Historical Lectures and Addresses/The Baptists

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The Baptists  (1890) 
by Mandell Creighton
from Historical Lectures and Addresses. Lecture given in Great St. Mary's Church in November, 1890.

The religious upheaval of the sixteenth century disclosed at the same time that it created. We tend to regard it as the rising of a new theology which strove to find adequate expression for a profounder view of the relations of man to God. But it was more than this. Besides expressing new conceptions, it brought to light a number of tendencies which throughout the Middle Ages had a secret but vigorous existence, which only now and then came to the surface and then were rigorously repressed, but which none the less affected the popular mind. One of these tendencies was a desire for a pure and strict form of the religious community—a desire which already in the fourth century troubled the Church by the schism of the Donatists. As the Church spread and its system grew more developed, the revolt against the claims of the hierarchy grew stronger, and adopted many strange forms which are hard to trace with clearness. I pass by many obscure manifestations of this spirit. But in the eleventh century we find a body who called themselves Cathari, or Purists, who founded their ideas on a mixture of Christianity with certain oriental beliefs. They solved the problem of the existence of evil by supposing that the world was created by an evil spirit; man's body was also his creation, but man's soul was created by the God of good. Christ came as an archangel to deliver man from the yoke of the evil spirit; but as the body was of an evil origin He only wore it in semblance, not in reality. The religious practices founded on this belief were those of severe asceticism. The bodily life was entirely evil; only the energy of the soul partook of good. This, according to the Cathari, was the great lesson for the Christian Church to teach, and this, they asserted, was its teaching in early times; but the Church grew secular by mixing with the world, and fell under the sway of the evil spirit. Christ's designs for man's redemption could only be fulfilled by a pure body of believers, who rejected all that savoured of the corruption which belonged to all visible objects. The sacraments were condemned because they used material substance for Divine purposes. More absurd still in the eyes of the Cathari was the custom of infant baptism; how was it possible that one who could not be taught should be admitted into any covenant? Penitence was necessary before a man could be a member of the true Church.

These opinions of the Cathari form at least a connected system, and in some shape or other showed considerable vitality. I do not mean to say that their fundamental conception of the creation of the world by a God of evil, and their consequent abhorrence of all that was material, was long an article in popular belief. But its echo remained and gave form to protests against the secularisation of the Church and the materialism of the hierarchical system, Bodies of men were found here and there who maintained that the true Church ought to be composed only of true believers, and so that the sign of admission to its community should be reserved for those who had given evidence of the reality of their faith.

To such opinions the religious ferment of the sixteenth century gave unexpected force. Luther was dismayed to find that there were many who were not willing to submit to the limits which his teaching prescribed. Luther wished to spiritualise the old Church in the light of a more intimate and personal relationship between God and man. But older tendencies, which had long been suppressed, used the occasion offered by his revolt and the consequent loosening of the bonds of authority. Fanatical prophets arose who claimed an immediate revelation, and proposed to form a new society of the regenerate, which owed no allegiance to civil rulers, but framed itself according to the dictates of the Spirit. Their followers were known as Anabaptists, or Rebaptisers, because the sacrament of baptism was ministered afresh to those who were moved to join the new society. Amongst these bodies were included many different forms of doctrine and many different views of the Christian life. Some were orderly and devout; others carried the sense of their spiritual election to an antinomianism which led to the most revolting excesses, and was put down by force as subversive of all order and morality. Such was the horror which they excited, that, for a long while, the name of Anabaptist was synonymous with wild fanaticism, and they were persecuted in all lands.

Yet in spite of persecution they flourished, for the ideal of a pure Church was attractive, and the spirit of revolt could not be satisfied with the offer of any definite reform of the ecclesiastical system. The Anabaptists, in fact, were the Radicals of the Reformation era, men who carried principles to their logical conclusions, and were not to be put off by considerations of practical expediency. They saw the inconsequence of the system of territorial Churches to which Lutheranism rapidly drifted. They were not moved by Calvinism which replaced one hierarchical system by another. They maintained that the true Church consisted of those who had the inward consciousness of a new life, and that admission to the Church was a privilege reserved only for them. The Church, therefore, required no organisation, but rejoiced in that freedom which belonged to those whose spiritual life was secure.

