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