Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2006, ISBN: 9781843831952; 288pp.; Price: £50.00
Regent's Park College, Oxford
Date accessed: 15 August, 2020
Wright’s volume is very much to be welcomed moving as it does beyond the traditional debates concerning the relationship between General (Arminian) and Particular (Calvinist) congregations, and the argument as to whether Baptist origins are to be found in continental Anabaptism or more domestically in Puritan Separatism. Wright asks new questions, and examines a formidable range of new evidence to provide at least some of the answers to these new questions. In short this book is a valuable piece of reconstruction using a wide range of sources, old and new, which he handles like a skilled detective. Thus he seeks imaginatively to retell the story from these documents rather than from the inherited assumptions of received historiography, which, accordingly, comes under new scrutiny. A book for the cognoscente, who will be stimulated by Wright’s evidence and arguments to take a new look at this part of the story of radical dissent, it will prove hard work for any general reader.
In the General Baptist tradition Wright identifies two schools, ‘one clericalist and pacifist, influenced by the Dutch Mennonites, and one reflecting the English traditions of erastianism and local lay predominance in religion’. John Smyth, the se-Baptist, who had a long history of contention with his diocesan authorities in his Puritan period in England, differed from his colleague, Thomas Helwys, over that act of [re]baptism. Smyth came to have doubts as to whether all churches were so corrupt as to justify such a radical new beginning as reflected in his se-baptism, and sought to join the Waterlander Mennonites, a knotty process only concluded for his erstwhile colleagues in January 1615, long after Smyth’s death. Helwys, by contrast, convinced that there could be no institutional ecclesial succession, and treasuring that new start made by Smyth and himself, returned to England to found the first Baptist church in England. Whilst not unsympathetic to some general linkage with continental anabaptism, Wright posits connections with a more popular native free-will tradition; even one dating back to the Lollards.
However the absence of evidence for anabaptist congregations in England in the last quarter of the sixteenth century argues against institutional continuity, whilst Smyth’s se-baptism argues against any meaningful contact with, or recognition of, the validity of the Mennonite Church at that point. But this does not argue for a total absence of association. Wright wisely observes that, ‘the Waterlanders and the English Baptists were not so close as to achieve inter-communion in the 1620s, but not so alien to each other to forbear from trying’ (pp. 9–10). In addition, Wright, who is deeply suspicious of inferring continuity between the prewar General Baptist tradition of Helwys and Murton and the general redemptionist groups which emerged in the 1640s, is sceptical of there being distinct General and Particular denominations, or even proto-denominations prior to the issuing of the Particular Baptist Confession of 1644. Before that date he argues that the division in the churches was not over a theology of grace and election but over the proper way to order churches. Indeed the division between those upholding particular and general redemption in the earlier period could occur within, rather than between, congregations, as demonstrated by the leading ‘General Baptist’, Thomas Lambe, pastor of the Bell Alley church, penning a book entitled A Treatise of Particular Predestination in 1642. Lambe, as also Henry Denne and others, was at this time anxious to uphold both general redemption and particular election.
Wright is particularly interested to date the restoration of immersion as the mode of baptism among the English Baptists, which he identifies as first appearing amongst the ‘Generals’. Crucial to this argument is the differentiation, by an adroit mixture of skilful detective work and speculative reconstruction, of the Dutch Anabaptist, Jan Batten, from the English Baptist, Timothy Batte. The argument also suggests that at this time there were not separate General and Particular denominations, but a cluster of London churches within which issues of grace and freewill were the subject of, as yet, not divisive discussion. Such division as there was, as London Baptists moved in the early 1640s towards immersion as the correct mode of believers' baptism, occurred over the terms of membership, not the privileges of the elect. On the other hand there is little evidence of communication amongst the different groups of London Baptists, especially those open membership Independent churches only slowly moving towards an accommodation of the Baptist position. Thus a number of unconnected congregations simultaneously moved towards replacing affusion by immersion between 1640 and 1641–2. In so doing they raised just those issues of true succession within the church that had occupied the minds of Smyth and Helwys, with once more the administrator himself not being baptized by the new method at the time of his first administration. The question was also raised as to whether the immersion mode was just for new members or for all, and consequently the appropriateness of immersing those who had already received baptism by affusion as believers. For some of these emerging Baptists, baptism, properly administered to believers only, rather than consent to the church covenant, became the act which constituted the church, which of itself confirmed the logic that such a baptism could not be obtained from a church not so constituted. According to the language of the time: 'no baptism no church'. By contrast, others argued that faithful disciples obedient to scripture were already in a church state prior to receiving the sacrament, which could not therefore be the critical means of forming a church, or joining oneself to it.
Denominational history was as much shaped by external pressures as internal conflicts. The rise of Laudianism within the established church immediately created a more radical context for all puritans and former puritans. As the civil war progressed, what measure of authority to accord to the state and the magistrate became divisive issues. Those of a more Calvinist view tended to grant a more positive role to the magistrate than those of a free-will persuasion. These were more inclined to emphasize the radical freedom of the believer, and to champion a wide-ranging tolerance, alongside granting freedom to the local saints to form new churches and to engage in the ‘dangerous’ deployment of lay preachers. And dangers there were, for the Generals tended to have more leakage to sects of the far-left than the Particulars. Differences of order amongst the wider reformed family with the eventual breakdown of relationships between the Independents and Presbyterians, necessarily made its impact, with the Independents hovering between the centrally-regulated religion of the Presbyterians, and the Baptists, as the most moderate of the emerging sectaries. For their part, the Particular Baptists’ desire to be seen as part of an ongoing socially-safe separatism, close to that espoused by the Independents, was one of the forces provoking them to issue their 1644 London Confession (and its 1646 variant), the first marker of the emergence of denominational consciousness with its stresses on doctrinal orthodoxy and the associative principle of congregational relationship. In this they were not always successful, for if the ‘General’ Baptists may have been too sympathetic to the Levellers in the 1640s, Particular Baptists had to take care to distance themselves from the Fifth Monarchists in the 1650s, illustrating the dangers of becoming politically entangled.
On the ‘General’ side there is a danger of placing too much emphasis on the views and activities of Thomas Lambe’s highly idiosyncratic, increasingly radical, and much publicized congregation. There was less obvious coherence in belief and practice amongst the advocates of free will and general atonement, especially as the laying on of hands introduced a new area of division. Notwithstanding this, there was an emerging group of churches displaying such views in Kent, the Fenlands, and London. The creation of the denomination was, it is here suggested, largely post-Restoration, for the authority of the General Assemblies of 1654 and 1656 was not recognized by a number of churches who preferred to guard their independence from any wider than local authority. But after the Restoration, the Kent churches in particular were to face problems of Christological heterodoxy.
The study ends with five appendices dealing with specific topics, two of which have to do with Benjamin Stinton as a source for early Baptist history, one with more detective work on Robert Barrow, here separated from many of the claims made about him, another with the recovery of Robert Stookes of Colchester as the author of Truth’s Champion, the only extant copy of which is dated 1651. But the most useful, in my judgment, is the ten-page appendix that identifies for the reader the geographical range of Baptist groups existing in early 1645.
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.