A brief Baptist Church history

Joyce Brooke, Joyce Patterson and John R Hudson

2 Developments in England

Under the rule of Henry VIII (1491–1547), protestantism in the form of the Church of England emerged because of Henry's clash with the Pope on the question of divorce. The corrupt nature of the Church made some Puritans try to reform the Church from within but, even after the attempts by Elizabeth I (1533–1603) to reconcile the differences within the Church of England, some felt that more drastic measures were needed. Because of this they split from the Church and formed new groups who became known as Separatists.

John Greenwood (1556–1593) entered Corpus Christi (or Benet) College, Cambridge, in 1577-8 to study theology, receiving his Bachelor's degree in 1580-1 and being ordained a priest. What led to the change in his religious beliefs is unknown but after five years he was deprived of his benefice and began holding secret religious services at the home of Lord Robert Rich, of Rockford, Essex, who was interested in his doctrine. When Lord Rich and a clergyman named Robert Wright, who was associated with John Greenwood, were arrested and thrown into prison, John Greenwood went to London where he formed a secret congregation at the house of Henry Martin. Here, early in October, 1586, he was arrested while conducting a service and lodged in the Clink prison.

Ten years his senior, Henry Barrowe had entered Cambridge in 1565, receiving his degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1569-70, and becoming a lawyer. Hearing of Greenwood's arrest, he visited Greenwood at the Clink where he was arrested and locked in with Greenwood. Many times during their imprisonment Greenwood and Barrowe were taken before the authorities of the Church of England and questioned as to their religious beliefs, among them that infant baptism as practised in the Church of England was invalid.

Finally, on March 23, 1593, Greenwood and Barrowe were brought to trial at the Old Bailey and, after a temporary reprieve on March 31 following an appeal to the Lord Treasurer, were secretly taken early on the morning of April 6, 1593 to Tyburn and hanged without ceremony.

After the imprisonment of John Greenwood, Francis Johnson, who had been John Smyth's tutor at Cambridge (see below), became pastor of the Greenwood church in London and when its members fled to Holland he became pastor of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, the church of which Arminius had been pastor until his appointment to the staff of Leyden University in 1603. John's son, Abel, probably returned with his mother to Heptonstall, because both his son, Thomas, and his grandson, Thomas, were baptised in the Parish Church. His grandson was a weaver and emigrated to North America in 1665 (Greenwood 1914).

While John Greenwood argued for the separation of church and state and his ideas informed the separatist churches who settled in North America, the covenant idea was central to John Penry (1553–1593), a Welshman, who studied at Cambridge and Oxford and then became a preacher. He joined Greenwood's Separatist Church in 1592, after criticising the authorities for not providing enough Bibles in Welsh and studying Puritan arguments. He wrote

The Church I believe to be a company of those whom the world calleth saints, which do not only profess in word that they know God, but are also subject to his laws and ordinances in deed. With his Church, I do believe that the Lord of his mere favour hath entered into a covenant that He will be their God and they shall be His people. The seals of the Covenant are only two, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Church on earth I do not believe to be perfect, although in regard to the order which the Lord has appointed it for the same it must be absolute, but to have many faults and wants in it; yet I assuredly believe that all the true members thereof shall, at the day of judgement receive their perfect communion by Jesus Christ and be crowned with Him with eternal glory, of His mere grace and not for any merit of their own.

This doctrine came to lie behind the English Separatist movement. On May 22, 1593, he was hanged at St Thomas Waterings along with William Dennis at Thetford and John and Elias Coppin at Bury St Edmunds. Among the grounds for Penry's execution was a letter addressed but never sent to Elizabeth I in which he wrote:

Briefly, Madam you may well see the foundation of England rooted up; but this cause you will never suppress.

The following year John Smyth (1570–1612) became a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, where he had been a student since 1586, but he gave this up in 1600 to became a preacher in Lincoln. At this time he was a straightforward Anglican clergyman with a leaning to Puritan views but two years later he was sacked for upsetting the local community. So he moved to Gainsborough where he came in touch with Thomas Helwys (c. 1575–c. 1616).

Thomas Helwys had returned in 1595 after three years legal studies in London to his family home at Broxtowe Hall, Billborough, near Nottingham, and married Joan Ashmore. In due course he came into contact with a number of other dissidents within the Church of England, Richard Barnard of Worksop, John Robinson of Scrooby and John Smyth. John Smyth was also in touch with Richard Clyfton, rector of Babworth (1586–1604), and William Brewster as well as Thomas' cousin, Gervase.

