CONFESSING THE FAITH IN 1644 AND 1689
Pastor James M. Renihan
Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies at Westminster Seminary in California
Reformed Baptist Church of North San Diego County
Confessing the Faith in 1644 and 1689
Try to imagine a situation like this: You live in a large city, the capital
of your country. You are a member of one of a handful of churches, just
beginning to grow and be noticed in the city. But it is illegal for you
to meet with your brothers and sisters. For as long as anyone living can
remember, there has been only one legal religion, and every attempt to
disagree with that one religion has met with opposition and persecution.
As your churches grow, rumors begin to spread. A hundred years before,
some people with beliefs that were marginally similar to your own had
been involved in a terrible rebellion in another country relatively close
by, and rumors were beginning to spread that your churches would do the
same kinds of things. What would you do?
That is something of the situation facing the members of seven Calvinistic
Baptist churches in London in 1644. In the space of a few short years,
their numbers had grown, and people were beginning to take notice of their
presence in London. But it was often not a friendly notice. In 1642, an
anonymous pamphlet entitled A Warning for England, especially for London;
in the famous History of the frantick Anabaptists, their wild Preachings
and Practices in Germany was published. It is an amazing piece of work.
The author, in 9 double sized pages, described the sad events of Munster,
Germany. Rebellion, sedition, theft, murder are all charged to the "anabaptists."
Throughout, there is no mention of anything but these events from another
time and place—until the very last sentence of the pamphlet which
stated "So, let all the factious and seditious enemies of the church
and state perish; but, upon the head of king Charles, let the crown flourish!
Amen." The warning was in one sense subtle, but in another brilliantly
powerful: beware! What was done in Germany by the anabaptists may well
happen again in London, if these people are allowed to spread their doctrines.
So what did the Baptists do? The situation was potentially explosive.
They knew that it was essential to demonstrate that they were not radicals,
subversively undermining the fabric of society. To the contrary, they
were law-abiding citizens, who were being misrepresented and misunderstood
by many around them. They wanted and needed to demonstrate that they were
quite orthodox in their theological beliefs, and that they had no agenda
beyond a faithful and conscientious commitment to God and His Word.
As the Baptists faced these circumstances, they decided that they needed
to take action to relieve the fears and misinformation spreading. God
had blessed their efforts thus far, and they did not want to see those
efforts frustrated by the rumor and innuendo of their enemies. So they
adopted a practice frequently used by others in the last 150 years—they
issued a confession of faith so that anyone interested in them might be
able to obtain an accurate understanding of their beliefs and practices.
One of the primary purposes in publishing their Confession of Faith in
1644 was to disavow any ties with the Continental Anabaptists. This is
evident by a glance at the title page which says, "The Confession
of Faith, of those Churches which are commonly (though falsly [sic]) called
Anabaptists."1 The epistle at the beginning of the Confession identifies
Wee question not but that it will seeme strange to many men, that such
as wee are frequently termed to be, lying under that calumny and black
brand of Heretickes and sowers of division as wee doo, should presume
to appear publickly as now wee have done: . . . it is no sad thing to
any observing man, what sad charges are laid, not only by the world, that
know not God, but also by those that thinke themselves much wronged, if
they be not looked upon as the chiefe Worthies of the Church of God, and
Watchmen of the Citie: . . . charging us with holding Free-will, Falling
away from grace, denying Originall sinne, disclaiming of Magistracy, denying
to assist them either in persons or purse in any of their lawfull Commands,
doing acts unseemly in the dispensing the Ordinance of Baptism, not to
be named among Christians.2
It is evident that in this list of charges there are several that were
relevant, either in reality or fancy, to the Anabaptists of the Continent.
All that an opponent of the Baptists had to do was say the name "Münster,"
and all of the supposed horrors of that sad city would be imputed to their
English "counterparts."3 Evidently, the Particular Baptists
felt the pressure of these charges, and desired to remove as many of them
as possible. They therefore openly asserted that the name "Anabaptist"
was falsely given, and did not reflect their own convictions.
The First London Confession of 1644
The Baptists were concerned to demonstrate to all that their doctrinal
convictions had been, from the very start, orthodox and too a large degree
identical with the convictions of the Puritans around them. In order to
do this, they looked for the best available means by which to prove that
their views were indeed closely in line with the convictions of the other
churches around them. They did this by issuing a Confession of faith.
This First London Confession of 1644, published prior to the Westminster
Confession of Faith, was heavily dependent on older, well-known documents.
It was their purpose to prove that they did not hold wild new ideas, but
rather shared the same basic theological perspectives of the best churches
and ministers around them. Probably the best and most detailed Confession
available to them was the True Confession of 1596, a document that had
been issued by men of stature like the famous commentator on the books
of Moses, Henry Ainsworth. About 50% of their Confession was taken directly
from this older document. In addition, they relied very heavily on a book
called The Marrow of Theology, written by a very famous and important
puritan, William Ames. They brought together this material from the sources
available to them, for one specific purpose: to prove that they had a
great deal in common with the churches and ministers around them. Yes
they had some differences, but they were only minor and not central. They
were not wild-eyed fanatics intent on overthrowing society as it was known.
To the contrary, they were reformed Christians, seeking to advance the
principles on which the reformation had been built to their logical conclusion.
