THE FIRST PARTICULAR BAPTIST GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
The first General Assembly of the Particular Baptist churches, “the greatest of the Assemblies,” as Marlow calls it, was the one called by a letter from the London churches, the year after the landing of William of Orange. As it marks a new era in the Particular Baptist churches, it may not be without interest to quote the letter entire.
“London, July 22, 1689.
“To the Church of Christ at — . Kind salutations. — We, the elders and ministering brethren of the churches in and about London, being several times assembled together, to consider the present state of the Baptized Congregations, not only in this city, but also in the country, cannot, but first of all, adore the divine wisdom and goodness of Almighty God, in respect of His late most gracious Providence, for our deliverance from that dismal dispensation which threatened us, from the continual and unwearied attempt and designs of the enemy of our sacred religion and civil liberties; by which means our sinking and drooping spirits are again revived, and our earnest hopes and long expectations raised and afresh quickened, in respect of the more full and perfect deliverance of the Church of God, and His more glorious appearance, for the accomplishment of those gracious promises and prophecies contained in the Holy Scriptures relating to the later days.
“But, in the second place, we cannot but bewail the present condition our churches seem to be in, fearing that much of that former strength, life, and vigour which attended us is gone; and in many places the interest of our Lord Jesus Christ seems to be much neglected which is in our hands, and the congregations to languish, and our beauty to fade away, (which thing, we have some ground to judge, you cannot but be sensible of as well as we); and from hence we have been put upon most mature and serious considerations of such things that may be the cause thereof, and amongst others are come to this result — That the great neglect of the present ministry is one thing, together with that general unconcernedness there generally seems to be of giving fit and proper encouragement for the raising up of an able and honourable ministry for the time to come; with many other things which, we hope, we are not left wholly in the dark about, which we find we are not in a capacity to prevent and cure (as instruments in the hands of God, and His blessing attending our Christian endeavours), unless we can obtain a general meeting here in London of two principal brethren, of every church of the same faith with us, in every county respectively. We do, therefore, humbly entreat and beseech you, that you would be pleased to appoint two of your brethren, one of the ministry, and one principal brother of your congregation with him, as your messengers, and send them up to meet with the rest of the elders and brethren of the churches in London, on the third of September next; and then we hope we shall have that before us, and be also helped to consider such things that may much tend to the honour of God, and further the peace, and well-being, and establishment at present, and also the future comfort of the churches. We hope you will readily, notwithstanding the charge [cost], comply with our pious and Christian desires herein; and, in the meantime, to signify your intentions forthwith in a letter, which we shall have you direct to our reverend and well-beloved brethren, Mr. H. Knollys, or Mr. W. Kiffin. This is all, at present, from us, your brethren and labourers in God’s vineyard, who greet you well in the Lord Jesus Christ, and subscribe ourselves your servants in the Gospel, —
“William Kiffin, Benjamin Keach, Hanserd Knollys, Edward Man, John Harris, Richard Adams, George Barrett.”
“Brother Kiffin lives in White’s Alley, Little Moorfields.”
This letter was everywhere well received, and the ministers and messengers of more than a hundred churches in England and Wales met at the time appointed. The Assembly continued its sittings for eight or nine days, was pervaded by a solemn, earnest, and united spirit, and transacted business of real importance to the welfare and prosperity of the churches. The Assembly afterwards issued a pamphlet, entitled — The Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly of divers Pastors, Messengers, and ministering Brethren of the Baptized churches, met together in London, from September 3-12, 1689, from divers parts of England and Wales, owning the doctrine of personal election and final perseverance; sent from, and concerned for more than a hundred congregations of the same faith with themselves.
The first day was spent in
“humbling themselves before the Lord, and in seeking of Him the right way into the best means and method for repairing their breaches, and recovering themselves into their former order, beauty, and glory.”
on the second day, they agreed upon certain preliminaries, as the foundation or rules of their Assembly, in order to guard against any misapprehensions in the minds of the members of their respective churches, declaring that
“they disclaimed all manner of superiority, or superintendency over the churches, having no authority or power to prescribe or impose anything upon the faith or practice of any of the churches of Christ, their whole intendment being to be helpers together of one another, by way of counsel and advice.”
Differences in individual churches in point of communion
“were to be left undisturbed; and differences between one church and another were not allowed to be debated, until the rule that Christ hath given in the matter (“”^Matthew 18:15) be first answered.”
Even their advice is regarded as “not binding to any one church till the consent of that church be first had, and they conclude the same among themselves.” Moreover, “all things offered by way of counsel and advice were to be proved out of the Word of God, and the (particular) Scripture annexed.” The “breviates” of the meeting were to be transcribed and sent to every particular church, with a letter. Each person was to present to the Assembly his letter of recommendation from the church to which he belonged, and none were to be permitted to speak without the general consent of the Assembly. After the letters from the several churches were read, and prayer offered, the meeting adjourned.
