The British Particular Baptists 1638-1910: Vol. I.

Particular Baptist Press

     Thomas Watson (1633-1686) wisely wrote,

“Get books into your houses, when you have not the spring near you, then get some water into your cisterns; so when you have not that wholesome preaching that you desire, good books are cisterns that hold the water of life in them to refresh you; so, when you find a chillness upon your souls, and that your former heat begins to abate, ply yourselves with warm clothes, get those good books that may acquaint you with such truths as may warm and affect your hearts.”

     Though we are overflooded with ‘Christian’ books nowadays, the kind recommended by Watson are still few and far between. Those wishing for good solid material on the history of the Baptists and especially Particular Baptists often have to rely on meagre fare. Gary Long of the Particular Baptist Press felt the same way and asked Michael Haykin to compile and edit modern essays on the Particular Baptists of the past to fill three hardbacked volumes, each containing twelve studies. This was good news to me as I was striving to find information on the Stennetts, Francis, the Medleys, the Evanses, Spilsbury, Steadman and the Three Ks (Knollys, Kiffin and Keach) and discovering that source-searching is hard, time-consuming work. The first volume is now out and features articles on Spilsbury, Knollys, Kiffin, Bunyan, Keach, the Stennetts, Gill, Beddome, Ryland Sen., Hall Sen., Caleb Evans and Samuel Medley.

     Happily the ‘Hyper-bashing’ formerly associated with this team of authors has almost disappeared, John Gill is seen more positively and the former wild enthusiasm for Andrew Fuller has been tamed. Yet these two men are still seen as the main exponents of the Particular Baptists with Michel Haykin concluding his Introduction with the open question,

“Was Gill a cause of Particular Baptist decline in the eighteenth century and Fuller a catalyst for renewal? Or was Gill’s theology a landmark that should not have been tampered with, and Fuller’s writings, therefore, an instrument of declension?”

     All these essays are well-worth reading, my favourites being B. A. Ramsbottom on the Stennetts and Allen Smith’s pen-portrait of Bunyan. Indeed, it is good to see these fine subjects ranked as Particular Baptists as much modern criticism has been aimed at throwing them out of this august gathering; Bunyan for his broad, pan-Biblical teaching on Baptism and the Stennets for their rather narrow, Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath, which I, personally, find does not spoil their testimony at all. I was also very pleased to read Haykin’s study of Beddome, a much neglected link-figure amongst the PBs.

     All the essays give readers an insight into the life, calling, testimony and works of these men and also deal with the controversies that arose during their ministries. Not one was bedded in roses but all triumphed over great problems whether of a personal, family, church, social or political kind.

     No book can do everything and those who wished to delve deeper into Baptist origins may well be disappointed as the question of from whence Baptists sprang is almost ignored. Spilsbury, the first subject, suddenly emerges out of the fog of history. Also, though it is obvious that the writers are all immersionists, the question of when is baptism not baptism is hardly raised. Also, the early problem of the non-baptised baptising their fellow-believers and the question of self-baptism are only scantily mentioned. Each author keeps to his own framework so that what is highlighted in one subject, is ignored in others, though they, too, addressed the same problems. Thus Knollys is mentioned for his hymn-singing but the essay on the Father of Particular Baptists, Kiffin, does not mention how he was equally vocal against the singing of man-made rhymes.

     Though one would expect all the authors to pull together in a common witness in the work, we have several cases of those in one essay quite contradicting the findings of their fellow-subscribers. Robert Oliver on Gill, for instance, names Tom Nettles, saying how he “feels compelled to disagree with his assessment of Gill’s Hyper-Calvinism”. Nettles, however, is clearly more abreast of modern research and Oliver has merely forwarded an old essay, already published twice and reviewed in this magazine, which does not take into consideration the more intensive studies of the team led by Michael Haykin who have made enormous progress in these fields. Oliver is the only author to directly link Gill with Hyper-Calvinism. Notably, the definitions of Hyper-Calvinism made by the author-team exonerate Gill from such an accusation. He preached repentance and faith to all, was most missionary minded and argued that those who denied Christ merely aggravated their own doom. These are the reoccurring supposed ‘signs’ of the true ‘Hyper’ depicted in this book.