I have dwelt upon these general tendencies of religious thought, because they explain a claim which the Baptists make to a direct succession of their opinions from Apostolic times. It is true that they are the representatives of tendencies which took form in early times, and frequently afterwards manifested themselves in varying shapes. But the claim to a spiritual lineage or succession is too impalpable to admit of serious discussion. It is enough to say that from time to time we find men expressing the opinion that baptism should only be administered to adults; but the link of connexion between the upholders of this opinion cannot be traced. The revolt against formalism frequently made itself heard, and an attack upon the sacraments was a natural form in which it found expression. After the rising of Luther, the sect of Anabaptists obtained a definite existence on the Continent, and from time to time Anabaptists were persecuted in England. They chiefly came from Holland, and so late as 1575 two Dutch Anabaptists were burned in London.

But there was no organised body of Anabaptists in this country before the year 1611, and they had their origin in a separation from the Independent congregation which took refuge in Amsterdam. Holland was the great home of the Anabaptists, and it was there that they first assumed an orderly and organised form. It is not fair to associate the English Baptists with the fanatical sects that infested Germany in the early part of the sixteenth century. I have shown you that these sects had nothing in common save their objection to infant baptism, an opinion which did not possess much contents by itself. The man who originated the body from which the English Baptists took their rise was a Frisian priest, Menno Simons, whose mind was exercised on the subject of infant baptism. He consulted Luther and Bullinger, and found that though they both agreed in supporting the practice, they did so for different reasons. Meditation on the Scriptures led him to abandon this usage of the Church and join a Baptist community in 1536. There Menno placed himself at the head of those who entirely protested against the violent and fanatical party which rejoiced in personal revelations, despised all knowledge, abolished all books but the Bible, maintained the most extreme form of communism, and believed that they were Divinely commissioned to destroy all magistrates and set up the Kingdom of God by waging war on all who did not accept their views.

Menno was a man alike pious and cultivated and well versed in theology. He maintained that no man was a Christian without a new birth "which is begun by God, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, of which the most certain fruit is a new life. Regenerate men constitute the true Christian Church, who worship Christ as their only and true King, who fight not with swords and carnal weapons, but only with spiritual weapons, i.e., with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. They seek no kingdom but that of grace. Their doctrine is the Word of the Lord, and everything not taught therein they reject." In opposition to the fanatical party, from which Menno wished to dissociate his followers, he held that no Christian could take oath or carry arms or wage war; and that magistrates should be obeyed in all things not contrary to the Word of God. Further, Menno maintained the need of careful discipline to preserve the purity of the Church, saying that the "visible Church vanished where discipline is not exercised," and that "the words and works of the members of a Church should agree". Baptism was administered only to adults, by pouring water on their head. It was preceded by evidence of a change of life in the person so admitted into the visible Church; but baptism was not held to confer any grace in itself; it was merely an emblem of the state of the believer who was already washed and cleansed by the Spirit of God. Similarly the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was received two or three times a year, on the ground that Christ had ordered it, but without any claim of efficacy. Church membership did not rest on any doctrinal basis of creed or confession, but on the general sense of the Church and the plain meaning of Scripture. Such statements as were put forth on these points were to inform those outside, for the purpose of avoiding misconceptions, and to clear the Church of Menno from the charges of antinomianism which attached to the name of Anabaptists.

