of the ordinance. This seems a bit strange in light of his support of last method baptism. However, if his reference to "an unbaptized person" refers to Hansard Knollys, who baptized Jessey and Spilsbury, it may be that Crosby somehow gave authority to this form of reinstitution of baptism, as part of a spontaneous reformation of the church, but distinguished the "second method" from self-immersion as practiced by Smyth. Perhaps Crosby viewed Knollys, Spilsbury and Kiffen as reformed Baptists who received their baptismal authority as God called ministers of the gospel, upon the merit of restoration of the true mode of baptism.
Despite the reasoning of several historians, since the matter cannot be factually settled, this writer chooses to follow Crosby's lead and assume Blunt was baptized while in Holland and had authority to baptize others; and, that his baptism represents a succession of the ordinance. It seems extremely unlikely he would travel to the Continent only to receive instructions concerning immersion. The phrase in Kiffin's manuscript concerning Blunt's reception in Holland, "who was kindly accepted there," could indicate he was accepted for baptism. Also, denominational lines were not well drawn in that day. It is conceivable the Arminian Collegiant Baptists in Rhwynsburg were willing to baptize Blunt despite his Calvinist sentiments. The theological lineage of this particular congregation of Mennonites is unknown, therefore it cannot be concluded their own origin is outside a line of baptismal succession.
The 1644 and 1646 editions of the London Confession tend to support the notion that some Particulars did not recognize baptismal authority through a ministerial succession by laying on of hands. This is an important point for the Particular Baptists for two reasons. First, if baptismal authority requires a continuous succession by laying on of hands then spontaneous reinstitution of the ordinance cannot be recognized as a valid method of reformation of the church. Second, there is no evidence that Blunt or Blacklock were ordained ministers with a succession back to Christ at the time of the baptismal service.
The 1644 edition of the London Confession, concerning baptismal authority, states "The persons designed by Christ, to dispense this Ordinance, the Scriptures hold forth to be a preaching Disciple, it being no where tied to a particular Church, Officer, or person extraordinarily sent, the Commission enjoining the administration, being given to them under no other consideration, but as considered disciples." In 1646 the meaning of this statement was given more clarity. It shows that a principle of succession of baptismal authority evidently was not supported by the early Particular Baptists. It reads, "The person designed by Christ to dispense Baptism, the Scriptures hold forth to be a Disciple; it being nowhere tied to a particular Church officer, or person extraordinarily sent, the Commission enjoining the administration, being given to them as considered Disciples, being men able to preach the Gospel." Neither article mentions the need for the ordination of the administrator of baptism.
Crosby, nor any subsequent historians, present evidence that Blunt and Blacklock were authorized to baptize others through a succession of laying on of hands from Christ, as ordained ministers. No mention is made concerning Blunt being ordained in Holland. This may account for the position taken in their Confession concerning baptismal authority. At such an early date, it was too soon to impose a principle of baptismal authority. Whatever the reason for omission of this principle from the 1644 Confession, it is also conspicuously absent from the 1689 Confession.
Again, the Particular's belief in a principle of God directly granting baptismal authority may explain the absence of the principle of ministerial succession by the laying on of hands. In reading several accounts of Reformation thinking, the principle of spontaneous baptismal authority is noted. As we have stated, the principle is; God, at any time, may reform his church to its primitive faith and practice. It supports a notion that the church can become so corrupted with error that God will go outside her authority to raise a witness. When this occurs it is presumed the ordinances of the church are reinstated in primitive form, baptism being one of these. Thus, God will call men, giving them divine authority outside the succession of ordination by laying on of hands, to reinstate the ordinances. Reformation defenders use John the Baptist as a scriptural example of this principle. They mistakenly presume John was reforming the visible church from Mosaic law service to Christian dispensation. They note that John was not ordained. Also, they reason his baptisms were valid because he baptized the Savior. From their writings and practice, it appears some Particular Baptists accepted this reasoning.
