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A Critique of the English Separatist
Descent Theory in Baptist Historiography

By Philip Bryan, Ph.D., 1966

Chapter I
Theories of Baptist Origins

      The question of Baptist origins often has precipitated controversy among Baptists. Confusion has been intensified because proposed solutions of the problem have occasionally radically modified and influenced Baptist ecclesiology.1 According to Robert G. Torbet three classifications of Baptist theories of origin have emerged in Baptist historiography:2 (1) the successionist theory, (2) the Anabaptist spiritual kinship theory, and (3) the English Separatist descent theory.

Successionist Theories

      The oldest and most generally accepted theory of Baptist origins has been the successionist theory. Essentially the view is that Baptists have had a continuity of existence since the days of Jesus' ministry. William Wright Barnes has differentiated four variations of the theory: (1) church succession, (2) apostolic succession, (3) baptismal succession, and (4) spiritual succession.3 He has maintained that one extreme form of church succession is the same as the Roman Catholic theory of church succession.4 Although four types are delineated, "the first three theories or emphases are logically related and historically associated."5 All three maintain that "a valid church must validly authorize a minister in order that a baptism may be valid."6 Representative Baptist historians who have advocated succession are:(1)Thomas Crosby,7 (2) G. H, Orchard,8 (3) J. M. Cramp,9 (4) William Cathcart,10 and (5) John T. Christian.11

      Professor William Morgan Patterson of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was apparently the author of the only extensive critique and analysis of the successionist theories,12 although other less extensive studies have been made. He has concluded that successionist writers wrote from an apologetical and polemical approach and that their conclusions were based upon a priori reasoning and not scientific methodology.13

Anabaptist Spiritual Kinship Theory

      A theory "held by those who trace a spiritual relationship of Baptists through the long line of Anabaptist sects, such as German, Dutch and Swiss Anabaptists, the Waldensians and Petrobrusians, the Henricians, the Novatians, and the Donatists," is the Anabaptist spiritual kinship theory.14 While no direct organic continuity between these various sects is verifiable, the adherents of this interpretation have asserted that throughout history such minority groups have practiced believer's baptism and therefore, have a "spiritual kinship." As related to Baptist practice, such a view precludes the necessity of organic continuity in either baptisms or ordinations for baptism to be valid. Representative historians maintaining the Anabaptist spiritual kinship view have been: (1) David Benedict,15 (2) Richard B. Cook,16 (3) Thomas Armitage,17 (4) Albert H. Newman,18and (5) Walter Rauschenbusch.19 Apparently no critical analysis has been devoted per se to the spiritual kinship theory except for the points questioned by the historians who have advocated the English Separatist descent theory.20

English Separatist Descent Theory

      Briefly, the chief affirmation of the English Separatist descent theory is that only those to whom the name Baptist was actually applied should be so considered21 and that "the Baptists originated with certain English Separatists who were congregational in polity and who had come to consider believers' baptism alone as valid according to the Scriptures."22 This interpretation is compatible with the view that only the proper candidate (professed believer) and proper purpose (public testimony) are necessary for valid baptism.23 Although numerous articles24covering various aspects of this theory have appeared in scholarly journals, apparently no single monograph has been devoted exclusively to a critical analysis of the theory.25 The present investigation, therefore, is an effort to provide such an analysis. Several variations of the Separatist descent theory have emerged since the 1880's.

      The following Baptist historians are representative advocates of the various differentiations of the basic theory. A brief biographical sketch of each is provided for background information.

William Heth Whitsitt (1841-1911)26
      Baptist minister, church historian, and theological seminary president, Whitsitt was a native of Nashville, Tennessee. His formal education was pursued at Mt. Juliet Academy, the Universities of Virginia, Leipzig, and Berlin, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Whitsitt began his teaching career in the Chair of Ecclesiastical History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1872. For four years (1895-1899) he served as President of the Seminary. The rest of his life was spent as professor of philosophy at Richmond College, Virginia. Included in Whitsitt's literary work are eight books and numerous articles in reviews and religious newspapers, written throughout the last forty years of his life. The most succinct statements of his interpretation of Baptist history occur in miscellaneous articles, written during the so-called "Whitsitt controversy" which led to his dismissal from the Seminary, rather than in his volume devoted to the practice of immersion among English Anabaptists.

George Augustus Lofton (1839-1914)27
      A native Mississippian, Lofton lived in several of the southern states as he served as student, soldier, pastor, lawyer, teacher, and writer. His formal college education was received at Mercer University. Lofton was honored also with degrees from Baylor University, Nashville University, and Carson and Newman College. He was author of twelve books, most of which were written in the 1890's during the "Whitsitt controversy." His major works for this study include: A Review of the Question, English Baptist Reformation, and Defense of the Jessey Records and Kiffin Manuscript. Apparently Lofton did most of the polemical writing for the Whitsitt party during the controversy.

