Professor of Church History in Newton Theological Seminary.
It is a source of satisfaction, as well as an occasion of gratitude, that we are, through the enterprise of the editor of the RECOPDER, enabled at last to examine the whole text of the two documents concerning which Dr. Whitsitt, as well as the rest of us, had been compelled to speak from so fragmentary knowledge. The publication of the papers themselves puts beyond controversy the true place of the sentence so much emphasized. It is further manifest that the one paper is given exclusively, and the other chiefly, to the record of events occurring in a Pedobaptist church. The first has nothing to say of the origination of a Baptist church, but refers to the dismission of certain persons who had already "joined with Mr. Spilsbury," implying the independent existence of his church in 1638, if not in 1633. The second reiterates the account of the dismission of the same individuals in 1638, (they being "convinced" that "baptism was not for infants, but for professed believers") to the same church. Then follows the all-important paragraph for 1640 which recounts the "sober conference in the church" whether "professed believers" might "enjoy dipping," ending in the immersion of "their friends" by Blunt and Blacklock. It is not until 1644 that there is any recognition of the Baptists as having "become seven churches in London." Neither Blunt, Blacklock nor Jessey appear as signers of the confession then issued. As corroborate of the construction heretofore suggested, limiting the question of difficulty arising in this Pedobaptist church to that of repetition rather than form of baptism, it may be noticed that although Mr. Jessey appears from the natural import of the language used, to have been convinced in 1640 of the necessity of immersion itself, it was not, as expressly stated, until 1645 that his scruples as to the other point were so far overcome that he was persuaded that he "himself should be baptized."
On the whole, it seems reasonable to conclude that while "many of the Independent and Baptist churches of London" may have originated from the Jacob church, as stated in the title of the alleged "Jessey Records" all of them did not do so, as is implied in the very limitation used. That document, as well as the Kiffin Ms. (so called), instead of assuming to record the beginning of all such churches, implies the contrary rather. "There were Greeks before Homer," and Baptists before Kiffin or Jessey.
We might perhaps rest here, since the remaining testimony seems to have been regarded by Dr. Whitsitt as ancillary, and, taken by itself, inconclusive. It has been apparently introduced, to borrow his own expression, "for good measure." But I may be mistaken in this, and it has in fact impressed other minds seriously. I proceed, therefore, to consider the seven circumstances designated as "monuments" of the momentous change among Baptists supposed to have ocurred in 1641.
The first of these is the publication of the "Confession of the Seven Churches" in 1644 (really issued in 1643). The fact that the immersion of believers is here for the first time in English history postively [sic] prescribed, is claimed to be inconsistent with the assumption that the practice had existed long before. But is it any less credible than the opposite asumption[s], before commented on, that the fifty-four churches represented by it had simultaneously, unanimously and violently reversed their own traditional practice and challenged the intolerant sentiment of the community at this point, and that without assignable occasion?
The argument from silence, as Dr. Whitsitt elsewhere recognizes, is feeble at the best, and is here completely neutralized by reasonable explanatory circumstances. The Baptists, like the other early dissenters, "scrupled" the use of "formal words" (to borrow their quaintly expressive phrase), and were slow to promulgate set creeds. Such documents, erected at first to serve as lamp-posts by the way, had too often served as hanging-posts instead, and they were shy of them accordingly. Moreover, under the reign of anti-Christ they (the Baptists) had been the common target of all guns. Not only the Romish, Episcopal and Reformed parties, but the Separatist also, between whom and themselves there was so much in common, denounced them as revolutionists. To have issued a manifesto would have been voluntarily to hoist a signal revealing their corporate existence, disclosing their hiding-place, and drawing a more concentrated and deadly fire. But there had now arisen, for the first time, an emergency that compelled, as changed conditions also rendered safely possible, a positive utterance. Up to the Westminister [sic] Assembly all religious bodies in England had recognized and even insisted upon immersion as normal baptism. But that Assembly, for the first time in English history, had postively [sic] rejected it from the ritual, repudiating its necessity. That this repudiation was the immediate occasion of the Baptist Confession, with its explicit definition of baptism, is manifest not only from the language of the Baptist article on that subject, which verbally antagonizes that of Westminister [sic], but from the distinct statements of the preamble referring to the Westminister [sic] article by name. Meantime, the abolition of the Court of High Commission, and the relaxation of the extremer forms of ecclesiastical legislation, had made it less dangerous to speak. If this was the first official and explicit, it was certainly not the first actual, setting forth of this idea by Baptists. From the time of the martyr Schwindeley, whom Fox reports as declaring in 1401 that "Christ was buried that we might be buried by baptism into his death," frequent utterances are to be found admitting of no other rational interpretation than insistence on immersion as Scripturally essential. It is of small significance that an official declaration, among a people radically indisposed to formal pronunciamentos, was issued only when an emergency compelled it and external conditions made it prudent.
The second "monument" mentioned is the successful repudiation of the invidious name "Anabaptist" — the term "Baptist" appearing first in 1644. How such a circumstance could tend to prove the coincident substitution of immersion for sprinkling, is not very obvious; for change of form could not in the least affect the essential circumstances out of which alone the name had grown, the repetition of the ceremony itself in any form. But the statement that the stigma in question was first so removed at that date is historically unwarrantable. In the disputation at Berne in 1532, the opposing parties are in the record, then made, designated as "Predicanten" and "Tauffer" respectively. In the Zurich "Actensammlung," as given by Egli, the title "Tauffer" is constantly employed, as well as in other contemporaneous writings. Bullinger, in his diatribe against the Anabaptists, used terms which are rendered by his son-in-law Simler (in his Latin translation of 1560) "Baptistoe seu Anabaptistoe." The familiar name of the Mennonites from the beginning was "Doops gezinden," which had in it no savor of Anabaptistic reproach.
