A brief Baptist Church history

Joyce Brooke, Joyce Patterson and John R Hudson

4 The nineteenth century

In retrospect, the nineteenth century can be seen as a gradual coming together of the Particular Baptists and the New Connection and there were early signs of converging interests though it was not until 1891 that union was finally secured. For example, at their meeting in Boston in 1816 the New Connection formed the General Baptist Missionary Society headed by J G Pike who in 1817 wrote that General Baptists should be involved in mission even more than Particular Baptists. In 1808 the New Connection had formed an Aged Ministers Fund to support those ministers no longer able to support themselves and in 1810 an Itinerant Fund which in 1821 became the General Baptist Home Missionary Society (Rinaldi 2008).

In 1813 the Particular Baptists held their first Assembly since 1692 when those Particular Baptist churches who were sympathetic to the principles set out by Andrew Fuller (1785) and William Carey (1792) agreed to form the Baptist Union. Those who were unsympathetic to Andrew Fuller's reformulation of Calvinism were led by William Gadsby of Manchester and John Warburton of Trowbridge and did not join the Baptist Union. They remained linked primarily through newspapers that circulated among them and became known as Strict Baptists. Some created the Strict Baptist Assembly which in 1980 merged with the Assembly of Baptised Churches to create the Grace Baptist Assembly. Others are members of the Golden Standard Strict Baptists who continue to follow William Gadsby's rejection of Fullerism.

The 1832 Particular Baptist conference no longer made the 1689 Confession a condition of membership and reorganised the Union into Associations; by 1860 about one third of the General Baptist churches who had not joined the New Connection had joined the Union.

In 1828 the Corporation Act was repealed enabling dissenters to hold local government posts and the following year the repeal of the Test Act gave the same rights to Roman Catholics. In practice, dissenting Deputies in the City of London had agree to fight the fines imposed on them in the eighteenth century and they had won their case in the courts in 1767 though the Act repealing them was not to be passed until 1828 (Hayden 2005). The 1832 Reform Act gave many the vote; nearly all were strong Whig, later Liberal, supporters. However, these changes had less impact on New Connection churches until the arrival of John Clifford (section 4.2) as they tended to see the answers to social problems in personal rather than social responses. But in 1849 they set up a ‘Dorcas society’ to relieve the poor and the following year a Denominational Fund for relieving ministers who had become incapacitated. The New Connection also gave its support to the Anti-State Church Association founded in 1844 and to the numerous bills put forward up between 1850 and 1868 to exempt dissenters from paying the church rates which went towards the upkeep of the Church of England (Rinaldi 2008).

Meanwhile, the New Connection began to train some of its own ministers. Unlike the Particular Baptists, the General Baptists had set no great importance on educating ministers; ministers were simply ‘called’ by a congregation. There had been a fund since 1737 but there had not had enough money in it to support a student until 1792. However, Dan Taylor had taken in students, like his Particular Baptist neighbour, John Fawcett, and in his confession of faith of 1785 to the Whitechapel Church (Taylor 1818, pp. 470–477) had set out what was to become a popular nineteenth century view, that God had given us both the book of creation and the Bible in order to instruct us in His ways. So His revelation was to be found in both, though you needed to read the Bible to get the total revelation.

In 1797 the New Connection set up an Academy to support the training of ministers which the following year became an actual institution run by Dan Taylor until 1811 when it moved to Wisbech where Joseph Jarrom led it from 1813 to 1837. However, Wisbech was considered a bit too out of the way and in 1825 the Leicestershire Educational Society was formed; in 1838 the two institutions merged and moved to various locations ending up in Nottingham where it was when the churches of the New Connection joined the Baptist Union. Eventually in the nineteen-twenties its assets were transferred to Rawdon Baptist College.

In 1865 the New Connection set up a Board of Reference to assist in changes of pastor, being very mindful that Dan Taylor had been opposed to any direction of a particular congregation. This was followed in 1871 with an Arbitration Committee to deal with disputes.

Initially the management of a church lay in the hands of the elders with deacon being seen as a calling similar to that of a minister and appointments being for life. From around 1861 that came to be questioned and deacons began to be elected for fixed terms and increasingly to take over the leadership roles of the elders (Rinaldi 2008). Some churches practised laying on of hands as part of the ordination of ministers and deacons but this was gradually replaced by welcome meetings because the laying on of hands was seen as too much like the apostolic succession.

Lay preachers like Thomas Cook were also recognised and the 1859 New Connection Conference drew up a definition of lay preaching that covered Sunday School teachers as well as other visiting preachers who might not be ordained. Baptists of all convictions had become involved in the Sunday School movement, originally initiated by Robert Raikes of Gloucester in 1781 to educate poor children, but by the middle of the nineteenth century mainly catering for ‘respectable’ children (Carpenter 1851). Not only did they find it difficult to attract the poorer children for whom Sunday School had originally been intended but they also failed to make many converts through Sunday School.

The 1851 census showed that the Free Churches claimed just under half of the church going population (Whitley 1932). They were respected and influential, and their high moral standards were carried into public life. Successful business people were often from the Free Churches, not least because the dissenters’ academies had been much quicker to teach subjects like science and engineering than Oxford and Cambridge, which members of the Church of England could attend, and everyone knew of the standards of chapel folk — lapses didn't pass unnoticed. The Baptists built large impressive chapels and powerful preachers commanded huge congregations. The chapels were often the centre of community life. Temperance Leagues, Mutual Improvement Societies and Sports Clubs all flourished.

Not all became involved in the temperance movement — Spurgeon (section 4.1) called it a ‘distraction‘ — but in 1841 Thomas Cook organised his first excursion from Market Harborough to a temperance meeting in Leicester where his wife had opened a Temperance Hotel; it was not until 1874 that a Baptist Total Abstinence Society was formed; around that time unfermented wine began to be used in churches, though this issue often led to disputes in individual churches.

