Finding Common Ground

Finding Common Ground

The First and Second confessions and the Catechism originating from Particular Baptist authors and churches, themselves share common ground, for they consistently teach the same system of theology. Though expressions are different in each, there is fundamental agreement between them. Together they present a summary of the faith of their churches for a period of fifty years and beyond.

In 1616, Henry Jacob, a puritan minister of the Church of England forced into exile in the 1590s, returned to London to gather an independent congregation of believers. This church is often referred to as semi-separatist since Jacob maintained positive relations with many ministers serving within the established Church. Little did Mr. Jacob know that his flock would give birth to a movement that would ultimately become known as the Particular Baptists.

Just over two decades later, after Jacob had emigrated to Virginia and been followed in the ministry by John Lathrop and then Henry Jessey, stirrings in the congregation led to the formation of a new congregation, organized on the principle of believer’s baptism. By 1644, there were seven young assemblies in London, each holding a strong commitment to credobaptism within the covenantal framework of predestinarian theology.

These churches bore a superficial resemblance to the Anabaptists of the European continent, simply because they rejected paedobaptism. While there was no influence or connection with these groups from across the Channel, the misdeeds of some Anabaptist sects during the previous century raised fear and suspicion among leading politicians and theologians in London. The presence of separatist congregations formed without authority or recognition from the Church of England was a novelty, by some considered to pose danger to the status quo. Perhaps these seven congregations would repeat the past and foment rebellion or worse.

Matthew Bingham, in his book Orthodox Radicals tells the story well. The Westminster Assembly, meeting at that time to move forward the reformation of the Church of England, demanded that the leaders of these “baptistic congregational” churches provide evidence of their orthodoxy. The situation was tense and dangerous, the result being the publication of a confession of faith, released in the final quarter of 1644. From the perspective of the seven assemblies, this confession was an attempt to find and express common ground with each other (since representatives of each church openly signed the document) and also with the paedobaptist puritans in the national church. It was important to demonstrate orthodoxy in order to relieve the stress of the situation.

Notable observers, including several participants of the Westminster Assembly, examined the published confession. While they found minor faults with it, they begrudgingly acknowledged its orthodoxy, though at least one suspected that it was only an attempt to hide more nefarious doctrines and practices. In response to some of these critiques, the representatives of the new churches revised their document and released a new version in 1646. The changes reflect the original purpose—finding common ground. In many cases, words and phrases were altered directly in response to the appraisals of the paedobaptists. Even their language about baptism was softened! This First London Confession became the basis for the spread of their views around the kingdom. It was adopted by many congregations as they sprang up in different places.

The original seven London churches were outward looking, desiring to spread the good news of Christ to others in the nation. Around 1645, the church frequently identified with its long-serving pastor William Kiffen sent a man named Thomas Collier to the West Country (counties such as Devon, Wiltshire and Somerset). His task was to preach and plant churches, and he was quite successful in doing this, becoming the most prominent leader of the baptized churches in the West. In the early 1670s, Mr. Collier began to exhibit serious doctrinal deviations, and Christians in the churches he planted became deeply concerned.

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