I told you in my lecture on the Congregationalists of the establishment by English refugees of an Independent congregation in Amsterdam, and I called your attention to the fact that that body had great difficulty in maintaining itself as distinct from Presbyterianism. This, however, it contrived to do; but it was unable to save itself from a secession to the Anabaptists. The weakness of Congregationalism lay in the fact that it was too purely a protest. The more logical and consistent system of the Anabaptists contained all that the Congregationalists strove for, and went further. It is not surprising that it attracted some who were wearied by the contentions which arose amongst the Congregationalists at Amsterdam. One of them, John Smith, who had been Vicar of Gainsborough, was greatly affected by the theological speculations then rife in Holland. He deserted Calvinism for the more human theology of Arminius, and accepted the view that election was the gift of the Holy Spirit to faith, but that faith did not necessarily imply final perseverance. Moreover, he differed from his friends in holding the opinion that "baptism ought to be administered as a sign of admission into the Church to persons of an age competent to understand its meaning, and not to children who happened to be of the seed of the faithful". Having come to this conclusion, Smith and his friend Helwys were in distress because there was no Church which they could join with a good conscience. In this dilemma Smith first baptised himself and then Helwys, and by this means obtained two elders who were qualified to baptise others. For this reason he was called a Sebaptist, or Self-baptiser, and his unauthorised act created much horror amongst the Independents. It is hard to see why this should have been the case; Smith was only acting logically upon the general principles of the Separatists. If the history of the Church was to begin again, it might as well begin from the beginning. Yet still Baptist writers reject this story about Smith with some warmth, though the balance of evidence is strongly in its favour. Smith afterwards repented of his rashness and asked to be admitted into communion with the Mennonites in Amsterdam. He allowed that "it is not lawful for every one that seeketh the Truth to baptise, for then there might be as many Churches as there are couples in the world". Helwys, however, was not prepared to withdraw from his position. He took the view that if elders only could baptise, that was to go back to the idea of an Apostolical succession, and he asked, "Hath the Lord thus restrained His Spirit, His Word and ordinances as to make particular men lords over them, or the keepers of them? God forbid." ever, the erring body of the English Baptists were admitted without rebaptism into the Mennonite Communion, after signing a document in which they expressed penitence for their irregular proceedings.

None of the English Separatists had a finer mind or a more beautiful soul than John Smith. None of them succeeded in expressing with so much reasonableness and consistency their aspirations after a spiritual system of religious belief and practice. None of them founded their opinions on so large and liberal a basis. I will quote such articles of his Confession as will enable you to understand their general tenor. "God," he says, "created man with freedom of will, which was a natural power or faculty in the soul. Adam, after his fall, did not lose any natural faculty but still retained freedom of will. Original sin is therefore an idle term. Infants are conceived and born in innocency without sin, and so dying are undoubtedly saved, and this is to be understood of all infants under heaven. All actual sinners bear the image of Adam in his innocency, fall and restitution to grace. As no man begetteth his child to the gallows, nor no potter maketh a pot to break it, so God doth not predestinate any man to destruction. The sacrifice of Christ's body doth not reconcile God unto us, which did never hate us nor was our enemy, but reconcileth us unto God. The efficacy of Christ's death is derived only to them who do mortify their sins, being grafted with Him in the similitude of His death; and every regenerate person hath in himself the three witnesses of the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit. Repentance and faith are wrought in the hearts of men by the preaching of the Word; but the new creature which is begotten of God needeth not the outward Scriptures, creatures or ordinances of the Church; yet he can do nothing against the law and Scriptures, but rather all his doings shall serve to the confirming and establishing of the law. All penitent and faithful Christians are brethren in the communion of the outward Church, wheresoever they live, by what name soever they are known; and we salute them all with a holy kiss, being heartily grieved that we which follow after one faith and one Spirit, one Lord, one God, one baptism, should be rent into so many sects and schisms; and that only for matters of less moment. The outward baptism of water is to be administered only upon penitent and faithful persons, not upon innocent infants or wicked persons. The sacraments have the same use that the Word hath: they are a visible Word and teach the eye of them that understand as the Word teacheth them that have ears to hear. The outward Church visible consists of penitent persons only and is a mystical figure of the true, spiritual, invisible Church. The separation of the impenitent from the outward Church is a figure of their eternal rejection: but is reserved for those who forsake repentance and deny the power of godliness. There is no succession in the outward Church but all succession is from heaven and is of the new creature only. The office of the magistrate is a permissive ordinance of God for the good of mankind; but the magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience."

