Baptist History Homepage

BOTH SIDES - REVIEW OF DR. WHITSITT'S "QUESTION."
By Jesse B. Thomas, D.D., LL.D.,

Professor of Church History in Newton Theological Seminary.

Essay III.

     The Kiffin Mss., on the interpretation and trustworthiness of which so much is made to hang, merits the most careful scrutiny. I cannot find in it so certain a footing for positive affirmation as Dr. Whitsitt seems to do, for reasons which I proceed to assign. I may remark, in passing, that Dr. Whitsitt himself does not scruple to charge the writer with having "blundered," at certain points, and made questionable statements elsewhere. A witness proven untrustworthy in some particulars needs to be heard cautiously as to all.

     We have, unfortunately, but little material from which to obtain the origin or purpose of the document. We first hear of it in the hands of Crosby, who in 1738 refers to it as having been lent by him to Neal "many years" before. He speaks of it as an "ancient Mss. said to have been written by Wm. Kiffin," but does not seem to have taken any pains to ascertain its genuineness. He does not hint where he obtained it; he nor as shown to be his by its chirography. Kiffin had been dead not more than a generation, and had left an elaborately written autobiography; so that satisfactory assurance might presumably have been obtained on the last point at least. The document comes to us, therefore, wholly unauthenticated by any positive personal guaranty. (The 53 names referred to by Crosby, in connection with the document, are not affixed to it as attesting it, but constitute a list of persons referred to embodied in it). We must apparently deal with it as a "flying leaf" brought by a random breeze from an unknown source. This does not wholly destroy, but it seriously impairs its value as evidence.

     Let us pause here to notice how the argument, based on the momentous sentence so often referred to, is weakened by this circumstance. The statement that "none" had "then so practiced in England," is the expression of a negative opinion, the value of which depends wholly upon the known sagacity and opportunities of the witness.

     The argument is really ab ignolantia: for it is fairly paraphrased by Crosby in the declaration that none "had as they knew of" so practiced. Now it would be clearly worth much more to be told by the original parties themselves that they never heard of does not represent it as signed by Kiffin, such contemporaneous practice, or even to learn from Wm. Kiffin that they had not, as he "knew of," heard of it, than to obtain the opinion of an unknown person concerning their opinion. The reduplicated ignorance which has become impersonal is surely too shadowy to command great confidence.

     Assuming that the intention of the writer was to make as radical and positive a declaration as Dr. Whitsitt understands, we need scarcely remind ourselves how easily delusive the argument drawn from such a source may become. Historic instances in abundance illustrate the possibility of ignorance, on the part of the most intelligent writers, of facts unquestionable, if not notorious, and emphasize the danger of attributing too much significance either to their negations or omissions. Cyprian, writing long after the date assigned by scholars to the issue of the "Didache," proceeds to argue the legitimacy of variation in baptism, without any allusion to the authority of that book. We might even, in a good natured way, undertake by this method to disprove the publication of Dr. Whitsitt's notable article in the Independent in 1880. For Dr. Dexter, who was an eagle-eyed and chivalrous investigator, did not publish his "True History of John Smyth, &c.," until 1881, nor his editorial in the Congregationalist, before alluded to, until 1883. Both these discuss the same theme and announce, as if for the first time, the same discovery, claimed by Dr. Whitsitt to have been already given to the world by him, without the faintest allusion to the Independent or to him. It would be unpardonable, and is therefore incredible, that Dr. Dexter would wilfully [sic] ignore the known rights of a prior discoverer; it seems impossible that he should not have known what appeared in a paper so widely read as the Independent. The conclusion seems irresistible that, "as far as he knew," the Independent article was a myth.

     When we remember the circumstances of the time, especially as illuminated by the language of Dr. Featley (which, it appears to me, Dr. Whitsitt has not always treated quite judicially), it need not scorn incredible that immersion should have been practiced even near at hand, and yet wholly unknown to the ordinary citizen. The dissenters themselves, as these documents show, were obliged to hide their very existence from the eager eyes of persecuting officials, and they successfully did so. Immersion, if discovered, would constitute at once the essence and the complete evidence of transgression. It does not seem strange that the vigilance which must be alert enough to escape the trained official detective should also fail to attract the careless public eye, and even withhold itself from the tongue of rumor. Dr. Featley describes the Ana-baptist as a "stealthy serpent, vere solifuga" resorting to rivers "by night" for baptism. A fair construction of his whole testimony seems to me, by both its affirmations and its incidental explanations to offset any presumption against the long prior existence of the practice in question, arising from its lack of publicity.

