Ian Clary on Ian Randall

The following is from an assignment that I had to do for Dr. Haykin’s Toronto Baptist Seminary course on Baptist and Heritage.

Ian M. Randall, “‘The Low Condition of the Churches’: Difficulties Faced by the General Baptists in England – the 1680s to the 1760s”, Pacific Journal of Baptist Research, 1, No.1 (October 2005), 3-19.

In this article, Ian Randall seeks to explain why the General Baptist denomination struggled and eventually fizzled out of existence in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The decline in General Baptist numbers is especially curious considering the growth experienced by the Particular Baptists. Randall looks first at issues of leadership within the grouping of churches, then at the various doctrinal disputes that plagued them, and concluding with issues of church discipline, spirituality and practice.
Randall begins with a quick survey of General Baptist history, beginning with John Smyth who had initially been an English Puritan, next a Separatist then a General Baptist exiled in the Netherlands and finally a Mennonite. While in Holland Smyth came to baptistic beliefs, and finding no one to baptize him, went under the bizarre rite of “self-baptism.” Upon his entrance into the Mennonite fold, the Baptist cause was taken up by his successor Thomas Helwys. It was Helwys who brought the congregation of fledgling Baptists back to England where he founded the first English Baptist church.
Upon returning to England, Helwys was jailed and the leadership of the General Baptists continued under John Murton. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, their cause flourished in an environment of religious freedom. A number of churches sprouted, one of them led by the dynamic preacher Henry Denne. The evangelistic task of the General Baptists developed under the sprightly Denne, who used the Great Commission as his text of encouragement. Through this desire for evangelism the office of Messenger was developed among the General Baptists. This office was based upon Edward Barber’s insistence that the office of apostle had not ceased. The Messenger was one who was sent by his local congregation to spread the gospel and plant churches.
These developments occurred in the seventeenth century, but by the early eighteenth things were beginning to change for the negative. Recalling a circular letter from 1711, Randall notes that the General Baptist churches were in “low condition” – a statement that is reflected in the title of his article. Randall is curious as to why, especially after the religious tolerance that was brought in under the Glorious Revolution of 1689, the General Baptists went into decline.
He begins to answer this question by focusing on the leadership problems that occurred amongst the General Baptists. He argues that there was a “lack of visionary leadership.” During the early period of the General Baptists, the Messenger was a major source of growth. Yet as time progressed, there were less and less people involved in this role. “By the mid seventeenth century churches were less willing to release and support their ministers or elders to fulfil the role of Messengers and the Messengers were less evangelistic than they had been before.”
The denomination lost influential leaders, some having died and others who left for various reasons. Often those who left did so under duress due to division. This weakness and division “undermined General Baptist life.” Many of the disputes that the General Baptists involved themselves in were petty, often involving personality issues. One such issue involved a Messenger, Thomas Dean who thought that he had been mistreated by two London churches. The General Assembly listened to Dean’s case and turned it down.
Another leadership issue had to do with the General Baptists inability to develop communion with other Dissenting groups. Randall provides the example of Benjamin Stinton, a local Particular Baptist, who tried to develop relationships with the General Baptists to help with the Particular Baptist Trust Fund. This did not turn out because, as Randall says, “It seemed that the General Baptists lacked leaders who had the caliber to engage with wider ecclesiastical life.”
Randall cites the loss of a General Baptist to the Particular Baptist cause, namely the well-known hymn writer Benjamin Keach. It was likely do to Keach’s encouragement that other General Baptists became Particular Baptists, including Mark Key who left them in 1702. Key’s continued to engage with the General Baptists and spread Calvinistic beliefs among them that resulted in more General Baptists leaving.
The General Baptists appear to have had the desire to follow the lead of the Particular Baptists in setting up an academy like the one in Bristol. Ultimately, and possibly because of dissension, “nothing was done.”
Not only was the leadership in the General Baptist denomination decreasing, there weren’t many who were filling the empty spaces. Randall gives the example of Jonathan Widmer who had sought leadership in the church at Chesham and Berkhamstead. It took him “an astonishing seven years to complete the process of Widmer’s appointment as various objections to him were raised.” The process of bringing someone into leadership was so lengthy and arduous that it is no wonder candidates were hard to find. It took another two years for Widmer finally to become an elder, “an office which he undertook with such effectiveness that in 1728 he was appointed by the General Assembly as a Messenger.”