It will be seen from these extracts that Smith's "Confession" is a powerful and consecutive statement of almost all the points which are partially insisted on in all revivals of popular religious feeling, but that it was marked by the large-heartedness which came from its Arminian basis. However, Smith's desire for charity could not save him from a breach with his friend Helwys, and Smith died in Holland in 1612 deploring the endless separations which spring from Separatism. In the same year, Helwys and his congregation returned to England, and formed on the basis laid down by Smith the first organised Baptist community in this country. They were Arminian or General Baptists, so called because they held the general salvability of mankind. It was not long before another Baptist body was formed, again by a secession from the Congregationalists. Some members of a London congregation "finding that the society kept not its first principles of separation, and being also convinced that baptism was not to be administered to infants, desired that they might be dismissed from that communion and allowed to form a distinct congregation in such order as was most agreeable to their own sentiments". Accordingly they seceded in 1633, and formed the body of Calvinistic or Particular Baptists who held the doctrines of predestination and election, according to which only particular persons are called to salvation. As this secession had been made only on the point of the mode of administering baptism, that question occupied the minds of the new congregation. They considered what steps they could take to revive this ordinance in its primitive purity, and could find no model in England, because, though some had rejected infant baptism, none had adopted the ancient custom of immersion. The Mennonite Baptists, from whom the English Baptists took their rise, were content with baptism by sprinkling; but it was discovered that in 1619 a new sect had sprung from them who bore the name of Collegianten. These Collegianten, so called from their Collegia, or meetings, claimed to carry out more exactly primitive practice in two points; they did not restrict preaching to elders chosen by the congregation, but left it free to all; and they administered baptism by immersion, as a symbol of admission into the Universal Church, not of any particular branch of it. To them the newly formed congregation in England had recourse. They sent into Holland one of their members who could speak Dutch, and he was baptised by immersion. On his return he baptised another, and these two baptised the rest. The new practice rapidly spread and superseded the former method of baptism by sprinkling. It was adopted by the General Baptists, and became an accepted article in the Baptist Confession of 1646. It still remains the practice of all the English Baptists.

This mode of baptism was at first performed in rivers or pools, and was naturally done in secrecy by night. It lent an air of mystery to the ritual of the Baptists and marked them out from other sects who denounced them as fanatics. Indeed the Baptists were by no means popular with the Presbyterians or even with the Independents. No one attacked them with greater vigour than did Richard Baxter, who even urged that their baptismal rite, unsuitable as it was to the climate of England, was a breach of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill". But there was another reason for their dislike, which rested on stronger grounds than an objection to particular ceremonies. When the great Civil War broke out, the question of the religious future of England was inextricably interwoven with politics. The Presbyterians hoped to set up a Presbyterian Church; to this the Independents demurred and demanded toleration for themselves. But the question naturally arose, where was toleration to stop? An attempt was consequently made to define the limits of "tolerable" opinions; but it was found that the Baptists formed a serious obstacle. Their numbers were considerable and their zeal was great. The organised Baptist bodies might have been dealt with, but we have seen that the Baptists did not so much represent a definite form of opinion as a tendency towards the assertion of the superiority of spiritual religion over all that man could desire. The Independents wished for toleration on the ground that the individual had the right to hold any beliefs he chose: to obtain this result they destroyed the idea of a visible Church and left only a number of Independent congregations; did not this system afford ample liberty for all? But the Baptists were not interested in this external and purely English and practical view of the situation. They asserted that there was a Church, but that it was a spiritual body; they asserted further the inherent incapacity of the State to meddle with matters of religion, because Christ is the only King of the Church and the only lawgiver of the conscience. Further, the Independents were frequently reminded that the position of the Baptists was only the logical development of their own, and did not like the accusation of short-sighted inconsistency. The Presbyterians cordially detested the Baptists, and it was proposed that they should be invited to a disputation, and if they were proved to be in error should be put down by Parliament. This growing irritation against them was due to the rise of numerous sectaries—the Seekers, the Family of Love, the Fifth-Monarchy Men, and the like, whose tenets were mostly imported from Holland, and all rested upon some development of the principles of the Anabaptists. One of the Presbyterian divines has left an account of sixteen such sects, who possessed amongst them 176 opinions which he denounced as blasphemous and heretical. It was to meet these objections and to prove the harmless nature of their tenets, that the first Baptist Confession was put forward in 1646. The doctrines which it professes are those of moderate Calvinism, and it defines the Church as "a company of visible saints, called and separated from the world by the Word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel: and all God's servants are to lead their lives in this walled sheepfold and watered garden". They further asserted: "Concerning the worship of God there is but one lawgiver, Jesus Christ, who hath given laws and rules sufficient, in His Word, for His worship. It is the magistrate's duty to tender the liberty of men's conscience, without which all other liberties will not be worth the naming. If any man shall impose on us anything that we see not to be commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ, we would rather die a thousand deaths than do anything against the light of our consciences." This Confession somewhat removed the suspicion with which the Baptists were regarded, and under Cromwell they were counted with the Presbyterians and Independents as members of the State Church which was founded on the basis of comprehension.

