Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Confessional Subscription in early Baptist History (Part 1)

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on December 12, 2009 at 8:27 pm

A. The First London Confession

I will begin by examining subscription with reference to the First London Confession, focusing on two points, its own words about subscription, and William Kiffin’s convictions about what subscription meant.

1. Its own Words

When the Particular Baptists first emerged from the paedobaptist separatist churches in the 1640s, they faced strong opposition. Rumors and innuendo tying them to the continental Anabaptists and the disaster in Münster were being disseminated, and they found it prudent and necessary publicly to distance themselves from that sad event and declare their orthodoxy and similarity to the paedobaptist churches around them. They did this by publishing the First London Confession of 1644. The preface to that Confession states,

Wee have . . . for the cleering of the truth wee professe, that it may be at libertie, though wee be in bonds, briefly published a Confession of our Faith, as desiring all that feare God, seriously to consider whether (if they compare what wee here say and confesse in the presence of the Lord Jesus and his Saints) men have not with their tongues in Pulpit, and pens in Print, both spoken and written things that are contrary to truth; . . . And because it may be conceived, that what is here published may be the Judgement of some one particular Congregation, more refined than the rest; We doe therefore here subscribe it, some of each body in the name, and by the appointment of seven Congregations, who though wee be distinct in respect of particular bodies, for conveniency sake, being as many as can well meete together in one place, yet are all one in Communion, holding Jesus Christ to be our head and Lord; . . . Subscribed in the Names of the seven Churches in London.[1]

The first name on the list is William Kiffin.

This action had two important facets. First, by publication they desired to make their views, held commonly and unanimously, known to a wide audience of readers. Secondly, by subscribing their names as representatives of the churches, they were publicly asserting that these doctrines were a true representation of the theological views held among them. Much was at stake, especially their on-going freedom in the face of rising Presbyterian anti-toleration political power. Remember Milton’s famous words: “New Presbyter is but old priest writ large.” Few of the Presbyterians were for religious toleration, desiring to replace the episcopalian state church with a presbyterian state church. Subscription was not a nicety; it was a sober, serious and public proclamation that they were orthodox Christians.

2. Kiffin’s words about it

The nature of the earliest Baptist understanding of confessional subscription is not a matter of conjecture. We have some explicit testimony to the exact intent of the men and churches involved in publishing the First London Confession of Faith.

In the 1690s, Benjamin Keach caused a furor among the Particular Baptist churches by introducing the practice of congregational hymn singing into public worship. A great controversy arose, and in the midst, Keach published a book in which he made some very unfortunate comments about the first churches in the 1640s. Among his assertions was that these churches did not believe that ministers should receive financial support from their churches. William Kiffin, George Barrett, Robert Steed and Edward Man responded to Keach in a 1692 work entitled A Serious Answer to a Late Book, Stiled, A Reply to Mr. Robert Steed’s Epistle concerning Singing. They showed Keach that the 1st London Confession (which he later admitted he had never seen) contained an article explicitly advocating ministerial support. Listen to their description of the issue:

[Keach and his supporters] exhibit a very grievous and a very false charge against those of the same Profession, that were more ancient in it than the Authors of this Reply, who vent this Scandal . . . . When those ancient Brethren were convinced of their duty, That Believers, upon Confession of their Faith, were the only Subjects of Baptism, and accordingly, sate down together in Communion as a Congregation or Church of Christ; and many in the Nation began to enquire into the truth thereof, they met with many harsh Censures and false Charges cast upon them to make the Truth of Christ contemptible, (viz.) That they were corrupt in the Doctrines of the Gospel; That they denied Subjection to Magistrates; that they held, that to maintain [i.e. financially support] ministers was Antichristian &c. They to clear themselves, and to take off those false charges, did think it their duty to publish to the Nation a Confession of their Faith; which when drawn up, was read in the Churches, being then seven in number; and consented to by all the Members, not one dissenting, and subscribed by two of each Church in the name of the rest. Which Confession of Faith was five times printed in the year 1644, and from that, to the year 1651, without the least alteration of any one Article of what was last printed: which Confession gave such general satisfaction to most Christians of all sorts of differing Perswasions from us, that it took off from many that Prejudice and Offence that was formerly taken by them against our Profession. What the Judgment of these Churches in their first Constitution, was, concerning the Maintenance of Ministers, may be seen in the 28th Article, in these words, We do believe that due Maintenance of Ministers should be the free and voluntary Communication of the Church: That according to Christ’s Ordinance, they that preach the Gospel, should live on the Gospel, &c. And accordingly they did then, and we have ever since made it our Practice, as a Duty required of all the Members of the Church that are able to give. . . . Herein we would be understood in this, that we now assert concerning the Churches, that we mean principally as they were in the beginning: And we do find, to our great Grief, that which was then falsly charg’d upon us by those that did not know us, is now as falsly (with a far greater Aggravation of their Sin) charg’d upon us by some of us, who might have satisfied themselves, had they perused our Confession of Faith. . . .

