RECOVERING THE 1689 CONFESSION
In the Spring of 1959, there appeared a 54 page, blue-covered pamphlet entitled Things Most Surely Believed Among Us and subtitled the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. It was printed and sold by a Mr E. J Harmer, who combined the sale of Christian literature by mail order with a small printing business in Tunbridge Wells. The pamphlet gave no further details of publication apart from the statement in the foreword. It read, 'this new edition of the Confession is sent out as a private venture by a small group of Baptists who are convinced that it has a message for this generation and believe its republication is long overdue'.
The Twentieth Century Context
To explain the conviction that the republication was 'overdue', we need to understand the context in which this venture took place. Its editor, John Doggett, had worked from an edition produced by C. H. Spurgeon in 1855 early in his London ministry when he was already drawing amazing crowds to the New Park Street Particular Baptist chapel in Southwark. These new arrivals were clearly in Spurgeon's mind when he wrote: "here, the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of the Scriptural proofs will be able to give a reason for the hope that remains in them".
Spurgeon was aware of the rich doctrinal heritage reflected in the Confession. He had become the pastor of a church with a history that went back to the early days of Particular Baptist witness. One of his predecessors, Benjamin Keach, had been a signatory of the commendatory letter to the churches attached to the 1689 edition of the Confession. At that date, the Confession itself had just been accepted by an Assembly of churches convened as soon as the Toleration Act gave freedom of worship and association to Orthodox Dissenters.
This was not, however, the advent of the Confession. Earlier as in 1677, it had been surreptitiously circulated as an anonymous pamphlet. It was probably the work of William Collins and Nehemiah Coxe, pastors of the Petty France church in the City of London. However, at that time, persecution was intensifying. The censors would have never passed the promotion of a doctrine of church order subversive to the teaching of the established Church of England. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89, the political climate changed in a totally unexpected way. The government of William and Mary recognised a debt of loyalty to orthodox Dissenters who supported their succession to the throne in uncertain times. The Toleration Act was passed, and an Assembly of Dissenting Churches could gather. The Confession gave identity to this group of Dissenters and was commended to the churches and the general public. After the 1689 General Assembly, there were several editions in each century up to and including the nineteenth.
After Spurgeon died in 1892, the Confession was generally forgotten apart from a couple of appearances in scholarly collections of historical documents. A generation of Evangelical Christians appeared who were not interested in doctrine. Even the comparative few churches that wished to maintain a Calvinistic identity were content with minimal statements. For the average church member, the Confession had passed into oblivion.
Spurgeon's closing years were dominated by the struggles against the inroads of modernism among Baptist Union churches and wider Nonconformity. Even defenders of the inspiration of Scripture often seemed to think that battle could be carried on in isolation from the entire corpus of historic Christianity. The importance of Christian doctrine was widely dismissed; precise doctrinal statements were perceived as a hindrance to the advance of Christianity. Where doctrinal statements were considered important, churches and Christian societies were content with minimalistic statements of faith, usually mentioning some ten or twelve doctrines without explanation or elaboration.
After the Second World War, there were some small indications of change. The Christian literature of the interwar years had been doctrinally thin. Those who wanted something more substantial had to search the second-hand market. A major collection of Reformed literature had been gathered and preserved by Geoffrey Williams, a businessman in the City of London at his home in Surrey. The Library grew and was then housed in a rural chapel. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was persuaded to visit the Library and wrote, 'I felt that I was in the precise position of the Queen of Sheba on her visit to Solomon…As far as I am aware, there is, and can be no such collection of books anywhere'. Renamed the Evangelical Library from an inconvenient site in Surrey, it relocated to the top storey of a Victorian building in Marylebone. The unpretentious building may have appeared old, and many of the books had faded covers, but they included treasures unavailable elsewhere.
There were further signs of change. In December 1950, a Conference convened to promote the study of the Puritans. A small but enthusiastic group met in London. However, it was developments among students in Oxford that led to what became an annual event. An entirely separate development also from Oxford was the appearance of a 20-page occasional magazine, The Banner of Truth, in September 1955, edited by Sidney Norton, a Free Church pastor and his colleague Iain Murray. The first issue proved controversial, arguing that the national situation was far more serious than was generally perceived.
The nation was under the judgement of God. It had departed from God and his Word and needed to be called back to the Reformation roots of earlier spiritual prosperity. The answer was not in more evangelistic campaigns of which there had been a number, but in returning to the doctrines recovered at the Reformation. Churches were preaching an inadequate message. These indicated a growing desire amongst some Evangelicals for a more doctrinal Christianity.
A major factor in bringing about this change of thought was the powerful ministry of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, a Congregational church in the heart of Westminster. Lloyd-Jones's predecessor at Westminster, Campbell Morgan, had been a noted Bible teacher. He had established Westminster Chapel as a centre of expository preaching. In 1938 Lloyd-Jones, a Welsh Calvinistic minister, had been called to work alongside him. The two ministers were united in a desire to maintain and proclaim the divine authority and infallibility of the Scriptures as the Word of God, but unlike Morgan, Lloyd-Jones emphasised the importance of Christian doctrine over against the influential liberal theology that dominated the English churches.
