Baptist History Homepage


Professor of Church History in Newton Theological Seminary

Along With


In The



W. H. Whitsitt, D. D., LL.D.
President and Professor of Church History In Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


Price, 15 Cents.


Louisville, KY.

By Jesse B. Thomas, D.D., LL.D.,

Professor of Church History in Newton Theological Seminary.

Essay I.

      The historic question opened by Dr. Whitsitt seems to me perfectly legitimate and fairly entitled to a candid investigation. I do not sympathize with, nor can I easily understand, the expression of resentment because of a frank expression of opinion upon a matter of dry and remote fact, having in the opinion of most Baptists, no serious present significance. Baptists, of all people, are pledged by their own principals to encourage outspoken loyalty to conviction on all issues touching the truth of history as well as of Scripture. He who announces a conclusion which he knows to be novel, and suspects will be unpalatable, to his immediate constituents, is entitled to respect, as having shown the "courage of his convictions." He has virtually challenged criticism, and invoked research from which no harm can come, except to error.

     The specific novelty which Dr. Whitsitt originally set out to introduce was the opinion that the year 1641 should be substituted for 1633 as the date of the origin of strictly Baptist churches in England. As to this single issue he was plainly on the side of the defenders of "Baptist succession": for the characteristic feature of the movement of 1641 was emphasis upon, as that of 1633 had been contempt for, the securing of baptism from a qualified administrator. Had he confined himself to this question alone it is hard to see how he could have displeased those who are sensitive at that point. But he was not content with this. Boldly, and as it appears to me incautiously, he has committed himself to the demonstration of a wide and drastic negative, viz: that there were never any Baptists whatever (ie. anti-pedobaptist immersionists) either in England or Holland before the year 1641. To establish this claim it is not enough to show a lack of records or other positive testimony to the contrary, nor will it avail to exclude the prior existence of separate immersionist churches, nor to prove that pouring and sprinkling were sometimes or even generally used as an alternative: the possible or probable practice or knowledge of immersion by any body in the territory named must be absolutely excluded. This is, perhaps, not an impossible, but I need scarcely say that it is a Herculean task, and will require for its accomplishment comprehensive, direct, well-authenticated, and unequivocal testimony.

     Consider what must be displaced in the way of presumptive evidence. The testimony of local tradition, long-continued, uninterrupted and harmonious, attributes the origin of some of the existing English Baptist churches, unchanged in order to a period long anterior to that now emphasized. In some instances, such as that of a church in Cheshire, referred to by Goadby, collateral circumstances lend considerable additional weight to current and accumulated opinion. In a secluded forest in Chester where the church in question still exists, were found in 1841 the remains of an old church building, "so constructed as to afford a half dozen ways of escape," in which was "a large baptistery of stone," the tombstones in the cemetery near by "be1onging to the 16th century." Why should there have been "ways of escape" from an established church, and why a "large baptisery" in a non-immersing church? "Tradition" has suffered great and often undeserved obloquy at the hands of modern documentary critics; but it must not be forgotten that tribunals of law, the ripest judges and most jealous guardians of the competency and credibility of testimony, allow tradition, where it is ancient, uniform and continuous, to be received not only as valid, but in the absence of positive contradiction from higher sources, as conclusive evidence.

     The concurrent voice of historians is also primarily a sufficient justification of current opinion on a given topic.

     Individual utterances will justly carry greater or less weight according to the author's opportunities of personal observation or conference with eye-witnesses, his access to authoritative documents, his relative industry, sagacity, and fairness in their use, and the like; but the positive affirmation of any respectable author as to a matter of fact concerning which he may have had sources of information unmentioned and unknown to us, cannot be disposed of by the blunt and unsupported affirmation that it is a "blunder." In this particular it seems to me that Dr. Whitsitt has hardly dealt fairly with so pains-taking and judicious an author, for instance as Masson, who distinctly affirms that Helwisse differed from the Independents concerning immersion. He may have snatched this statement carelessly from some other author or made it without authority, but it is hardly just to him to assume it outright. Certainly where the voice of investigators, Baptist and Pedo-baptist, ecclesiastical and secular, has been, for so long, an unbroken chorus of assent, there must needs be strong reason for reversing its deliverance. It is true that Neal relying on data furnished by Crosby, and antedating him by about seven years, (History of the Puritans, 1731-2) intimates that the church founded by Jessey in 1641 was the "first Baptist congregation in England" (thus anticipating Dr. Whitsitt in his theory by 150 years). But from the time of Crosby (History of English Baptists, 1738-40), who repudiated Neal's statement as "a strange representation," I am not aware that there has been any dissent, until our own day, from Crosby's opinion fixing a much earlier date for the introduction of immersion. Dr. Whitsitt does not deny that this unanimity of opinion creates a presumption in favor of the earlier date, since he recognizes the necessity of newly adduced evidence to remove it.

     The fact that immersion was confessedly for so long the only usuage [sic] recognized as normal by the church; the fact that in the beginning the relaxation of the rule was confined to cases of emergency and based solely on sacerdotal authority (Aquinas and Bonaventura, whom Dr. Whitsitt cites, protesting even then that the old way was "safer"); and the further fact that the early anti-Pedobaptiste were, as Dean Milman calls them, "Biblical anti-sacerdotalists," who knew well what Christ had commanded (for Dr. Newman assures us that the later German versions borrowed their vocabulary from the Waldensian "Codex Teplensis," and they uniformily use the word "taufen" [to plunge] in defining baptism); all tend to negative any presumption that they would surrender one-half of the plain letter of the word while clinging with a death-grasp to the other. It being admitted that in some German-speaking lands Anabaptist immersion did in fact prevail, strong testimony would be required to show that, while co-existing Lutheranism and Calvinism deluged the Netherlands, it was resolutely and completely dyked out.

     Finally, as to the question of prior presumption, let it be noted that the first edition of the "Confession of the Seven Churches" was issued in 1643, affirming immersion to be the only true baptism. Now Baillie, jealous and sagacious contemporary witness, affirms that this confession expressed the already matured faith of forty-six churches "as I take it, in and about London." Featley, an important figure in this discussion, reckoned them, as I remember it, at fifty-two; and Neal distinctly affirms that there were at that date "54 congregations of English Baptists in England who confined baptism to dipping"; their illiterate preachers going about the country and "making proselytes of all who would submit to their immersion." We are required then to believe, either that out of one congregation of "immersers," organized in 1641, there had grown this great company in two years, or that in the same time fifty or more existing Baptist congregations had simultaneously repudiated a custom to which they were traditionally attached, and which was in universal use, in behalf of another custom which nobody among them had ever practiced or even heard of: they, without any newly assigned or intelligible motive, suddenly ceased wholly to do what they had always and uniformly been accustomed to do, and began exclusively to do what they had never done at all. So toppling a hypothesis surely needs massive support.

     I am not persuaded that this support has been furnished or can be furnished. I recognize no important evidence that was not apparently accessible to Crosby in his day, and see no satisfactory reason for abandoning his opinion that immersion in England long preceded the date named by Neal and now reaffirmed.

     The reasons for that impression will appear upon examination of the affirmative evidence adduced by Dr. Whitsitt, and accounted by him new, the consideration of which must be postponed to another opportunity.


Go to Second Essay of Both Sides

Return to Both Sides Essays

Return to Baptist Controversies

Return to HOME Page