The increased contact between Baptists both in England and Wales and in Scotland exposed many differences in practice and interpretation. Initially, baptism had been regarded as essential for taking the Lord's Supper but that left open the question whether one should baptise those who did not intend to become members of the church.

From the 1830s there was a gradual shift towards open communion. The 1861 Trust Deeds of the Metropolitan Tabernacle permitted admission to communion on profession of faith without baptism but the leading Scottish Baptist philanthropist, William Quarrier, left Blackfriars Church, Glasgow, in 1863 over the issue of open communion though he later acknowledged he had been wrong to do so (Gammie 1936). However, by 1882 open communion still remained less common among General than among Particular Baptists (Rinaldi 2008).

By the middle of the nineteenth century General Baptist churches were inviting Particular Baptist ministers to preach in their churches, General Baptist students were studying at the Particular Baptist academy in Stepney and in 1861 a General Baptist church invited a Particular Baptist student from Regent’s Park College, the name and location of the Stepney academy since 1855, to become their minister. By 1870 one sixth of General Baptist pastors came from a Particular Baptist background, not so much because the members of the New Connection had changed as because Particular Baptists had moved towards New Connection positions. Similarly, there was a trend for New Connection ministers to move to Particular Baptist or independent churches (Hayden 2005).

However, by the late nineteenth century, it had become clear that the New Connection was faltering; its base had been predominantly rural, particularly among frame knitters in the Midlands (Rinaldi 2008), and, though it had grown from 16 to 200 churches by 1840 and its numbers continued to grow between 1840 and 1870 until there were 275 churches in 1891, they did not grow as fast as the population. In 1868 John Clifford argued that the New Connection had become ‘genteel’ when Kegworth church built an indoor baptistry after over a century of baptisms in the River Soar (Rinaldi 2008).

Though New Connection churches were formed in urban areas, the Particular Baptists were much more active in the urban centres to which most of the population had moved over the nineteenth century and by 1883 the overall number of losses in the largely rural New Connection churches exceeded the number of baptisms. As the negotiations with the Baptist Union progressed, a Federation Board was set up in 1888 to oversee mergers of smaller churches and in 1891 all the New Connection churches were given the opportunity to join their local Baptist Union Association while the two missionary societies and the home mission funds were united.

4.1 Charles Haddon Spurgeon

During the nineteenth century, there was increasing acceptance of biblical criticism, spurred on in part by the nineteenth century craze for excavating sites in the middle east. The first effect of these discoveries was to reinforce faith in the Bible as history; many eighteenth century Christians had been happy to accept the Old Testament in particular as a collection of myths telling a spiritual story. The discovery that many sites and many events mentioned in the Old Testament were real places and events was initially seen as a boost to those like the Baptists who had seen their faith as firmly grounded in the Bible.

But as recognition developed that, for example, the Bible had been assembled at different times from various collections of writings and that the King James Bible had not been based on the most accurate versions of the Greek and Hebrew originals, people began to ask more searching questions of the Bible and some Christians became alarmed that the baby was being thrown out with the bathwater. Chief among these was Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892), a gifted preacher and organiser.

Converted at 15 in a Primitive Methodist chapel, he was baptised and the following year called to minister to Waterbeach Baptist Church, Cambridgeshire, from where, after a three months probation, he was called in 1854 to New Park Street Church, Southwark, the church of Benjamin Keach. His success as a preacher led to huge congregations and the church had to seek alternative accommodation. In the end, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was opened in 1861 to accommodate those who wanted to hear him. By this time, he had begun what was to become Spurgeon's College and, following a donation from an Anglican lady supporter, Stockwell Orphanage, one of the earliest children's homes to adopt the cottage homes principle rather than the older more institutional style (Heywood 1978). In 1865 he was instrumental in the re-formation of the London Baptist Association.

In 1873 proposals to replace the 1689 Confession with a simpler statement rang alarm bells for Spurgeon as he feared that Baptists were losing their Bible centred faith in the face of Darwin’s theories and new arguments about the origins of the Old Testament. In 1887 two unsigned articles entitled ‘Downgrade’ were published by Robert Schindler and these were followed by articles from Spurgeon arguing that the Bible was being ‘downgraded’ by the Baptist Union and by his resignation from the Union. The resignation raised anxieties for some New Connection members about the proposed union with the Baptist Union and it was left to John Clifford, the leading New Connection minister, as the newly elected President of the Baptist Union, to handle the new Declarative Statement of Faith in 1888 which provided the basis on which individual churches could decide whether or not to join (Hayden 2005).

4.2 John Clifford

John Clifford (1836–1923) went to work in a lace factory in 1848 and in 1857 to become a student at the New Connection College from where he was quickly called to Praed Street Chapel, enrolling as a student at London University. He was sufficiently successful that in 1877 the chapel was enlarged and became known as Westbourne Park Baptist Church where he ministered until 1915.

Though he agreed with Spurgeon that baptism should not be the sole condition for entry, he repudiated any conflict between religion and science, having used his proximity to London University to take degrees in science, arts and law, and he became an active proponent of the ‘social gospel’ and, in 1899, an opponent of the Boer War and later of the settlement that concluded the War.

But he also argued for personal evangelism as the way forward; the early histories of the Particular Baptists and of the New Connection had been marked by individual commitment to personal evangelism which had led to rapid expansion in the numbers of believers and of churches but, with the increasing reliance on ministers and the Home Mission Funds, personal evangelism had declined.

As well as serving as President of the Baptist Union in 1888 and 1898, he was also the first President of the Baptist World Alliance, President of the National Free Church Council and a member of the Fabian Society; in 1921 he was made a Companion of Honour.