The third "monument" noted is the beginning of a baptismal controversy at the date mentioned. And here the thesis is somewhat dwarfed. For it is now only claimed that "nobody wrote in favor of immersion as the exclusive act of baptism prior to 1641." But the introduction to the claim that immersion is the exclusive form of baptism is by no means identical with the introduction of immersion itself, and the controversy engendered by that claim would touch an irrelvant [sic] issue. The real origin of the controversy in question, as well as its scope, is thus inaccurately indicated. It was the attempted exclusion of immersion by the Westminister Assembly, and not the attempt of the Baptists to introduce it, that gave rise to the discussion. This aroused Baptists and Churchmen alike. One of the most conspicuous figures in the debate, as a champion of immersion, was Dr. Wall, of the Church of England, who in his famous History of Infant Baptism, denounced the Calvinists as the first officially to repudiate the Scriptural and historic form of the ordinance. It is true, no doubt, that up to this time emphasis had been laid upon the subject rather than mode of baptism, as implied in the prevalent epithet characterizing the dissentients by their most noticeable tenent, as "Anabaptists." Immersion was then questioned by nobody, and its practice could provoke no invidious comment and compel no isolation. But rebaptism was an eccentricity that seemed to involve an insult to the church and a menace to the state, such as at once to provoke resentment and become the absorbing centre of debate. It was only when the fire came from a new quarter that it became necessary for Baptists to redirect their own artillery.
The fourth "monument" pointed out is the division of churches on this issue, beginning at the date named. Such division can, of course, have no bearing on the topic under discussion unless the churches so divided were Baptist churches. But those mentioned in Dr. Whitsitt's argument were clearly not so. It is not unreasonable to suppose -- it seems historically probable, rather — that in Pedobaptist churches, like that founded by Jacob in London, some, from time to time, were convinced solely as to immersion, some as to the necessity of faith before baptism, while some went on to insist on the immersion even of those who had been already received as church members. That division on such issues had not already occurred is not at all certain. Mr. Jessey had in 1639 organized a church in Wales, having a Baptist and Pedobaptist pastor respectively for its two constitutive parties. Bogue and Bennet, in their History of Dissenters, refer to many churches in this transition state, of which they say "it would be difficult, because of intermixture, to know with which denomination they should be classed." Such mixed churches still exist, but the fact does not prove that Baptists in England are just beginning to immerse.
The fifth "monument" is the alleged alienation of the Mennonites from the English Baptists through the introduction of immersion by the latter. But the English Baptists (certainly those of the Jessey type) did not refuse communion with the unimmersed nor even deny the sufficiency of Mennonite baptism as a basis of membership. On the other hand Prof. Muller says in regard to the reception of Smyth and his flock into the Mennonite church in Holland (and it is worthy of notice as indicating his unwillingness to affirm positively as to the form of their baptism, "they cared only for the very nature of the baptism ("as founded on full age," a note adds) and were therefore willing to admit those who were baptized by a mode differing from theirs, just as we are wonted to do nowadays" (italics mine). They did not antagonize each other, although they may have differed in practice, at this point. But that English Baptists never accepted footwashing, never refused civic oaths, and became sturdy soldiers under the Commonwealth — here were real antagonisms.
The sixth circumstance dignified by exaltation into a "monument," might more aptly have been cited to illustrate occasional silliness of great men. It is the terror said to have been aroused because of the menace to health involved in the introduction of immersion. It is astonishingly true that the saintly Richard Baxter denounced as "flat murder" (calling on the magistrates in the royal name to suppress it) a custom which had once been the exclusive, and was still the normal, form of baptism in the national church, and as such was actually enjoined by law. Some of the representatives of his view argued that the covert aim of the advocates of immersion was to discourage infant baptism; since immersion would be in the case of infants especially deadly. The chief respondents again included churchmen, such as Dr. Wall and Sir John Flover (the latter, a noted English physician, being sure that immersion is a sovereign cure for infantile rickets, and harmless in any case.)
The seventh and last mentioned "monument" is the introduction about this time of the word "rhantize" to designate sprinkling. But "rhantize" is not broad enough to antithesize "immerse." It points rather to the rancorous opposition of the conservatives, who had reluctantly yielded to the force of public opinion so far as to accept pouring, but resented the further change of sprinkling, then just being introduced. "And for sprinkling" says Dr. Wall, "it seems that it was at 1645 just then beginning and used by very few." The new word was not devised to describe the departure from immersion to pouring, but from pouring to sprinkling, as its meaning shows.
None of the circumstances emphasized, on careful examination, seem irreconcilable with, while some strongly corroborate, the commonly received opinion that true Baptist churches long preceded the date fixed by the new theory.
It remains only to consider the statements of controversial writers, and the general presuppositions arising from the earlier history in Holland and England. To these I must devote another article.
Go to Essay 5 of Both Sides
Return to Baptist Controversies
Return to HOME Page