The Battles of the Early Baptists
The opening words of the First London Confession let us know immediately that this confession was made in response to certain untrue assertions.
“A confession of faith of seven congregations or churches of Christ in London, which are commonly, but unjustly called Anabaptists; published for the vindication of the truth and information of the ignorant; likewise for the taking off those aspersions which are frequently, both in pulpit and print, unjustly cast upon them.”
It was important to the English Baptists that they be properly distinguished from those who were known as the anabaptists. The anabaptists (re-baptizers) were so named by their enemies because of their commitment to the baptism of adult believers. But this was not the only position which set them apart. They had begun as an offshoot of the church reforms instigated by Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. They were often called the Radicals because their teachings were teachings seemed so far removed from the other reformers.
One of the most significant moments of the controversy was when a group of anabaptists gained control over the German city of Munster. They kicked out the city council and attempted to setup a new kingdom of God on earth. “Half-clothed and with religious zeal, the “rebaptizers” ran around the streets singing about the honour that awaited God’s chosen ones, promising peace and prosperity.” (citation). This was a brutal rebellion which happened in the 1530s and though it was a century earlier, was still fresh in the minds of the English in the 1640s. It is easy to understand why the Baptists of England wanted to distance themselves from a radical group whose primarily similarity was the baptizing of believers only.
The Baptists were also charged with sexual immorality within their meetings, arguing that they baptized — and did other activities — naked.
“Daniel Featley (1582-1645), as influential, outspoken minister devoted to the Church of England and critical of Puritanism, penned a scurrilous attack on the baptists entitled The Dippers Dipt. Or, The Anabaptists duck’d and plunged Over Head and Ears (1645). In it, he maintained that the Baptists were in the habit of stripping stark naked, not only when they flock in great multitudes, men and women together, to their Jordans to be Dipt; but also upon other occasions, when the season permits” (confession, pg xi).
But this was not their only battle, as there was also the concern within the Baptist churches of two dissenting opinions which needed to be distinguished. The General Baptists and the Particular Baptists held opposing viewpoints in regard to the doctrines of predestination and free will. The General Baptists held to arminian theology and the Particular Baptists held to Calvinistic theology. Keep in mind, this was long before anyone had ever heard of The Five Points of Calvinism as is most often expressed today — this was a much more broad understanding of God’s nature, attributes, will and purpose. If we look at the arguments made against the Particular Baptists, it is apparent they were being confused with their General Baptist teachings, as they were accused of “holding free will, falling away from grace and denying original sin” (confession, pg x), all of which would have been consistent with the General Baptist arminian position.
“Consequently, in 1644 the London Calvinistic Baptist leadership decided to issue a confession of faith, which would demonstrate once and for all their fundamental solidarity with the international Calvinist community…. This Confession seems to have accomplished its goal in defusing the criticism of many fellow Puritans, and it soon became the the doctrinal standard for the first period of Calvinistic Baptist advance” (confession, pg xii).
The Structure of the First London Baptist Confession
As is true of many confessions of faith, the First London Baptist Confession did not arise without influence from previous writings.
“Dr Barrie White has demonstrated that the First London Confession was heavily dependent on the English Separatist Confession of 1596. Twenty six of its fifty three articles clearly derive from this earlier statement. There are obvious points of difference. The Separatists were paedobaptists, and, as has already been shown, the Baptists were careful to affirm their distinctives at this point.” (citation)
The First Twenty Articles Deal with the nature and attributes of God, the doctrine of the Trinity, divine election, the fall and sinfulness of all humanity, and the person and work of christ in His offices of Prophet, Priest, and King.
The next section (Articles 21-32) deal with the work of salvation and unequivocally reveal the confession’s Calvinism, expressing faith as a gift from God (22) and particular atonement (
Articles 33-47 deal with ecclesiology, the doctrine if the church. This section outlines clearly the doctrine of Baptism, even indicating that it be done by “dipping or plunging the body under water”.
“In the margin alongside the Article, there was also a pointed refutation of the charge that the Baptists, in their administration of the ordinance of baptism, engaged in acts of immorality. When the Baptism of believers was carried out, it specified that “convenient garments be both iron the administrator and the subject, with all modesty” (confession, pg xv).
Articles 48-51 are intended to rebut any accusations regarding the Baptists being connected with the anabaptist revolutionaries. Notable among these is the ability of a Christian to serve as a civil magistrate and to take an oath, something the anabaptists would have disputed.
