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Two important books on Baptist history

By admin | April 2, 2008

Robert Oliver, History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771-1892: From John Gill to Charles Spurgeon (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2006). Dr. Oliver is a Fellow of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.

Kenneth Dix, Strict and Particular: English Strict and Particular Baptists in the Nineteenth Century (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society for the Strict Baptist Historical Society, 2001).

Reviewed by James M. Renihan, Ph.D.

John Gill. Benjamin Beddome. John Collett Ryland. Robert Hall. Abraham Booth. Andrew Fuller. William Huntington. William Gadsby. William Tiptaft. Joseph C. Philpot. John Stevens. James Wells. Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Some of these names (and others) are well known, others are familiar, and perhaps some are unknown. Yet each of them played an important part in the life of the English Particular Baptist churches at the end of the Eighteenth and throughout the Nineteenth century. Two recent volumes, produced by English pastors, provide us with much helpful and thought-provoking information on these men, their ministries, and the development of Strict and Particular churches during that period. Robert Oliver’s History of the English Calvinistic Baptists, and Kenneth Dix’s Strict and Particular are a mine of information and judicious evaluation.

The two volumes originated as doctoral theses, Robert Oliver’s submitted in 1986 to the British Council for National Academic Awards, and Kenneth Dix’s in 1998 to Keele University. Publication in book form reverses this chronological order, though Dr. Dix says that his volume ‘continues’ the investigation begun by Dr. Oliver. To a large degree, the works complement each other nicely, and probably should be read in the original sequence: Oliver, then Dix. They do cover some of the same ground, but there is sufficient difference to warrant consideration of both books. Each portrays developments in the Calvinistic segment of English Baptists, only mentioning the General Baptists when their story line intersects with their Reformed counterparts.

Beginning in the later Eighteenth Century, Dr. Oliver thoughtfully presents us with a fine survey of the prominent characters of that era: John Gill, Benjamin Beddome, John Collett Ryland, and Abraham Booth. This is followed by a discussion of a controversy over participants at the Lord’s Table, and an extended account of the theological developments pioneered by Andrew Fuller. Fuller is, of course, controversial in some circles, and the author carefully explains the progression of his thought from High Calvinism under the influence of Jonathan Edwards and his successors.

Doctrinal antinomianism is traced to its most strident proponent in the Eighteenth Century, William Huntington. Though not himself a Baptist, Huntington’s powerful advocacy of the opinion that the moral law has no place in the life of the believer came into some circles of Particular Baptist life, eventually disseminated through the periodical The Gospel Standard. William Gadsby, J.C. Philpot, James Wells and others receive extended treatment, and key periodicals and movements are presented. The final chapter surveys the ministry of Charles H. Spurgeon.

As we have said, in many ways Dr. Dix’s book nicely complements Dr. Oliver’s. Focusing on the Nineteenth Century, Dix presents much more detail about the High Calvinist developments in Strict and Particular Baptist life. He begins with a chapter on Huntington, proceeds to Gadsby, Philpot and the Gospel Standard, the churches of Norfolk and Suffolk, London, and the southeast and home counties of England. It is fascinating to consider the differing developments under these men in diverse places. In reality, the theological positions of the Strict and Particular churches in the Nineteenth century were varied and complex. Often the nature of their ideas depended on the men they looked to for leadership. Followers of Gadsby or Philpot combined High Calvinism with Doctrinal Antinomianism, while the churches of Suffolk and Norfolk did not make this combination. Followers of Fuller argued that the Gospel should be offered to sinners, while their opponents argued that this does not reflect a proper understanding of Scripture. Curiously, however, many of those who would not offer Christ still were deeply engaged in evangelism. Gadsby was, for example, a gifted and successful evangelist. These two books provide a very helpful guide to these multi-faceted positions, sometimes challenging preconceived ideas about men, doctrines and results.

Three main emphases come to mind as I reflect on these books. First, they both very clearly describe the problems associated with doctrinal antinomianism. A not-uncommon accompaniment to High Calvinism, doctrinal antinomianism is a scourge on the church. Whenever God’s Law is rejected, it is inevitably replaced by human forms of legalism. This can be seen in Dr. Dix’s chapter on J.C. Philpot. At one point in his life, it was necessary for him to issue a public confession of a particular sin he had committed, failing to take account of God’s Law when he committed this sin. His extreme experientialism often replaced truth with emotion, and this was probably at the root of his act. But he did not simply treat his perception of sanctified emotion as if equivalent with truth; he defined righteousness according to his feelings. As an example, Dix speaks of his ‘unnatural asceticism’ evidenced by this citation from an 1856 edition of The Gospel Standard, ‘All games of skill or chance must be repulsive to every godly feeling of the soul’ (page 82). One wonders what the authors of the New Testament would say about this when using athletic metaphors! The vacuum created by the absence of God’s Law must be replaced—sadly with human standards followed by condemning denunciations of those who hold other views. Only the (essentially subjective) ethical decisions of the author must be obeyed.

Secondly, these books warn us against the dangers of following men. Huntington, Gadsby, Philpot, Wells and others held tremendous sway over many, and sustained remarkable spheres of influence. Outward success attended all of their works, but when they passed away, their immediate ministries did not sustain the level of interest or influence present during their lives—in most circumstances, they hardly outlasted the great man. Appearances are very difficult to contradict, especially when they give evidence of success, or perhaps even divine blessing. But the real test of a man’s ministry frequently might not show itself in his lifetime. It is better to let time weigh the strengths and weaknesses of these powerful leaders. Too often a man is able to hold together contradictory positions, while his followers cannot. They lose any good that may have been present, following the faulty emphases of their leader, and the result is rapid diminution and death. This seems to have been the case with the High-Calvinists. It was not long before the majority of the churches fell into somnambulance or worse. A very interesting study might result from a comparison between Gadsby and Spurgeon. At least outwardly, there are parallels: Gadsby was able to reach the lower classes of Manchester in a fashion strikingly similar to Spurgeon’s success in London. After their deaths, decline followed in the churches served by each man. One wonders, do our contemporary Gospel Standard Strict Baptists revere Gadsby in the way that we honor Spurgeon?

Thirdly, there is the importance of confessionalism. Dr. Oliver and Dr. Dix both give extended evidence to prove that it was departure from the old Particular Baptist Confession of Faith of 1677/89 that brought trouble and division into the churches. It was a safe guide, but was subject to neglect. Men developed their own ideas, and left the safe paths of their fathers. In doing this, the route map became confused, with roads heading in all kinds of new directions. Men often love novelty. They are driven to find new ideas, or to innovate rather than rest content in well-established truths. Usually, this arises from an over-estimation of their own abilities, which is itself based in a faulty understanding of their own authority. Rather than thinking highly of ourselves, we should consider our fathers as far wiser, and rest content in the profound truths they teach us. This is the path of safety.

We are indebted to Dr. Oliver and Dr. Dix for these fine books. May they have a wide circulation; they will provoke much helpful thought. I will probably require my students to read from them, and commend them to you as well.

This review originally appeared in the Reformed Baptist Theological Review.

Topics: Baptist History, Calvinism, Church, Confessions, Pastoral Ministry, Reformed Theology, Spurgeon | Comments Off

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