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Response to Review no. 557

I am most grateful to Professor Briggs for his generous review of my book, and especially his clear outline of my attempt to re-evaluate the origins of the Baptist tendencies of the 1640s. As he notes, I find no evidence of a Particular-General dichotomy at the time of the restoration of immersion in 1640/1; I think the Seven London Churches’ confession of 1644 marks the first point at which it is proper to speak of a Particular Baptist denomination; and I argue that this inter-church agreement (and a revision in 1646) was prompted by the growing controversy between Presbyterians, Independents and Erastians over how religion should be ordered in England.

Indeed, I believe that political contexts were vital in shaping all phases of the Baptists’ development. In the first chapter, I suggest that politics even influenced their theology. John Smyth and Thomas Helwys both abandoned orthodox Calvinism soon after their re-baptism, but their respective embrace of Anabaptist and Arminian doctrines did not at all follow ‘logically’ from it. I think the context helps to explain this apparent mystery. Having very lately suffered the authoritarianism of Bancroft, the Baptists now tasted that of the Presbyterians of Amsterdam. From 1607, the war party led by Dutch Calvinists (to whom were allied the English Reformed Church led by Paget) launched a spate of violent political and doctrinal attacks against Arminians, Mennonites and others who favoured peace with Spain. Aggressive and intolerant Presbyterian Calvinism jarred against the democratic ecclesiology and recent experience of the new Baptists. Those followers of Smyth who remained in Amsterdam after his death joined the Waterlander Mennonites, who, in adapting to Dutch urban life, had incorporated elements of the reformed tradition while retaining core features of Anabaptism. The returnees under Helwys and Murton embraced principles better suited to England, whose piecemeal and halfway reformation incorporated considerable diversity. In the counties and parishes, the pious gentleman-magistrate stood at the heart of civil justice and could often influence religious style and practice in his locality. The Anabaptist notion that magistrates should be excluded from the true church was completely alien to the gentleman Thomas Helwys.

These two tendencies, the English Baptism of Helwys-Murton and Smythite-Waterlander Anabaptism, differed in their principles chiefly (though not only) in their attitudes to the state and citizenship, that is, to war, to the rightness of holding state positions, to the oath and so on. In chapter 2, I try to show how the rigid separatist outlook of the English Baptists led to their isolation from the puritan mainstream; under Murton they made a virtue of necessity by drifting slowly back towards Anabaptist ideas, arriving just close enough to seek negotiation with the Waterlanders, but not so near as to reach agreement on the core issues. I seek to explain the decline of the Baptists in the 1630s, notably in London, as Laudian pressure pushed church puritans to the margins of parish life. There, the semi-separatists were much better placed to recruit them, and the Baptists suffered from the odium attached to their Arminianism.

Thus, most of the first half of my book sets out to explain how political contexts shaped the developing organisation, ideas and fortunes of the Baptists, a focus which will chiefly interest nonconformists and ecclesiastical historians. But the Baptists also came to play a considerable role in actively shaping political events after the civil war. I hope my re-evaluation of their part in this larger story will interest all historians and students of the period.

One task was to re-examine the civil and military agitation involving Thomas Lamb and the others, Henry Denne, Samuel Oates and Jeremiah Ives, who led his famous congregation. Of course, not all Baptists sympathised with the Levellers, participated in the street demonstrations, or acted as agitators in the Army. But the nature of politics in the 1640s compelled participation at some level, for the confessional struggle was perhaps the most important single determinant of the political geography of the time. Independents and Presbyterians in religion came to act in several respects as political parties or coalitions. The London Particular Baptists could not but oppose the ambitions of the Presbyterian centralists; their confessions were designed to appeal to public opinion and reflected a political need to satisfy allies and placate potential enemies. The London leaders set out their views on the proper role of the magistrate, attacked the radicals, and made at least two attempts to help engineer a personal treaty with Charles. Discussion of the political arrangements necessary to the settlement of religion could not be avoided. The continuance of tithes was a part of these arrangements, and also a social and economic grievance which exercised many, including Edward Barber. Barber was the probable leader of an association of several General Baptist churches. In 1649 he attacked the Essex ministers who had written against the king’s trial, deriding their hypocritical love of ‘goodly fat benefices’. About the same time, the Particulars John Vernon and Edward Harrison criticised the Army Grandees sharply from the left.

My book also has something to say about the role of the Baptists (whose numbers may have been somewhat exaggerated) in the New Model Army. It shows that the Army’s radicalisation from 1647 and its increasingly fervid corporate mood made sectarian arguments over competing sets of formal ordinances seem irrelevant. This was the context in which such Baptists as Thomas Collier and Paul Hobson came to stress spiritual experience and to downplay church observances. Only later, in the very different conditions of Scotland and Ireland were Army Baptist churches formed.