Who Are We?
The Gospel Standard Strict Baptists (by B.A. Ramsbottom)
This is the question that is usually asked when people come into contact with the Strict Baptists for the first time – especially when the expression “Gospel Standard Strict Baptists” is used. Most people seem to be familiar with what a Baptist is. They know that we baptize by immersing completely in water the person being baptized, differently from those who sprinkle or pour water. They usually know that we do not baptize babies but only those who are able to profess their repentance and faith in Jesus. Even so they sometimes use the expression, wrongly, of “adult baptism,” whereas it is “believers’ baptism”. But there are so many types of Baptists, and so many shades of opinions. As is well-known, the Baptists form a largest number of Protestants in the U.S.A. Where do we stand? Often the question is: “Strict” Baptist? What are you ‘strict’ about?” The word “strict” is really a shortened form of the word “restricted”; that is, we restrict church membership and the Lord’s supper to those who have been baptized. There are other Baptists who practice believers’ baptism but allow the Lord’s table (or even church membership) those who have not been baptized. But how does the name “Gospel Standard” come in? This will appear evident as we proceed.
Our roots go right back to the 1630s in Charles I’s England when the first particular Baptist* church was formed. By “particular Baptist” is meant adhering to the Calvinistic doctrines of free and sovereign grace, “particular” referring to the extent of the atonement.
There had been General Baptist churches (i.e. Arminian, and believing in general redemption) previously. These had had contact with the Anabaptists on the continent, especially in Holland, Germany and Switzerland, who were persecuted by the Reformers. Our Particular Baptist churches had no connection with these.
The Particular Baptists and General Baptists were completely separate. In fact, many of the General Baptists turned Unitarian (denying the Trinity) and the denomination almost died out. (It was re-formed in the late 1700s.)
1. The glorious Reformation took place when the Church of England emerged from the darkness and death of Roman Catholicism. This was the state church, practicing infant baptism but for the most part Calvinistic in doctrine.
2. Independent churches began to appear, believing there should be no state or episcopal authority, but that each local church should be self-governing. Yet they still practiced infant baptism.
3. Independent churches began to question the mode of baptism and which persons are eligible for baptism. So believers’ baptism was adopted and the first Baptist churches appeared.
In the year 1644 the seven London Baptist churches published their Confession of Faith. As concerned doctrine, it closely followed the famous Westminster Confession – the chief difference being believers’ baptism and the independent (rather than presbyterian) order of the churches.
Among the well-known leaders of the emerging group of churches, three especially might be mentioned
Hanserd Knollys (1599 – 1691). A Cambridge graduate; He had been a minister in the established church. Developing Puritan ideas, he separated and had to flee to America. On returning he became pastor of one of the London churches.
William Kiffin (1616 – 1701). He came from a very different background, and as a wollen merchant (as well as pastor of a London church) became one of the wealthiest men in England. He even lent money to King Charles II and was able to use his influence for his needy brethren.
Benjamin Keach (1640 – 1704). Originating from Buckinghamshire, he moved to London and also became pastor of a Baptist church there. Keach was a voluminous writer, and his books on the parables and on Scripture metaphors are still in print. He is also remembered as the person who introduced hymn singing among the Particular Baptist churches.
During these years the Baptist suffered bitter persecution from the state church for refusing to conform and worship in the Church of England. Of course, the best known John Bunyan, who spent long years in prison in Bedford gaol. (Bunyan himself was baptized by immersion as a believer in the River Ouse at Bedford, but did not insist on it either as a term of communion at the Lord’s supper or for church membership.)
As an example of suffering we give two episodes in the life of Benjamin Keach.
Once when he was preaching, the dragoons were sent to break up the meeting. In the words of the Baptist historian, Ivimey:
“They came with great rage and violence upon the assembly, and swore they would kill the preacher. Accordingly he was seized, and four of the troopers declared their determination to trample him to death with their horses. Having bound him, they laid him on the ground for this purpose, and had actually prepared themselves to accomplish this horrid design. But the officer, discovering their intention, rode up to hem just as they were going to spur their horses to ride over him, and interposing his authority prevented them. He (Keach) was then taken up and tied behind one of the troopers across his horse, and carried to gaol. where he lay some time and suffered great hardships.”
At another time he was cruelly put in the pillory at Aylesbury, and again the following week, for publishing a book in which baptism by immersion was advocated.
There was another occasion when several Baptists were even sentenced to death for meeting for worship – which sentence would have been carried out had not William Kiffin been able to intercede with the king for them.
