PART ONE: Origin of the English Baptists
The Midland Association
A line of fellowship between Olchon and the Midland Church at Leonminster will give us an understanding of the doctrinal sentiments of the ancient Welsh church, based upon the Loenminster's membership in the Midland Association. Fellowship is acceptable proof of common theology since it is documented that Olchon Church was very strict in matters of faith and practice.
Elder Joshua Thomas served Olchon Church from 1746 to 1754. In 1754 he left Olchon, accepting the pastoral care of neighboring Leonminster Church. Leonminster Church joined the Midland Association in 1658. Elder Thomas' ministry at both churches and membership in the Midland Association together with his continued frequent visitations to Olchon Church testify to the fact that Olchon held general agreement to the doctrinal principles of the Midland Confession of Faith. Therefore, it may be concluded that the content of the 1655 Midland Confession satisfied the strict creed of faith and order to which the Olchon Church continuously held from her ancient origin to the establishment of fellowship with the brethren of Midland Association in 1658 and beyond. But the link of Baptist succession between the Welsh Baptists at Olchon and the Midland Association in even more distinguishable.
Several churches of the Midland Association, including Hereford, Tewksbury, Moreton and Leonminster shared common origin with Olchon and, perhaps, considered her their mother church. Hereford, in particular, is located very near Welsh Hay (within a few miles) and was one of the meeting places of Olchon Church. She eventually became an arm of Olchon and finally a sister church. For unknown reasons, in 1657 Hereford transferred her membership from the Abergavenny Association, where she shared affiliation with Olchon, to the Midland Association. However, it should not be considered that some tension existed; neither association gives any indication of a problem.
Though the old records are destroyed, it is a reasonable conclusion that Leominster was a daughter or grand-daughter church of Ancient Olchon, as it was customary for a single church to extend arms into nearby locals where members lived. Both Davis and Thomas indicate the spread of members of Olchon extended north beyond Hay and, therefore, probably to nearby Leonminster.
Also, Tewksbury Church, a charter member of the Midland Association, is but a few miles to the east of Black Mountain and very near Llanigon, which was an arm, then sister church, of Olchon. In addition, it is probable that Alcester, Warwick, Derby and Burton churches, all members of the Midland Association, were daughters or grand-daughters of Olchon. Thus. through the mother church at Olchon, the Welsh and Midland Baptists claim a common ancient Baptist origin which predates the European reformation by some fifteen hundred years.
The seven original churches of the Midland Association were Warwick, Derby, Burton (sometimes called Burton by the Water), Moreton, Tewksbury, Hooknorton and Alcester. It is not known which of these seven churches is the oldest. However, it is known that a Baptist congregation was meeting in Burton prior to 1612, for their preacher was burned at the stake that year.
In 1612, the year John Helwys returned from Holland to London with his new General Baptist group, Elder Edward Wightman of Burton was arrested as a repeat offender, for preaching "Anabaptist heresies." He was taken to nearby Lichfield where his case was heard. He was convicted of Anabaptist heresy and, being the leader of Anabaptist dissenters, was executed by burning at the stake. In charging Wightman, the authorities displayed the normal pattern of exaggeration and falsehood. As previously with Sir John Oldcastle, Elder Wightman was accused of everything from claiming he was Christ, to sedition. Among the charges, he was accused of Anabaptist activities. This is an important point and probably the sole reason he was arrested and executed. Anabaptist activity was a very specific charge. It meant he was teaching people of the necessity of believers baptism and baptism by immersion, and evidently baptizing.
The seven Midland Churches met together on March 3, 1655 at Warwick for the purpose of writing Articles of Faith. The document was copied and carried by the respective messengers back to their home churches for approval. With all seven churches approving, they met again on April 26, 1655 at Moreton and convened as an association. Their first item of business was to write a constitution. In their constitution they formally agreed to their new Articles of Faith, declaring it their duty "to hold communion with each other, according to the rule of His word; and so to be helpful each to the other." Next, they wrote a covenant in which they agreed to hold to the principle of closed communion. They noted that each church would remain independent in matters of church discipline. They agreed to support each other by sending "gifted brethren" to preach to sister churches of the association. They agreed to "watch over each other, and considering each other for good, in respect of purity of doctrine, exercise of love, and good conversation, being all members of the same body of Christ." From this statement it may be concluded the Midland Churches agreed to form an association based upon principles of common doctrine, Christian charity and godly living. Thus, common faith and practice and unfeigned love were the basis of their fellowship.