Extension of the Particular Baptist's belief in a spontaneous reinstitution of Baptism, by direct authority from God rather than ministerial succession, brings into question the whole issue of church succession. If the ordinances of the church are spontaneously re-instituted, logic dictates that the church itself is re-instituted. Reinstitution of the church is reformation. Perhaps this is the reason the Particular Baptists referred to themselves as reformed and Protestants. It may also explain why their writers referred to their church as a denomination.
In every account of the origin of the Particular Baptists there is a common thread of historical detail: Particular Baptist origin is closely associated with the Anglican Calvinism of the Independents and Separatists. As former reformed Anglican Independents and Separatists, their doctrinal culture was Puritan Calvinism.
Several historical accounts examining the Particular Baptists' baptismal link to European Anabaptists have been presented. They question whether the short visit of Mr Blunt to Rhwynsburg included his baptism. Most conclude he was not.
Whether or not Blunt was baptized in Holland, his visit does not substantiate an undeniable claim of church succession for three reasons. First, no claim of succession was made by Particular Baptists at the time of their formation. Second, even if Blunt was baptized in Holland it was into an Arminian fellowship. Third, there is no evidence of an orderly succession of administration of baptism by Blunt and Blacklock because there is no evidence they were authorized to administer baptism to others through the ministerial succession of laying on of hands by a presbytary. However, despite assumptions of irregularities made by several historians, of Blunt and Blacklock's baptismal authority, Blunts trip to Holland is very important because it demonstrates the Particular's interest in baptismal authority. Crosby's description of the first method of restoration of baptismal authority, "to send over to the foreign Anabaptists, who descended from the antient Waldenses in France or Germany that so one or more receiving baptism from them might become a proper administrator of it to others," may be a specific reference to Mr. Blunt's trip to Holland.
Also, all of these difficulties can be surmounted if one assumes a church can, for a time, be in error and yet retain her identity as Christ's church. Scripture undeniably reveals this potentiality. It was certainly the condition with the seven churches of Asia as their cases are described in Revelations. Until the candlestick was removed identity remained. None but God can know with certainty if Blunt's visit to Holland and the subsequent baptisms of Blacklock and his fellow saints represents a succession of the church. Therefore, despite all the unorthodox events which led to the establishment of the Particular Baptists in London, only God may rightly judge whether these brethren constituted themselves as Christ's bride. However, their subsequent history presents a strong case they did and charity demands we consider it so.
Had these brethren searched for a continuous Baptist succession in England, it was to be found in Northern England, near the Welsh border, at ancient Hill Cliffe Baptist Church in Warrington, where Lancaster and Chester Counties meet. It was not necessary for Blunt to travel to Holland to learn about baptism. The earliest baptisms by the pastors of Hill Cliffe were performed in historical antiquity. The constitution of this oldest continuing Baptist Church is unknown, but legible markers in the graveyard date back to 1357 A. D.. Some markers are believed to be older, but centuries of erosion have rendered them illegible. Local tradition asserts this ancient church was always Baptist. In 1800 when the meeting house was rebuilt, the ancient baptistery, carved from stone, was discovered and excavated. It is described as large enough to immerse an adult.
The earliest pastor of record at Hill Cliffe was Elder Weyerburton, of the Cheshire family of Warburtons. The beginning of his pastoral care is unknown, but he remained pastor of Hill Cliffe until his death in 1594. When Mssrs. Kiffin and Spilbury were first learning of the necessity of believers baptism and baptism by immersion, Elder Tillman was pastor at Hill Cliffe. He could have instructed them more perfectly concerning Baptist succession and baptismal authority. Had they known of Elder Tillman and Hill Cliffe Church they could have received baptism from one who claimed his authority through a continuous succession of the church.
In 1642 the Particular Baptists numbered fifty-three and were meeting in two congregations. By 1644 the group expanded to seven churches. In 1644, to clarify the mode and authority of baptism, Spilsbury and Kiffen inserted a tenet of baptism by immersion in their new Confession of Faith.
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