On the third day and following days various business was transacted. The first related to the establishment of a Baptist fund. It was agreed, that it should be originated as “a free will offering, to be collected with all convenient speed;” and that this fund should be kept up by annual collections in each church, “weekly, monthly, or quarterly, according to their own convenience.” The fund itself was to be devoted to the following purposes: —
first, to help the weaker churches in the maintenance of their ministers, so that they (the ministers) might give themselves wholly to preaching the Gospel;
secondly, “to send ministers that are ordained, or at least solemnly called to preach, both in city and country, where the Gospel hath, or hath not yet been preached, and to visit the churches” — the ministers to be selected by at least two churches in London or the country; and,
thirdly, “to assist those members that shall be found in any of the churches that are disposed for study, have an inviting gift, and are sound in fundamentals, in attaining to the knowledge and understanding of the languages, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”
Then followed the discussion of numerous questions proposed to the General Assembly by the several churches. It is significant that the very first question discussed was the ever-recurring one even now —
“Whether it be not expedient for churches that live near together, and consisting of small members, and are not able to maintain their own ministry, to join together for the better and more comfortable support of their ministry, and the better edification one of another?”
Of course the Assembly answered in the affirmative. The duty of each church to provide “a comfortable maintenance for the minister, according to its ability,” was also agreed upon in the same way; likewise the propriety of each church “to provide itself with such a minister, and solemnly set him apart his office.” The fourth question reads curiously by the light of our own day —
“Whether baptized believers are not at liberty to hear any sober and pious men of the Independent and Presbyterian persuasions when they have no opportunity to attend upon the preaching of the Word in their own assembly, or have no other to preach to them?”
The “breviates” say, “Concluded affirmatively. ^Acts 18:24, 25, 26.”
Of the other questions on which an opinion was asked, these were some: the unlawfulness of delaying the ordination of “gifted brethren” for many years, whether for the office of elder or deacon; the observance of the apostolic rule about marriage (1 Corinthians 7:39); the evil of neglecting the services agreed upon by the church; and how persons are to be dealt with who “will not communicate to the necessary expenses of the church whereof they are members, according to their ability.” The last question the Assembly thus answered —
“Resolved, that upon clear proof, the persons so offending, as aforesaid, should be duly admonished; and if no reformation appears, the church ought to withdraw from them. Ephesians 5:3; Matthew 25:42; 1 John 3:7.”
Persons who withdrew from “the fellowship of any particular church, and joined themselves to the communion of the National Church,” the Assembly suggested should “be reclaimed by all due means of instruction and admonition;” and if not reclaimed, rejected. They affirmed, in answer to other questions, that believers were actually reconciled, justified, or adopted, when they are really implanted in Jesus Christ by faith; that the first day of the week should be religiously observed as the Lord’s Day; that the excess of luxury in dress was “a shame and scandal, and needed reformation;” that it was an unquestionable advantage
“for our brethren now in the ministry, to obtain a competent knowledge of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin tongues, that they may be the better capable of defending the truth against opposers;”and that” an elder of one church may administer the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper to another church of the same faith, being called so to do by the said church, necessity only being considered.”
In addition to the transaction of this business, the Assembly agreed upon a vindication of themselves, as a whole, “against taking any part in recognising the dispensing power” claimed by James the First, proclaimed their abhorrence of his arbitrary acts, and announced their hearty determination “to venture their all for the Protestant religion, and the liberties of their native country.” That a few congregations should have taken advantage of this “dispensing power,” they urged, was no reason for laying “the whole party under reproach and infamy.” They thus conclude their minute on this subject: —
“We do, with great thankfulness to God, acknowledge His special goodness to these nations in raising up our present King William, to be a blessed instrument in His hand to deliver us from Popery and arbitrary power, and shall always, as in duty bound, pray the Lord may continue him, and his royal consort, long to he a blessing to these kingdoms; and shall always be ready, to the utmost of our ability, in our places, to join our hearts and hands, with the rest of our Protestant brethren, for the preservation of the Protestant religion, and the liberties of the nation.”
The Assembly advised the churches to read the London Confession of Faith; affirmed their approval of “a certain little book, lately recommended by divers elders dwelling in and about the City of London, entitled, The Minister’s. Maintenance Vindicated” (written by Benjamin Keach), urging that it be “dispersed among all our several congregations;” and agreed upon a “circular letter” to the churches generally, in which they recommended the adoption of a general fast for the tenth of October, next ensuing, setting forth their reasons for its appointment. The chief reasons are these: —
“The decay among the churches of first love, faith and zeal for the ways and worship of God; the length of time during which this decay had been going on; and the many more judgments which God had brought upon the nation; the need for penitence, and the out-pouring of God’s Spirit, that they may understand whereabouts they are;” and the call for “earnest cries and supplications to the Lord for the lineal seed of Abraham, the poor Jews.”