John Robinson (born c. 1576) had been a minister at St Andrew's Church, Norwich before coming into contact with John Smyth in Gainsborough. Richard Clyfton had resigned his post in 1604 and gone to live at Scrooby Manor House, the home of William Brewster. The Scrooby Separatist Church was established by those there in 1606 and John Robinson became its pastor. All were gradually adopting the Separatists' view of the church as an independent gathering of adult believers, insisting that, even when a church has chosen elders, it loses none of its covenanted authority.

After James I had approved a new set of canons for discipline in the Church of England in 1604, John Smyth was charged on 26 March 1606 with preaching without a licence when he took a service on 2 March in the absence of the minister appointed. It is not clear what the exact effect of this was on the local congregation but, from 1607 to 1609, John Smyth styles himself the pastor of Gainsborough (Hayden 2005).

In the autumn of 1607 William Brewster was forced to resign his posts as bailiff and postmaster and on 1 December and 15 December he failed to appear before the High Court and the Ecclesiastical Count respectively, having gone into hiding. He was fined £20 for failing to appear at the first hearing (Dolby 2012). Ten years later he was a publisher in Leyden, publishing a book by Francis Johnson.

2.1 The first English Baptists

The events described above may have persuaded the group that it would be safer to move to Amsterdam and each settled their affairs and moved there. Possibly in conjunction with them, John Robinson of Norwich moved with his congregation to Leyden (Whitley 1932).

In The character of the beast Smyth and Clyfton (1609) set out the arguments for believer's baptism. John Smyth then baptised himself by affusion before baptising Thomas Helwys and a group of others who by this act broke from the other Separatists to form the first English Baptist church.

In February 1610 John Smyth and thirty-one others decided to join the Mennonites but Thomas Helwys and the rest chose to form a distinctive church. Helwys (1611) set out his reasons in a declaration which, among other things, attacked the Calvinist view that only certain people can be saved. He also decided that it was his duty to return to his country rather than flee from persecution and in 1612 he and a number of others returned to England to establish the first Baptist congregation on English soil at Spitalfields. He may have been encouraged in this by his uncle, Geoffrey, who was a merchant tailor and aldeman of London (Whitley 1932). That year he published A short declaration on the mystery of iniquity which is a plea for religious tolerance but he was imprisoned in Newgate Prison where he died some time before April 1616 when his uncle gave £10 to his widow.

Among those who had returned with Thomas Helwys was John Murton from Gainsborough, who had married Jane Hodgkin and gone to Amsterdam in 1608. He was also imprisoned but managed to publish a series of papers including Objections (1615), Truth championed (1617) and an appeal to the King (1620) which was powerful enough for people to be writing rebuttals to it thirty years later during the English Civil War.

The successors of Helwys and his group became known as General Baptists because they believed in general redemption, that Christ had died for all and no one was beyond the reach of God's saving love. The Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) had set out similar arguments and his followers were soon to be known as Arminians (Johnson, 1617).

By 1620 there were General Baptist churches in Lincolnshire, Coventry, Salisbury and Tiverton and by 1625 there were two London churches, one in Spitalfields and one in Southwark. In 1626 the churches in Deptford (presumably the Southwark church), Gainsborough, Salisbury, Coventry and Tiverton wrote a joint letter on matters of doctrine to the Waterland Mennonites and John Smyth's church in the Netherlands; this was highly unusual as separatist churches rarely communicated on matters of doctrine (Whitley 1932). Of these churches, Deptford became Unitarian in 1916, Gainsborough closed many yeas ago and Salisbury, Coventry and Tiverton are still in existence, though only Queens Road, Coventry, as it is now called, appears to be aware of its history.

In 1990 nine Baptist churches celebrated 350 years since their foundation in 1640: Berkhamsted General Baptist Church, Broadmead (Bristol), Kingsbridge, King's Stanley, Newbury, King's Road, now Abbey, Baptist Church, Reading, St Alban's and Warwick. Of these Broadmead's membership included Baptists though not all members may have shared Baptist principles at this time (Hayden 2005), King's Stanley has records dating back to 1640 showing that it was a ‘Seventh Day Baptist’ church at that time, Abbey Road was first mentioned in 1652 and Warwick hosted the founding of the Midland (Particular) Baptist Association in 1655.

Throughout the seventeenth century, the General Baptists took an active part in public life though they were frequently treated with suspicion. They published books and articles and engaged in missionary activity which they found was most successful when a person settled in a particular area; between 1641 and 1700 they engaged in at least 109 public disputations, a quarter in London. They served on Parliamentary Commissions and in the New Model Army and provided chaplains, partly because Anglican chaplains were afraid of losing their benefices if they became Army chaplains, and, though the Army was later purged of Baptists, General Baptists continued to support political radicals in Parliament.