The next meeting of the association was at Warwick where queries were answered. The questions answered concerned marriage, members who refused to pray when called upon, and unlicensed preaching. To the latter they answered, "we judge it unlawful for any church member to go forth to preach in the world without the approbation of the church." This response indicates the associations orderliness of ordaining Elders in response to their divine call. They would not tolerate unauthorized preachers going forth from them and presumably did not tolerate the same coming to them. One significant trait of the Midland churches, as with their nearby Welsh sisters, was their independence from the London churches during the seventeenth century. As we have noted, they opposed an open communion, which was sometimes practiced in the London churches. Further, it appears from Davis' statements concerning the practice of open communion that the ordinances of the church are where these brethren drew the line of fellowship. According to Davis, Powell, Wroth, Erbury and Penry were all allowed to preach in the Welsh churches; however, it appears they were not allowed to commune. The statement of the Midland Association Constitution regarding closed communion may be similarly interpreted.
However, the most significant indicator of the Midland Association's independence and theological distinction from the London Particular Baptists is their Confession of Faith. While the 1644 London Confession is termed mildly Calvinistic by Lumpkin, the Midland brethren penned a confession which closely resembles eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century Primitive Baptist Confessions.
Article eight of the Midland Confession plainly marks a divergent theology from the tenets of Calvinism. However, according to Lumpkin and Tull, it was actually a response to the growing number of free will Arminian Baptist churches appearing in the mid-seventeenth century. The Midlands, in particular, experienced a considerable increase in Baptist churches which professed the tenets of semi-pelagian Arminianism. However, the wording of the article also contradicts Calvin's modified pelagian theories of divine impartation of a saving faith before regeneration. It reads:
8. That all men until they are quickened by Christ are dead in trespasses; and therefore have no power of themselves to believe savingly. But faith is a free gift of God, and the mighty work of God in the soul, even like the rising of Christ from the dead. Therefore (we) consent not with those who hold that God hath given power to all men to believe to salvation.
By stating that man is dead and has no power to believe savingly of himself, they removed precursor faith as an instrument of justification prior to actual regeneration. Their order is new birth, belief. They indicated that men who are dead in trespasses and sin cannot believe until they are quickened. This principle eliminates requisite gospel agency in regeneration. Calvinism teaches belief is in reaction to a concerted medium of the Holy Ghost and the gospel; whereby one believes and is justified, and after being justified is born again. This distinction separates primitive faith from Calvinism.
With inclusion of article eight in their Confession of faith, the Midland brethren denied the Arminian tenet of free-willism. However, it is both ironic and significant; it also distinguished the theology of the Midland Churches from all who subscribed to a theology of saving faith through the concerted agency of the Holy Ghost and the gospel. They rejected the theory of saving faith in response to Arminian teachings; but, in so doing, they also rejected the Calvinistic notions of gospel instrumentality in regeneration. Their statement regarding the relationship of regeneration and faith is an acceptable representation of what orthodox twentieth century Primitive Baptists believe.
An interesting aside to the writing of the Midland Confession of faith is the involvement of Benjamin Cox who was Pastor of Abington Church in London. As already mentioned, he attended the 1646 ministerial conference of the London Confession where, not fully satisfied with the language of the 1644 Confession, he presented a twenty-two point appendix to the 1646 edition. At the request of Warwick Church Cox attended the first session of the Midland Association as a corresponding messenger from Abington Church. It may be supposed this request was the result of his authorship of the proposed appendix. It may also explain the markedly polemic tenor of the Midland Confession. It is reasonable to believe, as an invited representative to the Midland Association, Elder Cox's views were given significant consideration.
We have already presented his statement concerning regeneration. His views concerning communion are also significant. They are in line with the practice of the Midland and Welsh brethren and apparently more conservative than the sentiments of some of his London brethren. Addendum Twenty notes a requirement for closed communion. In part Elder Cox wrote: "yet in as much as all things ought to be done decently, but also in order, and the Word holds forth this order, that disciples should be baptized, and then be taught to observe all things (that is to say, all other things) that Christ commanded the Apostles, and accordingly the Apostles first baptized disciples, and then admitted them to the supper."
