Early Baptist history is divided into two groups: General Baptists and Particular Baptists. General Baptists were believers who held to a universal extent or application of the atonement; they were general in the scope of the atonement. Particular Baptists believed that the atonement was applied in a very “particular” manner; this judicious application was based along lines of election. Reformed theology discusses “limited atonement” or some similarly termed category. Both manners of Baptists find extensive and early historical precedent. In fact, both General and Particular Baptists can trace their moorings to within a generation of each other and to the same country, England. Today, we are going to discuss the beginnings of the Particular Baptists.
While General Baptists can trace their origins to English Separatism, Particular Baptists trace their origin to Independent congregations. The difference comes in how the two saw the Church of England. The Separatists thought a total break with the state church was necessary. The Independents simply sought autonomy without as stark a break. This eventually became a moot point as even the Independents were driven to the extremes of Separatism. Without a doubt, we see both kinds of early Baptists as distinct from the official practices of the Church of England. In some cases, the Particular Baptists are also referred to as Strict Baptists. The Strict Baptists would be those from the same theological school of thought but who also practice a closed communion table. We will save that discussion for another day.
Where do we find the first Particular Baptist Church? Its history can be traced back to Henry Jacob, leader of a small Independent congregation in London dating back to 1616. (This predates the understanding of Baptists as practicing believer’s baptism.) The next two pastors were named John Lathrop and Henry Jessey and this early congregation is often called the “JLJ Church,” stemming from the last name of these three men. By 1630, church division had begun over the issue of baptism. This may be the first recorded Baptist church split in history. (When you are good at something, practice it repeatedly, right?) There is historical evidence that by 1638 the church was regularly baptizing believers. By 1650, there were a number of similar churches that grew from these beginnings. So for the first time, we have congregations emerging that were both firmly Calvinistic as well as baptistic. We could trace the ebb and flow of church disputes over these initial years, but this preserves the important development in terms of Baptist doctrine.
The new churches were Reformed or Calvinistic in terms of soteriology, but they were Baptistic by way of autonomy and believer’s baptism – a fusing of the best of both worlds, in our opinion, but some of our Presbyterian friends would debate that issue. Nevertheless, the new churches would have Reformed doctrinal clarity, Baptistic organizational simplicity, and missional zeal. We can see the DNA of many modern Baptist congregations in this movement. The earliest of Reformed Baptist churches shows us the compatibility of being both Reformed and missional. So many congregations are beginning to seize that grand motif once again in the 21st century. It is quite unfortunate that the name “Particular” is sometimes confused with “Primitive.” There was a “Primitive Baptist” movement in the 1800s. This movement took the biblical Calvinism of its forebears and drove it to excess. They saw no need of missions agencies, ministry tracts, or other Gospel witness. Instead, they exhibited hostility toward all missional approaches. Sadly, this has marred the mixture of Calvinism and missions in the minds of some modern Baptists. The believer who holds to true particular redemption, out of divine imperative, will seek an evangelistic voice to the glory of God. Truly, in the Particular Baptists we find both solid doctrine as well as the zeal to make that doctrine known.
Who are these Baptists we hold in such high esteem? You will find them in seminaries, within organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Much of the history of the Baptist church is that of Particular Baptists. We do not deny the modern existence of the General Baptists, but those of a Particular way of thinking have existed right along with them since the very beginning. Some of the oldest Baptist confessions of faith testify of this movement, including the London Confession of Faith of 1644, the Second London Confession of Faith of 1689, ane the colonial version of the Philadelphia Confession of 1742. Some of the authors are John Bunyan, author of Pilgrims Progress. I wonder how many people have grown up on that book and never realized that the allegory was born in the heart of a Calvinistic Baptist. He also wrote many other wonderful Christian books and his life story is well worth investigating – a story of undying devotion to our Lord. John Gill is another name that you may recall. He is the author of one of the most comprehensive commentaries on the Bible and it is still available today. Surely we all know the name William Carey. What study of mission’s history could be told without him? Some of the most outstanding figures of missions have been Particular Baptists. We read of the missions of Andrew Fuller who led a dynamic life by God’s provision. Another name that should be on the lips of every student of Baptist church history is Charles Haddon Spurgeon; his sermons are still published in volume after volume today and we are blessed that such treasure has been preserved for us. He was an exquisite preacher as well as an ardent defender of biblical Calvinism.
We see the outgrowth of these Particular Baptists in the world today. Names like Albert Mohler, John Piper, Thomas Nettles, Thomas Ascol, and Steve Lawson continue to benefit us. We call them Reformed Baptists instead of Particular Baptists today, but whatever descriptor is used, they continue to stand for classic Reformed doctrines – the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional calling, particular redemption, effectual grace, and perseverance of the saints. We have added to this the biblical doctrines of believer’s baptism and the autonomy of the local church. We will encourage you to discover the heritage that we have.
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