The letter was signed by thirty brethren,
“in the name and behalf of the whole Assembly;” and the meeting broke up, with the agreement that the next General Assembly should be held “at London, on that day which is called Whitsun Monday, 1690.”
The proceedings had been opened and concluded every day with solemn prayer. The total number of persons actually present was one hundred and fifty; and so thoroughly united were they in heart and mind, that at the close, they could say, —
“Scarcely one brother dissented from the Assembly in the sentiments of his mind in any one thing proposed to their serious considerations.”
THE SECOND AND THIRD PARTICULAR BAPTIST GENERAL ASSEMBLIES.
The next meeting assembled in June, 1690, and continued its sittings from the ninth to the sixteenth; and a third was held in the same month in the year following. From some remarks made in the letter to the churches written by this third Assembly, it appears that the attendance of the country brethren had not been so numerous at this as at the preceding Assemblies.
“Let not the incident charges you are exposed to,” say they, in inviting those “who live in the country to send up their particular messengers” to the next meeting, “be a discouragement, we being persuaded that our friends in the City who are not liable to such charges, will make a compensation by a more liberal contributing to the public stock.”
In these days of quick travelling to London, and at surprisingly cheap rates as compared with any other time, it is difficult to understand the cost and trouble of a journey nearly two hundred years ago to the metropolis from Wales, or from the most northerly parts of England. The chief business transacted at the third General Assembly related to the Particular Baptist Fund.
At this time (1691), there were at least a dozen Local Associations of the Particular Baptist Denominations in England and Wales: London, Middlesex, Kent and Essex formed one; the churches in Somerset, Dorset, Wilts, Gloucester and Bristol a second; the churches in Oxfordshire and Berks a third; Norfolk and Suffolk a fourth; the Devon churches a fifth; half a dozen churches in Yorkshire, Cumberland and Northumberland, a sixth; the Hampshire churches a seventh; Herts, Bucks and Bedford an eighth; Stepton and Haddenham a ninth; seven churches in South Wales and Hereford a tenth; Carmarthenshire an eleventh; Worcester, Warwick, part of Oxford, Leicester and part of Hereford a twelfth, there being only six churches at that time in the whole of these counties; Broomsgrove, Warwick, Dimock, Hereford, Tewkesbury, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Hook Norton, Alcester, and Kilby.
THE FOURTH PARTICULAR BAPTIST GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
The fourth General Assembly met in London in May, 1692. The associated churches then numbered one hundred and seven. As the Local Associations seemed to have lessened the interest felt in the General Assembly, by supplying a nearer and readier means of fraternization and counsel, the following resolutions were adopted:-
“1. That whereas, for some years past, the churches have had several associate and county meetings, and one General one in London annually, it is now proposed to divide this General meeting into two, and to keep one in the west, and another in the east; that in the west to be at Bristol, and the other in London. It is desired that all the churches will send messengers once a year, as may be most for their conveniency: and that either from their particular churches, or those that live remote from such Associations as they think meet to keep.
2. That the meeting at Bristol be kept annually at the time called Easter; and that at London at the time called Whitsuntide.
3. That two messengers be sent down from London every time to that at Bristol, and also two sent up from that at Bristol to London, for the maintaining of General Communion.”
Again the Assembly showed great anxiety about “the fund” for “keeping those ministers that are poor,” and “for the education of those brethren that may be approved to learn the knowledge of those tongues wherein the Scriptures are written.” Churches were urged, “for the better keeping up of the fund, to make their collections quarterly.”
Something of the difficulty already felt by the General Baptists in their Assembly now began to trouble the Particular Baptists; and they also guarded themselves from degenerating into a Court of Appeal by agreeing;
“(1) that these Assemblies are not to be accountable to one another any more than churches are.
(2) That no churches make appeals to them to determine matters of faith or fact; but pro-pose or query for advice.”
The question about “singing the praises of God in public Assemblies” was referred by this Assembly to seven brethren; but the account of this we shall give in a subsequent chapter.
Although there were only one hundred and seven churches represented in this fourth Assembly, it must not be sup-posed that the whole of the churches in England “owning the doctrines of personal election and final perseverance” accepted the invitation. There were many churches in Bedfordshire, for example, founded by the labours of John Bunyan, which were not included. The “prince of allegorists,” as Macaulay styles Bunyan, did not make baptism by immersion on a profession of faith a condition of church fellowship; in which he was also supported by Henry Jessey and Vavasor Powell; but the brethren who were united together in this General Assembly were chiefly on the opposite side, and both William Kiffin and Henry d’Anvers among the Calvinistic Baptists, and Henry Bonne among the General Baptists, wrote with some bitterness, at least, so Bunyan tells us, in favour of their opinions.