Early in the English civil war they began to meet for mutual support against the royalists and by the mid-1650s there were local associations in the Midlands, south Wales, Berkshire and the west of England among others; several groups met in London in 1654 and in 1660 there was a General Baptist Assembly. After 1654 the associations met regularly for conferences and from time to time issued declarations clarifying General Baptist beliefs; in 1678 the declaration called for acceptance of the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds and also suggested a discipline procedure which could be used within churches (Hayden 2005).

Their biggest challenge came from the Quakers, first meeting in 1647 under George Fox; the church in Manstield was the first to turn Quaker and they had great success in Westmoreland and Cumberland in 1651 after which other General Baptist churches joined the Quakers (Whitley 1932).

As Thomas Helwys had argued that the church is its congregation and therefore does not need a minister, there were no specific qualifications to be a minister; instead the General Baptists tended to emphasise the role of messenger, initially anyone moving around the country but from the mid-1650s an evangelist, planting and supporting churches.

By 1718 there were 19,000 ‘hearers’ at 120, mostly rural, churches in Kent, Sussex, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and the west of England.

2.2 The Particular Baptists

The Particular Baptists emerged in various parts of England and North America in the 1630s out of those in the Separatist movement who disagreed with the Puritan Anglicans' desire for a Puritan state church. Many General Baptists, on the other hand, had been Puritan Anglicans who had left because their views of the gospel had taken them out of the Anglican tradition.

Some of the congregations who had fled to the Netherlands to escape persecution in England returned in June 1620 to join the Mayflower on its voyage to New England. In 1631 Roger Williams (1603–1683) had emigrated to New England and, coming to believe that infant baptism was wrong, had with eleven others received believers' baptism in 1639 and formed a Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, which had become a refuge for those who did not assent to the Puritanism of the Bostonians.

In London there had been an Independent Calvinist church, that is, a church which believed that only certain people had been predestined to believe, since 1616 led by Henry Jacob (1563–1624) who did not rule out a Puritan state church. He was succeeded by John Lathrop (1584–1653) who in 1632 along with other members of the church was arrested by the Bishop of London, William Laud, for failing to take the oath of loyalty to the Church of England. Eventually, in 1634 he was pardoned on condition that he left the country for Massachusetts which he did. (He fathered thirteen children and is famous in the US as an ancestor of, among others, both Presidents Bush (Wikipedia 2009).)

Eighteen of his congregation had escaped arrest and on 12 September 1633 ten members were formally released from membership to set up a fully Separatist church under John Spilsbury. In 1637 Henry Jessey (1603–1663), a Puritan Anglican, was invited to become pastor of Lathrop's church. He had studied at St John's College, Cambridge, becoming a Puritan in 1622; he was ordained in 1626, becoming curate of Assington, Suffolk, in 1627 and moving in 1633 to work for Sir Matthew Boynton in Yorkshire until 1636 when he returned to live with his family in Uxbridge. In 1638 William Kyffen (1616–1701), a successful wool merchant, and five other members of this congregation were released to join John Spilsbury who supported believers' baptism (Hayden 2005).

In 1641, after he had raised the issue of baptism, Richard Blunt was sent to the Netherlands to receive advice on believers' baptism and in January 1642 Richard Blunt and Mr Blacklock baptised each other by immersion and went on to baptise fifty-one others. On 17 October 1642, William Kyffen and three others debated believers' baptism with Dr Daniel Featley, who had published an attack on it, and in the next couple of years went on evangelistic missions, baptising people in Kent and elsewhere. When the independent church at Broadmead, Bristol, was forced to flee after Prince Rupert captured Bristol in 1643 in the first round of the English Civil War, those who believed in believers' baptism joined William Kyffen's congregation at Devonshire Square until their return in 1645. Others however, including Thomas Ewins, who had been pastor at Llanvaches Church, Chepstow, which had moved to Bristol in 1642 and joined Broadmead, and Robert Purnell, an Elder, had attended Henry Jessey's church (Hayden 2005).

