Among their Protestant brethren, Baptists are not usually regarded as sacramental. Often, this is intentionally so: when it comes to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, many Baptists reject the language of “sacrament” altogether. As a people of the book, the logic goes, Baptists must not let tradition supersede the Bible. So Baptists tend to view baptism and communion as “ordinances” and “symbols”, not sacraments.
Yet must this necessarily be the case? And has it always been so? Attention to Baptist history may, in fact, tell a different story.
“He Found At That Instant Recovery”
In the 1650s the pastor of the Particular Baptist work in Plymouth, Abraham Cheare (1626–1668), received a request from a certain Francis Langdon, then living in Cornwall and who was a one-time member of the Barebones Parliament, to come and baptize him. The only problem was that Langdon was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis and was extremely weak. However, Langdon was quite convinced that God would heal him as he was being baptized. And in this way, the Lord would put his stamp of approval on the immersion of believers as the proper mode of baptism as well as provide a visible refutation of the paedobaptist charge, noted above, that such an immersion was “a murdering act.” When Cheare travelled to meet Langdon he was horrified to find the latter seemingly close to death. The doctors who had attended him had given up any hope of his recovery. In Cheare’s own words:
…his breath had almost left him, his speech hardly to be perceived, scarce able when he was in his chair to rise upon his feet, and if up, hardly able to step one step without being held up, the very sinews of his neck loosed, that his head hung in his bosom, cough tearing him even to pieces. He had not slept one hour in many nights, only two or three times the week before, as a return of prayers in the particular case put up for him by the servants of the house, at his desire; he could receive in no nourishment but a little milk, he had utterly laid aside all cordials. And indeed when I saw him at first, I thought he would hardly live till the morning, this was his outward estate.
And to make matters even worse, it was January when Cheare had travelled down to meet Langdon and frost was on the ground.
The place where Langdon was to be baptized was a mill pond about half a mile from his house. Cheare found himself uncertain as to what to do; “the first night after I came,” he later wrote, “was spent in prayer jointly [with other Baptist believers] and privately about the thing, my soul exceedingly clouded and unable to see through it.” Jesus’ words in Luke 4:12—“thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”—came to him with particular force and he was of a mind not to follow through with Langdon’s request. Some of the Baptist brethren with Cheare were of this persuasion as well, though there were some present who were convinced like Langdon that God would heal the captain as he was being baptized. Yet others believed that though Langdon might not be healed, he would not be the worse off physically because of the baptism. And so, God would “vindicate his ordinance in the sight of all beholders, that it was not of itself destructive to any faithful, obedient person.”
Cheare and his fellow Baptists spent a considerable amount of time in prayer. As they did so, Langdon grew visibly weaker: in Cheare’s words, he “decayed more in one day now, than in a week before.” But he was still insistent on being baptized. When the hour finally arrived for the public baptism, Cheare first baptized two other women. Langdon was then brought to the water side, but Cheare admitted he had not faith to baptize him. Langdon turned to another Baptist brother, a man by the name of Muckle, and asked him if he had faith to baptize him. Muckle did. Cheare later described what then happened:
[B]rother Muckle goeth down with him into the water, and he is led by two or three men, he baptizeth him. Immediately as soon as he is out of the water, he requireth that no person hold him, but strongly, swiftly as one that runneth, he goeth up alone against the hill which was very steep, 50 or 60 feet, and then was led and helped home, declaring that he found at that instant—recovery. He is put into his bed, speaketh strongly and heartily; after the Lord was waited upon for an hour, he calleth for victuals, desires beef and pork, afterwards lieth him down to sleep, and sleeps very well all that night for the space of seven or eight hours; had not one straining pull of the cough that night, when he waketh, he saith, he could have slept longer, but was unwilling to have the friends depart till he had spoken of the salvation of God. He is very hearty all the morning, ariseth about noon, but tarried not long up, saying, he found the bed more comfortable than the fire, and I think had some faintness, but still declared that he lived by faith to have the cure perfected by degrees, as his weakness grew by degrees. He rejoiced much that the Lord had so manifestly owned his ordinance…
Among the things that are noteworthy about this account is that there appears to have been no thought given to using an alternative mode for the baptism of Langdon, such as pouring or sprinkling, which would have avoided exposing him to the elements. The reason is simple: for Cheare and his fellow Baptists, baptism meant immersion, since that best corresponded to the central meaning of baptism, namely, union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism by immersion was a powerful declaration of the salvific work of Christ for not only the person being baptized, but for all in union with the Savior.
“Wash away Your Sins of Crimson Dye”
Given this thinking about the importance of baptism, it is not surprising that these early Particular Baptist communities celebrated this in their hymns. During the waning of Puritanism in the final quarter of the seventeenth century, when the Puritan vision was largely confined to Dissenting chapels outside of the Church of England, this movement made what Michael R. Watts has deemed to be “a major contribution” to the history of Christian devotion, namely, the introduction of the hymn into public worship. After the Scriptures, in fact, hymn-writers and their hymns have arguably been at the forefront of shaping Christian thought and piety in the past three hundred years. One of the earliest of these hymn-writers was the Seventh-day Baptist, Joseph Stennett I, who composed the earliest Particular Baptist hymns for the celebration of baptism. It is not exactly clear when Stennett’s Hymns Compos’d for the Celebration of the Holy Ordinance of Baptism, a collection of twelve hymns, was first published, though an edition of the hymnal was definitely available in 1712.