This is how we must understand the appearance of the First London Confession
in 1644. It was an apologetic tool to say "Hey, we really are like
you in almost every way. We are not like the anabaptists of Munster. We
are like you. Give us a break. Accept us for what we are. Don’t
reject us just because someone else, at another time and in another place,
did some really bad things. We repudiate them. We are not anabaptists.
We are reformed Christians." 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.
Did it work? Well, apparently it did, for we find that their opponents
took notice of them. There were several men who seem to have been self-appointed
"heresy-hunters," who wrote about the Confession as it was published
by the Baptists. The first we should mention was a man named Thomas Edwards.
In 1646, he published in three separate parts, a work entitled Gangraena,
or A Catalogue and Discovery of many of the Errors, Heresies, Blasphemies
and pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this time, vented and acted
in England in these last four years. On page 106 of the first part of
Gangraena, Edwards mentions the 1644 Confession, but does not find any
fault with it, admitting that its statements are like those of "the
Reformed Churches" but calling it instead "fraud and fallaciousness"
intended to conceal whatever he thought was the real truth of the Baptist
doctrines. At least the Confession was orthodox. When Stephen Marshall,
a member of the Westminster Assembly, attacked the Baptists in 1645, John
Tombes replied to him by pointing to this Confession as a means of establishing
the orthodoxy of the Particular Baptists.4
Even more interesting are the comments of Daniel Featley. Dr. Featley
was briefly a member of the Westminster Assembly and a self-appointed
heresy-hunter. He said this of the 1644 Confession:
if we give credit to this Confession and the Preface thereof,
those who among us are branded with that title [i.e. Anabaptist], are
neither Hereticks, nor Schismatics, but tender hearted Christians: upon
whom, through false suggestions, the hand of authority fell heavy, whilst
the Hierarchy stood: for, they neither teach free-will; nor falling away
from grace with the Arminians, nor deny originall sinne with the Pelagians,
nor disclaim Magistracy with the Jesuites, nor maintain plurality of Wives
with the Poloygamists, nor community of goods with the Apostolici, nor
going naked with the Adamites, much less aver the mortality of the soul
with the Epicures and Psychophannichists: and to this purpose they have
published this confession of Faith, subscribed by sixteen persons, in
the name of seven Churches in London.5
Featley’s words are very interesting. He understood exactly what
the Baptists intended in the publication of their Confession: an honest
demonstration of what they believed. Of course Featley didn’t believe
them, saying, "they cover a little rats-bane in a great quantity
of sugar, that it may not be discerned: for, among the fifty three Articles
of their Confession, there are not above sixe but may passe with a fair
construction: and in those six, none of the foulest and most odious positions,
wherewith that Sect is aspersed, are expressed." But the point is
important. Taken at face value, one of the most fervent heresy-hunters
acknowledged that their words were orthodox. Featley made six specific
criticisms of the Confession: 1. That the Baptists in article 31 seem
to imply that the right to earthly possessions is founded in grace, not
nature; 2. That article 38 speaks against the support of ministers by
the state; 3., 4., and 5. All deal with believer’s baptism; 6. That
the Baptists allowed non-ordained men to preach. These are all of Featley’s
criticisms of the Confession. But notice what the Baptists did in response
to Featley: they revised their Confession in 1646. In article 31, they
added a statement to say that "outward and temporal things are lawfully
enjoyed by a civil right by them who have no faith." In article 38,
they dropped the language against state support of ministers. They even
slightly altered their language on baptism to head off some of his carping.
The second edition of the Confession, in fact the one that is more commonly
available to us today, is a revised version in reply to the strictures
of Daniel Featley. The Baptists toned down or altered some of their language
so that it would be more acceptable to the paedobaptists around them.
Now I don’t think that they were compromising. They were simply
carrying out their original purpose. They wanted these men to acknowledge
their orthodoxy, and understood that the only way to do this successfully
was to reconsider some of their expressions. We must always remember this.
The First London Confession of 1644 was an attempt to remove the threat
of persecution and gain theological acceptance from paedobaptists, and
the second edition of 1646 was even more explicitly so. It served its
purpose well, even if some thought that it was a smoke screen for more
nefarious doctrines. It placed the Baptists within the mainstream of reformed
theology in mid 17th century England.
Who edited the 1644 Confession? We really don’t know for sure.
Some have suggested John Spilsbury, one of the earliest London pastors,
and this is probably as good a candidate as any. A. C. Underwood cites
an anonymous writer who called him the "great Patriarch of the Anabaptist
Confession," and R. L. Greaves says that "he was a signatory
and probably the principal author of the Particular Baptist confession."6
W. L. Lumpkin’s suggestion that "he must have played a prominent
part in its preparation" is probably correct. He then suggests that
"if the Confession was the product of joint authorship, [he] probably
had the assistance of William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson."7 Given
the importance of these men, the proposed scenario is highly possible.