Henry Jessey continued infant baptism until 1644 after Hanserd Knollys (1599–1691) had returned from New England in 1641 and joined the congregation. Knollys had been been born and educated in Lincolnshire and at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, becoming an Anglican priest in 1620 and vicar of Humberstone in Lincolnshire, but he had subsequently renounced his orders and in 1636 become a separatist, fleeing to New England to escape a court order which nonetheless was executed on him in Boston. On his return to London in 1641 he became a school master, spent a brief period as an army chaplain and then returned to teaching at which point he came into contact with Jessey. In 1645 Jessey was baptised by Knollys who had left in 1644 to lead another congregation, and he then baptised Thomas Ewins and Robert Purnell. However, like Jessey, they continued to accept paedobaptists into the congregation at Broadmead (Hayden 2005).

In 1644 seven London churches met to adopt the London Confession1; this differed from the 1596 Separatist Confession in adopting the 1619 Calvinist declaration of the Synod of Dort (now Dordrecht) and baptism by total immersion; admission to the congregation through believers' baptism was given

However, Henry Jessey refused to sign the London Confession because he believed in open communion (Blomfield 1912) though he continued to maintain good relationships with both Particular Baptists and other separatists and to write extensively. In 1661 he contributed to a pamphlet produced by Fifth Monarchists hostile to the restored monarchy and was briefly imprisoned (Hayden 2005).

In 1646 Thomas Collier, who had been with William Kyffen in Kent in 1643, visited Guernsey, Portsmouth and Poole before moving on to become the major figure in the development of Baptist churches in the west country but he abandoned orthodox Calvinism (Collier 1674), becoming a General Baptist and persuading the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire churches to join him (Whitley 1932). This led to him being declared a heretic by the London churches but it did not dent his church planting in the west country (Hayden 2005).

In 1649 the Glaziers' Hall church sent John Myles (1621–1683) to Wales, where he founded the church at Ilston Beck on the Gower Peninsula; in 1663 this congregation emigrated to Massachusetts where they founded the town of Swansea and took the records of the church with them which are now held by Brown University, Rhode Island (Wikipedia 2009). In 1650 Thomas Patient, who had also been with William Kyffen in Kent in 1643, and John Vernon founded churches in Ireland.

In 1650 Parliament voted to offer commissions to people who would spread the gospel in the north of England and Thomas Tillam, a member of Hanserd Knollys' church in Coleman Street, London, accepted a commission; he made several tours during which he baptised several people and set up a church at Stokesley, Middlesbrough, in 1653. However, when he returned from his commission, he was not accepted back into Coleman Street. He went on to form a church in Colchester before moving to the Continent where he became a Seventh Day Baptist though they rejected him for bringing the Seventh Day Baptists into disrepute.

While the Particular Baptists do not appear to have been as involved in the English Civil War as the General Baptists, many took an active part in the Commonwealth with William Kyffen serving as MP for Middlesex in 1656–58. He had been a childhood friend of John Lilburne, the leader of the Levellers, who wanted a republican state, but Kyffen ended up arguing against him. Some people believed that the 1653 Parliament of Saints, as it was called, was the prelude to the Fifth Monarchy when Christ would return as King and were dismayed when Cromwell dismissed Parliament and accepted the title of Protector. They supported the return of the Jews because they believed this was a necessary prelude to the coming of Christ.

The Particular Baptists debated whether ministers should be paid by the state and whether they should pay the tithe to the church. As the Commonwealth drew to its end in 1659 twenty Particular Baptists, including Henry Jessey, issued a Declaration setting out their obedience to the state, hostility to Roman Catholics and Quakers, perhaps because they had seen what had happened among the General Baptist churches many of which had become Quaker meetings, and tolerance of episcopacy and Presbyterianism. They had rightly judged the possible mood following the restoration of the monarchy.

1The Confession of Faith of those churches which are commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists, etc. London 1644.

2.3 The Restoration

At the time of the Restoration in 1660, there were four broad groups of Baptists:

But each church responded differently to what was to happen over the next quarter of a century.

Initially, Charles II had been disposed to tolerance but the Fifth Monarchy uprising in 1661 changed everything and, with the introduction of the Clarendon Code (four Acts passed between 1661 and 1665 which restricted the rights of ‘non-conformists,’ that is, those who would not conform to the ‘code’), life became very difficult for the Particular Baptists in urban areas such as London and Bristol with a number of pastors spending lengthy periods in prison; there are no records for John Bunyan's independent Baptist church in Bedford from 1663–1668 (Hayden 2005). The more rural General Baptists appear to have been much less affected as they continued to meet openly during this period though John Myles' Particular Baptist Church at Ilston Beck in rural Wales chose to emigrate in 1663.

