Every text has a context and thus many rightly stress the importance of the historical background to the Second London Confession (1689). Often included in assessments of this confession is the social, political and ecclesiastical context. However, frequently overlooked or undervalued is the experiential context. A superficial knowledge of the seventeenth-century Calvinistic Baptists can easily lead to false conclusions. Some may presume that they were narrow-minded schismatics more concerned with splitting ecclesiastical hairs than promoting a saving knowledge of God. Such a presumption is far from the truth. They believed a saving and experiential knowledge of God was shared corporately, and it fuelled their doctrine of the church.
For example, David Bebbington references the Calvinistic Baptist churches belonging to the West Country Association as requiring more than a mere confession for active participation in church life. Equally necessary was a ‘declaration of an experimental work of the Spirit upon the heart … being attended with evident tokens of conversion’. For these Christian communities, salvation, though deeply personal, was not individualistic. Requirements such as these undergird much of Calvinistic Baptist ecclesiology. What follows is a short account of the experiential emphasis among those Baptists who gathered in London in the early fall of 1689.
Three documents that illuminate the Calvinistic Baptists’ experiential context are The Letter Calling for the 1689 General Assembly, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly and The Second London Baptist Confession. In the introduction to each document, a profoundly spiritual, pastoral and experiential concern pervades. Errol Hulse noted that by 1689 ‘an alarming indifference to spiritual things soon began to prevail and sluggishness overcame the churches.’ As will be observed, the public ‘owning’ of the Second London Baptist Confession in 1689 did not arise out of a context of spiritual vibrancy, but one of spiritual decline. This point may surprise some readers. Nevertheless, the Calvinistic Baptist communities described themselves as living in a ‘backsliding day’. However, there is a great reward to be gained by taking into account the leaders’ response to the churches’ tepid condition, which resulted in this critical point of church history.
The Letter Calling for the 1689 General Assembly
The Letter Calling for the 1689 General Assembly provides one of the first indications of the Calvinistic Baptist community’s experiential sensitivities. The congregations’ leaders wrote declaring their adoration of God, who providentially entered into His people’s living experience. They ascribed to God the easing of persecution that resulted from the Act of Toleration. He, they declared, brought about their ‘deliverance from that dismal dispensation’.
However, when issuing their letter to like-minded churches around the country, they feared that ‘much of that former, strength, life, and vigour, which attended us is much gone’. The result was languishing congregations, and a faded beauty among the churches they judged was ‘sensible of as well’. Of course, they recognised the symptoms indicative of spiritual decline, such as neglecting current ministry and failure to recognise and prepare ministers. Accordingly, they endeavoured to call the assembly to address such matters associationally, just as they believed the Scriptures to teach. However, these practical maladies were traced to their spiritual root when they identified that a widespread ‘unconcernedness’ had infected the churches.
Hence, they applied themselves to the biblical means God had provided to ‘prevent and cure’ the disease.They explicitly stated their utter dependence upon God, declaring their reliance upon ‘his blessing attending our Christian endeavours’. Without this, all their efforts would be futile. For these Calvinistic Baptists, doctrine and practice were not enough. They coveted the manifest blessing of God as men spiritually calibrated to the experience of His divine presence.
The Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly
The Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly begins with a pastoral letter from those elders and messengers attending. In the account, they explain their chief reason for gathering. It was ‘to consider the present state and condition’ of the churches represented. James Renihan points out that the letter begins by, among other things, ‘bewailing the deficiencies acknowledged in the churches’. Only a brief time had passed since days of intense persecution. Nevertheless, the churches were in a condition of ‘spiritual decay’. They had lost their ‘strength, beauty and glory’ and the explanation was a lack of ‘holy Zeal for God, and the house of our God’. In a statement filled with deep tenderness, the assembly described how the reasons, causes and results of this general spiritual decline affected them. They lamented that the spiritual decline among their churches was ‘enough to melt our Spirits, and break our hearts to pieces’.
It was the intention of those assembled to seek to ‘attain to a better and more prosperous state and condition’. Thus, the first day they spent in a solemn assembly. They wrote that the day ‘was spent in humbling ourselves before the Lord, and to seek of him a right way to direct into the best Means and Method to repair our Breaches, and to recover our selves into our former Order, Beauty, and Glory’.