Lumpkin asserts the Midland Confession is modeled after the 1644 London Confession. He believes Daniel King's friendship with the Particular Baptists in London establishes an argument for his assertion. Further, he notes certain similarities. However, none of these claims explain the differences between the two documents, which will be discussed in greater detail in Part Three of this work. With Elders King and Cox present, both having access to the London Confession, if the Midland Brethren had fully endorsed the London document, it seems reasonable they would have adopted it, in some form, as their confession. They did not. Lumpkin's conclusion, that the Midland Confession is modeled after the 1644 London Confession, is probably the result of his lack of familiarity with primitive Baptist doctrine. It is probable he mistakenly presumed these primitive Baptists were Calvinists. His error is understandable assuming he was not versed in the doctrinal distinctions of the two theologies.
The Midland Baptists have been variously characterized by Underhill, Tull, Gwynn Owen and perhaps other Baptist historians as hyper-Calvinists. This term implies they went farther with the doctrine of regeneration than did Calvin. Specifically, the distinction between Calvinism and High-Calvinism relates to the instrumentality of the gospel in regeneration. It is a name that is routinely applied to modern Primitive Baptists.
The English Baptist historian A. C. Underwood identified Midlands England as a stronghold of hyper-Calvinism. He identified John Gill as a proponent of this theology. Further, he stated in his History of the English Baptists that it was principally through the influence of Andrew Fuller and William Carey that the "winter of hypercalvinism" finally came to an end for the Midland Baptists.
In A Memorial of the 250th Anniversary of the Midland, now the West Midland Association 1655 to 1905, J. Gwynn Owen notes opposition in the 1770s and 80s by certain older ministers of the association to the promotion of manmade institutions such as Sunday Schools and Missionary Societies. These innovations were introduced to the Midlands by Elders Fuller and Carey who were members of the Association. In explaining their opposition to Fuller and Carey's ideas, Owen wrote of the older ministers, "These revered seniors were more or less bound by the doctrines of a higher Calvinism than now influences theology."
An example of the intensity of disturbance the proposed schemes caused is found in an exchange between William Carey and the senior Elder John Ryland (who ordained Carey) during a ministerial conference held at Northhampton. Carey suggested, as a topic for discussion, the need for missionary efforts to deliver the gospel to save heathens in foreign countries. To this Elder Ryland, who was chairing the conference, responded, "Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do so without your help or mine." Elder Ryland's statement indicates his position concerning gospel instrumentality. Though he only included himself and Carey, his dismissal of Carey's topic for discussion may be interpreted as theological disagreement over the issue of Calvin's doctrine of gospel instrumentality in the regeneration of sinners. He evidently did not believe that hearing the gospel was a requirement for regeneration, or a stipulation of election.
Indicating enthusiastic support for gospel instrumentality together with its trappings of Sunday schools and Missionary societies, Owen is generally unsympathetic toward the doctrines held by Elder Ryland and the other "revered seniors" among the ministry of the Midland Association. By the time Owen wrote his memorial work the Midland Association had progressed from primitive to Calvinist to Arminian in theology. Therefore, Owen deserves commendation for resisting temptations to write a revisionist history which would not accurately present the original doctrine of the Midland Association and the strain which introduction of gospel agency caused.
Owen erroneously labels the beliefs of the original Elders of the Midland as High Calvinism. However, he accurately presents their doctrinal position concerning the relationship of gospel agency and new birth with the following statement. "For the logical High-Calvinist could find no scope in his rigorous creed for the operation of any human agency in winning the unconverted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God saves all who are predestinated, and no man can help or hinder His sovereign and effectual grace."
Owen's assessment of the original beliefs of the founders of the Midland Association suggests they were primitives, not high Calvinists. Further, his statement concerning the younger generation of preachers implies that gospel instrumentality in regeneration was newly introduced and represented a doctrinal departure from the original beliefs of the Midland brethren. "The younger generation of ministers, like Fuller of Kettering; Carey of Moulton; Sutcliffe of Olney and the younger Ryland, being more open to conviction, and less wedded to the old, rigid creed, began to advocate a modification of the old views, and to adopt as the basis of their ministry a moderate Calvinism which permitted them to appeal to the unconverted."
Thus, with the passing of such stalwarts as Elder John Ryland the next generation of ministers pursued new theologies, leading their brethren away from true and historic doctrines of grace which had been held by the Baptists of Wales and the Midlands for almost 1700 years.
