Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.
The First London Confession of 1644
by Walter B. Shurden
Callaway Professor of Christianity
Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies
Mercer University, Macon, Georgia
Baptists began in two distinct groups in England in the early seventeenth century. General Baptists established their first church in England in 1611, evolving out of the Church of England through the Puritans and the Separatists before becoming Baptists. General Baptists were probably influenced by Anabaptists as well, though this part of the history is widely debated by historians. Known as "General" Baptists because they believed the atonement or death of Christ was available to all who believed, they also believed that one could "fall" from grace and lose one’s salvation.
The second group of Baptists were dubbed "Particular Baptists." Why "Particular" Baptists? Because they believed that the death of Christ was effective only for the elect; they adhered to a "particular" atonement. Unlike the General Baptists, Particular Baptists believed in "once saved, always saved." Historians refer to the General Baptists as "Arminians," because they followed the theology of Jacob Arminius. Particular Baptists, on the other hand, are known as "Calvinists" because they followed the theology of John Calvin.
The Particular Baptists, like the General Baptists before them, clearly came out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in seventeenth century England. Like the General Baptists before them, the Particular Baptists doubtless knew some influence from Anabaptists. By 1641 Particular Baptists were practicing believers’ baptism by immersion, making them the first group of Baptists to immerse. Soon immersion of adult believers became the common practice in Baptist churches.
Seven Particular or Calvinistic Baptist churches came together through their representatives in 1644 to draw up a confession of their faith. These Calvinistic Baptists stated starkly their desire to defend themselves against the general but false accusation that they were Anabaptists. In addition, they denied four specific charges leveled at them: (1) believing in free will, (2) believing in falling from grace, (3) believing that civil magistrates were not legitimate, and (4) "doing acts unseemly in the dispensing the Ordinance of Baptism, not to be named amongst Christians". Items one and two falsely identified the Particular Baptists with Arminians. Item three falsely identified them with Anabaptists, and item four accused them of immoral practices, especially baptizing naked!
Circumstances were serious enough in England that the seven Particular Baptist churches, said William L. Lumpkin, "pushed aside their prejudice against the use of confessions" to produce what became known as "The First London Confession of Faith." Their motivation, or as the document itself says, "the maine wheele ...that sets us aworke," was "to speake for the vindication of the truth of Christ" as they understood it. Particular Baptists sent their confession "to all that desire the lifting up of the Name of the Lord Jesus in sinceritie" and identified themselves as "the poore despised Churches of God in London." Fifteen men signed the document on behalf of the seven churches. The most notable of these were William Kiffin, John Spilsbery, and Samuel Richardson.
Beginning their confession with a statement about God, they said, "That God as he is in himselfe, cannot be comprehended of any but himselfe". Of course, that did not stop them, as it does not stop us, from continuing to write fifty-two additional articles explaining God to others! A document advocating Calvinism, it reflected much of the TULIP theology of the Synod of Dort and the five points of Total depravity, Unconditional predestination, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. Indeed, Article III, though common in early Calvinistic Baptist life, may sound a bit strange to some Baptist ears today. It said, "God had in Christ before the foundation of the world, according to the good pleasure of his will, foreordained some men to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of his grace, leaving the rest in their sinne to their just condemnation, to the praise of his Justice". At the heart of such a statement is the belief that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, not something humans achieve.
This was spelled out in Article V which spoke of the fallen and sinful nature of humankind: "Yet the elect, which God hath loved with an everlasting love, are redeemed, quickened, and saved, not by themselves, neither by their own workes, lest any man shoud boast himselfe, but wholly and onely by God of his free grace and mercie through Jesus Christ." And while the gospel was to be preached to all people, the death of Christ brought forth salvation and and reconciliation "onely for the elect". Underscoring the helplessness of humans in achieving salvation, the confession stated that "faith is ordinarily begot by the preaching of the Gospel ... without respect to any power or capacitie in the creature, but it is wholly passive being dead in sinnes and trespasses, doth beleeve, and is converted by no lesse power, then that which raised Christ from the dead." These Calvinistic Baptists of seventeenth century England believed that the grace of God came freely and required no preparation on the part of the individual. "Onely ... alone the naked soule, as a sinner and ungodly" person received Christ as crucified, dead, buried, and risen again.