As we have noted, the 1st LCF was revised in reply to Daniel Featley
in 1646, and then again in 1651. It served for many years as the basis
for orthodoxy and fellowship among the Calvinistic Baptists. But by the
middle 1670s, the churches would find it necessary to offer another confession
to the world. Several reasons might be mentioned. First, the Baptists
themselves indicate that copies of the 1644 Confession were scarce and
hard to obtain. It might have been possible to reprint copies of the first
confession, but doing so would not have accomplished their purpose. By
the mid 1670s, the 1596 True Confession had been eclipsed by the Westminster
Confession and the Savoy Declaration, and to issue a document based on
it would have seemed anachronistic. In addition, it is clear that the
first Confession does not deal with every area that could be mentioned
in a doctrinal statement. By the 1670s, other issues needed to be stated.
For example, it was important to address the Sabbath, because there was
a small but growing movement advocating the observance of the 7th day
as the Sabbath. But perhaps most importantly, a sad situation involving
a man of prominence pressed upon the churches. Thomas Collier, an evangelist
who had been sent out by William Kiffin’s church in the 1640s, had
adopted and was promoting a strange mixture of heresies, and the men in
London knew that decisive steps needed to be taken to cut off Collier’s
false teachings. Michael Haykin speaks of Collier's defection as "perhaps
the most pressing reason for a new confession."8 So, a new Confession
was edited and circulated among the churches for approval.
The Second London Confession
The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1677/89, along with its
predecessor of 1644/46, are perhaps the two most influential Baptist Confessions
in existence. In many ways, the more recent Confession eclipses the earlier
in importance, for by 1689 the First London Confession had become scarce,
so much so that one of the key subscribers to the Second Confession stated
that he had not previously seen the earlier document. It was the latter
document which quickly became the standard of Calvinistic Baptist orthodoxy
in England, North America, and today, in many parts of the world.
This Confession, influential as it is, may perhaps best be understood
against its historical and theological backgrounds. It did not appear
out of the blue, the product of a sudden burst of theological insight
on the part of an author or authors, but in the tradition of good Confession
making, it is largely dependent on the statements of earlier Reformed
Confessions. A quick glance will demonstrate that it is based, too a large
degree, on that most Puritan of documents, the Westminster Confession
of Faith of 1647. A closer inspection will reveal that it is even more
intimately related to the revision of the Westminster Confession made
by John Owen and others in 1658, popularly known as the Savoy Declaration
and Platform of Polity. In almost every case the editors of the Baptist
Confession follow the revisions of the Savoy editors when they differ
from the Westminster document. In addition, the Baptists make occasional
use of phraseology from the First London Confession. When all of this
material is accounted for, there is very little justify that is new and
original to the 1677/89 Confession.
This heavy dependence on previous sources was very much part of the
purpose of the composition of the Confession. In the epistle "To
the Judicious and Impartial Reader" attached to the first edition
of the Confession, the editors state:
And forasmuch as our method, and manner of expressing our sentiments,
in this, doth vary from the former [i.e. the First London Confession]
(although the substance of the matter is the same) we shall freely impart
to you the reason and occasion thereof. One thing that greatly prevailed
with us to undertake this work, was (not only to give a full account of
ourselves, to those Christians that differ from us about the subject of
Baptism, but also) the profit that might from thence arise, unto those
that have any account of our labors, in their instruction, and establishment
in the great truths of the Gospel; in the clear understanding, and steady
belief of which, our comfortable walking with God, and fruitfulness before
him, in all our ways, is most neerly concerned; and therefore we did conclude
it necessary to expresse our selves the more fully, and distinctly; and
also to fix on such a method as might be most comprehensive of those things
which we designed to explain our sense, and belief of; and finding no
defect, in this regard, in that fixed on by the assembly [i.e. the Westminster
Assembly], and after them by those of the Congregational way [i.e. the
Savoy Synod], we did readily conclude it best to retain the same order
in our present confession: and also, when we observed that those last
mentioned, did in their confession (for reasons which seemed of weight
both to themselves and others) choose not only to express their mind in
words concurrent with the former in sense, concerning all those articles
wherein they were agreed, but also for the most part without any variation
of the terms we did in like manner conclude it best to follow their example
in making use of the very same words with them both, in these articles
(which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine is the same with
theirs, and this we did, the more abundantly, to manifest our consent
with both, in all fundamental articles of the Christian Religion, as also
with many others, whose orthodox confessions have been published to the
world; on the behalf of the Protestants in divers Nations and Cities:
and also to convince all, that we have no itch to clogge Religion with
new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words, which
hath been, in consent with the holy Scriptures, used by others before
us, hereby declaring before God, Angels, & Men. our hearty agreement
with them, in that wholesome Protestant Doctrine, which with so clear
evidence of Scriptures they have asserted: some things indeed, are in
some places added, some terms omitted, and some few changed, but these
alterations are of that nature, as that we need not doubt, any charge
or suspition of unsoundness in the faith, from any of our brethren upon
account of them.
These words are of real importance, and need to be considered very carefully.
In both of their general Confessions, the Baptists purposely used existing
documents in order to demonstrate their agreement with much of current
theological thinking. In the quote above, they argue that the doctrines
expressed in both Baptist Confessions are the same, but they have chosen
to base the newer Confession upon the more recent and widely available
documents of Westminster and Savoy. In doing this, they were declaring
with some vigor their own desire to be placed in the broad stream of English
Reformed Confessional Christianity.
When the Confessions depart from either of these documents, we should
take note. It is at these points that the Baptists express their distinctive
contributions to Christian Theology. Where are these things most evident,
in both Confessions? Clearly when it comes to the Doctrine of the Church.
