Professor of Church History in Newton Theological Seminary.
It would be indecorus, not to say silly, to affect to treat as insignificant the formidable array of testimony which has convinced so discriminating a judge as Dr. Whitsitt, to say nothing of the later concurrence of careful and competent investigators such as Professors Newman and Vedder. The commonly accepted opinion, as we have seen, rests upon presumptions which, a1though strong, are obviously not indisputable. Yet, as it has been long cherished, and, must be assumed to have been maturely formed in the light of all available data, the counter evidence adduced to displace it must be new, pertinent, authentic, and unequivocal. Can the matter offered by Dr. Whitsitt be thus characterized?
That the bulk of it, especially of that which is treated as critically significant, is not new, is apparent at first sight. The so-called Kiffin Mss. was in Crosby's hands in 1738; the so-called "Jessey Church Records" were given to the world by Gould in 1860 (and were, probably, as to their essential parts, available to Crosby at the earlier date); the "new learning" from the Mennonite archives was fully covered by Evans in 1862 (and as to the essential point, the uniform practice of affusion by the Mennonites had been anticipated by Ashton in 1851). Beyond those items I find nothing relevant except the subsidiary allusions drawn from later English controversial literature. Of this literature it is by no means safe to affirm that Crosby was wholly ignorant. He seems to have been an industrious collector of historical matter. Wilson, Neal and other Congregational historians acknowledge their debt to him for essential documentary information elsewhere inaccessible, as to their own early history. He had some documents such as the records of the Spilsbury and Hubbard churches expressly cited by him, no longer within our reach. He notices fully the Barber and Kilcop articles, and it seems highly improbable that he was unacquainted with the details of a controversy directly concerning the subject in hand, the echoes of which had not yet died away, and which had occurred, to use Dr. Whitsitt's suggestive phrase, "under the noses" of his immediate contemporaries. The "King's Pamphlets" were not, when he wrote, in the British Museum, but it does not follow, nor is it likely, that the whole edition, of which they were specimens, had become extinct. If he knew of them, Crosby would certainly not lean upon their frail, indirect allusions to settle a question as to which he assumed already to have positive and authoritative information.
It is manifest, then, that the essential factors of the problem were as plainly visible to historians nearly twenty years before Dr. Whitsitt first touched the subject as they are to-day; and those vitally determinans were open to Crosby in 1738. If the early theory has thus far been persisted in, it is clearly not for lack of information now for the first time attainable.
I proceed, then, to inquire how far the evidence offered answers to the demand for authenticity, pertinence, clearness, and authoritativeness. I begin with the central feature of the discussion -- the highly significant, and often reiterated, sentence from the alleged "Jessey Church Records" — "none having then so practiced in England to professed believers." The emphasis laid upon the fact that this sentence occurs in a "genuine church record" (contrasted by suggestion with the "Epworth-Crowie record denounced as fraudulent), rests, apparently, upon the sound assumption that as part of an official record it carries much greater weight than a private utterance might do. How far is this emphasis in the present case justifiable? The evidential value of an official record depends upon its authenticity (self-evidencing or proven aliunde), its contemporaneousness, and its legitimacy as an official statement of pertinent fact. Not one of these tests is pretended to be met by the document in question. Instead of coming from a proper place of deposit (the legitimate primary guaranty of probable authenticity), it was found among private papers. It bears no official attest. It describes past, and not contemporaneous, events. And the vital sentence in question records no corporate fact, legitimate to be officially noted, but expresses instead a sweeping opinion, reducing itself thereby from an official to a personal, and seemingly irrelevant, utterance. The document, on the whole, suggests the impression that, instead of being a church record, it is a private memorandum, by an unknown hand and of unknown date, embodying impressions concerning a very broad question, of the va1ue of which no intelligent judgment can be formed in the absence of any information as to the competency and credibility of the writer.
That it is this and nothing more seems demonstrable by positive proof. Whatever interpretation may be put upon the language of Gould, in the promises, Dr. Whitsitt can hardly fail to bow to the authority of a scholar whose painstaking accuracy he so much confides in, as that of Dr. H. M. Dexter. Now in the Congregationalist of July 12, 1883, then under Dr. Dexter's hand, appears an editorial statement that the ancient Kiffin Mss., from which Crosby had quoted, had been recently unearthed in connection with a certain suit and published in full, so that it had become possible to supply the passages omitted by Crosby. The editor thereupon publishes the whole of these missing passages; and the matter so published proves, on comparison, to be identical with the paragraphs of the alleged "Jessey Church Records," beginning with the year 1640, and including the all-important sentence in question. The editor has, by way of parenthetic explanation, added the words "P. Barebone" in Mss. (who remained a Pedo-baptist); after "Mr. Richard Blunt with him" the words ("i. e. Jessey") and after "John Batte" the word ("collegiant").
Accepting Dr. Dexter's positive statement as decisive, we must dismiss the "Jessey Church Records" from the case as irrelevant; for the first two paragraphs, which alone remain, referring to events in 1633 and 1638, do not include the essential sentence, and bear only indirectly on the question in hand. Even so, however, the obdurate sentence remains imbedded in the Kiffin Mss., apparently as inexorable as ever in the affirmation that "none" had "then so practiced in England to professed believers." I turn, accordingly, to the study of this famous document and its implications. I might again appeal to the high authority of Dr. Dexter, who speaks slightingly of it, and evidently esteems it as of little importance. That it has confused and misled intelligent investigators before our day is certain. This may explain possible erratic, and excuse diffident interpretation of it now, but it cannot fail to weaken our faith in the unequivocalness of its language. Neal, the historian of the Puritans, to whom Crosby had lent this and other supplementary documents, referred the partition mentioned between Barebone and Jessey, to an entirely different church, contradicted in this by Crosby, but again indorsed by Ivimey. Neal, by the way, anticipated Dr. Whitsitt by 150 years, for he wrote in 1739, in the intimation that the "Jessey church" was formed in 1641, was the first Baptist church in England (a statement characterized by Crosby as a "strange representation," since Neal had before him other documents showing the earlier existence of Spilbury's church). Again, while Drs. Dexter and Whitsitt gather from the language used that Jessey was the leader of the Baptist, and Barebone of the Pedo-baptist, party in the division, Iviney [Ivimey], with the same paper before him, and not unsupported by collateral hints, reverses the order, making Barebone the Baptist, and Jessey the Pedobaptist, leader. It need not seem wonderful, then, where careful students have so widely differed, if more persistent study of the whole document in the light of collateral fact and recorded opinion, should make Dr. Whitsitt's positiveness of interpretation of its language in a special sense seem unwarrantable. But this study must be reserved for another article.