     I have thus far assumed Dr. Whitsitt's construction of the sentence in question as indisputable. But a study of the structure of the document, in the light of certain extraneous circumstances to be mentioned, will suggest reasons for hesitation. Confining myself to the single paragraph in which occurs the critical sentence, let me point out some omissions, ambiguities and incongruities which, if they do not weaken our faith in the deliverances of the writer, must at least put us on our guard against their arbitrary forced construction in the interests of a theory.

      1. It is assumed, as the unquestionable affirmation of the writer, that the partition of the Jacob church between Barebone and Jessey grew out of a controversy over baptism. He makes no such affirmation in fact, and Neal refers that partition to a totally different cause, viz.: the danger of discovery of so large a company by the authorities.

      2. It is assumed as establish[ed] by the document that, in the partition, Barebone remained the Pedobaptist, and Jessey became the Baptist leader. The ambiguous phrase “with him,” grammatically referably either to Barebone or Jessey, is confidently referred to Jessey accordingly. All this is purely arbitrary. It is certain that Jessey did not then become a Baptist, and probable that Barebone did not (although the claim that the article signed "P. B.," proves Barebone to have remained unchanged is quite unsatisfactory. Dr. Dexter who at least affirmed this, has as confidently affirmed, at an earlier date, that these cabalistic letters designated "P. Bakewell." The initials of Barebone would naturally have been "P. G. B.")

      3. Richard Blunt, represented in the “Jessey Records” as having seceded from the Jacob church in 1633, here appears as still a member of it in 1640. Dr. Whitsitt, supposing these two paragraphs to be part of the same document, notes, but does not regard it necessary to explain, this discrepancy. But the conflict between two independent documents requires explanation, or the discrediting of one of them.

      4. It may not be unimportant to notice that the pivotal sentence is itself affected with verbal ambiguity. The word "then" points to a specific date, but the use of part [past] participle with it beclouds its application. Does it mean "at that time," or "up to that time"? The word "so" is also entangled by the curious qualification, "to professed believers." What is the force of this unique limitation?

      5. Who are the "forenamed" with whom "sober conference" was had? The transfer of the paragraph to its place in the Kiffin Mss. gives the expression different antecedents from those assigned by Dr. Whitsitt.

     But enough; it is clear that the writer was either unskilled or careless in the construction of his sentences or imperfectly informed, either alternative forbidding the hanging of too heavy issues on the turning of his phrases.

     If Dr. Whitsitt's treatment of the whole paragraph be questionable, his interpretation of the sentence on which he chiefly relies appears to rue positively inadmissible.

     For, in the first place, Crosby, with this paragraph before him, paraphrasing the very sentence in question, without objection saw no inconsistency in maintaining at the same time that Spilsbury's church had practiced immersion since its formation in 1633. He referred also to Helwisse and Smyth as "restorers of immersion" at a still earlier date. He lived within a hundred years of the events narrated, within which limit Sir George Cornewall Lewis and other historical critics allow the validity of oral tradition. As to Spilsbury's church, he assumed to speak from the records. His authority is commanding in the premises, and he manifestly saw no such radical force in the words as forbade recognition of immersion at an earlier date.

     In the second place. Wm. Kiffin, the alleged writer of the Mss. was the founder, and until his death in 1701 the pastor, of the Devonshire Square Baptist church in London, the only surviving one of the notable seven churches which issued the confession of 1643 (his name standing first in that confession). The date of the foundation of that church is given by Ivimey as near 1640, and its occasion the departure of Kiffin and his friends from Spilsbury's church because of the occupying of Spilsbury's pulpit by an unimmersed minister. Manifestly, then, either Kiffin could not have written this document, or he could not have meant to assert in it what is now claimed. How could he, about 1640 have led a secession because of so exalted a conception of the necessity of immersion, and at a later date, have declared that in 1641 immersion was unknown in England?

     In the third place, it is impossible that Jessey could, as claimed, have led a Baptist movement in 1641, for he was not himself immersed till 1645, having remained a Pedobaptist until that year (although he had advocated the immersion of infants since 1642). All the authorities without dissent, whether Baptist or Pedobaptist, as far as I can learn, agree in this. He persisted to the end of his life in retaining a mixed membership in his church, refusing to eliminate those sprinkled in infancy. He seems to have accepted a living from the state as rector of St. George's, until ejected therefrom in 1660. Since he and Barebone were both Pedobaptists in 1640, the partition between them of the Jacob church could not have possibly been on that issue.