While they could concur with much that was believed by the paedobaptists,
the distinctive aspects of their belief are to be found in the statements
on the church. Here we find the difference. Both of these documents are
Baptist documents. Ecclesiology was the driving force behind the Baptist
movement, and is the head of theology that gives these two confessions
their distinct emphases, different from either the True Confession or
the Savoy Declaration.
The Origins of the Second London Confession of Faith
Based on the available information, it is impossible to determine precisely
the origins of the Second London Confession. There are, however, some
indications which help us to narrow the field.
The first known reference to the Confession is found in the manuscript
Church book of the Petty France Church in London. On 26 August, 1677,
this note was entered "It was agreed that a Confession of faith,
wth the Appendix thereto having bene read & considered by the Bre:
should be published." Joseph Ivimey, the English Baptist historian
of the early Nineteenth Century took this to imply that the Confession
originated in the Petty France Church, and this is probably an accurate
This church was one of the original seven London churches, having benefited
from the ministry of Edward Harrison for many years. In 1675, two men
of immense importance for Particular Baptist history, Nehemiah Coxe and
William Collins, were ordained as co-pastors on the same day.
Nehemiah Coxe was the son of the early Particular Baptist leader Benjamin
Coxe. He was a qualified physician, skilled in Latin, Greek and Hebrew,
and a discerning theologian. When the West Country evangelist Thomas Collier
began to deviate from the Calvinistic Orthodoxy of the London Churches,
the elders in London asked Coxe to reply in print to Collier’s views.
He did this in his 1677 work Vindiciae Veritatis, or a Confutation of
the Heresies and Gross Errours Asserted by Thomas Collier. The book is
a very powerful expression of Reformed doctrine. In 1681, during a period
of persecution, Coxe published A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of
an Elder and Deacons in a Baptized Congregation in London. This is a helpful
summary of the roles and responsibilities of elders and deacons. Also
in 1681, Coxe published A Discourse of the Covenants that God made with
Men before the Law. Coxe’s contemporary C.M. du Veil said in his
1685 Commentary on Acts spoke of him as, "that great divine, eminent
for all manner of learning." It is clear that Nehemiah Coxe was held
in high regard by his brethren, and would thus have been well equipped
to serve as an editor of the Confession of Faith.
Coxe’s co-elder William Collins received a thorough education, graduating
B.D. and touring Europe prior to his call to serve at Petty France. The
esteem in which he was held by his brethren may be noted in the fact that
he was requested by the General Assembly to draw up a Catechism, and on
the strength of this Joseph Ivimey asserts "It is probable that the
Baptist Catechism was complied by Mr. Collins, though it has by some means
or other been called Keach’s Catechism." [2:397]
Collins, according to comments made in a funeral sermon by John Piggott,
was a studious elder and a good pastor, noted for his peaceable spirit.
"The Subjects he ordinarily insisted on in the Course of his Ministry,
were the great and important Truths of the Gospel, which he handled with
great Judgment and Clearness. How would he open the Miseries of the Fall!
And in how moving a manner would he discourse of the Excellency of Christ,
and the Virtues of his Blood, and his willingness to save poor awaken’d
burdned [sic.] Sinners! . . . His sermons were useful under the Influence
of Divine Grace, to convert and edify, to enlighten and establish, being
drawn from the Fountain of Truth, the Sacred Scriptures, with which he
constantly convers’d in their Original Languages, having read the
best Criticks, Antient and Modern; so that Men of the greatest Penetration
might learn from his Pulpit-Discourses, as well as those of the meanest
Capacity." Such a testimony of his character and abilities well suits
one thought to be co-editor of the Confession of Faith.
Though it cannot be stated with certainty, much circumstantial evidence
points to Coxe and Collins as the originators of the Confession. They
were both qualified and respected men, and the first mention of the document
is found in their church book, approving publication. Each one of them
was requested to take the lead in theological writing, a fact that would
be expected of such men. Until other evidence is found, this seems to
be the most likely scenario for the origin of the Confession.
The Confession quickly became the standard of orthodoxy in the churches.
When the Second London Confession was initially published in 1677, its
title page indicated that it contained the views of "many congregations
of Christians . . . in London and the Country."9 It is probably impossible
to determine the number of, or even the identity of, most of the "many
congregations" willing to confess their faith by means of this document
in 1677. But there are some indications of its acceptance in the 1680s.
It found its way into the literature of the day, and was used as a test
of orthodoxy.10 The utilization of the Confession as a doctrinal standard
is demonstrated by an incident from the life of the Broadmead, Bristol
church. In April 1682, they required Thomas Whinnell, a member of an Arminian
Baptist church who was attempting to join their assembly, to subscribe
the Confession, in order to ensure that his views were consonant with
their own.11 The serious differences in the convictions of these theologically
diverse groups were settled by means of this personal affirmation. Whinnell
went on to become pastor of the Taunton, Somersetshire Particular Baptist
Benjamin Keach used the Confession as an apologetic tool in 1694. He
was engaged in a debate over the validity of infant baptism, responding
to a question on the status of infants. Asserting that "all infants
are under the Guilt and stain of original sin . . . and that no infant
can be saved but through the Blood and Imputation of Christs righteousness."