In the United Kingdom, doctrinal Calvinism had survived only in smaller denominations. In England, one of these was the Strict Baptists. The more conservative of these churches tended to Hyper-Calvinism. Although they included local churches founded in the seventeenth century, there was little awareness of early Calvinistic history or the breadth of doctrine taught in the 1689 Confession. They had no central organisation, but they did have limited co-operation expressed through various charitable societies and magazines.
One such society published a small quarterly journal, The Free Grace Record. In the mid-1950s, a London barrister, John Doggett, was appointed editor of this magazine. Alert to developments in the wider Evangelical world, he republished a controversial article entitled 'Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification' by Dr James Packer, a younger Anglican theologian. Originally published in The Evangelical Quarterly, it had challenged the teaching on sanctification of many Evangelicals. Although Keswick teaching on sanctification was not generally accepted by Strict Baptists, Packer's article made them aware of wider doctrinal developments and, for some, opened up new vistas of Reformed teaching.
It certainly stimulated the circulation of the Free Grace Record in which editorials had already vigorously probed the causes of decline and closure of many Strict Baptist churches. John Doggett published correspondence from his readers on these themes. One question debated was the lack of assurance of salvation in many congregations. Doggett himself intervened in the discussion with a quotation from the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It immediately became apparent that none of the other correspondents were aware of this historic document, and requests came for its republication. The writer of this article found a copy in the Evangelical Library and was amazed and delighted to see how closely it followed the Westminster Confession of 1646 apart from its teachings on Baptism and the local church.[i]
The late 1950s was the time of the reappearance of Puritan literature. In connection with Banner of Truth magazine, a Trust for the republication of classic Reformed literature had been formed. One of the first books to be published was A Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson, an exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Appearing in January 1958, this work received an enthusiastic recommendation from Dr Lloyd-Jones at a Friday evening Bible study. Those present remember the crowd that overflowed from the Bookroom into the courtyard at Westminster Chapel and the sigh of disappointment that arose when someone cried, 'they have sold out!' However, in a short time, fresh supplies were delivered, and most people went home satisfied. Later that year, the Trust republished A.A. Hodge's exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The 1958 Introduction to this reprint of Hodge drew attention to the wide significance of the Westminster Confession.
This Confession became not only the creed of the Presbyterians but also, with little revision, it was adopted by the Independents in 1658 and by the Baptists in 1677. From these bodies, it was transmitted to their affiliated Churches in America. It has thus probably exercised a wider influence than any other British Confession of Faith. The temporary oblivion into which this Confession has fallen is but one indication of the sad changes that have taken place over the past 50 years. Systematic theology has been widely discredited. Our fathers' doctrinal standards have been set aside as things of the past, and we have reaped the consequences.
In the Free Grace Record, John Doggett was to draw attention to this work's value for studying the Baptist Confession. It was clearly time for a reissue of the 1689 Baptist Confession. John Doggett was already working on this. He had been given a rare copy of Spurgeon's republication that had once belonged to Charles Hemington, who had been pastor of the Old Baptist Church, Devizes. Leslie Mills, a deacon of the church at Haslemere and a retired banker, provided the publication's finance. They were assisted by a Mr Haddow, so far unidentified. In this context, the reprint appeared in 1959. The time for republication was clearly ripe.
Sales of the 1689 Confession exceeded all expectations. The Banner magazine reviewed it in August 1959, commenting, 'The manner in which the Baptists of 1689 follow so much of the Westminster Confession (1646) reveals how close the 17th century Nonconformists were in their theology! Closer than they have ever been since when churches hold to free and sovereign grace there is a common unity that transcends differences in order and practice.' A return to the Confession reinforced the unity that was so apparent between Baptists and Paedobaptists. Together, they recovered an understanding of the riches of the Reformed Faith that had so long been ignored. It also underlined the need for Reformed Baptists to begin to study the Covenant theology that their forebears studied so closely as they came to the conviction that Baptism is a sacrament for those who have professed personal faith in Jesus Christ.
With a growing appetite for Reformed Literature, it was a challenge to Baptists to learn to appreciate their place in the Puritanism of the seventeenth century and to appreciate the doctrinal legacy of that century. The Confession was to be translated into many different languages and thereby to have a wider impact than at any time previously. From merely being the treasured source of personal study, it has been adopted by churches as their doctrinal standards and by associations of churches in many parts of the world. For this and future generations, there remains the call to be faithful to this presentation of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. There may be many further advances in the understanding of aspects of truth, but let us hold fast to that which has been so blessed of God in the past.
[i] I was then an undergraduate at University College London, reading history and working on a special study of the late seventeenth century Puritans.