Posted by: stpowen | February 9, 2011

Learning the Lessons of History (2)

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I am sure that I cannot be alone in seeing remarkable parallels between the early 18th Century and today.  In our own time we have seen a marked decline in Christian orthodoxy and teaching, most prominently within the Church of England but also in most other denominations.  Scientific discoveries have led to the view among many that the whole Universe can be explained by natural processes and scientists find that they gain more kudos by commenting on religion than by sticking to their work.  Lack of religious belief has led to a precipitous decline in morality.  Pornography, crime, violence, alcoholism, family breakdown, venereal disease, gambling, illegitimacy have all increased just as they did 280 years ago.  The words of the Bible speak as accurately of the 17th Century as they do of our own:  ’And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting’ (Romans 1:28).

We can also see parallels in the responses of various church ministers.  Some are more than happy to abandon any pretence of orthodoxy, and preach a God who is not Judge, a Christ who cannot save and a heaven to be attained without repentance.  Others are eager to receive Government money to further their  charitable schemes even when it means compromising Christian doctrine.  Even among the orthodox we find one group desperate to conform to the spirit of the age and another that draws itself into a tiny coterie, damning anyone who will not pronounce its shibboleths.

So what was the aftermath of the Salters’ Hall fiasco?  It has become an axiom among Christian writers that the Nonconformist churches were all adversely affected.  Certainly this is true of the Presbyterian and General Baptist churches, which succumbed almost entirely to Unitarianism and had almost disappeared by around 1790 (23).  There is some debate as to how the Particular Baptists and Congregationalists fared.  Most Church Historians, like Michael Haykin, state that these churches also declined, though to a lesser extent- some in to liberalism and others into hyper-Calvinism.  David Fountain however (24) takes a different view.  He points to a letter written by Congregationalist Philip Dodderidge to Isaac Watts in 1730:  “I know that in many of the congregations the number of Dissenters is greatly increased within these twenty years; and the interest continues so to flourish, that I am confident some of our honest people, who converse only in their own neighbourhood, will be surprised to hear of an inquiry into the causes of its decay.”  In the same letter, Dodderidge speaks of preaching in a barn, “To a pretty large assembly of plain country people.”  In the preface of his Humble Attempt, Watts wrote, “Among the papers published last year, there hath been some enquiry made, whether there be any decay of the dissenting interest, and what may be supposed to have been the occasion of it.  So far as I have searched into these matters, I have been informed that whatsoever decrease may have appeared in some places there hath been sensible advances in others.”

Fountain concludes, “It is important to notice the fact that some churches were advancing, because this is generally ignored.  Upon a careful examination of the evidence it is simple to see what was happening.  Those churches that were abandoning the doctrines of the gospel were going down, but those that were true to the gospel were increasing.  On the whole the Dissenters were growing in spite of the decay among the Presbyterians.”  He backs this up by reference to a book written early in the 19th Century; A History of Dissenters by Bennet and Bogue.  This book has been very difficult to obtain for many years, but has now been republished (25).  The authors quote two surveys of Dissenting churches, one taken in 1715, shortly after the death of Queen Anne, and the other in 1772.  The earlier survey shows that there were 1,107 dissenting churches in England of which 247 were Baptist; the second reveals 1,092 Dissenting churches of which 390 were Baptist (26).  So although the non-conformist churches had declined as a whole, the number of Baptist churches had risen by more than a half.  The overall decline may be attributed to the demise of most of the Presbyterian and General Baptist congregations, and it may be assumed that Particular Baptist churches must have grown very strongly in number to compensate for the decline of their General Baptist cousins. Congregational churches must also have increased.  This is not to say that the Particular Baptists had no problems at this time.  We read of the congregation at Trowbridge becoming Arian under its minister, Thomas Lucas.  The church at Taunton went the same way.  Yet these losses, sad as they may have been, were more than compensated for by the growth elsewhere.  The membership of Benjamin Beddome’s congregation at Bourton-on-the-water increased numerically by 176 between 1740, when he arrived, and 1764 (27).  

So what lessons may we draw from the events surrounding the Salters’ Hall Synod?  What does it have to say to us today?  I think there may be six subjects which it would be well for 21st Century churches to ponder.