He refers to the "Article of our Faith," and bluntly says "See
our confession of Faith."12
At the 1689 General Assembly, the importance of the Confession was manifest.
As many as 108 churches were represented or sent communications to the
Assembly, and the Confession was endorsed in famous terms:
We the Ministers and Messengers of, and concerned for, upwards of one
hundred Baptized Congregations in England and Wales (denying Arminianism)
being met together in London from the 3d of the 7th Month to the 11th
of the same, 1689, to consider of some things that might be for the Glory
of God, and the good of these Congregations; have thought meet (for the
satisfaction of all other Christians that differ from us in the point
of Baptism) to recommend to their perusal the Confession of our Faith,
Printed for, and sold by, Mr. John Harris at the Harrow in the Poultrey;
Which Confession we own, as containing the Doctrine of our Faith and Practice;
and do desire that the Members of our Churches respectively do furnish
They "own" the Confession, and insist that it is a plain statement
of their belief and practice. For them, the Confession was an apologetic
tool. Outsiders would be able to read its declarations and recognize that
these churches were doctrinally orthodox.14
Confessional subscription was considered to be a serious matter among
many churches.15 It was "solemn owning and ratifying," a commitment
to a definitive theological system. So strongly were these men committed
to the words contained in their Confession that they considered anyone
"the grossest sort of Hypocrite, 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 that matter."16
Throughout the period under consideration, the Second London Confession
was accepted as the defining standard of theological orthodox belief and
practice within a large circle of churches. They wanted it to be known
that when someone read their Confession, they were getting a fair understanding
of the beliefs and practices of the churches.
I would like to mention three implications of this material.
1. There is no substantial theological difference between the First and
Second London Confessions. I get very much bothered when I read statements
asserting or inferring that there is some kind of theological difference
between these two great confessions. Some seem to think that the 1644/46
Confession is more authentically Baptist, while the second is less so.
Most often, this is asserted by those who dislike the Covenant theology
that is more explicit in the Second Confession than in the first. It is
especially true of those who espouse the so-called "New Covenant"
theology. But the question that I would like to ask those who assert this
difference is this: On what basis do you make this assertion?
Too often, this alleged distinction is made by those who have little
or no familiarity with the historical and theological backgrounds of the
two confessions. Like good postmodernists, they read into the Confessions
the type of theology that they hope to find there, without any serious
investigation into the theological thinking of the men who wrote the Confessions.
Like any other historical document, our confessions need to be subject
to historical and grammatical exegesis. We cannot simply read into them
what we think we may find there. Instead, we need to ask and answer the
question "How did the men who first adopted this Confession understand
its theology? Do their writings give support to the notion that there
are significant theological differences between the two?" An examination
of this kind can be a very fruitful exercise in sorting out this notion.
There are several things that we need to say. First, the method of editing
these Confessions was the same. Both are based on existing paedobaptist
documents, adapted, not to highlight differences, but to emphasize commonalities.
The editors of both Confessions used the identical method. They chose
the best existing paedobaptist confessions and "baptized" them.
Beyond this, it is important to remember that the first Confession was
actually revised to make it more palatable to the paedobaptist opposition.
Throughout the 17th century, the Calvinistic Baptists sought to demonstrate
their orthodoxy to their paedobaptist counterparts.
Secondly, the writings of the men who published the First London Confession
demonstrate that they were committed to the same kind of Covenant Theology
that is more explicitly articulated in the Second London Confession. John
Spilsbury, sometimes suggested as the author of the First Confession,
writing in his 1643 book A Treatise Concerning the Lawful Subject of Baptisme,
said on the very first page of the text, "As the Scriptures being
a perfect rule of all things, both for faith and order; this I confesse
is a truth. And for the just and true consequence of Scripture, I doe
not deny; and the covenant of life lying between God and Christ for all
his elect, I doe not oppose: and that the outward profession of the said
Covenant, hath differed under severall Periods, I shall not deny."
William Kiffin, the man whose name heads the list of those who published
the 1644 Confession, wrote in his 1642 book entitled Certain Observations
upon Hosea the Second the 7. & 8. Verses, "in Scripture men are
said to forsake God when they forsake the Law of God, the Commandments
of God, or the worship of God . . ." (page 4), "to keep close
to God is to keep close to the Law of God, the Commandments of God . .
