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William Whitsitt's Views on Baptist Baptism
By John T. Christian

     Dr. William H. Whitsitt wrote the following article, which appeared as an editorial in The Independent, New York, September 2, 1880:
     The Congregationalist speaks of "the well-known immersion of Roger Williams by the unimmersed Ezekiel Holliman." We are somewhat surprised that our greatly learned contemporary should be betrayed into the assertion that Roger Williams was immersed by Ezekiel Holliman. To be sure all the Baptists of America so assume, but the editor of The Congregationalist is more accurately acquainted with the origins of Baptist history than any of the Baptists themselves, and we expected that its statements would be more accurate. As we understand it, Roger Williams never was a Baptist in the modern sense — that is, never was immersed, and the ceremony referred to was anabaptism, rebaptism by sprinkling, and not "catabaptism," or baptism by immersion. The baptism of Roger Williams is affirmed by Governor Winthrop to have taken place in March, 1639. This, however, was at least two years prior to the introduction of the practice of immersion among the Baptists. Up to the year 1641 all Baptists employed sprinkling and pouring as the mode of baptism. Now, is it reasonable to suppose that Mr. Williams, in joining the Baptists, should have made use of a form of baptism which they had never practiced or thought of? To us it seems an historical anachronism. We admit that there are no positive historical statements as yet discovered concerning the mode of Mr. Williams' baptism; but as it took place in the year 1639, we assume, as a matter of course, that sprinkling or pouring was the method, since no other was at that time in use among the Baptists. The burden of proof rests entirely upon those who assert that Williams was immersed. Has The Congregationalist any positive testimony to that effect? If so, we shall be glad to receive it. We are inclined to believe that no case of immersion took place among the American Baptists before the year 1644. It seems likely that Roger Williams, on his return from England in that year, brought the first reliable news concerning the change which had taken place in the practice of the English Baptists, three years before, and that it was then that the American Baptists first resolved to accept the innovation. At any rate, our reading has not yet furnished us with anything that looks like an authenticated instance of immersion earlier than the year 1644. But The Congregationalist is far better instructed on these topics than ourselves, and we shall be grateful for some further "light and leading" with regard to the point at issue from it, or from Zion's Advocate, which is the only Baptist paper we know of that seems to have any knowledge of Baptist history.
      This was followed by another editorial from him on September 9, 1880, as follows:
     The proofs which are demanded by Zion's Advocate of our recent assertion that immersion was not practiced in England before a period as late as 1641 are so abundant that one is embarrassed to know where to begin. We shall mention, in the first instance, the silence of history. This is absolute and unbroken. Tho' a number of works were written by Smyth, Helwys, Merton and other Baptists prior to 1641, and tho' these were replied to by opponents such as Clifton, Robinson, Ainsworth and Johnson, it is nowhere intimated that the Baptists were then in the practice of immersion. Nay, more, the earliest Baptist Confessions of Faith all contemplate sprinkling or pouring as the act of baptism. We, refer, in proof of this, to the Confession of Faith, in twenty articles, which is subscribed by John Smyth, and may be found in the Appendix to Volume I of Evan's "Early English Baptists." We refer also to the Helwys Confession, entitled "A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam Holland," printed 1611. We also refer to the "Propositions and Conclusions Concerning the Christian Religion," which were published after his death, by "the remainders of Mr. Smyth's company."

     It was not until the year 1644, three years after the invention of immersion that any Baptist confession prescribes "dipping or plunging the body in water as the way and manner of dispensing this ordinance" ("London Confession of 1644," Article 40).

     He then quotes some authors in support of his position. Of Edward Barber he says:

     Happily for us, however, the above assertion is confirmed by the authority of Edward Barber, the founder of the rite of immersion among the Baptists. In the preface to his "Treatise of Baptism, or Dipping," London, 1641, the earliest book in the English language, to assert that immersion is essential to baptism, Mr. Barber praises God that he, "a poore tradesman," was raised up to restore this truth to the world.

     He then concludes the editorial as follows:

     Here is the highest Baptist testimony to the effect that there were no immersionists in England, and that the rite was first fetched from Holland by Mr. Richard Blount. The John Batten who administered immersion to Mr. Blount was a collegiant minister, the successor of the Brothers Van der Codde. This community was founded and immersion was introduced by them into Holland in the year 1619. It is not known whence they obtained the practice.

     These editorials naturally caused a good deal of comment in Baptist circles. It was taken for granted they were written by some Pedobaptist writer, and a number of persons wrote The Independent for the name of the author. The Independent kept well its own secret. It was only after Dr. Whitsitt's articles appeared in Johnson's New Encyclopedia that he revealed that he was also the author of these Independent editorials.

     Among other things the Encyclopædia article says:

     Some have fancied that the new title was claimed and maintained because of the change in the form of administering baptism, which is alleged was substituted in the place of sprinkling and pouring. If these had been retained it would have been as impossible for them to shake off the name of Anabaptists as it was in the case of the Anabaptists in Germany. After the adoption of immersion it was easy to insist that those who practiced it were alone "baptized people," emphasis being laid not only on the subjects as formerly, but also on the mode of baptism. This latter emphasis was indicated by the name Baptist. * * * The earliest organized Baptist Church belongs to the year 1610 or 1611. * * * Ezekiel Holliman baptized Williams and the rest of the company. The ceremony was most likely performed by sprinkling; the Baptists of England had not adopted immersion, and there is no reason which renders it probable that Williams was in advance of them.

     Dr. Whitsitt wrote three articles for the papers to defend this position: One in The Examiner, April 23, 1896; one in the Religious Herald, May 7, and the last a statement, which was published in several papers. His book, "A Question in Baptist History," was published September 17, 1896. He reaffirms the foregoing position on p. 133:

     In view of the foregoing body of materials, I candidly consider that my proofs are sufficient. This opinion has been confirmed and strengthened by the renewed investigations which I have lately undertaken in order to set forth these proofs. Whatever else may be true in history, I believe it is beyond question that the practice of adult immersion was introduced anew into England in the year 1641. That conclusion must be recognized more and more by scholars who will take pains to weigh the facts presented in the above discussion. It is sure to become one of the common places of our Baptist teaching, and in the course of time men will be found to wonder how any could ever have opposed it. Few other facts of history are capable of more convincing demonstration.


[From John T. Christian, Did They Dip?: Or, An Examination into the Act of Baptism as Practiced by The English and American Baptists Before the Year 1641, 1900.]

The entire text of Christian's book may be accessed here.

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