1.  A robust  Five-Point Calvinism is a defence against apostasy.  I am not among those who believe that Amyraldianism and Arminianism are themselves heretical, but it does appear that such beliefs are a step along the road to liberalism.  The Presbyterians, influenced by the Amyraldianism of Baxter, and the Arminian General Baptists were unable to withstand the tsunami of rationalism and deism that the 18th Century unleashed upon them and disappeared into Unitarianism and unbelief.  The Anglicans were rescued from the same fate only by the Great Methodist Revival under Wesley and Whitefield.  It was, under God, the Calvinistic Particular Baptists and Congregationalists who were able to weather the storm and, it seems, even to grow.  We can see something of the same today.  We are constantly being told that church attendance is falling in Britain, and so it may well be.  Yet it is the liberal churches- the Methodists, the U.R.C. and the Anglicans- that are haemorrhaging members, while many evangelical churches are seeing steady growth.

2.  A firm, Biblical Statement of Faith is essential to keep liberalism at bay.  If Peirce and Hallett had been ministers of churches that held strongly to the Westminster Confession of Faith, they could have been challenged and required to resign if they would not give their full-hearted assent to it.  In this respect, the actions of Bernard Foskett (q.v.) with reference to the Western Association of Particular Baptists are worthy of note.   In 1723, not long after arriving at Bristol, he wrote on behalf of his church to the Association members, urging that the following should be added to the preliminaries that governed association meetings.

‘That seeing many errors have been broached, and ancient heresies revived, of late, in the world, no messenger shall be received from any church whose letters don’t express, either in the preamble or body of it, that they of the church do approve the Confession of Faith put forth by above a hundred Baptist churches (edit. 3d A.D. 1699) and do maintain the principles contained therein; such letter being signed at a church-meeting, in the name and by the consent of the whole church.’

At that time, the other churches in the Association were not prepared to go as far as Foskett and the Broadmead church, and contented themselves with a brief statement of belief in the Trinity.  However, in 1732, after the apostasy of the Trowbridge and Taunton congregations, the Association was due to meet in Bristol, and Foskett and his colleague, Caleb Evans, insisted that all those who came to the meeting should subscribe to the 1689 Confession.  It is clear that there was some degree of separation as a result of this insistence, but the Association grew and was blessed after this time.  Its records show that between 1736 and Foskett’s death in 1758, there were 1326 baptism leading to a nett gain in membership of Association churches of 592, or 25 members each year.

Separation from other churches over matters of doctrine is never pleasant, but it is necessary to preserve pure doctrine in a church.  The Churches Together movement in Britain is pernicious to the health of evangelical churches since every church that joins is accounted a true church of Christ and every minister, His true servant, never mind if he denies His divinity, His resurrection or His atonement.  Discussion of doctrine must be at a discount in order to preserve unity and joint services will never preach the true Gospel for the same reason.  Inevitably, a doctrinal malaise will creep into even the most orthodox church.  How true is the saying that

‘Bad company is a disease;
Who lies with dogs shall rise with fleas.’

I do not say that every church must sign up to a 17th Century Confession (though I would have no objection to this!) in order to be considered orthodox.  The F.I.E.C. churches in Britain have their own Statement of Faith (28), and while one could wish it were a little more comprehensive, it certainly covers more than the basics.  Every minister and every congregation in the Fellowship is required to sign up to it annually.  Merely to say that a church ‘believes the Bible’ is not good enough.  As in the case of Peirce and Hallett, it is necessary to affirm what one believes the Bible to teach.

3. Denominations are no defence against apostasy, but rather exacerbate it.  Under Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism, the Minister of a church is not directly responsible, under God, to his congregation but to his Bishop or Presbytery.   The church in Exeter could not dismiss Peirce on account of his lack of orthodoxy, but could only refer him to the local Presbytery, which dithered and referred the matter up to London, and still received no clear verdict.  An Independent church, armed with a clear, Biblical Statement of Faith, can very quickly hold an errant minister to account.  Someone once wisely said that a church is like a fish; it rots from the head down.  Apostasy seldom enters a church from the pew.  Almost invariably it comes in through the pulpit, or indeed from the Presbytery.  The story of the Heath Evangelical Church in Cardiff is salutary in this respect.  Formed in 1903, it was originally part of the Presbyterian Church of Wales (aka the Calvinistic Methodists), and as that denomination became increasingly liberal, the Heath came under pressure to modify its strict Biblical stance and to allow unbelieving preachers into its pulpit.  Eventually, it felt obliged to leave the denomination, and then had to face the threat of legal action over its premises (29).  Much the same thing is happening right now in the Episcopalian Church of America.  It should be added that the Heath has prospered as a free church and remains to this day a beacon of Reformed Evangelical Christianity in Wales. 

