Home > Calvinism, church history, church life, Covenant Theology > Church History: The 17th Century Baptists

Church History: The 17th Century Baptists


Occasionally I listen to church history series (see this previous post), and lately I have appreciated some more in-depth church history messages focused on a particular time period: the beginnings of the Baptists in England, early 17th century. One such series is available on Sermon Audio, four parts on the “17th century Baptists”.

Among the highlights, some history that was new to me:

The “General Baptists” (Arminian) and “Particular Baptists” (Calvinists, with “particular redemption”) began at about the same time (the General Baptists a generation earlier), but arose from different groups and continued in separate paths through this time period. The General Baptists apparently never crossed paths with, or “converted to” the next generation’s “particular baptists.”

The Church of England’s 39 Articles (1563) were Calvinistic, expressing the Sovereignty of God; it was this Anglican history that J.C. Ryle later appealed to, the 39 Articles, in referring to his church (Anglican) as Reformed. William Laud (appointed Archbishop by Charles I in 1633) put forth his “aggressive Arminianism,” telling English preachers that they could not preach anything of Calvinism – that which the country’s own articles clearly affirmed.

The interesting history and development of the “JLJ” church, a London congregation founded and first led by pastor Henry Jacob, in the early 17th century during the reign of King James I, and continuing through the 1640s with two subsequent pastors, John Lathrop, and Henry Jessey. The church began as an “illegal” church, not officially registered with the King James’ Anglican church, yet for custom and citizenship sake the church members would take their infants to Anglican churches for the “proper” English baptism. Under the persecution of Charles I and archbishop Laud in the 1630s, the congregation considered the question: was it acceptable to have your child baptized in the Anglican church? A first group split-off from the JLJ church in 1633, determining that they could not do so. Another group split-off in 1638, with church member John Spilsbury, this time over the question of whether infants should be baptized at all, determining that baptism was instead for adult believers. It is important to note as well that the church “splits” during this time were not ugly events such as are familiar in our day, but were done harmoniously with agreement and appreciation of conscience, that some members believed differently about an issue, and so the group would split off with the goodwill and blessing of the main church.

Up to this point, apparently believers baptism was done by sprinkling or pouring. Indeed, Christians in England had never seen baptism by immersion. In the late 1630s to 1640, the men at the JLJ church had regular weekly meetings to consider the mode of baptism, and even sent one member to Holland to observe the practice of baptism by immersion being done there by the Mennonites. Then, the JLJ church held the first English baptismal by immersion service, in January 1642: 53 members were baptized in the Thames river, at a time of year that was quite cold and with little sunlight.

The first London confession followed in 1644, and by 1649 the Particular Baptist churches in England were sending forth church plants to Wales.  The years 1649 to 1660 were peaceful, the interregnum and Cromwell’s rule, followed by great persecution resuming under Charles II beginning in 1660.  It was during this later time that many preachers, not “state licensed”, were imprisoned for years (including John Bunyan’s imprisonment for 12 years) and some died in prison.

The “17th century baptists” audio series includes this overall history, as well as biographical sketches of several key Baptists (including John Spilsbury and William Kiffin) and details about some of the early baptist churches.  . This series plus articles, such as listed below, tell of many interesting events from English and American baptist history.

Additional resources for 17th century Baptist history:

 

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  1. Neil Schoch
    October 7, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks Lynda for this fascinating article. Having been born into an “exclusive brethren” family I was baptized by immersion at eight days of age as was their custom. Somehow they managed to base this on the circumcision custom of the Old Testament.
    I was re-baptized as a believer many years later importantly understanding the meaning of this action. While I respect and give thanks for my Christian parents I needed to obey the truth of God’s Word and it was very meaningful.
    Harmonious church splits – if only we could do that today. I have seen some very sad things happen in this area with lifelong friendships destroyed and much bitterness coming in.
    Needless to say I was there and need to examine myself as to whether what I did and said was right and done in a spirit of love.

    “— that He may present her (the church) to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:27.

    Looking at the church today it would certainly seem to be impossible. I read somewhere that it has been calculated that there are some 46,000 denominations at present.
    Thankfully we have a God “who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” Hebrews 3:20.
    Even so come Lord Jesus – but in the meantime let us share the gospel with everyone that we can. Thanks and God bless.
    .

    • October 8, 2014 at 6:56 am

      Thanks, Neil. Yes indeed, “harmonious church splits” are the ideal, where the people come to different understandings yet consider it an issue of conscience and “agree to disagree”. Perhaps the overall environment of more direct persecution (they were already “outside” of the established state church, and thus more committed to their faith than the common “nominal, professing” church-goers), and memory of great persecution, affected them in a much deeper way, as contrasted with modern churches in a peacetime society in which it’s easy to take for granted the freedom we have to worship as we choose.

  2. October 7, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    Fascinating

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