To this Charge we answer, That nothing can be more falsly asserted, or more slanderously uttered: For if this their Charge have the least shadow of Truth against the Baptized Churches in their first beginning here in England; they must needs be the grossest sort of Hypocrites, in professing the contrary by their Profession of Faith, and yet believing and practicing quite otherwise to what they solemnly professed as their Faith in the matter.[2]

Elsewhere in the context they call these charges “notorious Falshoods and abominable Slanders,” stating that Keach and his cohorts had uttered

a most false Accusation and Slander against the Baptized Churches in their first gathering, laying that to their Charge as a received Principle owned by them, which they had openly declared against to the whole World in their Confession of Faith, which was in those Days Printed and Published; whereby they stigmatize or brand them with the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of.[3]

This is strong language. These men viewed the solemn act of adopting, subscribing, and publishing a Confession of Faith to be so serious, that they considered anyone who claimed to own it, but practiced differently, guilty of, in their own words, “the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of.” For them, confessional subscription was a moral issue. It was a declaration of one’s convictions about the nature of the Christian Faith itself, and so could not be taken lightly. If you said that you believed something, you had better believe it, or you were nothing short of a hypocrite.

What is especially interesting about this material is that it spans 5 decades of Particular Baptist life. William Kiffin was present and involved in the adoption and publication of the First London Confession, as also the Second. He and his companions, writing in 1692, looked back to 1644 and made these assertions about subscription. These words apply to his understanding of confessional subscription as it was practiced throughout the first half-century of the existence of our churches. With this in mind, let us turn to our own Confession.

James M. Renihan, Dean
The Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies
www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org

[1]William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1980), 155-56. Spelling and punctuation have been left unchanged from the original documents.

[2]William Kiffin, Robert Steed, George Barrett and Edward Man, A Serious Answer to a Late Book, Stiled, A Reply to Mr. Robert Steed’s Epistle concerning Singing (London: Printed in the Year, 1692), 16-19, emphasis mine.

[3]Ibid., 5.

  1. Thank you for digging into our history and sharing it with us Dr. Renihan! This is the kind of information that is not readily available to us on our bookshelves.

  2. That second to last paragraph seems to indicate that sinning against a confession of faith is the unpardonable sin, especially if there is no worse hypocrisy possible…. hmmmm….

  3. Strong language indeed. I can think of instances where church’s don’t always practice what the preach; where, perhaps because of neglect, they’re no longer familiar with what their Confession or Constitution teaches and, as a result, affirm beliefs inconsistent with what the Confession actually teaches or follow procedures inconsistent with their Confessional or Constitutional polity. Yet I’d be hesitant to label such “the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of.” Aren’t there other factors that have to be taken into consideration before leveling such damning censures?

  4. Matt,

    Did you read the whole piece? These men were being slandered. They said if what was being said of them was true, they would have been hypocrites; not for sinning against a Confession, but for saying one thing and doing another in a public fashion, in the midst of much social turmoil, etc. The reason why they took things so seriously is because there was so much at stake. Me thinks there is not enough at stake for us to appreciate their sobriety. I know I don’t. Granted, maybe there is a bit of rhetorical over-kill, but I think the issue is not sinning against a Confession, but not being truthful about one’s convictions and giving a public face to the contrary (or something like that).

  5. Rich your point is crucial.

    I am presently working through English 17th Century history in our adult SS class to set the context for our people regarding the 1689 LCF. At school in the UK we were taught generally about this turbulent period in British history.