. it is best both with persons & churches, when they do so" (Page
16). Hanserd Knollys, a man who signed the second edition of the Confession
in 1646 wrote in his 1646 book Christ Exalted : A Lost Sinner sought and
saved by Christ, "The difference betweene these two schholmasters,
the Law and Christ, is this, Moses in the Law commands his Disciples to
do this, and forbeare that, but gives no power, nor communicates no skill
to performe anything: Christ commands his Disciples to do the same moral
duties, and to forbeare the same evils, and with his command he gives
power, and wisedome, For he works in us both to will and to do according
to his good pleasure" (page 24), and again a little later in the
same book, when commenting on the sins of those he calls carnal professors
"They are so far departed from the Faith, which they sometime professed,
and seemed to have, 1 Tim. 4.1. that they question whether the Scriptures
of truth be the Word of God? Whether Christ be the Son of God? Whether
the first day of the Week be the Sabbath of God?" (page 34). He places
doubt with regard to the validity of the 1st day Sabbath alongside of
doubts about the inspiration of Scripture and the deity of Christ! It
would not be difficult to multiply the evidence. When one considers the
theological writings of the men who subscribed the 1644/46 London Confession,
one finds that they believed the same things articulated more clearly
in the 1689 London Confession. The difference is not one of belief, simply
Thirdly, it should also be remembered that it was the same churches,
and several of the same men, who issued both of the Confessions. Seven
London congregations published the 1644/46 Confession. By 1689, representatives
of 4 of these churches also publicly signed the 1689 Confession. What
happened to the other 3? They either ceased to exist, or had merged into
the remaining churches. In addition, several key men signed both Confessions:
William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, and Henry Forty, as well as the father-son
duo of Benjamin and Nehemiah Coxe. If the theology of the two Confessions
is different, one would have to demonstrate that these churches and these
men went through a process of theological change. But no evidence for
Fourthly, we must listen to the words of the authors of the 2nd London
Confession, writing in the forward to the 1677 edition:
It is now many years since divers of us (with other sober Christians then
living and walking in the way of the Lord that we professe) did conceive
our selves to be under a necessity of Publishing a Confession of our Faith,
for the information, and satisfaction of those, that did not throughly
understand what our principles were, or had entertained prejudices against
our Profession, by reason of the strange representation of them, by some
men of note, who had taken very wrong measures, and accordingly led others
into misapprehensions, of us, and them: and this was first put forth about
the year, 1643. in the name of seven Congregations then gathered in London;
since which time, diverse impressions thereof have been dispersed abroad,
and our end proposed, in good measure answered, inasmuch as many (and
some of those men eminent, both for piety and learning) were thereby satisfied,
that we were no way guilty of those Heterodoxies and fundamental errors,
which had too frequently been charged upon us without ground, or occasion
given on our part. And forasmuch, as that Confession is not now commonly
to be had; and also that many others have since embraced the same truth
which is owned therein; it was judged necessary by us to joyn together
in giving a testimony to the world; of our firm adhering to those wholesome
Principles, by the publication of this which is now in your hand.
And forasmuch as our method, and manner of expressing our sentiments,
in this, doth vary from the former (although the substance of the matter
is the same) we shall freely impart to you the reason and occasion thereof.17
We must not miss these words. These men assert that though the "method
and manner of expression" is different in the two confessions, yet
the substance is the same. Now, if the two confessions have a different
theological perspective, these men are guilty of an untruth. But think
about how unlikely that is: 1. Some of them were the same men, who knew
what they believed throughout these years. 2. Some of the churches were
the same churches, in which it is not unlikely that some of the members,
as well as the officers, were the same people. 3. There was a public record
that could be consulted in order to determine the truthfulness of this
statement. Everything points to the veracity of this statement. Doesn’t
it only seem right that we take these men at their words, recognizing
that the doctrine of both Confessions is the same? Both the 1644/46 and
the 1677/89 Confessions, as understood by their original authors, teach
covenant theology, the abiding validity of the law of God and, by implication,
the obligation of the 1st day Sabbath. Anything less is at best a misunderstanding,
and at worst a misrepresentation, of 17th century Calvinistic Baptist
theology. The 1644/46 Confession gives no support to those who would undermine
the essentially Reformed and covenantal identity of Baptist theology.
Fifthly, we need to remember that the 1644/46 Confession was publicly
examined and criticized by some of the most cautious opposing theologians
of the day. Gangreana Edwards, Robert Baylie and Dr. Daniel Featley justify
no stone unturned in seeking to prove that the Particular Baptists were
heretical. And yet they never give indication that the Baptists or their
Confession were unorthodox in terms of Covenant theology, the perpetuity
of the moral law, or the abiding validity of the Lord’s day Sabbath.
There can be no doubt that they would have made much of these things if
they had been present, but they weren’t. If the best heresy-hunters
of the day did not find differences on these issues, how can we?
It is a mistake to assert that there are theological variances between
these confessions. Simply because the 1644 Confession does not highlight
and emphasize these things does not mean that it, and the men and churches
who issued it, held a view distinct from the latter Confession. The differences
can be simply explained in terms of the documents used to construct the
Baptist statements. If you examine the 1596 True Confession, you will
find that it does not highlight Covenant theology, but rather the Doctrine
of the Church. This explains the direction and emphases of the Baptist
Confession. Nothing more is necessary. The theology of the two confessions
is the same.
2. Secondly, this discussion highlights the importance of Confessions
of Faith, especially as they are found in early Baptist life. So often
we are told, especially by those who dislike careful theological expression,
that Confessions are really an imposition on Baptist freedom. One famous
Southern Baptist author has written a very long book on Baptist History,
in which one of his major themes is an attempt to show that the most basic
value in Baptist history has been religious liberty. For him, confessions
are an intrusion on that heritage. They bind people to a mold—a
set of doctrines—a situation that is to be avoided at all costs.
But we must reply that our forefathers did not seem to feel this way.
They believed that Christianity was a religion based upon revelation,
and that that revelation was cohesive and consistent. For this reason,
they believed that the doctrines found in that body of revelation could
be systematized and expressed in such a way that many Christians could
agree together about them.