For Stennett, baptism “in the awful Name/Of the Eternal Three” was an event that “makes appear” Christ’s “Death and … Revival.” And it was a “Holy Symbol” that assured “Penitents who die to Sin” that
…tho their Bodies turn to Dust,…
The Resurrection of the Just
Shall render them all bright and pure.
Baptism also spoke of the forgiveness of the baptized believer’s sins. In the words of one hymn: “Thy Blood, dear Lord, can cleanse from Sin,/This in our Baptism we confess.” Christ’s blood was shed “to atone for Crimson Guilt” and this “wondrous Grace to represent/Baptismal Waters were design’d.” Stennett could thus explain the meaning of the baptism of Christ and then exhort his readers/hearers in an evangelistic appeal:
See how the spotless Lamb
Descends into the Stream!
And teaches Sinners not to scorn
What Him so well became.
His Body sanctifies
The salutary Flood,
And teaches us to plunge our Souls
I’th’ Fountain of his Blood.
Oh! Sinners, wash away
Your Sins of Crimson Dye;
Bury’d with him, your Sins shall all
In dark Oblivion lie.
It is noteworthy that Stennett uses the colour crimson to describe sin, and not the colour black, as was common in certain quarters of the western Christian tradition. Sin is never described as “black” in the Scriptures, but “scarlet” or of a reddish hue—see Isaiah 1:18. The colour used to depict the devil is also red, not black (see Revelation 12:3).
None of Stennett’s baptismal hymns are sung today. In fact, it is telling that modern Baptist congregations normally do not sing baptismal hymns when celebrating the baptism of believers, further evidence that the rich implications of this ordinance, so evident in these quotes from Stennett’s hymns, do not inhabit the imaginations of contemporary Baptists.
So: are Baptists necessarily non-sacramental?
The stories of men such as Francis Langdon, and the hymns of writers such as Joseph Stennett, reveal that the answer to such questions is, at the very least, complicated. Baptists in eras prior to our own, including the great Charles Spurgeon, stood much closer to Reformed sacramental thought than most Baptists today do. More than mere memorials, baptism and communion were celebrated by Baptists of the past as having spiritual implications.
It may, then, be time for a renewal of sacramental life in Baptist churches today. Baptists can and should be sacramental.
This post is adapted from a chapter of Dr. Haykin’s forthcoming book Amidst Us Our Beloved Stands: Recovering Sacrament in the Baptist Tradition (April 2022, Lexham Press), which can be pre-ordered here. We are grateful to Lexham Press for allowing us to publish this edited excerpt.
Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin serves as Professor of Church History and Spirituality, and as Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored numerous books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped The Church (Crossway, 2011).
For what follows regarding Cheare and Langdon, see Henry M. Nicholson, Authentic Records Relating to the Christian Church Now Meeting in George Street and Mutley Chapels, Plymouth: 1640 to 1870 (London: Elliot Stock, 1904), 13–17. This account can also be found in Brian L. Hanson with Michael A.G. Haykin, Waiting on the Spirit of Promise: The Life and Theology of Suffering of Abraham Cheare (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 41–45. ↑
For a similar miracle during baptism, see J. Ivimey, “A Wonderful Appearance of Providence at Baptism,” The Baptist Magazine 10 (1818): 257. On the other hand, the Victorian Baptist author G. Holden Pike regarded this link between baptism and healing as a “delusion” and verging on fanaticism. See his “A Western Pastor in the Olden Time,” The Sword and the Trowel (September 1, 1870): 407. ↑
Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 308. My attention was drawn to this remark by Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes, “Introduction” to their ed., Dissenting Praise: Religious Dissent and the Hymn in England and Wales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1. ↑
Rivers and Wykes, “Introduction” to their ed., Dissenting Praise, 1. ↑
- Joseph Stennett, Hymns Compos’d for the Celebration of the Holy Ordinance of Baptism (London: J. Darby, 1712). A second edition was printed for the London bookseller John Marshall in the same year, 1712. See also the details in Edward C. Starr, A Baptist Bibliography (Rochester, New York: American Baptist Historical Society, 1975), 22:256. Subsequent references to Stennett’s collection of baptismal hymns will cite them from the 1712 J. Darby edition and reference them as Hymns for Baptism. The citation of these hymns will include both the page on which the hymn is found in this edition and the number of the hymn, along with the number of the stanza if that is relevant. It should be noted that the stanzas are not numbered, but these numbers have been added by myself. ↑
Hymns for Baptism, 4–5 (Hymn 2, stanzas 5 and 7). See also Hymns for Baptism, 8 (Hymn 5, stanza 6). ↑
- Hymns for Baptism, 9 (Hymn 6, stanzas 4–5). See also Hymns for Baptism, 6 (Hymn 3, stanza 6). ↑
- Hymns for Baptism, 3 (Hymn 1, stanza 3). ↑
- Hymns for Baptism, 9 (Hymn 6, stanzas 2–3). ↑
Hymns for Baptism, 13–14 (Hymn 10, stanzas 2–4). ↑