“Baptists Along the Congregational Way”

“On June 29, 1645, Henry Jessey was baptized. The man who baptized him was Hanserd Knollys, a fellow London independent who would soon take a prominent position among baptistic congregationalists in London. By this time, many in the city had rejected the baptism they had received in infancy and the confession of the seven London churches “commonly (though falsly) called Anabaptists” had been in print for over half-a-year. But the baptism of Henry Jessey was of special importance in that it signaled a major ideological shift in the life of London’s longest standing and most influential independent congregation.

Two years earlier, Knollys, then a member of Jessey’s church, balked at presenting his own child for baptism. His refusal apparently resonated widely within the congregation because Knollys’s doubts about the practice occasioned a church-wide “conference” in which the question of infant baptism “was discussed in all Love for many weeks togeather.” Focusing on the interpretation of God’s dealings with Abraham in Genesis 17, the debate questioned whether or not this passage implied a place for the children of Christian parents within God’s covenant people. One noteworthy participant answering in the negative was William Kiffen (1616-1701), a London merchant whose name would appear atop the list of signatures on the 1644 London confession later that year. As discussion progressed, more and more of Jessey’s church members sided with Knollys, some having “such impressions on their Spirits against Pedobaptisme, as they told ye Elder [i.e. Jessey] upon his enquiry, that he could not but judg there was much of God in it, yet still he then remained in his judgment for it [i.e. paedobaptism].”

By March 1644, the debate had become serious enough as to warrant outside intervention. The church sought “ye Advice of ye Elders & Brethren of other Churches” and brought in a collection of counsellors that included Praisegod Barbon (c. 1598-1679), Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), Phillip Nye (bap. 1595; d.1672), Sidrach Simpson (c. 1600~1655), and Jeremiah Burroughes (bap. 1601?, d. 1646). This group of leading independent ministers, although not baptistic themselves, nevertheless urged restraint and a conservative, sympathetic approach to the growing number of anti-paedobaptists among Jessey’s flock: “these. . . advised us. .. not to Excom[m]unicate, no, nor admonish,” but instead “[t]o count them still of our Church; & pray, & love them.” For just over a year, the church took this course, until, eventually, the momentum unleashed by Knollys’s scruple overpowered Jessey himself and he “was convinced also” that infant baptism was not proper Christian practice. Jessey soon was baptized by Mr Knollys, and then by degrees he Baptized many of ye Church.”

These events and the personalities involved in them raise questions about the history and self-identity of mid-seventeenth-century: “Baptists”—questions that have too often been obscured by an historiographical agenda set by denominational partisans for whom past and present were inextricably and deleteriously interwoven. The present chapter will excavate afresh the mass of social and religious entanglements between “Baptists” and congregationalists that made possible the theological conferences just described. In doing so, we will reassess the relationship between these groups and come to recognize that the realities of mid-seventeenth century religious identity were never as straightforward as they have often appeared in retrospect.”

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