Dr. Robert Martin has stated that a church without a Confession of faith
has the theological equivalent of the aids virus, and certainly he is
right. It has no defenses, no means by which to repel the onslaughts of
error. When confessions are neglected or rejected, the opportunity arises
for churches to slip and fall into error and unbelief. Has not our own
century demonstrated to us the truth of this statement? Why have so many
churches, and even denominations been lost to unbelief? It is because
the doctrines that were held at the beginning were undervalued by following
generations. The Lutherans lost touch with Luther, the Methodists lost
touch with Wesley, and the Baptists lost touch with their Confessions.
The brave stand taken by Dr. Mohler at Southern Seminary demonstrates
this. He called his faculty back to the doctrinal standard of the past—and
God has blessed him—and sent opposition to him—as a result.
A good Confession—and honesty in living with it—can be a
means by which much good is done in a church. It will not be an albatross
to hinder the work of God; rather it will be a means of uniting the people
of God around truth, and prevent the spread of error. We believe that
the Bible is a cohesive book. The doctrines found in it integrate with
one another, and produce a system that is to be received and believed.
A good confession simply expresses the truth that is found in Scripture
in a concise form. In this way, everyone who is interested can understand
exactly what we believe.
3. The third implication that I would like to draw out has reference
to our heritage as Baptists in America. The theology of these Confessions
is our own. When one considers the history and development of Baptist
thought and practice in America, one must give a significant place to
these two London Confessions of Faith. Their common theological statements
shaped and molded much of the thinking and practice of the churches on
this side of the Atlantic.
The story must begin with a brief mention of the close ties that existed
between Baptists in England and America during the middle of the seventeenth
century. In spite of the distance between them, and the difficulties in
communication and in fellowship, it is clear that the small and struggling
American churches considered themselves one with their English counterparts.
When John Clarke, patriarch of the Newport, Rhode Island church wrote
his famous Ill Newes From New England in 1652, he included a letter written
by fellow-sufferer Obadiah Holmes and addressed to John Spilsbury and
William Kiffin of London, asserting their oneness in the Gospel. At the
founding of the First Baptist Church of Boston in 1655, three of the original
nine members "had walked in that order in old England" (including
a member of William Kiffin’s church, Richard Goodall). John Myles
and many of his church members moved from Wales to Swansea, Massachusetts
in 1663, and William Screven, a member of one of the West Country churches,
after his emigration founded in 1682 a new assembly in Maine. When the
1st Baptist Church of Boston published an apology for its existence in
1680, the book included a preface signed by William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys,
William Collins, Nehemiah Coxe, and two others. They said, "The authors
of this apology have declared their perfect agreement with us both in
matters of Faith and Worship, as set down in our late Confession."18
The American Baptists held the same theological views as their English
This theological kinship fostered a sense of unity across the Ocean,
and paved the way for the introduction into America of the doctrinal views
of the English churches. The Americans looked to the English for leadership,
counsel and assistance during the latter half of the century. Into this
situation came Elias Keach, son of London’s famous pastor Benjamin
Keach. He brought with him his father’s commitment to a well-defined
theological system, and urged the use of the Confession of Faith that
was so well known in the homeland. Elias ministered in Penepek, near Philadelphia,
but his influence extended over a wide area of southern New Jersey and
eastern Pennsylvania, and several churches came into existence. These
became the nucleus of the churches of the Philadelphia Association.
It is really through this Association that the Second London Confession
gained its greatest influence. While the records of the Association do
not list a date at which they adopted the Confession, they refer to it
early on. The records state, "in the year 1724, a query, concerning
the fourth commandment, whether changed, altered or diminished. We refer
to the Confession of faith, set forth by the elders and brethren met in
London, 1689, and owned by us, chap. 22, sect. 7 and 8." In 1727,
they responded to a question about marriage in the same way. The records
tersely state "Answered, by referring to our Confession of faith,
chapter 26th in our last edition." These statements make it evident
that the Association churches had adopted the Confession as their own.
By 1742, it was decided to reprint the Confession, a motion that was
repeated in 1765. It is true that, under the influence of Keach’s
theology, two articles were added, namely one on singing hymns in worship,
and the other treating the "laying on of hands" as a third ordinance
of the church. But the rest of the Confession was justify intact, and
was the doctrinal standard for the churches in the Association.
As the first and oldest Association in America, the influence of the
Philadelphia churches was powerful. The Ketockton, Virginia Association
adopted it in 1766, as did the Charleston, South Carolina Association,
and the Warren, Rhode Island Association, both in 1767. Through these
Associations, and others, and the constituent churches, the doctrine and
practices of the Second London Confession molded much of the early thinking
among Baptists in America.