Saved wholly by the grace of God, the Christian is also kept by that same powerful grace. Those that have faith wrought in them "can never finally nor totally fall away; and though many stormes and floods do arise and beat against them, yet they shall never be able to take them off that foundation and rock which by faith they are fastened upon." Such preservation by grace never meant exemption from struggle, because "all beleevers in the time of this life are in a continuall warfare, combate, and opposition against sinne, selfe, the world, and the Devill, and liable to all manner of afflictions, tribulations, and persecutions."
What was the source of the "Knowledge, Faith, and Obedience, concerning the worship and service of God, and all other Christian duties"? It was not "mans inventions, opinions, devices, lawes, constitutions, or traditions unwritten whatsoever, but onely the word of God contained in the Canonicall Scriptures." These scriptures hold forth "the glory of God ..., the excellency of Christ ..., and the power of the fulnesse of the Spirit" and, therefore the elect can "cast the weight of their soules" upon these writings.
And what of the church? It is "a spiritual Kingdome," a company of disciples "called and separated from the world" by profession of their faith in the gospel who have been "joyned to the Lord, and each other by mutual agreement." All who acknowledged Christ as "Prophet, Priest, and King," were "to lead their lives in his walled sheepfold and watered garden, to have communion here with the saints...." Each individual church had power given it from Christ to choose its own officers and determine and discipline its own membership. The church’s ministers, while clearly subordinate to the congregation, were to be supported voluntarily by the membership and not coerced by laws of state. While stressing the independence of local congregations as "distinct and severall Bodies, every one a compact and knit Citie in it selfe," the confession asserted that each congregation should be governed by the same Scripture, ruled over by the same Christ, and, when convenient, to advise and help each other. So while affirming an uncompromising independence of local congregations, these early Baptists also recognized commonalities and a nascent denominationalism.
The First London Confession was the first Baptist confessional statement to specify immersion as the scriptural manner of baptism. For believers only, baptism was to be administered by "dipping or plunging the whole body under water." And because baptism was "a sign," only immersion depicted the threefold meaning of the act: (1) the cleansing of "the whole soule in the blood of Christ," (2) the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and (3) the promise of the Christian’s future resurrection. Baptism, therefore, signed personal salvation as cleansing, commitment to Christ as Lord, and the future hope as reality.
Slandered as Anabaptist anarchists who did not support civil government, Particular Baptists wanted especially to correct this popular misrepresentation of themselves. The last six articles of the confession described their understanding of the legitimacy and limitations of government. Affirming "that a civill Magistracie is an ordinance of God," they promised that "in all lawfull things" they would be subject to the King and a freely chosen Parliament. Moreover, they vowed to defend the King and rulers of Parliament with their "persons, liberties, and estates."
While obedient to civil laws, the Particular Baptists stated unequivocally that their "consciences" would not be able to submit to ecclesiastical laws. In language brimming with Christian devotion, they declared their strategy if the magistrates refused to extend religious freedom to them: "Yet we must notwithstanding proceed together in Christian communion ... even in the midst of all trialls and afflictions, not accounting our goods, lands, wives, children, fathers, mothers, brethren, sisters, yea, and our own lives dear unto us, so we may finish our course with joy: remembering alwayes we ought to obey God rather than men...." The reason for this fierce devotion? They were accountable to God and to God alone for matters of faith.
How significant was The First London Confession? Lumpkin said, "Perhaps no Confession of Faith has had so formative an influence on Baptist life as this one."Henry C. Vedder called it "one of the chief landmarks of Baptist history." How should Baptists of today receive this seventeenth century confessional statement? We should receive it for its historical value, its theological clarity, and its call to serious discipleship. We would do well, however, to remember British Baptist historian W.T. Whitley’s admonition that Baptists are always restive when asked to signify their adherence to any confession as though it were standard. Whitley wisely said of Baptists that "if a later generation finds that it does not agree with its predecessors, whether in content or in emphasis, it has openly revised and re-stated what it does believe or it has discarded the old confession and framed another." What we should not do, however, is forget the old, especially The First London Confession.
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