Friday, July 1, 2022

Baptist Bites: Particular Baptists and Immersion

     In previous months we’ve been tracing the history of our adoption of believers’ baptism. We find no trace in the Biblical record of a known unbeliever being baptized, so Baptists have followed that example. It leads logically to the reason Baptists also refrain from baptizing babies or children too young to respond personally to Christ. But up to this point, we’ve discovered that the earliest Baptists hadn’t yet rediscovered immersion. That’s our topic for this month. 

This means, though, that we have to talk about another branch of Baptists that developed later than the Smyth-Helwys tradition. This group maintained the Calvinism of the Puritans. Calvinists emphasize the total sovereignty of God, including His “election” of certain people to whom He will give the sovereign grace to repent and believe the Gospel. They call it “sovereign grace” because they believe it cannot be resisted.  The earlier group, led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, had moved to the Netherlands because of persecution and were strongly influenced by the Anabaptists living there. Anabaptists follow Arminian theology: there is such a thing as “election,” but it’s based on God’s foreknowledge of certain people who will freely respond to the Gospel. They also believe saving grace can be resisted based on a person’s free choice to accept or reject the Gospel. 

There is another difference between the two groups, on the question: for whom did Jesus come to die? Calvinists believe that Jesus came to atone only for the sins of His pre-chosen elect. On the other hand, Arminians believe that Jesus came to freely and seriously offer His atoning work to all the world (to those who repent and believe).  This is the plainest reading of John 3:16, and there need be no contradiction: in His sovereignty, God has purposed that grace can be freely accepted or rejected by His human creatures—and His foreknowledge of all things allows Him to carry out His plan without the possibility of us foiling it.  The question of how widely Christ offers atonement is the question, then: those who believe He earnestly offers it in general to the whole world make up the group called “General Baptists.” Those who believe the offer of atonement is made only to the elect in particular are called “Particular Baptists.” It just so happens that the rediscovery of baptism by immersion happened first among the Particular Baptists, so we need an introduction to some of the founders of that branch of Baptist faith. 

The soil from which the Particular Baptist movement sprang was a church in London that many have nicknamed the “JLJ Church” (after the last initials of its three founding pastors, Jacob, Lathrop, and Jessey). Established in 1616, it was a very open church for the time; although it could be put on the spectrum between Puritan and Separatist, the church tried for open fellowship with all churches not teaching such bad heresy that it would jeopardize salvation. Naturally, the other traditions condemned this church for not being on their side—that’s what sinful humans do. But the openness of the JLJ church persisted into the third pastorate of Henry Jessey. He seems a unique spiritual leader; if some of his leaders found something in the New Testament that was foreign to their tradition but had adequate Scriptural backing, he and the church allowed them to pursue it with best wishes—even to the point of leaving the church. One of these was a certain “Mr. Eaton” who left because of 1) conviction that the Church of England practiced a false baptism, and thus they shouldn’t fellowship with it; and 2) belief that infant baptism was wrong.  Eaton and a group of his followers left the JLJ Church with nothing but good wishes. This new church was led by a John Spilsbury. It could be called the first Particular (Calvinist) Baptist church, because they were convinced of Believers’ Baptism and were re-baptized in that tradition. 

A second leader in the JLJ Church, Mr. Richard Blunt, began to raise the crucial question of the proper mode of Baptism. This is significant: the Baptist tradition was still in its infancy, and the question of mode hadn’t become a serious issue until now.  Around 1640, Blunt and some like-minded friends discovered in Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:3-4 an important image in Baptism: Paul taught that when a converting sinner is baptized, his old, sinful life is symbolically put to death and buried when he goes beneath the baptismal waters. When he is brought up again, he is symbolically raised to newness of life in Christ. Blunt rightfully concluded (in my belief) that the burial and raising symbol had been lost with sprinkling or pouring. He wanted to return to the ancient mode of Baptism, re-capturing the proper meaning of baptizo (to immerse). He and his sympathizers raised the issue before the JLJ Church, who once again chose the open and gracious response. Since no English church was practicing immersion, Blunt was sent to Holland. They had learned of a small Anabaptist church that had departed from the other churches’ practice of baptism by pouring and embraced complete immersion. Blunt spoke Dutch, so he was the ideal man to send. He went to confer with the leaders of this church, to examine their scriptural reasoning for immersion and to study how it was done. 

When Blunt returned to England, he re-baptized a fellow leader named Mr. Blacklock, and then the two of them immersed the rest of their friends who shared the same belief—41 of them. The immersing group departed the JLJ Church (again, with their blessings) and formed their own. It would appear the Lord’s hand was on them. They began with two churches and increased rapidly. Before long, their influence led other early Baptist churches to adopt immersion as the proper mode—John Spilsbury’s church adopted it, for instance. This movement increased so quickly that many thought it would be a good idea to set down their beliefs in writing. So, in 1644, the First London Confession was adopted. This is a groundbreaking document in Baptist history. Though this group was Calvinist, which we are not, our own tradition agrees with the Confession’s language on Baptism by full immersion. 

These Particular Baptist congregations continued to grow and multiply. By the mid-1640’s there were at least seven churches in London alone. And their rediscovery of immersion as the proper mode of baptism had great influence among Baptists of all kinds. Before long it was being practiced by both Particular (Calvinist) Baptists, as well as General (Arminian) Baptists. One of the men Richard Blunt immersed, Mr. Mark Lucar, was instrumental in spreading the Calvinist tradition of Baptist faith to America.

That is a good point to pause our discussion for this month, because in the next article we will look at how the Baptist faith was planted and spread in North America. In particular we’ll look at a man who is very important in our own tradition: Roger Williams. Until next time!

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