Henry Clay Vedder (1853-1935)28
      Born in DeRuyter, New York, Vedder, the historian, seminary professor, editor, and theologian, spent most of his life in New England. He received college training at the University of Rochester and a seminary education at Rochester Theological Seminary. He served in editorial capacity with The Examiner (a New York Baptist newspaper) for eighteen years (1876-1894) and the Baptist Quarterly Review for seven years (1885-1892). Upon his retirement as professor of church history at Crozer Theological Seminary (1894-1926), he joined the editorial staff of the Chester Times, Chester, Pennsylvania (1929-1935). Most of the approximately dozen books he wrote were devoted to historical problems. The volume ln which he best delineated his position on the origin of Baptists was A Short History of the Baptists.

John Howard Shakespeare (1857-1928)29
      Shakespeare, the only Englishman in this study, spent much of his life as administrator and organizer among English Baptists and Free Churchmen. He received his advanced education at Regent's Park College and the University of London. His first and only pastoral charge was at St. Mary's Chapel, Norwich (1883-1898). For twenty-six years, Shakespeare was General Secretary of the Baptist Union (1898-1924). During this period he promoted the collection of three great appeals for funds: The Twentieth Century Fund (1899), The Sustentation Fund (1912), and the United Fund (1920). He served as first European Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, an organization which he helped found (1905); and he was the first Moderator of the Federal Council of the Evangelical Free Churches (1919). Although Shakespeare was best known as a speaker and administrator, he, nevertheless, authored several books. Baptist and Congregational Pioneers (1906) was the work in which he presented his theory of English Baptist origins.

Robert George Torbet (1912-Present)30
      Torbet, a seminary dean, professor, and historian, is a native of Spokane, Washington. Advanced studies have led him to degrees from Wheaton College, the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of Pennsylvania. During the past thirty years, he has served or the faculty of the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (1934-1951), and on the American Baptist Board of Education and Publications (editor and department director, 1951-1958), and on the faculty of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Professor of Church History and Dean, 1958-Present). Torbet is a member also of several historical societies. Besides serving on the Board of Education and Publications, he has also served as President of the American Baptist Convention (1965-1966). Although Torbet has produced several historical works, chief source for this study is A History of the Baptists.

Winthrop Still Hudson (1911-Present)31
      Hudson, a native of Michigan, has received degrees from Kalamazoo College, Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He has been on the faculty of Colgate-Rochester Divinity School since 1942. Besides being a member of the American Historical Association, he has served also as President (1947) and Secretary (154-1960) of the American Society of Church History, and President (1952-1965) of the American Baptist Historical Society. Several journal articles and the volume Baptist Concepts of the Church provide the best accounts of Hudson's theory of Baptist origins.

Procedure and Methodology

      The following exposition unfolds first with an analysis of the methodology and sources used by these historians and second with a presentation of the historical data used to substantiate the denial of identification of Baptists with Anabaptists both organically (successionist theories) and theologically (spiritual kinship theory). A final chapter evaluates the English Separatist descent theory in its basic variations, both with reference to the methodology and varying interpretations of the individual historians and also to the synthesis which gives the essence of the theory as a whole. Since no attempt is made to analyze other theories of Baptist origins, the evaluation cannot include a judgment as to which one might be correct to the exclusion of the others; but it should indicate whether or not the English Separatist descent theory will actually meet the requirements of scientific, critical research and methodology.


1. See Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (1st ed. rev.; Valley Forge: The Judson Press, 1963), p. 18; Winthrop S. Hudson, "Who Were the Baptists?" The Baptist Quarterly, XVI (July, 1956), 310-12. Subsequent references to Torbet's history will be to the first edition revised unless otherwise stated.

2. Torbet, pp. 18-21. Apparently, in the revised edition of his history, Torbet was influenced by William Wright Barnes in the use of the word "successionist." See W. W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention: 1845-1953 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954), pp. 100-103. In the first edition of Torbet's history, A History of the Baptists (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1950), p. 59, he used the title "Jerusalem-Jordan-John" theory instead of "successionist" theory. Moreover, judging from the immediate context, what Torbet has called the "Anabaptist kinship" theory is actually what Barnes has included as a succession theory: "spiritual succession." Also, William Morgan Patterson has included the "spiritual kinship" theory as a variation of the "successionist" theory, "A Critique of the Successionist Concept in Baptist Historiography" (unpublished Th.D. dissertation, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1956), p. 10. For purposes of introduction, the Torbet three-fold approach is sufficient.

3. Barnes, pp. 100-103.

4. Ibid., pp. 101-103. See also James Robinson Graves, Old Landmarkism: What Is It? (Texarkana, AR: Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1928), pp. 29-30, 121-23.

5. Barnes, p. 102. Since Barnes did not include the fourth theory, the supposition that Torbet's Anabaptist kinship theory is basically the same as Barnes' "spiritual succession" is justifiable. See above, n. 2.

6. Ibid., p. 102.

7. Thomas Crosby, The History of the Baptists from the Reformation to the Beginning of the Reign of King George I (4 vols.; London: By the author, 1738-1740), I, lvii-lxi; II, 2. This was evidently the first Baptist history.

8. G. H. Orchard, A Concise History of Foreign Baptists (Reprint; Lexington: Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, 1956, p. 2. This book was first published in 1822.