In the late 1780's the younger generation of preachers, Led by the younger Ryland, initiated efforts to have the 1655 confession removed from the heading of Midland Association circular letters. Eventually they were successful. By the early 1800s the excesses and errors of Calvinism, introduced through the single false doctrine of gospel instrumentality in regeneration, served to establish Sunday schools and missionary societies in the churches. This once doctrinally pure group of churches, with roots of ancient origin, finally amalgamated with Arminian General Baptist churches in 1851 as the West Midland Association. Thus, the error of Calvin's gospel instrumentality theory finally led them into Arminianism.
The account of the Churches of the Midland Association was repeated many times among the primitive churches of England and Wales. By the late eighteenth century most were fully merged and identified with Calvinist Particular Baptists. Despite this phenomenon the distinct identity of faith and practice of the primitives was not lost. Before they were completely integrated with the Particulars, some of their numbers migrated to America.
James E. Tull, in his book Shapers of Baptist Thought, notes that departure from what he misterms hyper-Calvinism began in the Midlands as early as 1770. He further notes that Andrew Fuller's first pastorate was a church which originally held to hyper-Calvinist (his term) beliefs. He lists John Owens, the Wesleys and Dan Taylor as principle influences of Fuller's theological sentiments. None of these men were ever Baptists.
Tull presents a moderately detailed, though prejudicial, description of the theology of the Midland Baptists. His description of circa 1770 Midland Association doctrine resembles present day Primitive Baptist doctrine. He begins, "The enervating effect of hyper-Calvinism stemmed from a rigid view of the doctrine of election. This view held that God had decreed before the world began who would be saved and who would be lost. Therefore, it was conceived to be both useless and highly presumptuous to invite men to repent and believe."
Speaking of the duty of reprobates according hyper-Calvinist theology, so called, Tull continued: "It was not, therefore, their duty to repent, to have faith, to pray.....It was not their duty, because these were gifts of divine grace, not human attainments. Closely related to the belief that faith was not a duty was the belief that a warrant was necessary to believe. A warrant was an evidence or a sign of a work of divine favor in the soul. Conviction of sin, with its accompanying mental distress, was such a sign or warrant. Such a warrant and the faith which followed were implanted in the heart at the initiative of divine grace, and they could not be initiated by the sinner."
Further analysis of Tull's opinions of hyper-Calvinism reveals the Midland brethren believed in justification by declared righteousness and imputation to Christ, in the atonement, of the sins of the elect.
Tull's conclusions must be read with a jaundiced eye. His Arminian prejudices shout from the pages. However, despite his derogatory, often erroneous and mostly overstated conclusions, he did manage to state correctly a few salient points of the doctrines of grace which serve to reveal similarities between Midland and Primitive Baptist doctrine.
Henry Veddar, writing of the mission/anti-mission divisions used the phrase hyper-Calvinism to describe a group who terminated fellowship with the Regular Baptists. His brief editorial describes and identifies these hyper-Calvinists. "There were also a number of Calvinistic Baptists bodies that for one reason or another, decline fellowship with the Regular Baptists. A considerable number of Baptists in the early part of this century separated from the other churches on account of doctrinal and practical differences. Holding to hyper-Calvinistic theology, they were opposed to missions, Sunday schools, and all contrivances which seem to make the salvation of man depend on human effort. They call themselves Primitive Baptists, and have been known as Anti-Mission, Anti-Effort, Old, and Hardshell Baptists."
The terms hyper-Calvinist and high-Calvinism as used by Veddar, Underhill, Tull, Owen and others are misnomers which continue to be applied to Primitive Baptists today. However, primitive faith is not hyper-Calvinist nor is its doctrine accurately described as high-Calvinism. Primitive faith does not move beyond Calvin because primitive Baptists never embraced Calvin's theology. The doctrine of primitive faith is not an extension, expansion nor elevation of Calvin's doctrine. Primitives were never Calvinists nor was their doctrine ever Calvinistic.
Further, Calvin never embraced Baptist theology. He was a self-declared reformer who never believed nor taught Baptist doctrine, rejecting outright the doctrines of believers baptism only and baptism by immersion. Some of his tenets approximate primitive doctrines; but, when taken on the whole, there are substantial distinctions in key principles between Calvinism and primitive faith. However, it is clear from the statements of Owen and Veddar that orthodox Primitive Baptists yet cling to what they described as the old, rigid creed of High-Calvinism, of which the doctrines of grace are accurately stated in the 1655 Midland Confession of Faith.
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