Must Baptists Reject A Christian State?

It’s common to assume that being Baptist means that you must subscribe to “the separation of church and state” which, in turn, implies that the state must be religiously neutral and secular. As a corollary of this, many Christians who oppose the religious neutrality of the state assume this means that any Baptist is, by definition, their opponent on this matter. In my last piece, in which I offered a brief rebuttal to Russell Moore on this issue, I made reference to Matthew Bingham’s book Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Revolution, and I want to revisit this book to suggest that the above assumptions are not as safe as they seem.

Bingham’s wider thesis in Orthodox Radicals is that the term “Baptist,” when applied to the seventeenth century, is anachronistic. The standard view is that back then there were Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists; within Baptists you had “General Baptists” (who were Arminian, in that they believed in a general atonement) and the Calvinistic “Particular Baptists” (who believed in particular atonement.) Bingham shows that this distorts what was really going on in the seventeenth century. There was no “pan-Baptist” identity that meant that “General Baptists” and “Particular Baptists” saw themselves as two species of the same genus. Rather, what Bingham shows is that what we call “Particular Baptists” saw themselves as Congregationalists or “followers of the Congregational Way” who came to believe that baptism should be restricted to professing believers. However, in doing so, they retained their identity within the wider Reformed, Puritan movement, as part of the Congregationalist grouping that included figures like John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and Philip Nye.

This was important because, in seventeenth century England, there was almost no worse political label to bear than “anabaptist”. Amongst other things, the Münster rebellion of 1534-1535 created a loathing of anabaptism among the magisterial Reformers; the anabptist takeover of the city entailed forced rebaptism and polygamy, bloody skirmishes, frenzied apocalypticism, and a year-long retaliatory siege by the Holy Roman Empire which left most citizens starving. In 1648 the Rump Parliament passed the Blasphemy Ordinance which said that among those errors which could send you to prison was the teaching that “the baptizing of Infants is unlawfull.”[1] The intricacies of British politics in the late 1640s and early 1650s need not detain us now except to note that such was the turnaround that by the 1650s those that taught that infant baptism was unlawful were not only not in prison but serving at the heart of the new Cromwellian government.

It might be tempting to imagine that this is because the Commonwealth was a regime of religious chaos in which everything was tolerated. This was not the case. It’s probably not possible to synthesise a coherent approach to religious diversity from Cromwell’s own statements on the matter, but the Commonwealth did regulate the religious life of the nation and what could be said in public. Bingham identifies “three tiers of escalating legitimacy under which any particular religious expression might be classified.”[2] The lowest tier was those opinions that were “expressly prohibited” such as “Popery or prelacy” (that is Roman Catholics and Anglicans), anti-trinitarians or antinomians. Figures such as the Socinian John Biddle who was exiled (see the account in Paul Lim’s Mystery Unveiled) or the extreme Quaker John Nayler, who was branded with a ‘B’ for blasphemer for re-enacting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem through the gates of Bristol, (see the account in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost) fell foul of this prohibition. The second tier was those whose opinions “were neither encouraged nor suppressed but simply tolerated”).[3] Bingham places the mainstream Quakers and their leader George Fox in this category of people whom the Instrument of Government in 1653 described as those who “profess faith in God by Jesus Christ (though differing in judgement from the doctrine, worship or discipline publicly set forth).”[4] Yet, as Bingham notes, the phrase ‘publicly set forth’ implied that

the Cromwellian settlement envisioned a theological platform which would receive some level of magisterial recognition and yet, would not include all the various alternative theological positions to which the regime would extend religious liberty.[5]

This theological platform was the first and highest tier of religious legitimacy within the regime. Yet, Bingham concludes that, ‘the baptistic position – the insistence that only professing believers are fit subjects for baptism – was located here.’ He continues:

under Cromwell, a theological position almost universally condemned throughout Christendom and pronounced illegal in England by the 1648 Blasphemy Ordinance was not simply tolerated, but actually elevated to highly favoured status.[6]

So, when the House of Commons in 1654 resolved that “the True Reformed, Protestant, Christian Religion…and no other, shall be asserted and maintained, as the Publick profession of these Nations”[7]), there was no implication that this included an affirmation of infant baptism or an exclusion of those that declined to practice it.