     Several of the authors refer to a ‘free offer’ of salvation to all, the denial of which they claim is Hyper-Calvinism. Here, of course, Gill begged to differ for very sound, Biblical reasons. He denied the free offer of a universal atonement to all but he affirmed the responsibility of all ministers everywhere to preach the whole gospel to the whole man as the Spirit leads. Sadly, those who today speak of a ‘free offer’ miss out the essential elements of the atonement and the doctrines of grace. Though they may preach to all, they do not preach the gospel to all, but argue, as Fuller, that the major doctrines are for believers only. In this matter, the Fullerites join hands with the, often imaginary, Hypers. The only author in the symposium under review who really underlines this most questionable teaching is Kirk Wellum on Caleb Evans when he argues, “Following the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), he (Evans) argued that men and women did not come to God through Christ because they were morally unwilling and rebellious, not because they lacked the natural ability (the thinking, feeling, willing facilities) to respond to the call of God in the gospel. They did not come because they did not want to come.”

     Though Edwards distinguishes between moral and natural abilities, they are all fallen to him, whereas this teaching, as Dr Kirby in his The Theology of Andrew Fuller and Its Relation to Calvinism, sums up Fullerism, claims that sinners “could if they would’ accept Christ. Surely the Scriptures teach that sinners will not accept Christ on their own initiative because they cannot. They have neither the morals, the will nor any other natural ability to do so. Happily, of the twelve subjects in this collection, perhaps Hall Sen. alone would have agreed with Mr Wellum’s Evans, and even he would have had his reservations!

     Another key figure in the development of the PBs was John Ryland Sen., so I was interested to see what Peter Naylor made of him. Happily, Naylor does not call Ryland a Hyper because he taught the free and absolute gift of God to His own in the gospel and not a mere offer. He also clearly defines Ryland’s opposition to Alvery Jackson’s and Fuller’s ‘quiddities’. However, Naylor takes the word to mean ‘essentials’ whereas Ryland used the word in the opposite meaning as in ‘quid est quid’ or quid libet, i.e. a senseless, illogical point of no value, a mere quibble. Naylor gives some new and very interesting reasons why Ryland protested against Carey’s plans for India. The best reason probably remains the old one, i.e. that Ryland thought Carey ill-prepared for the work.

     Some denominational bigotry is shown in Naylor’s handling of the deep friendship of Ryland with Anglican James Hervey as if Hervey gave Ryland an inferiority complex for being a mere Dissenter. This is an insult to both men. Here, references of Hervey and Toplady to Ryland are totally misapplied and given a faulty context. Naylor rightly highlights Ryland’s double calling as a teacher and preacher-pastor but believes he neglected the latter in his final years after 1785, claiming “The holy ministry will not brook rivals.” Many famous pastors have wisely left their pastorates to younger men when old age overtook them but, nevertheless, carried on an itinerant ministry. This was the case with Ryland who preached his greatest sermons when a very old man as numerous contemporaries testify. Indeed, the ‘classic’ example of Ryland’s preaching ability which Naylor gives was delivered on 29th August, 1790, shortly before his terminal illness. In the secondary source which Naylor gives, the date of delivery is clearly given and the author, Ryland’s colleague and relation William Newman, describes what an enormous impression this sermon made on the congregation.

     On the whole, this book is a mine of information in an easily digested form and conveys many blessings. It is amazing what the bulk of these Particular Baptists were enabled to do through the mercies of God, though most were denied a university education and a silver-spoon birth. It is where these men are seen in their pastoral care that moved me most. One page of B. A. Ramsbottom’s description of Medley as a pastor uplifted and admonished me so much that I would have bought the book just to have that passage on hand as a humble reminder of how I ought to be. Yet each writer has such gems, though they might be more or less evident. I can thoroughly recommend this fine little book, mixed-bag as it is. An index would have greatly enhanced the book but, after checking with the editor, I hear that one is planned for volume III to cover all volumes.