This was a very noble period in the history of our churches in their first beginnings.
In 1688 the Glorious Revolution took place. The Roman Catholic King James II had to flee the country, and William of Orange came over from Holland to become king. This brought an immense charge for the English Baptists as an Act of Toleration was not passed, and so they were able to worship freely according to their conscience. The days of cruel persecution had come to and end.
The following year, 1689, the Second Baptist Confession of Faith was issued, following a national assembly called by such men as Knollys and Kiffin. This time nearly forty churches signed it, and not from London alone.
The bitter days of persecution had been days of real spiritual prosperity, but with easier circumstances, things were not now so prosperous. It has been customary to speak of the period as a period of decline for the Baptists. But the history of this period needs to be re-written. There were quite a lot of larger and smaller gatherings here and there that knew much of the Lord’s blessing.
The name Dr. John Gill (1697-1771) figures largely at this time. Without doubt he was the greatest Baptist theologian, and his commentary on the whole Bible was a remarkable work and had enormous influence.
Among the well-known Particular Baptist ministers of this period, some of the best-remembered names are men like Benjamin Beddome of Bourton-on-the-Water; Samuel Medley of Liverpool; John Fawcett of Hebden Bridge. No doubt the reason why these names are best remembered is that they were hymn-writers whose hymns are still sung today.
Another eminent Particular Baptist hymn-writer from this period was Anne Steel.
Towards the end of the 1700s, the leading minister in London was Abraham Booth, author of the treaties The Reign of Grace.
But changes were taking place, emphasized especially by the publication in 1785 of the book entitled The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.
Throughout the 1700s there was in England just one Particular Baptist denomination. Though there were differences – for instance, the terms of communion – substantially the denomination remained one.
But towards the end of the century changes were taking place. It appears that some were becoming more general in doctrine, whilst others, who retained their Calvinism, were becoming legalistic, while some of the preaching became dry and arid. Just before his death, Benjamin Beddome had written:
“We sadly fear that a spirit of error is creeping into some of the churches, and that where the great doctrines of the gospel are not totally rejected, their importance is not properly attended to.”
All this was accentuated by the publication of a work entitled The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, written by the Northamptonshire minister Andrew Fuller (1754-1815). Fuller contended for a more general view of the atonement, limiting its efficacy only by the Father’s choice and the Holy Spirit’s application. He strongly contended that it was the duty of all men savingly to repent and believe, and that a universal offer should be made. This was contrary to what the Particular Baptist position had been in the past.
Soon afterwards a number of ministers appeared who rejected the Fuller position, contending that the invitations of the gospel were to those sinners who had been brought to feel their need and that Christ cannot be offered.
The foremost of preachers were William Gadsby (1773-1844), John Warbourton (1776-1857), and John Kershaw (1792-1870).
William Gadsby was a stocking weaver who came from a poor family in Warwickshire. Led very clearly into the truth, for most of his life he was minister at the Particular Baptist chapel in Manchester, one of the largest industrial cities in England. Here he gathered a large congregation, and his preaching was abundantly blessed throughout the country. He also became extremely well known through his appearance on the social and political scene, using his fame and ability to defend the suffering and underprivileged. William Gadsby produced a selection of hymns in 1814, many written by himself – the best known being, “Immortal honours rest on Jesus’ head.”
John Warburton and John Kershaw were poor Lancashire handloom weavers, both baptized by William Gadsby. Under the blessing of the Lord both were favored with much prosperity in their pastorates – John Kershaw in his native Rochdale, and John Warburton at Trowbridge in Wiltshire. (For over forty years, Warburton’s congregation numbered in the region of 1000.) Each of these two godly men left interesting autobiographies.
A separation was becoming more and more inevitable. Throughout England there were many hungry, longing souls who were not profiting under the new style of preaching. These lovingly welcomed such men as Gadsby, Warburton, and Kershaw, and rejoiced in the glorious gospel of the grace of God which they preached.
One of the oldest Baptists in Lancashire, when he heard William Gadsby preach for the first time, said, “I was never so blessed in my soul under any minister before. He does not preach a new gospel. It is the old gospel, brought forward in a way so blessedly calculated to meet the cased of the Lord’s tried family.”
This simple statement beautifully summarized the change that was now taking place in the Particular Baptist churches.
* Really we are “Strict and Particular Baptists” – That is, practicing restricted (as opposed to open) communion, and holding the Calvinistic doctrine of particular (as opposed to general) redemption. It would appear that most of the original Baptists were both – though the term “Strict Baptist” was not used till later