The confession ends with Article 52, which is a statement regarding the final resurrection and coming judgment. It is a reminder that every person will have to give an account of himself to God.
The Differences Between the First and Second London Baptist Confession
One of the questions which will come up in regard to our adoption of a confession of faith is why we chose to go with the First London Confession rather than the Second London Confession. Among Reformed Baptists, the Second London Confession is certainly more popular, longer, and in some places even clearer than the First. But we believe there are some things in the Second London Confession which we would not be able to affirm and therefore we chose to use the First.
Among the most difficult for us as a congregation is our position on the Sabbath. We do not believe that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” but rather we believe Sunday to be the Lord’s Day, distinct from the Jewish Sabbath. The Second London Confession clearly teaches Sunday as a Christian Sabbath.
Some would argue, as does Dr. James Renihan, that the First and Second Confessions are fundamentally the same in regard to their theology.
“There is no substantial theological difference between the First and Second London Confessions. I get very much bothered when I read statements asserting or inferring that there is some kind of theological difference between these two great confessions.” (Confessing the Faith in 1644 and 1689, Renihan).
While it may be the case that the framers of the 1644/46 Confession held the same sabbatarian teachings as those in 1689, it is not contained in the document itself. Often those who adopt the Second Confession, but who do not hold to a Sabbatarian position, will simply omit that section of the confession, or add an asterisk or other note beside that section explaining their dissension from it. We chose, rather than doing that, to adopt a confession we did not have to edit or qualify.
Additionally, the Sabbath is not the only place where we would differ as a church with the 1689. We do not teach the same view of the Lord’s Table as does the 1689, nor do we hold the same perspective regarding the identity of the Antichrist. Again, while we affirm the document to be a wonderful teaching tool, we just believe there would be too many places in it where we would have to qualify, and the same is not true of the 1646 confession.
But something else needs to be stated from a historic perspective. The Second London Confession has entire sections which are clearly adopted from the Westminster Confession of Faith, a presbyterian document.
“It is important to understand why the Second London Baptist Confession was adopted. With King Charles II at the helm, there was persecution and harsh restrictions for dissenters due to the Clarendon Code of 1661 adopted by the pro-Anglican Parliament. The Conventicle Act of 1664 prohibited anyone six years old and up from gathering for worship at any service other than those approved by the Church of England. In 1665, the Five Mile Act required the dissenters to swear that they would not rebel against the king or his government, or they would be exiled. Charles approved the Act of Uniformity in 1662. The Church of England wanted uniformity of religion. The churches of that time period wanted toleration and Baptists needed people to know they were good sound Protestants like the Presbyterians and Congregationalists and not crazy like the extreme wing of the Anabaptists and the Quakers. The so-called dissenters needed to show doctrinal unity so the Congregationalists followed the larger body of Presbyterians, who had ruled under Cromwell, and the Particular Baptists followed the Congregationalists in order to show a unified front. The Congregationalists adopted an adapted version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) in 1658 in the Savoy Declaration. The Baptists met in London in 1677 to edit the Westminster Confession to fit their credobaptist theology, changing it on the church, polity, sacraments, and religious liberty.” (On Covenants, Blake White)
So, it is not unfair to say that the 1689 was produced for the practical purpose of showing unity between the Baptists and the other non-conforming churches, namely the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.
CONCLUSION: The Elders who serve in every church have the duty to study and decide what Confession they will present to their people — if they choose one at all. And there will always be a variety of opinions as to which one is better. Certainly all of the great reformed confessions have their high points. Some of the most beautifully articulated doctrinal writings are found in documents like the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, the majority of which we would agree. But we certainly could not affirm it for the church as it espouses paedobaptism as well as other doctrines we would not.
In the end, whatever confession we affirm will always be subject to and underneath the Scripture, which is our ultimate and final authority.
So, our reason for adopting the 1646 is simple. Among those confessions we examined, we were most confident that it articulates what we believe the Bible teaches. By adopting it, we have placed ourselves in the long line of biblically faithful Calvinistic baptists from the past.
Baptist historian W.J. McGlothlin writes of the 1646 Confession: “It is perhaps the most independent of the Baptist Confessions, and is one of the noblest productions ever put forth by them. It probably still represents the views of the Baptists of the world more nearly than any other single Confession.”