9. J. M. Cramp, Baptist History from the Foundation of the Christian Church (1st ed. rev.; Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1868), p. 15.

10. William Cathcart (ed.), The Baptist Encyclopedia (Philadlephia: Louis H. Everets, 1881), p. 74.

11. John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists (2 vols.; Nashville: Broadman Press, 1922), I, 5-6. See Torbet, p. 18, for a further description of these men.

12. Patterson; see n. 2.

13. Ibid., pp. 8-10, 91-107.

14. Torbet, p. 19.

15. David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World (New York: Lewis Colby and Co., 1848), p. 1.

16. Richard B. Cook, The Story of the Baptists in All Ages and Countries (Baltimore: Rev. W. M. Wharton, 1884), chap. 6.

17. Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists: Traced by Their Vital Principles and Practices, from the Time of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to the Year 1886 (New York: Bryan Taylor and Co., 1887), pp. 2-12.

18. Albert H. Newman, A History of Antipedobaptism (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1897), chaps. 2-3.

19. Torbet included Rauschenbusch in this classification because of the testimony of some of his former students; Torbet, p. 20, n. 12.

20. Several articles debating the issue have appeared from the pens of Winthrop S. Hudson, Ernest A. Payne, and Gunnar Westin. See Winthrop S. Hudson, The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 303-12; "Who Were the Baptists?" The Baptist Quarterly, XVII (April, 1957), 53-55; Ernest A. Payne, "Who Were the Baptists?" The Baptist Quarterly, XVI (October, 1956), 339-42; and Gunnar Westin, "Who Were the Baptists?" The Baptist Quarterly, XVII (April, 1957), 55-60.

21. Torbet, p. 11.

22. Ibid., p. 20.

23. Norman H. Maring and Winthrop S. Hudson, A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (Valley Forge: The Judson Press, 1963), pp. 4-16, 125-36.

24. Above, n. 20.

25. John T. Christian wrote extensively in the 1880's and 1890's attacking Whitsitt's theory of the "revival" of immersion. See Did They Dip? (Louisville: Baptist Book Concern, 1896), and Baptist History Vindicated (Louisville: Baptist Book Concern, 1899) for examples of Christian's writings. The polemic nature of these books, however, has lessened their value as an analysis. Moreover, they were not concerned with an analysis of the theory as a whole but with one segment of it.

26. Rufus W. Weaver, "Life and Times of William Heth Whitsitt," The Review and Expositor, XXXVII (April, 1940), 115-32; Gaines S. Dobbins, "Whitsitt, William Heth," Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, ed. Clifton J. Allen and Others, II (1958), 1496; William Heth Whitsitt, A Question in Baptist History: Whether the Anabaptists in England Practiced Immersion Before the Year 1641? (Louisville: Charles T. Dearing, 1896), hereafter cited as A Question; Whitsitt, "Baptists," The Universal Cyclopaedia: A New Edition Prepared by a Large Corps of Editors, Assisted by Eminent European and American Specialists, ed. Charles Kendall Adams, I (1900), 489-93, cited hereafter as Universal Cyclopaedia. Whitsitt was author also of several periodical articles, appearing in The Independent (Congregational; New York), The Religious Herald (Virginia), The Examiner (New York), and the Western Recorder (Kentucky) throughout the 1880's and 1890's.

27. "Lofton, George Augustus," The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, XVI (1937), 226; Harold Stephens, "Lofton, George Augustus," Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, II, 790; George A. Lofton, A Review of the Question (Louisville: Charles T. Dearing, 1899); and Defense of the Jessey Records and Kiffin Manuscript with a Review of Dr. John T. Christian's Work Entitled: "Baptist History Vindicated" (Nashville: Marshall and Bruce, 1899); English Baptist Reformation (Louisville: Charles Dearing, 1899).

28. Vedder, Henry Clary," Who Was Who in America, I (1943), 1276; Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907). Patterson, p. 10, however, classified Vedder as a "successionist' of the type called the "spiritual kingship" theory.

29. Geoffrey Shakespeare, "John Howard Shakespeare," The Baptist Quarterly, XVII (April, 1957), 51-52;; A.C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists (London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1947), pp. 248-55; John H. Shakespeare, Baptist and Congregational Pioneers (London: National Council of Evangelical Free Churches, 1906).

30. "Torbet, Dean Robert G(eorge)," Directory of American Scholars, ed. The Jaques Cattell Press, I (1963), 302.

31. "Hudson, Prof. Winthrop S(till)," Directory of American Scholars, I, 146; Winthrop S. Hudson (ed.), Baptist Concepts of the Church (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1959), pp. 12-13; "Baptists Were Not Anabaptists," The Chronicle, XVI (October, 1953), 171-79; and The Baptist Quarterly, XVI, 303-12. See also an important article, "Baptists," by W. S. Hudson in The Encyclopedia Americana (1962 ed.) III, 219-25.


[From Philip Bryan, "A Critique of the English Separatist Descent Theory in Baptist Historiography," MA Dissertation, Baylor University, 1966, Chapter I. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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