Drop the Persecution Complex, Embrace Your Tradition
We all have our ills and infirmities, but our Baptist brethren appear to suffer from a serious, near terminal case of persecution complex. We all know it, and we should talk about it. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, right?
In all sincerity, it is a mere and recent portion of the Baptist experience in America—assuming you don’t adopt the laughable trail of blood thesis which makes blood brothers of Baptists and some heterodox and odd characters—that has erected a barrier between their ecclesial identity and their political instincts. A sort of historical narrative backfilling has emerged to justify this—perhaps, they are afraid of what their theological commitments would allow them to do if they were not shackled by their tribal stories. It’s probably for their own protection. We wouldn’t want the largest Protestant denomination in America getting too rowdy now, would we?
The True Confession (1596) represents a decidedly separatist congregationalist position. That is, the same ecclesiological convictions of Baptists then and now. Its influence on the particular Baptists churches of London is well known. William Lumpkin included it in his Baptists Confessions compendium, and it is the earliest of such documents defending English Baptists, then in Amsterdam, from accusations of Brownism. Lumpkin’s introduction notes that separatist-Anabaptists notions of freedom of conscience, congregational autonomy, and the separation of church and state are present in the True Confession. And yet, something incongruent with this assessment, at least from the contemporary Baptists perspective, is present in the Confession. It should become clear that “separation” between church and state and so-called “soul-liberty,” a phrase Baptists wantonly toss around these days, did not quite mean what you think it means in the seventeenth century, even for dissenting, non-conformist, separatist, credobaptists.
After laying out this ecclesiology, e.g., that the ministry is “alike given to every Christian congregation, with like power and commission to have and enjoy the same,” and that every congregation possesses the power of the keys including ordination of ministers and discipline of members, the Confession denies the hierarchy of offices in the English church as well as “Ecclesiasticall Assemblies,” and then turns toward the temporal realm.
First, the Christian is instructed to abandon the “Antichristian estate” of, in their view, extrabiblical “Ministrie, Courts, Canons, worship Ordinances, &c,” and “false Offices,” but to leave “the suppression of it unto the Magistrate to whom it belongeth.” This is a line barely registers with most sympathetic, Baptist readers today, assuming they’ve read the document. To make sure that the reader does not miss the larger point, however, the Confession next treats the magistrate directly in Articles 39-42.
Kings, princes, magistrates are “by the ordinance of God,” the “supreme Governers under him over all persons and causes with their Realmes and Dominions.” Yes, that includes religious matters pertaining to both tables of the law and the security and health of true religion and true churches.
Observe, “[I]t is the office and Duty of Princes and Magestrates [sic]… to suppress and root out by their authorities all false ministries, voluntarie Relligions, and counterfeit worship of God, to destroy the Idoll Temples, Images, Altares, Vestments, and all other monuments of Idolatrie and superstition.”
The Confession goes on to charge magistrates with confiscation of church property of “anie false ministries… And on the other hand to establish & mayntein by their lawes every part of Gods word his pure Relligion and true ministrie… they accompt it a happie blessing of God who granteth such nourcing Fathers and nourcing Mothers to his Church.”
Never fear, my biblicist friends, like any good confession, Scriptural citations are provided, unlike that odious Case for Christian Nationalism guy, the early separatists read the Bible… unfortunately their conclusions appear to coincide directly with that best selling book. Most curious.
Remember, the True Confession was drafted by people who really did fit the bill of all the colloquial Baptists buzzwords: “exiles,” “pilgrims,” and so on. They had been run out of town and many of them jailed because of their supposed Brownism and Anabaptism, both of which were decidedly (and rightly) politically suspect at the time. Why didn’t this experience lead them to abandon conventional (very Protestant) assumptions about the religious role of the magistrate, especially his duty to punish idolatry, heresy, and the rest? Were they masochists? Was it a failure of imagination? Unlikely. They were, rightly or wrongly, challenging the status quo on a host of ecclesial doctrines. They were not striking from a position of strength. We must assume they believed what they wrote.
Where then was the persecution complex derived from their experience? Maybe they didn’t really get it yet since Obadiah Holmes wouldn’t be whipped for another half century. If they had known about that, or had gotten their hands on an advanced copy of The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, or received a prophecy of the great Jeffersonian, John Leland, then they would have straightened up.
Now, to be fair, the London Confessions of 1644 and 1646 significantly muted the content of Article 39 of the True Confession, in a way similar to the dismal American “revisions” to the Westminster Confession.
But just as I take exception to the latter, surely Baptists can take exception to the former—no presbytery or synod could discipline them for it, after all. The point is this: take away the sentimentality and cherrypicked history of the so-called Baptist experience, which, for some, necessitates “Religious Liberty,” in the modern sense, and there seems to be no good reason Baptist ecclesiology requires a demotion of temporal power. No good reason at all. Indeed, there is precedent to the contrary. Given the occasion this week, we should also remember that the Pilgrims at Plymouth shared separationist-congregationalist sentiments; the lion’s share of John Robinson’s congregation sailed on the Mayflower. They were Brownist as you could get without going full Mennonite. Shared too was the proper vision of the magistrate, with Baptists like those subscribed to the True Confession.
And, historically, the Protestant position has been that neutering the magistrate’s religious-reformist duty encompassing the entirety of the Decalogue and the promotion of true religion in his realm is an error of Papist origin. I know it is ill-advised to threaten Baptists—it exasperates the mindset and self-image we are here trying to combat—but if my Baptist friends, for whom I am generally thankful on this Thanksgiving week, do not shape up soon on this front, then I might have to start accusing them of nascent Papism. No wonder most evangelicals swimming the Tiber hail from basically Baptist backgrounds!
Earlier this month, readers of American Reformer were advised to be Mayflower maxing. All I am now saying is that Baptists should do the same. Stop peddling ultimately self-defeating narratives; they are used a cudgel against you to stifle your political imaginations and atrophy your muscles whilst providing license to all manner of degeneracy that will ultimately destroy your churches. Drop the persecution complex and embrace tradition instead. Baptists need to get behind late eighteenth century America and look to better models, better purveyors of Protestantism who nevertheless shared their ecclesiology and sacramentology. They will be better served by John Gill (see also this great piece by Ian Clary) than John Leland. American religious and political renewal may depend much on Baptists making the right choice.
Image Credit: Jacobus Storck (1641-1688), A view of the Munt, Amsterdam with figures in boats and swimming the canal, oil on canvas