Nonetheless, by 1669 there were 420 Baptist preachers in places as far apart as London, Bristol, Lincoln, Worcester, Coventry, Lichfield, Plymouth, Dover, Deal, Chester and Liverpool (Whitley 1932). There was some relaxation in 1672 when a Royal Indulgence was granted to congregations that registered their meeting places and, for example, John Bunyan's church in Bedford took immediate advantage of this. But three Baptists were involved in the 1683 Rye House plot and, after the 1685 rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth, two of William Kyffen's grandsons were hanged by Judge Jeffreys in his notorious treatment of the West Country rebels.

After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 brought William and Mary to the throne, the 1689 Toleration Act repealed the 1664 Conventicle Act which had banned meetings of more than five people outside a Church of England church but the restrictions on holding services within five miles of a Church of England church, on holding public office and on attending university were retained.

The Particular Baptists took immediate advantage of the relaxation and over 150 ministers and messengers, from as far afield as Northumberland, Essex and Cornwall, met on 3 September 1689; they drew up a new Confession of Faith which remained in force until 1832, proposed a fund to support ministers (who hitherto had had to support themselves), agreed on Sunday worship (and so excluded the Seventh Day Baptists some of whom became the nucleus of the Seventh Day Adventists) and agreed that an elder from one church could administer the Lord's Supper in another where necessary.

In 1690 the Midlands Association, founded in 1655, was re-founded at Warwick and had nine members by the end of the century. In 1691 the Northern Association was re-founded. By the end of the century there were ten English and two Welsh Particular Baptist associations. However, the attempts by Particular Baptists to hold national assemblies faltered in 1692 and there was no Particular Baptist national assembly until 1813 though local associations, notably the Western and Welsh associations, continued to meet regularly and Particular Baptist congregations continued to increase.

For the last decade of the seventeenth century, there was a major debate initially about the place of singing in church and then the place of psalms. In fact, Katherine Sutton had published a volume of hymns thirty years earlier which had been recommended by Hanserd Knollys in 1663 (Mallard 1963) but the debate was re-ignited by the publication by the prolific Baptist writer, Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), of Spiritual melody (1691), a collection of nearly three hundred hymns. He had been a tailor in Buckinghamshire who at the age of twenty-one had been called to ministry by General Baptists in Winslow; he was prosecuted for writing a children's book setting out Baptist doctrine and was invited to Southwark church but he decided to become a Calvinist and moved to a Particular Baptist church (Whitley 1932). The Particular Baptists left congregational singing up to the church whereas, because John Smyth had objected to singing in church, the General Baptists rejected it but allowed solo singing until the 1733 conference.

2.4 Mitchel and Crosley

William Mitchel, born 1662, and David Crosley, born 1669, were cousins from Heptonstall. Mitchel was converted to Presbyterianism in 1680 and began preaching in 1684 but was arrested in 1685 and sentenced at the Wakefield sessions on 13 January 1686 to imprisonment at York. He was released in 1687 and, with the passing of the 1689 Toleration Act, John Moore, one of his converts, registered houses at Rawdon, Guiseley and Horsforth; around twenty such houses were registered in what is now West Yorkshire. Meanwhile, David Crosley had encountered Baptists during preaching tours of the Midlands and Home Counties and in 1692 was baptised by John Eckels in Bromsgrove Church, the same year in which the church at Bacup was erected in part to provide a base for Mitchel and Crosley. Until 1694 Crosley continued on his preaching tours, returning to support Mitchel in Rossendale. At the time Mitchel had not been baptised and the churches at which both preached were variously described as Baptist, Independent or Congregational though they both gradually came to be identified as Baptist.

Among the churches which were established directly or indirectly through the Bacup church were those at Barnoldswick (1694), Rodhill End and Stoneslack (1700), Gildersome (1707) and Rawdon (1712) where there was a history of dissident clergymen. In 1717, the churches at Rodhill End and Stoneslack combined to become an independent church with Thomas Greenwood as their pastor and opened a meeting house in Heptonstall. In 1731 the members living in Huddersfield left to form Salendine Nook.

Meanwhile, Mitchel had died in 1705 and Crosley had moved to London to take over Hanserd Knollys' church but he was dismissed for ‘gross immorality’ and took refuge with Gildersome church in 1710; however, in 1719 he was charged by various Yorkshire churches with ‘scandalous sins.’ He appears to have been shunned by the churches in London with whom he tried to take refuge but, after he had published a poem about his relapse and recovery, he was admitted to Heptonstall church and spent his last years at Tatop Farm, Goodshaw where he supplemented his income by teaching.

In spite of their renown as preachers, neither Mitchel nor Crosley ever took any steps to become ordained.