Their concern for the loss of spiritual vitality was consistent with their confessional affirmation to Christ’s sole and sovereign authority over His church. They viewed their experience through the scriptural paradigm of Revelation 2:5 and related their fear of having forsaken their first love to Christ as the church in Ephesus had done. Recognising Christ’s claims over His church, they naturally utilised a portion of Scripture flanked on both sides by a vision of Christ’s mediatorial eminence and authority. They acknowledged Christ’s sovereign prerogative ‘to give a revival of the sinking Spirits of the Mourners in Sion, and to languishing churches too’.
The Introduction to the Second London Confession
Finally, the introduction to theSecond London Confession reveals a similar experiential context. The assembly expressed their primary aim to encourage believers to ‘walk humbly with their God’. They advised the churches to ‘perfect Holiness in the fear of the Lord’ and ‘to promote in others the Practice of true Religion’. Conscious of the dangers of a religious façade, they desired that ‘none might deceive themselves, by resting in, and trusting to a form of Godliness, without the power of it, and inward experience of the efficacy of those Truths that are professed by them’.
Like the Calvinistic Methodists who would come later, the early Calvinistic Baptist movement ‘was an experiential response to the perceived dangers of formalism and dead orthodoxy, but it was not thereby devoid of theology or reason’. Reflecting on these very danger’s decades earlier, John Miles, the Welsh Particular Baptist pioneer, proclaimed concerning the things of God that a person
‘may have historical, but not experiential knowledge; he may know them in the notion, but not in the application; he may be able to talke of them by hear-say, but not to know them by sight and experience; he hath received light from Christ as a creature from the Creator, but not as a Saint from him as a Redeemer; he is so far from a spiritual understanding of divine things, that upon this account he is called blind…His light is darkness…he is under the power of darkness…yea and his very conscience is defiled’.
Similarly, those involved in formalising the 1689 Confession prayed earnestly ‘that the God of all grace, will pour out those measures of his holy Spirit upon us’ to the end that their faith and practice would tend to the glory of Christ.
See James M. Renihan, Edification and Beauty: The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705 (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 1-36; James M. Renihan, A Toolkit for Confessions: Helps for the Study of English Puritan Confessions of Faith (Palmdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2017), 13-17; Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 5th Edition Revised and Corrected (Darlington: 2016), 493-501; Robert W. Oliver, “Baptist Confession Making 1644 and 1689” (paper presented at the Strict Baptist Historical Society, March 17,1989), accessed October 20, 2019, https://reformation-today.org/articles-of-interest/455/; and B. R. White, The English Baptists of the 17th Century, (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society, 1983). David W. Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 60-61. For an explanation of this title, which is not original to the document see James M. Renihan, Faith and Life for Baptists: The Documents of the London Particular Baptist General Assemblies 1689-1694, (Palmdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2016), Kindle Location 170. Errol Hulse, An Introduction to the Baptists (Haywards Heath: Carey Publications, 1973), 18. “A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly.” (London: 1689), 18. Confession of Faith, “To the Reader”, unpaginated.
James M. Renihan, Faith and Life for Baptists: The Documents of the London Particular Baptist General Assemblies 1689-1694, (Palmdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2016), Kindle Location 176. Ibid. Ibid., Kindle Location 184. See James M. Renihan, Associational Churchmanship: Second London Confession of Faith 26.12-15, (Palmdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2016), 39-73. Renihan, Faith and Life, Kindle Location 186. Ibid. Ibid. “A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly.” (London: 1689), 3. Ibid. Renihan, Faith and Life, Kindle Location 208-09. A Narrative, 3. A Narrative, 3-4. A Narrative, 9. A Narrative, 3.
A Narrative, 9. A Narrative, 4; See also page 7. A Narrative, 5.  A Confession of Faith, “To the Judicious and Impartial Reader”, (London: B. Harris, 1677), unpaginated. A Confession of Faith, “To the Reader”, unpaginated. John D. Snyder, “The Influence of Puritan Literature on the Eighteenth-Century Calvinistic Methodists in England and Wales: A Comparative Study in Experiential Soteriology” (PhD diss., University of Wales, 2011), 103. An Antidote Against the Infection of the Times, (London: T. Brewster, 1656), 2-3. A Confession of Faith, “To the Reader”, unpaginated.