After the downfall of the Commonwealth, the Baptists fell into the same condition as their brethren. As they did not possess many members from the educated classes, they suffered even more than did the Presbyterians and Independents from adversity. But they had framed an organisation which was never entirely dropped and was capable of revival. The original followers of Smith and Helwys held that there were only two kinds of officers in the Church, elders and deacons; but though they recognised that each congregation should be independent in its internal affairs, they had a strong belief in a visible Church. Accordingly associations of Churches were formed and elders were chosen by the association in a particular district for general superintendence and the supply of ministers to the associated Churches. Further, the Arminian principles of the General Baptists led them to hold that it was part of their duty to preach the Gospel to every creature, and this belief put the work of evangelisation in a high plaice amongst their objects. It is true that the General Baptists in later times faded away into Unitarianism, but the result of their first principles survived, and the Baptist body has shown praiseworthy zeal in mission work. They held that either "some one in special is bound to preach the Gospel to those that are without or else all Christians are equally bound to perform this work, or else that the work ceased with the Apostles". They adopted the first of these opinions, and agreed that some of the functions of the Apostles were of perpetual duration in the Church, and that their office as "itinerant ministers" descended to those who were to succeed them. They therefore established an order of travelling ministers, "to whom it appertains to take all occasions to cause the light of the glorious Gospel to shine unto such as sit in darkness, to plant churches, to confirm them in the faith, to visit and comfort those who have believed through grace". These travelling ministers were chosen by an association of churches, while each church chose its own elders, the pastor being only an elder with the gift of teaching. Thus Baptist congregations were gathered together, and though membership of each congregation depended on tokens of regeneracy, discipline was exercised over the members in monthly meetings. Lay preaching was recognised. "It was lawful for any person to improve his gifts in the presence of the congregation."

The advantages of this organisation were greatly lost in the time that followed the Restoration by want of leaders and the prevalence of small disputes amongst themselves. Even the Baptists laid aside their missionary zeal and busied themselves with maintaining their own congregations. It was the outburst of Wesleyanism which revived all religious organisations in England and threw them back upon their first principles. Those principles were stronger in the Baptists than in other bodies, and they could renew their first energy in simple appeals to the souls of men, couched in rude, outspoken eloquence. It is noticeable that still there is a tendency in common speech to distinguish between a Baptist preacher and a Congregationalist minister; and this marks a real difference. The Congregationalists are more educated and organised; the Baptists are more popular and evangelistic. The strength of the Baptists has lain in their readiness to appeal to the people and speak a tongue which all could understand. For this, and for their readiness to find employment for the zeal of all active members of their body, they are worthy of our warm admiration. We still have something to learn under both these heads.

We of the Church of England are separated from the Baptists in our conception of the nature and function of the Church of Christ. Much controversy has raged about infant baptism, but this does not really touch the main question in dispute. The reservation of baptism for adults is merely the outward expression of a desire to set up the visible Church as a body of pure and regenerate believers—in fact to make the visible Church correspond with the invisible Church which exists only in the knowledge of God. The aim of the Baptists is higher than that of the Congregationalists, who discarded the idea of a visible Church that they might affirm the rights of separate congregations. The Baptists, on the other hand, affirmed the right of freedom from outward control not as an object in itself, but as a condition necessary for the discharge of their duty to create a visible Church of perfect purity. I will not stop to point out how their aim is impossible of attainment, how it elevates man's knowledge of himself and others to a degree beyond human attainment, how it favours piety of the lip rather than of the heart, how it tends to sink into formalism as complete as that from which it professes to give deliverance. I would rather ask you to consider how it falls short of the large-hearted charity of the Catholic Church, which strives, imperfectly no doubt, but still strives to express the fulness of its Master's teaching. The Church asserts that the Incarnation was so mighty an event that no one born into the world since then can be the same as he would have been if Christ had not lived and died. Every human soul received thereby an increased preciousness in the eyes of God; and the Church, its teaching, its ceremonies and its discipline are but an adoring witness of that stupendous truth. Its testimony cannot be limited by human frailty, however sad, or by human knowledge, however great its claims. Its doors stand always open to receive Christ's little ones, and give them the token of His presence with them and the gift of the added power of His Spirit which nestles within their young souls, which grows with their growth, and is harder to alienate than the loving care of parents.