THE FIFTH PARTICULAR BAPTIST GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
The fifth General Assembly met at Bristol the following April. The first day was spent “in solemnly seeking the face of God in prayer, for counsel, advice, and guidance” in their work.
“On the second day, after seeking the Lord, the letters from the several churches were read, and a particular relation of the state of all the churches was given in by their several messengers. Some questions were proposed, and the meeting was dismissed, with the blessing of God.”
The remaining days during which the Assembly continued its sittings were spent in discussing the various questions proposed to it by the different churches. Chief among these were some touching certain “irregularities,” as they were deemed, which had crept into the churches, in regard to the administration of the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. The Assembly declared “that no private brother (however gifted), if not solemnly called to the ministerial office, and separated thereto, ought to administer” either the one or the other; but an elder might,
“called to the office by the suffrage of the church, who had not yet been ordained by the laying on of hands.”
They were equally emphatic in discouraging men “who, being vainly puffed up with their fleshly minds, did presume to preach publicly, without being solemnly called and appointed by the church thereto.”
“We advise and desire,” say they, “that every particular church would do what in them lies to discountenance this practice, and to prevent all such from exercising their pretended gift, it being contrary to “^Romans 10:15. And also that they would not send forth, nor suffer, any person among themselves to preach publicly of whose qualification they had not had sufficient trial, and whom they had not called thereto; that the name of God may not be dishonoured, the peace of the churches disturbed, nor the reputation of the ministry blemished.”
The question of “the education of youth,” had also been troubling some of the older men. They were afraid that this constant desire on the part of the Assembly to encourage and help young men in acquiring a knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek languages, sprang out of a mistaken preference for human learning; or, at any rate, an opinion that they regarded such learning as “equal with the gifts of the Spirit.” The Assembly quieted the nerves of these less educated brethren, by declaring, that “they abhor and detest any such principle and practice;” regard “the gift of edification as a distinct thing from acquired parts;” are not ignorant of the fact “that men may attain the greatest degrees in human learning, and yet, notwithstanding, be ignorant of Christ and His glorious Gospel.” They are also quite willing to confess “that God does sometimes bestow greater gifts, for the edification of His Church, on some who have not attained a knowledge of the tongues, than He doth on some others who have;” “that still the churches of Jesus Christ should improve what gifts they have, and pray for more.” Of course it was “a great snare and very dangerous,” to think that “the hidden wisdom of God” could be comprehended by mere human learning; and it was “a great abuse of such learning, if it puffed men up, made them lean upon it, and despise the brethren who had the gift of edification, but lacked their education.”
“The knowledge of tongues, moreover, is not essential, or absolutely necessary, to constitute a minister of the Gospel;” and yet “they dare not limit the Holy One, who bestows gifts for edification upon the learned, as well as upon the unlearned.”
THE SIXTH PARTICULAR BAPTIST GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
The sixth General Assembly was held in London in June of the same year; that is, two months later than the meeting at Bristol. Andrew Gifford and George Fownes (the last died in Gloucester Jail) were the Bristol delegates. The first and second days were spent in a similar manner to the first and second days at Bristol. The four remaining days were given up to business. The rules of the first Assembly were now somewhat relaxed: “Every one had liberty to speak without interruption;” and difference of opinion would be listened to “if expressed with Christian charity.” After reading and assenting to the minutes of the Bristol Assembly, they again determined “to continue and uphold the Fund.” It was also agreed,
“that a Catechism be drawn up, containing the substance of the Christian religion, for he instruction of children and servants.”
From his knowledge and judgment, William Collins, the pastor of the church in Petty France, was wisely selected to draw up this Catechism, many editions of which were afterwards published. “It continues to be,” wrote Dr. Underhill in 1854, “the only Catechism of value among (Particular) Baptists.” In the preface to this Catechism, it is declared that, as their Confession “was almost in all points the same as that of the (Westminster) Assembly and Savoy;” so, in this “shorter account of Christian principles,” there is a close agreement with the shorter Catechism of the Assembly.” The only other item of business was a resolution agreeing “that the Confession of the baptized churches of the last impression should be translated into Latin, with all convenient speed;” a resolution which seems to have remained a dead letter.
The seventh General Assembly met in Bristol in April 1694. From the letter which they addressed to the London churches, it is evident that their old affection for these General Assemblies had declined. The Bristol brethren wrote to say “that they were grieved that the very men who, a few years ago, had done so much to promote Associations,” had grown lukewarm in regard to them; that they were “troubled” at the delay in the publication of the Catechism, which the London churches “had minuted that brother Collins should draw up;” and hoped thousands would be soon printed, “and sent abroad to the churches.”
From this time we hear no more of the General Assemblies of the Particular Baptists in London; but the Western half of the Assembly continued to meet annually from 1696 to 1730, and the records have been preserved of every year but one between those dates.