If this reflected the attitude of the government to Baptists (if Bingham will forgive me for using the term) what was the attitude of Baptists to the government? No doubt, there was variation. But Baptist ministers like William Kiffin served on the committee of “triers” which the government set up to approve those given licence to preach in state funded churches. Baptists like Henry Lawrence, who had been an elder in Arnhem, at the church of Thomas Goodwin, the Congregationalist divine,, occupied high office as the Lord President of Cromwell’s Council of State. As Bingham writes, “men like Henry Jessey, Hanserd Knollys, Henry Lawrence and William Kiffen took leading roles in the nation’s ecclesiastical-political life and baptistic congregationalists were firmly ensconced within the Protectorate’s top tier of religious legitimacy.”[8]

Now, why rehearse all this? After all, many people view the Interregnum as an unfortunate, illegitimate, hiccup in England’s political history that was soon submerged by the forces of religious and political anarchy that it unleashed. Perhaps. But I think that there are at least some lessons we can draw from Bingham’s account of the political settlement of the 1650s.

First, the difference between what we now call “Baptists” and other Reformed figures was not as big as we might think. Men like Thomas Goodwin could serve in the same church as Henry Lawrence. This means that those who subsequently wish to draw thick black lines between baptistic and paedo-baptistic approaches to political theology, or even philosophy and ontology, are mistaken. No doubt there were fundamental differences between the magisterial Reformers and the madmen who burned Münster. But the baptistic congregationalists who served in Cromwell’s regime were of an entirely different genealogy: baptistic convictions and practice grew up within and from the Reformed tradition, as some of those who became convinced of congregational polity became persuaded baptism was for believers only. Even those who wish to reserve the label “Reformed” for those who believe in and practice infant baptism can recognise that this type of “Baptist” is closer to them than the anabaptists condemned by Calvin or the Belgic Confession.

Second, given this affinity, it is no surprise that there is less difference between the baptistic and paedo-baptistic approach to political theology than one might think. Of course, sacramental practice and conviction does have implications for this issue but in the 1650s both baptistic and paedobaptist brethren were willing and able to work together for an explicitly Christian, even Reformed, state. One need not believe that the Protectorate was the perfect system to see that this has implications for today. It means that baptistic Christians today need not feel they are acting inconsistently when they advocate, work and pray for a government that explicitly acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord or for laws that reflect His commandments. No doubt baptistic convictions do rule out some arrangements of church and state (Roman Catholic integralism, for instance), but that still leaves open a wide range of political and ecclesiastical constitutions consistent with baptistic convictions. It is true that baptistic practice, by necessary implication, recognises a distinction between the institution of the state and that of the church, one can be a member of the former and not the latter. Yet, Baptists from the beginning have had an interest in the political and constitutional life of the nation and its religious implications. This is good news for non-Baptists who believe that the magistrate has a role in upholding true religion because it means they can invite their Baptist brothers and sisters to join with them in that cause without requiring them to change that particular conviction about sacramental practice.

Thirdly and finally, Russell Moore is right that, in a sense, we are all Baptists now. Very few Anglicans and Presbyterians argue for the kind of religious and political restrictions that the Parliaments of the 1640s and 1660s imposed. For better or worse, the voluntary nature of religion has found its way into our national life and it is almost impossible to imagine this being reversed. What the lesson of the 1650s teaches us, though, is that just because a government does not mandate a particular form of worship, that does not mean that it must be religiously neutral. The aim of the Commonwealth was to protect and encourage the worship of Jesus Christ yet allow people the freedom to do that according to their conscience. I don’t know enough about the founding of the United States to be definitive about this, but it seems to me that a similar conviction enabled the leaders of the thirteen founding colonies to envisage a nation in which religious difference was accommodated within a broadly (perhaps too broad) Christian settlement. If that is so, then it suggests that Baptists do have an intrinsic place within the American political settlement, not as those who believe that any reference to Jesus should be banished from the civic square but as those who affirm liberty of conscience within a political settlement that recognises that its power and legitimacy comes from the true King of Kings.

Graham Shearer is a PhD candidate at Union Theological College in Belfast, where he lives with his wife and children.

  1. Cited in Orthodox Radicals, 100-101.
  2. Orthodox Radicals, 103.
  3. Orthodox Radicals, 104.
  4. Cited in Orthodox Radicals, 104.
  5. Cited in Orthodox Radicals, 104.
  6. Orthodox Radicals, 105.
  7. Cited in Orthodox Radicals, 106.
  8. Orthodox Radicals, 116-117.


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