A brief Baptist Church history

Joyce Brooke, Joyce Patterson and John R Hudson

5 The twentieth century

5.1 John Howard Shakespeare

At the Nottingham assembly in 1898 John Howard Shakespeare succeeded Samuel Harris Booth as General Secretary of the Baptist Union and embarked on a campaign to raise the profile and reorganise the management of the Baptist Union. Part of the motivation for its formation had been a desire to co-ordinate support for the Baptist Missionary Society and it had operated from the BMS headquarters for most of its existence.

He therefore proposed setting up a Twentieth Century Fund for:

In 1903 the BU moved out of their rooms at the BMS in Furnival Street to Baptist Church House, Southampton Row, where the BMS also had new accommodation.

In 1904 he oversaw the setting up of the Young Persons Union and the Baptist Total Abstinence Association and in 1905 the Baptist Insurance Company and the Baptist World Alliance. There had been Baptist Churches in North America since 1639 and there had been contact between them and Baptists in the UK as well as with missionaries who had spread Baptist ideas worldwide so that, though the first Baptists were English, the denomination was often much stronger in other parts of the world. For example, dissenting settler congregations in the American West had often adopted Baptist principles because Baptist ministers did not have to have a lengthy education or the laying on of hands to become ministers, both of which could be difficult to arrange. In 1904 John Newton Prestridge, editor of The Baptist Argus, at Louisville, Kentucky, had called for a world gathering of Baptists which John Howard Shakespeare had endorsed and, in October 1904, the Baptist Union of Great Britain passed a resolution to invite a Congress to meet with them in July 1905 when the Baptist World Alliance was formed (Wikipedia 2009).

In 1908 the Baptist Historical Society was founded and in 1910 the Baptist Women's League. In 1890 the London Baptist Association had founded the Baptist Deaconesses Home and Mission; this had become independent in 1894 and led to the development of deaconesses and then to the Baptist Women's League. Deaconesses did valuable welfare and pastoral work within the denomination and in 1975 were offered the opportunity to transfer to the accredited list of ministers. In January 2009 Mabel Ingram, the last surviving deaconess, who had declined the offer to join the accredited list, died (Hobson 2009).

1910 saw the first inquiry about entry to ministry from a woman but she did not proceed. In 1918 Edith Gates became minister of Little Tew and Cleveley, Oxfordshire, and in 1922 she was enrolled as a probationer by the Recognition Committee.

In 1924 Violet Hedger became the first female student to complete her studies at Regent's Park College but did not get a church until 1926 when she went to Littleover in Derbyshire. By this time Maria Living-Taylor had been recommended by the Essex Association and was in fact working alongside her husband at Sion Jubilee Church, Bradford. But the number of women Baptist ministers remained small and only since the merging of the Deaconesses Order with the accredited list has their number begun to edge up in the wake of increases in other professions, though churches are often reluctant to appoint women ministers (Hayden 2005).

There had been an accredited list of BU ministers since 1887 and the 1907 Assembly agreed in principle to accept all ministers approved by Associations prior to 1900 with relaxed rules for those starting between 1900 and 1907; thereafter, only accredited ministers should get funds from the Union. However, the scheme was not fully accepted until 1910 and not fully operational for another six years.

Meanwhile, in 1912, John Howard Shakespeare had proposed a Sustentation Fund to supplement the stipends of poor ministers and to pay for ten general superintendents; the Superintendents were in place in 1915, five of them being ex-Association secretaries who were now paid for centrally rather than locally. From 1916 help with ministers' stipends was conditional on some form of inspection from the new Superintendents.

He reorganised the Baptist Tract and Book Society into the Kingsgate Press and purchased The Freeman newspaper which had been founded in 1855; in 1910 he purchased The Baptist and merged them to become The Baptist Times, which he edited. It was published by the BU until 1960 when it became independent again but declining sales meant it was only able to continue in the twenty-first century with financial support from the BU. In 2011 it was wound up and in 2012 replaced by a website run by the BU Communications Department.