The next area of difficulty that contributed significantly to the decline in General Baptist ranks was theological. Randall points out a variety of doctrinal disputes that arose causing stagnation within the denomination. He highlights two areas, Christology and Calvinism. Arguably the former had greater consequences for the General Baptists than did the latter.
In the period between the 1670s and 1730s a debate arose “over the nature of the person of Christ.” A number of Christian groups were questioning the orthodox doctrinal formulations about Christ. Questions such as “What Christ a created being?” were debated. A number were influenced by the Christology of the sixteenth century Dutch Anabaptist named Melchior Hoffman. One General Baptist whose teachings on Christ were suspect was Matthew Caffyn. He had been acquitted of holding unorthodox views at a meeting of the General Assembly but, as Randall notes, “it was an uneasy compromise.” There was no agreement on the issue between the various churches, although a temporary reconciliation ensued, only to be followed by more controversy. This time it was in 1719 and the dispute became known as the “Salter’s Hall controversy” which again was a Trinitarian dispute surrounding Christological formation.
Eventually, a number of General Baptists fell into Unitarianism. This was a result of the belief that only Scriptural language should be embraced, not the formulations of a creed. This anti-creedal stance brought further division between the followers of Caffyn in Kent and Sussex and the orthodox in Buckinghamshire. Although the former fought against having a creed, for the sake of the orthodox a statement affirming the Trinity was drafted, but the tension continued.
Although the General Baptists were divided on the Trinity, and Christ in particular, they viewed themselves as united on the issue of a general atonement. Yet, as Randall points out, the emphasis on the Bible without creedal formation yielded “unwanted results” in the Arminian-Calvinist debate. An example of this can be seen in the case of Sister Butler who recognized that the Bible spoke of God choosing a specific people. The General Baptists affirmed that they believed this but could not elaborate. When the Particular Baptists stepped in and provided answers, there was not much that the General Baptists could do to dissuade Butler from joining their ranks.
When the Evangelical Revival burst upon the scene in England, the Particular Baptists that had tended towards High Calvinism were invigorated under the leadership of such men as Andrew Fuller. The Revival did not bode so well for the General Baptists, as seen in the case of Dan Taylor who, unlike the other General Baptists, had a higher theological acumen. Randall provides quotations from Taylor’s journal that bemoaned the imbecility of the doctrinal divisions of the theologically stunted General Baptists.
Another area that Randall investigates is that of church oversight that he claims, “Weakened the General Baptist churches.” One such area was that of endogamy, where the General Assembly of 1668 declared that marriage could only take place within the General Baptist denomination. Any other marriage was considered unlawful and demanded church discipline. This resulted in the loss of members and the failure to gain others from the outside. Church discipline such as this was often too “rigid” and fostered animosity within the General Baptist ranks hampering growth and life.
Spirituality was also in decline amongst the General Baptists as it tended towards being “inward-directed.” Although they were Baptists, church records seem to indicate that baptism wasn’t practiced as much as one would think. The practice of laying on of hands after baptism was in dispute as well, and thought both were at times practiced, it appeared to be more of an external ritual than a practice that brought vitality to the churches.
Preaching was an emphasis in the denomination, but it may have been too much of an emphasis in the sense that the sermons tended to drag on, sometimes exceeding two hours, losing the attention of the congregation. Considering that Randall had mentioned that the General Baptist leaders were not theologically gifted, it is no wonder that the people were not being fed spiritually. On preacher, Thomas Brittain, actually arrived to preach at a church to find that no one showed up for the service.
If there was an over-emphasis on preaching, there was an under-emphasis on catechizing. In 1715, in spite of the fact that there were a number of catechisms available, it was recorded that there was a “great neglect” in catechizing children and “that many young people were abandoning their faith.” This and other such issues of spirituality severely impeded the growth, both numerically and spiritually of the General Baptist congregations.
Ian Randall has provided ample evidence to explain why the General Baptists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fell into great decline. May it be that the lessons learned from this group of Baptists serve the church today so that their errors might be for our benefit and our churches would grow in spiritual health and in numbers, for the glory of God.


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