Writing in 1881, William Cathcart, the editor of The Baptist Encyclopedia,
said "In England and America, churches, individuals, and Associations,
with clear minds, with hearts full of love for the truth, . . . have held
with veneration the articles of 1689." Certainly, this was true,
but sadly, Cathcart failed to see that even in his own day there was a
serious departure from this great old document. Many churches moved away
from the London/Philadelphia standard in favor of the New Hampshire Confession,
a product of J. Newton Brown’s attempt to placate the objections
of Arminian Baptists in New Hampshire to the strong Calvinism of the older
Confession. With a watered-down theology, theological depth was lost in
the churches, and they were swept away by the dueling movements of liberalism
and fundamentalism. Without a clear-cut theological system in place, the
churches had no defense against the vagaries of liberalism or the reductionism
of fundamentalism. For the first half of the twentieth century, awareness
of the Second London Confession was at an all-time low among the Baptist
But thanks be to God, through the influence of several men and movements,
the grand old doctrines of God’s sovereign grace were recovered
among Baptists, so that gradually churches adopted the old Confession,
or new churches were formed based on these vital and vigorous convictions.
Where once there was a desert, there are now signs that the dry ground
is bringing forth beautiful flowers. There is still a long way to go,
and most of the Baptist churches in America still wander in a theological
wasteland. But God has raised up many churches holding forth a clear testimony
to the truth, and we hope that many more will come to birth in the days
ahead. By God’s grace, the future looks bright for churches that
adopt the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. May God bless our efforts
to His glory.
1 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge:
Judson Press, 1969), 153.
2 Ibid., 154-55.
3 Lumpkin mentions two books which may have been especially obnoxious
in their charges against the Baptists: A Short History of the Anabaptists
of High and Low Germany (1642), and A Warning for England especially for
London (1642), BCF, 145.
4 John Tombes, Two Treatises and an Appendix to them Concerning Infant
Baptisme (London: George Whittington, 1645), 31, 34. The statements are
in the second treatise, entitled "An Examen of the Sermon of Mr.
Stephen Marshal, about Infant Baptism, in a Letter sent to him.
5 Featley, The Dippers Dip’t, 177-78. He did not accept the Baptist
claims to orthodoxy.
6 A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists, (London: The Baptist
Union Publication Department, 1947), 60; BDBR 3:193-94.
7 Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 145-146.
8 Michael Haykin, Kiffin, Knollys and Keach: Rediscovering Our English
Baptist Heritage (Leeds: Reformation Today Trust, 1996), 68.
9 A Confession of Faith, title page.
10 In 1681, Hanserd Knollys makes direct reference to the Confession in
his book The World that Now is; and the World that is to Come. In the
midst of a section explaining the procedure of church discipline, Knollys
incorporates phrases from Chapter 26, paragraphs 3 and 13. Nehemiah Coxe,
in a sermon preached and published in 1681, similarly incorporates phrases
from Chapter 26, paragraphs 8 and 10 into his expressions. Cf. Nehemiah
Coxe, A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of an Elder and Deacons in a
Baptized Congregation in London (London: Tho. Fabian, 1681), 15, 36-38.
11 Hayden, The Records of A Church of Christ, 241. The records actually
state that he "professed to believe ye principles contained in ye
Baptist Confession of Faith, 1667." The modern editor states "No
Confession of Faith of this date is known. It is likely that Terrill [the
author of the Records] is referring to the Particular Baptist Confession
of Faith for 1677, which was a standard test of orthodoxy among Particular
Baptist Churches of the time."
12 Benjamin Keach, A Counter Antidote to purge out the Malignant Effects
of a Late Counterfiet, Prepared by Mr. Gyles Shute, an Unskilful Person
in Polemical Cures (London: H. Bernard, 1694), 12.
13 A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly Of divers Pastors,
Messengers and Ministring Brethren of the Baptized Churches, met together
in London, from Septemb. 3. to 12. 1689, from divers parts of England
and Wales: Owning the Doctrine of Personal Election, and final Perseverance
(London: Printed in the Year, 1689) 18. It is curious that though the
document is commonly known as the 1689 Confession, I can find no bibliographic
evidence that it was printed in that year. It was published in 1677, 1688,
and 1699. See Donald Wing, Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in England,
Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English Books Printed
in Other Countries 1641-1700, 2d ed., (New York: The Index Committee of
the Modern Language Association of America, 1972), 1:369.
14 Bagnio/Cripplegate Church Minute Book 1695-1723, Angus Library, Regent's
Park College, Oxford, unnumbered page facing page 27. The seriousness
of this statement is exemplified in the words of the host Broken Wharf
church, whose pastor in 1691 was Hanserd Knollys. In 1706, when an attempt
was being made to revive the defunct London Association, they refused
to join in "Because the solemn owning & ratifying of our so well
attested & generall approved Confession of Faith, as transmitted to
us in ye full evidence of yt word by our late pastors &c in ye general
assembly seems to us as it did also to them a thing absolutely nessesary
to ye just & regular constitution of all associations: but ye admitting
of the above sd churches into Association renders this altogether impracticable."
They published these words in a public letter explaining their reasons
for remaining aloof, "Humbly offered to ye consideration of all those
Baptized Churches wch have or can sign the confession of our Faith printed
in ye year 1688 and recommended to ye churches by ye Generall Assembly
that met at Broken Wharf in London 1689." Ibid., 26. Broken Wharf
was the location of this same church when Knollys' was pastor.
15 When the Maze Pond church was constituted in Feb., 1694, it explicitly
adopted the Confession in the first article of the church covenant. Maze
Pond Church Book 1691-1708, The Angus Library, Regent's Park College,
16 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), 18.
17 For the following parts of the forward, see above.
18 Nathan Wood, The History of the First Baptist Church of Boston, 150.