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

Professor of Church History in Newton Theological Seminary.

Essay VII

[p. 27]
In introducing his theme, Dr. Whitsitt frankly recognizes the necessity of reversing the conclusions of all Baptist historians from Crosby in 1738 to Evans in 1862. He might have added that all other historians, ecclesiastical or secular (with the possible exception of Ashton in 1851) must be equally discredited. He accounts for their erroneous notions and excuses them from the implication of prejudice or stupidity, by the suggestion that "owing to circumstances over which they had no control, none of them had access to documents illustrating the movement under Smyth, Helwys and Murton, which are preserved in the Mennonite archives in Amsterdam, in Holland." Without this "new learning," no decided progress in this investigation was possible." This "learning," however, when published by Evans in 1862, so completely "exploded and discredited" the "traditional view," that the "quiet composure" with which English scholars continued to "rest" in it "would be amusing if it were not lamentable."

The prodigious significance of this "learning" may be inferred, when it is noticed that by its aid Dr. Whitsitt feels himself enabled confidently to affirm that "immersion was unknown among the Anabaptists of England, who had all come over from Holland in the sixteenth century; it was not practiced by the Mennonites, or by the followers of John Smyth, Thomas Helwys or John Murton" (p. 144): that "none of the Anabaptists of Holland or the adjacent parts of Germany were immersionists:" and that "few Anabaptists anywhere were immersionists" (p. 35). If it seems extraordinary that the effort to "move up the figures just eight years," in fixing the date of the reintroduction of believers’ immersion into England, entails also the necessity of proving that such immersion had never been practiced there at all, and very rarely any-where else, since the earliest centuries, it is still more odd to be assured, even by implication, that we are dependent solely upon the "Mennonite archives" and the "co-operation and assistance of Mennonite scholars" for the final solution of the larger as well as the smaller of these problems. It is the more disappointing, seeing the importance he attributes to them, that Dr. Whitsitt gives us nothing of any importance from these archives, but contents himself
[p. 28]
with a reference to the passages cited in Evans, with the appended opinions there given, of Drs. Muller and De Hoop Scheffer upon the subject. I have examined these passages as given by Evans in voluminous detail, but have utterly failed to discover the "inestimable treasure" of information alleged to lie hid in them. They are almost wholly occupied with utterly foreign themes, such as the proper frequency of the Lord's Supper, the taking of oaths, and the like; the only statement pertinent to the present issue being that cited by Dr. Whitsitt from Evans, in which the Mennonite ministers report that they have not "found that there was any difference at all neither in the one nor the other thing” (that is "as regards the doctrine of salvation and the government of the church" and "the foundation and form of their baptism") between Smyth's followers and themselves. This language is not understood by Dr. Muller (one of the Mennonite scholars to whose "assistance" we are referred and whose opinion is appealed to in this particular case) as justifying the inference that Smyth or his followers had not practiced immersion. His cautious statement is that "it appears to me that the persons mentioned in the memorial who were not yet baptized, were admitted to the Waterlancers by the baptism, not of immersion, but of sprinkling. This mode of baptism, was from the days of Menno the only usual mode amongst us. The Waterlanders nor any other of the various parties of the Nethland Doopsgezinden practiced at any time baptism by immersion." He adds the significant remark, "But they cared only for the very nature of the baptism (note -- "as founded on full age"), 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). It will be seen that he expresses no opinion whatever as to the mode adopted by Smyth and those of his followers who had already been baptized; that immersion would not have been regarded as a material difference in "form and foundation;" that the "usual" practice of the Mennonites had been sprinkling (the whole sentence seeming to imply that immersion, although not ordinarily "practiced," was not wholly rejected); and that his observations are limited to the "Doopsgezindon," who comprised only a single section of the Netherland Anabaptists. There is nothing here, therefore, in conflict with the affirmation of Evans, persistently made in the face of the new learning, that "there were a portion of the Dutch Baptists who uniformly administered baptism by immersion" (at the time in question). Nor do Dr. Muller or the "archives," as interpreted by him, contradict the positive assertion of the Nonconformist historian, Price, that the practice of the Brownists, whom Smyth had joined in Amsterdam (who denied the validity of the ordination of the ministry of the Church of England but accepted their baptism) "occurred to the inquiring mind of Smyth as an inconsistency, and led him to a further investigation of the subject, which resulted in the rejection of infant baptism, and a firm conviction that immersion was the only Scriptural mode of its administration," acting upon
[p. 29]
which opinion he was excluded by them. It cannot be objected to Price, as to Masson, that he "had given no special attention to this department," and it is certainly more likely that accurate information should have been accessible in Brownist than in Mennonite archives as to matters occurring in a Brownist body.

We are referred, however, still more confidently to the “admirable industry and insight” of another Mennonite scholar, Prof. De Hoop Scheffer, whose versatility and activity in the reconstruction of Baptist history in England and elsewhere are represented to have been surprisingly great. It was he, it seems, who furnished to Evans in 1862 the "foundations of the now learning in Baptist history." It was he who, in 1871-6, instructed Barclay that "immersion had been introduced into England on the 12th of September, 1633." It was he who, when himself instructed from America that "immersion was first introduced into England in 1641," promptly produced "the first work that appeared in print giving distinct support to" that "thesis." One hardly knows whether to wonder most at the "industry and insight" which could enable a Dutch scholar, solely by help of Dutch archives, to correct all the English historians as to the date of an event which happened among themselves, or at the flexibility of his material which justified the fixing of two distinct dates with equal facility and conclusiveness. On the other hand, there can be no doubt of the justice of Dr. Whitsitt’s severe arraignment of English Baptist historians for having "kept holiday in this department," since the publication of Evans' history (and the rebuke applies with equal justice to English historians of every class, and to all alike before as well as after the date named) if their ignorant persistence in affirming that John Smyth was immersed has grown out of the fact that not one of them, during two hundred years of familiar intercourse with their neighbors across the channel had been enterprising enough to discover, or had wit enough to draw the inevitable inference from the palpable circumstance that the Mennonites had never immersed. But we owe a still larger debt of gratitude to this notable savant. Observing the "obscurity that rested upon the history of immersion," making it "easy to lose the way, and fall into confusion of thought," he has courageously undertaken to "remedy that defect" by an authoritative "Survey of the History of Baptism by Immersion." The smiling self-complacency with which he thus proposes to offer, merely as incidental to the settlement of a questioned date in English history, a final solution of problems of continental breadth and of the most complex and obscure character, with which some of the ablest scholars of our century have long been, and still are timidly, and as yet unsuccessfully, struggling, is far better fitted to awaken surprise than confidence. And the performance itself, if the passages cited fairly indicate its character, fully justifies such preliminary distrust. Only a writer unduly athletic in fancy and correspondingly paralytic in vision of historic fact, could have ventured the
[p. 30]
affirmation that "the example of Dolman (in immersion) was followed by no other person;" or that the adoption of immersion by the Anabaptists in Poland and adjacent lands was due wholly to local influences or the neighborhood of the Greek church. It is singular that having recognized the intellectual strabismus too manifest to be ignored when brought to the test in single instances, Dr. Whitsitt should be content to accept with unquestioning enthusiasm the report given by the same eyes measuring a larger and more difficult field.

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