In recent days, political theology has re-emerged, and rightly so, as a concern of Baptists. For much of the last century, far too many Baptists did not engage in significant reflection on the relationship of the church and state. A variety of reasons might be cited for this failure, but a lack of an earlier tradition of such reflection cannot be cited as one of them. Seventeenth-century Baptist congregations in the British Isles, for example, did not have the luxury of not thinking about political theology as their existence was all too frequently threatened by state legislation and state coercion. For example, Chapter 24 of the Second London Confession of Faith, which provides a succinct statement of political theology, was originally written in the matrix of persecution.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660 in the person of Charles II, there was an attempt, through the body of legislation known as the Clarendon Code (1661–1665), to compel uniformity of worship in England and Wales according to the revised Book of Common Prayer (1662). Those who refused to abide by this legislation, including the Particular Baptists, found themselves the subjects of state harassment, social marginalization, hefty fines, and even incarceration. Pastoral leadership was especially targeted and many Particular Baptist pastors, as well as those from Congregationalist and Presbyterian communities and other dissenting groups, emerged from prison with their health deeply impaired.
On occasion, full-fledged attacks were carried out on the rank and file of congregations. On June 29, 1662, for example, a squad of soldiers came to the Baptist congregation in Petty France—where the Second London Confession was penned fifteen years later. The church Minute Book recorded that the soldiers were ‘full of rage and violence, with their swords drawn; they wounded some, and struck others, broke down the gallery, and made much spoil’. The following month, when another London Baptist congregation was subjected to a similar attack, one of the attackers, whose name was Brown, punched a number of pregnant women in the congregation, ‘striking … them with his fists such blows that made them reel’. Although there were periods of respite—for example, in 1672, when Charles I issued a Declaration of Indulgence, and then again in 1687 when his brother James II made a similar declaration—there was no lasting peace from persecution till 1688, when a coup d’état installed the tolerant William III and his wife Mary II.
The Particular Baptists were thus compelled to give significant thought as to how God had intended church and state to relate to one another. The Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), from which the Particular Baptist confession drew much of its content, had four articles on the church-state relations. The first one, which was largely reproduced in the Baptist confession, is essentially a restatement of Romans 13:1–4, namely, that civil government is ordained by God and that God has authorized the use of political power for the ‘defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers’ (Second London Confession 24.1). It goes without saying that those who affirmed this statement were convinced that the violence that they experienced from the government between 1660 and 1688 was an illegitimate use of state authority.
The Particular Baptists were frequently identified with the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, who believed that a Christian could not occupy the office of a civil magistrate and that participation in a war was antithetical to Christian discipleship. The declaration in Chapter 24.2 that it was ‘lawful for Christians to accept, and execute the office of magistrate’ and, on appropriate occasions, ‘wage war’ was thus obviously important for those who framed this confession. The Particular Baptists were not Anabaptists, nor did they find their heritage in those sixteenth-century communities. Again, the Baptist confession essentially reproduced the parallel statement in the Westminster Confession (and that of the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration).
The next paragraph in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession authorized the use of political force so as to make sure that the ‘truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed’ (Westminster Confession 23.3). The Congregationalists modified this in order to emphasize that where there were differences between Christians about what might be called secondary issues, there was ‘no warrant for the magistrate under the gospel to abridge them of their liberty’ (Savoy Declaration 24.3). Yet, the Congregationalists still maintained that the government had a duty to ensure that ‘men of corrupt minds and conversations do not licentiously publish and divulge blasphemy and errors, in their own nature subverting the faith and inevitably destroying the souls of them that receive them’ (Savoy Declaration 24.3). The Particular Baptists, though, did not believe that civil governments were to play a role in securing the purity of the Faith and thus completely omitted this paragraph. It was from texts like these that what has come to be called the principle of separation of church and state had its origin. Without going into detail, it is important to stress that this did not mean that the Baptists who wrote and who affirmed this confession believed that Christians had no role to play in the public square.
The wording of the third and final paragraph in this chapter of the Baptist confession differs from the final paragraphs in the parallel statements of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist declarations of faith. The latter, which are identical, had emphasized the necessity of praying for those in political authority and being subject to their lawful commands. ‘Infidelity, or difference in religion’, they went to stress, ‘doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority’. And both the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration had for their concluding sentence in their parallel paragraphs a statement denying papal political authority (Westminster Confession 23.4; Savoy Declaration 24.4). Instead of employing this paragraph, however, the Baptists went back to the wording of the First London Confession to make similar emphases:
Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty (24.3).
Comparison with the 1646 edition, that is, the second edition, of the First London Confession of Faith reveals this earlier Particular Baptist confession as the clear origin of the wording in the Second London Confession 24.3:
A civil magistracy is an ordinance of God set up by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well; and that in all lawful things, commanded by them, subjection ought to be given by us in the Lord: not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and that we are to make supplications and prayers for kings, and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (First London Confession 48).
Here, the authors of this early Baptist confession are building their thought not only upon Romans 13 but also 1 Timothy 2, which commands prayer for those in political authority. Scholars debate to what degree we have here in these three paragraphs the modern notion of religious freedom and toleration. But what is clear is that in the minds of these Baptists, the legal and political powers-that-be have no right to exercise their authority in the internal life of Christian communities of faith. And that is a precious truth. As the preface to the Savoy Declaration had put it:
The Spirit of Christ is in himself too free, great and generous a Spirit, to suffer himself to be used by any human arm, to whip men into belief; he drives not, but gently leads into all truth, and persuades men to dwell in the tents of like precious faith; which would lose of its preciousness and value, if that sparkle of freeness shone not in it.
Tuesday 19th October 2021