     In the fourth place, the prime question in mind, as indicated by the context, was how to secure a lawful administrator of immersion. That this problem occasioned serious anxiety at the time is manifest from the frequent taunts of church prelates, from John Robinson's sneers at the se-baptism of John Smyth and his followers, and from the allusion in the first paragraph of the Jessey Records, to the "discussing" in that church of the "truth of the parish churches". That discussion, as explained by Wilson, had grown out of the carrying of a babe by one of their own members, to the parish priest for supposedly legitimate baptism. Crosby, in his account of the whole subject, emphasizes the statement of Hutchinson, whom he cites, to the effect that the chief obstacle perceived among dissenters, such as these, when about to introduce immersion among them, was the difficulty of obtaining a lawful administrator. "This agrees," he says "with the account given in an ancient Ms." etc., proceeding thereupon to give the substance of the paper under discussion. Spil[s]bury's and Heiwisse's people made no pretence to any other than a self-originated immersion. Hence the necessity (since there was no known lawful administrator in England) of sending to Holland, where it was believed, as Hutchinson says, that they might secure a lineal succession from the Waldenses. Except as explaining their motive in thus sending to Holland, the perplexing sentence before us is wholly irrelevant. But if this is its purport, the question of form is evidently incidental and subordinate; that of legitimacy being uppermost.

     In the fifth place the unusual words of qualification, before referred to, need to be dwelt upon. The sentence does not deny at large the contemporaneous practice of immersion, nor does it limit itself simply to believers. It refers to "professed believers" only. What is the significance of this? It is important to remember that the events here recounted occurred avowedly in an Independent or Congregational church. It does not matter to which section of that church after the partition, we refer them, for both leaders, as we have seen, and presumably both sections, remained unchanged in Pedobaptist sentiment. The introduction of dipping in original baptism could have occasioned no difficulty, for nobody denied its legitimacy as an alternative form, and Jessey practiced it in his own church as a Pedobaptist, without objection. But when "professed believers" i. e. persons baptized in infancy and enrolled as church members proposed to discredit an ordinance of the church by insisting on a "new baptism," it touched a tender point, entailing as the record declares, "sober conference" "about their so enjoying it." Among them, that is in the mixed churches of England, "none had so practiced", although the immersion of new converts may not have been unfamiliar. It was the old and sore question of anabaptism which was inevitable in an Independent, but could not have arisen in a Baptist church, that is referred to and discussed. It is to be observed that the "conference" occurred primarily "in the church," and it is not distinctly stated that Mr. Blunt and his friends separated or organized themselves apart from the church at that time; but having obtained reluctant assent, they "met in two companies" and "baptized the rest of their friends that were so minded."

     In the sixth place, this record instead of assuming to give an account of the origin of immersing Baptist churches from the Jessey church in 1641, as claimed by Dr. Whitsitt, seems rather to imply a contrary conception. The persons desiring immersion had "sober conference" "in the church" and also with "some of the forenarned, who were also convinced," resulting in confirmation of their purpose. Dr. Whitsitt plausibly understand[s] these "forenamed," to be those who had in 1638 "forsaken us and joined with Mr. Spilsbury." Spilsbury is nowhere mentioned as having been connected with the Jessey church, nor is there any proof that the other churches with which the seceders of 1633 desired to affiliate had originated from it. That these other churches already in existence in 1633, were not Pedobaptist churches is probable, since a "further baptism" is mentioned as incidental to joining them. That the Spilsbury church at least was immersionist is suggested by the fact that it was after conference with some of them (probably), that Blunt and his comrades insisted on immersion. We are thus brought back by reasonable inference from the language of the document to precise accord with the positive account of the matter given by Crosby, affirming the long prior use of immersion.

     This modified conception of the significance of the paragraph in question makes no pretence to infallibility, it may be vulnerable, for the problem is a perplexing one. But it has the advantage over that of Dr. Whitsitt that it does not arbitrarily add to, or assume to modify the text, and it does not fall foul of imperative facts. It is not certainly right, but his interpretation is certainly not right, in my judgment. Perhaps no safe solution has been reached by anybody or is possible. In that case the testimony remains ambiguous and its force is neutralized.

==============

Go to Fourth Essay of Both Sides

Return to Both Sides Essays

Return to Baptist Controversies

Return to Home Page