It seems strange to us to exclude Christ's little ones from His visible Church when He called little children to come unto Him, when He said that except we became as little children we should in no wise enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. It seems stranger still that this should be done for the sake of setting forth His kingdom more clearly by establishing it on a basis of exclusiveness, resting on man's imperfect judgment of himself or others. Contrast the baptist conception of the Church with the wise sobriety of an Anglican divine, who wrote a few years before John Smith had called the English Baptists into being: "The Church is the multitude and number of those whom Almighty God severeth from the rest of the world by the work of His grace, and calleth to the participation of eternal happiness by the knowledge of such supernatural verities as concerning their everlasting good He hath revealed in Christ His Son, and such other precious and happy means as He hath appointed to further and set forward the work of their salvation. Some there are that profess the truth but not wholly and entirely, as heretics; some that profess the whole saving truth, but not in unity, as schismatics; some that profess the whole saving truth in unity, but not in sincerity and singleness of a good and sanctified mind, as hypocrites and wicked men, not outwardly divided from the people of God; and some that profess the whole saving truth in unity and sincerity of a good and sanctified heart All these are partakers of the heavenly calling and sanctified by the profession of the truth, and consequently are all, in some degree and sort, of that society of men whom God calleth out unto Himself, and separateth from infidels, which is rightly named the Church. For as the name Church doth distinguish men that have received the revelation of supernatural truth from infidels, and the name of Christian Church Christians from Jews, so the name of Orthodox Church is applied to distinguish right-believing Christians from heretics, the name of the Catholic Church, men holding the faith in unity from schismatics, the name of the invisible Church to distinguish the elect from all the rest".

I would ask you if this careful and broad-minded statement does not correspond alike with Scripture, with the laws of human nature and with the facts of human life, which are, after all, integral parts of God's perpetual and abiding revelation of Himself. The aim of the Baptists may be high, but it does not quite agree with the teaching of the parable of the wheat and the tares, or of the net that gathered a multitude of fish both good and bad. The aim of the Baptists may be high, but it fails to recognise the depths of human nature, to take account of the mysteries of the secret development of the human soul. The more you compare the Catholic faith with partial systems, however admirable, the more, I feel sure, will you be convinced that the Catholic faith embodies the religion of common-sense. In my former lecture I put before you the grand enthusiasm inspired by the mighty fabric of the historic Church as contrasted with the isolated system of Congregationalism destitute of any general ideal. To-night I put before you the large-hearted charity of the Catholic Church in contrast to the noble but misguided enthusiasm which would gain strength and significance by exclusiveness. I have purposely abstained in the case of either of these bodies from considering their present position, their immediate success or failure, their objects or their endeavours. Such considerations would lead into regions of polemical discussion which would be alien from the objects proposed by this course of addresses. That object is to determine the questions of principle which separate the Church from other bodies. It is by reference to its fundamental principles, not by its temporary activity or its temporary failures, that every system must be judged. Individuals may rise above the principles which they profess, or may fall lamentably short of understanding their full bearing, but every true Christian is bound to know the meaning of the system which he upholds and face the responsibilities which it entails upon him. If every one acted up to the fundamental truths of his religious position there would be no need for dissension, for all with good confidence would commit themselves to Grod's decision and await with humble hope the issue of that verdict which His Spirit, working in the hearts and consciences of men, will slowly manifest to an enlightened world.