The formation of the Free Church Federation in 1892, which became the National Free Churches Council, and the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference inspired huge confidence in Christians which was to be shattered by the experience of the First World War. In The churches at the cross-roads John Howard Shakespeare (1918) accepted the possibility of episcopacy as the price for unity but he was opposed at the 1919 Assembly by T R Glover, Classics Fellow at St John's, Cambridge, and, when the 1920 Lambeth conference made clear that unity could only be based on episcopal succession, Shakespeare's vision became discredited. He gave his last major sermon at the Baptist World Alliance in Stockholm in 1923, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in 1925 and died in 1928.

Though Shakespeare had pointed to the true origins of Baptists in the separatist and congregationalist movements (Hayden 2005), he had taken the Baptist Union away from those first visions and created a Baptist Union with a lot of power through its control of resources but no responsibility since responsibility remains with individual Baptist churches. A century later, the dilemmas posed by Shakespeare's reforms still haunt the Baptist Union.

5.2 Ecumenism and mission

In 1926 Melbourne E Aubrey took over as General Secretary and remained in post until 1951. He gained a lot of support from Dr H Wheeler Robinson, who had become Principal of Regent's Park College in 1920 and steered its move from London to Oxford where it is now a college within the University. But he had to deal with the fallout of Shakespeare's concern for wider church unity in the form of the Baptist Bible Union which brought together those who objected to the BU and also challenged the way the BMS was being managed.

The nineteen-thirties saw a discipleship campaign and the increasing involvement of the Union in social and political issues, including that of pacifism. With the Second World War, the issue of how ministers should respond was avoided with the decision by the government that ministers would be a reserved occupation, needed to help in the reconstruction after the war.

In 1937 the first meeting to consider a World Council of Churches was held but further work was put off by the war and it was eventually founded in 1948. The following year, Baptists from all over Europe met at Rüschlikon in Switzerland to form the European Baptist Federation which now has members throughout, and a few from outside, Europe.

In 1951 E A Payne succeeded Melbourne Aubrey and he in turn was succeeded by David S Russell1 in 1967, Bernard Green in 1982, David Coffey in 1991 and Jonathan Edwards in 2006.

The Baptist World Alliance held jubilees in 1955 and in 2005 when David Coffey became President of the BWA.

Meanwhile, the BMS, now BMS World Mission, had greatly increased the number of countries in which it is working including many in Europe and the number of ways in which it is possible to serve as a missionary, from Action Teams which undertake six month projects, through short and medium term commitments to mission to long term missionary service of the sort traditional until the middle of the twentieth century.

The National Free Church Council was succeeded by the British Council of Churches and in 1987 the BU along with other denominations adopted a statement on Christian unity which replaced the British Council of Churches with the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland since 1 September 1990) incorporating the Roman Catholics. Within this grouping, the BU regularly cooperates with the Methodist and United Reformed Churches on matters of social concern.

In 1989 the Baptist Union decided to leave its premises in Southampton Row for new premises, Baptist House, which opened in Didcot in 1990 and now accommodate the BU, the BMS and the headquarters of the Girls Brigade of England and Wales as well as providing conference facilities for Baptists and others. However, in 2011 a financial crisis at the Baptist Union prompted the establishment of a Futures Group which proposed focusing resources on accredited ministers, devolving many Home Mission responsibilities to associations and reducing the number of associations (Futures Group 2012). It is too soon to see where that will take the Baptist Union but the strict Calvinist churches who declined to join two centuries ago continue to maintain that tradition and to regard themselves as inheritors of the traditions laid down by the first English Particular Baptists nearly 400 years ago.

It is easy to worship as Baptists in Britain today, but in many parts of the world people are still being persecuted because of their faith; Baptists continue to stand on their faith in human rights campaigns both in supposedly developed countries and against repressive regimes while some have joined peacemaker groups in war-torn parts of the world, bringing Baptists in the tradition of Thomas Helwys back in touch with the Mennonites whom John Smyth joined over 400 years ago.

1Former Principal of Rawdon and Joint Principal of Northern Baptist Colleges.