    My recent reading however has been so helpful and revealing and humbling. We cannot truly grasp what our forefathers in the faith truly suffered under the Stuarts and the oppression of Anglicanism but it is worthwhile studying it out.

    These men must be understood in their time. For these men it was indeed possible that the issues they were dealing would become a matter of life and death, or at the least fines and imprisonment. Standing for what you believed in as a Baptist back in 17th Century England was not for the faint hearted. It was truly costly.

    I also believe understanding the times in which our Confession was written is vital to understanding why certain things are put in certain ways in the Confession. This will help us understand it more accurately and address the areas that can still produce controversy in our day.

    Context is as we all know very important to an accurate understanding of things.

    Warmest regards

    RB

  6. A further wee note brothers, do you notice how Kiffin and Keach were not always on the same page? There is nothing new under the sun !!! 🙂 There is plenty of available material from this era that reveals our forefathers had the same challenges we have today 🙂

  7. Rob, Great stuff! Context is king, as one once said. I was thinking about the Kiffin/Keach controversy the other day just as you put it above. We must remember that even Peter and Paul had issues. I have learned over the years that all demoninations of Christians have issues with others, themselves, and even within their local churches. We are not far from the NT era in this. We are sinners and the devil is at work.

  8. Robert – Thank you for your post!

  9. I have been reading about the interesting fact that Knollys and Keach were on different sides of the songs issue back in their day and Kiffin came down somewhere between the two. That made me smile as I realised how things are much the same today amongst us. Even men who wrote our beloved Confession had their differences. Their language towards each other was very strong by our 21st Century standards, I wonder if we could speak with them about it what they would say to us? 🙂

  10. I would love to have a conversation with Nehemiah Coxe (actually a monologue, me being quiet). He is my favorite 17th century PB. Everyone needs to read the reprint of his great work on covenant theology. He has much to teach us.

  11. I can appreciate the context that has been mentioned, and the seriousness of saying and meaning what you believe. Of course, they knew the seriousness of it all too well. It is really interesting to hear some of the history of our forebears. I still think the language is, as Rich said “overkill” and unfortunate.

  12. I was laying in bed thinking about this issue and I think I realize why I was perplexed when I first read, and re-read the words that I noted above. Dr. Renihan’s remark:
    “the solemn act of adopting, subscribing, and publishing a Confession of Faith to be so serious, that they considered anyone who claimed to own it, but practiced differently, guilty of, in their own words, “the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of.”

    This seemed to me not to be a summary of how these men felt under trial but an example for us, that we should view things the same way; that taking the process of adhering to a confession of faith too lightly (or dishonestly) may be the worst possible sin. Of course it is a sin, but we can all think of many worse. Thanks for clarifying the point with the context.

  13. “For them, confessional subscription was a moral issue. It was a declaration of one’s convictions about the nature of the Christian Faith itself, and so could not be taken lightly. If you said that you believed something, you had better believe it, or you were nothing short of a hypocrite.”

    The core issue is not “are we sinners?” nor “is the devil still at work?” nor “which sins are the worse sins?” nor even how much rhetoric was in any quotation. The core gospel issue is repentance.

    Unrepentant sin is damning.

  14. Brothers,

    With all due respect, subscribing to to a Confession but failing to practice the polity in that Confession might be “the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of.” It depends on various of factors.

    For example, not only ago a member of our church became offended at someone else in the church and because the person didn’t agree with her grievance, this person decided to send the members a public complaint via email and absent the stated meeting of the church. This action was, of course, in contradiction to the polity of our Confession (LBCF 26.13). When I met with this person and gently pointed this out, the person was very humble and acknowledged that he/she had forgotten about that teaching of the Confession. The person apologized for the behavior and rectified his/her behavior. While I think this person sinned, I don’t believe it was a case of “the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of.”

    Of course, I haven’t read the entire accusation Keach leveled against the other PB brothers. Perhaps he wrongly accused them of “the deepest Hypocrisy that depraved Mortals can be guilty of,” and they’re merely defending themselves. Just thought I’d suggest that we be careful how we apply this historical example.

  15. Sorry for the typo above. First line of second paragraph should read, “For example, not long ago …”

  16. […] Confessional Subscription in Early Baptist History (Part I) […]

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