Nor are Synods any way of running a denomination.  We have seen how the Salters’ Hall Synod, far from solving the problem of Unitarianism, actually gave it wings.  Likewise the various synods of the Church of England and the occasional Lambeth Conferences never do anything to bring the bulk of the Anglican churches back to orthodoxy but rather give the liberal wing of the denomination the opportunity to disseminate its views.  The Head of every church is the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 1:22).  We err if we place any man or human construction in between the Head and the body.  The word of God to Christians in all denominations is, ‘“Come out from among them and be separate,” says the Lord, “……And I will receive you”’ (2Cor 6:17).

Someone will say, Yes, but you have spoken of the 18th Century Western Association of the Particular Baptists and today’s F.I.E.C. in glowing terms; are they not denominations?  I believe not.  These were or are free associations of independent churches.  Outside of the Statements of Faith, freely entered into, the organizations have no authority over the churches.  While churches are meant to be independent, they should be connectional.  When the church at Antioch had a complaint against the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15), the churches came together to sort the problem out.

4. The regular and earnest preaching of repentance and the New Birth is essential to the health and growth of the Church.  The New Birth was the doctrine by which God brought revival to Britain through the preaching of the Wesleys, Whitefield and others and for which they were barred from most Anglican churches.  Today, the very idea of preaching about sin is frowned upon by many as being injurious to self-esteem, and there is an unspoken doctrine of Presumptive Regeneration (that is, the idea that the children of believers may be presumed to have inherited their parents’ piety) even in many Baptist churches.  Only the clear and regular preaching of the doctines of Total Depravity and the New Birth will revitalize the churches in our day. 

5. Churches that involve themselves in charitable enterprises should steer clear of accepting Government money.  Just as the King’s Money affected the churches’ freedom to speak out indefense of sound doctrine in the 18th Century, so joining in with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ will involve the churches in ‘inclusiveness’ and force us to abandon our evangelical Christian distinctives.  The clearest example of this is Steve Chalke’s Faithworks.  I am not at all saying that churches should not ‘abound in good works’ or ‘remember the poor’ but if the Lord does not give us the funds to do all that we would like to do, then let us content ourselves with doing what we can and keep ourselves from the temptation to accept the support of an unbelieving Government..    

6. A church is a body of believers and is to be kept pure (2Cor 11:2).  This can never be done absolutely.  Even in New Testament times unbelievers were coming into the churches and upsetting them (Jude 4) and Paul foresaw more of it happening (Acts 20:28-31), but that is no reason for not trying as hard as we can to keep a regenerate membership.  There are three main reasons today why unbelievers are found in our churches and, indeed, rise to positions of authority within them.

Firstly, there is the desire among many Ministers to grow their churches at all cost.  This desire often leads them to baptize and to receive into membership people whom they know are not converted.  To say that this is a great evil is an understatement.  It gives a false assurance to the new members who will inevitably cease to seek the Lord having been assured by their minister that they have found Him.  Such members also tend to subvert the church by demanding shorter sermons, jollier services with more entertainment to appeal to their unregenerate tastes.

Secondly, there is the tendency for Anglican and Presbyterian churches to treat the children of members of the church as if they were themselves members.  Bennet and Bogue (29) wrote,  ‘Episcopacy permits everyone to kneel at the altar who can say his catechism, and has been confirmed.  Presbytery requires a knowledge of the principles of religion and a regular life;  beyond these it has never professed to go, and the whole decision was left to the minister.  As the natural result of the system, the children followed their parents to the Lord’s table.  A Presbyterian congregation was a society wherein the rising generation took the place of the preceding, in a succession of the same families.  Though the fathers and mothers were pious, it frequently happened that the children were not, yet they occupied their place; and such as were in respectable positions had considerable influence in the choice of minister. To a person who makes a profession of religion, but is destitute of its power, some kind of appearance is requisite.  Controversy answers the purpose, and comes in opportunely to the person’s aid.  It was now carried on in all its ardour; and as the new opinion [ie. Arianism, Socinianism- M.M.] had something to recommend it to such persons, it was readily received.’  In support of this theory, it might be mentioned that it was the son of the famous theologian Francis Turretine who is said to have introduced Arianism to the church in Geneva, early in the 18th Century.

So what common trait can we find among the Baptists and Congregationals that enabled them to survive and prosper during this most difficult period for the Church?  Clearly they differed in their view of baptism, so we must look elsewhere.  The feature appears to be the qualification for church membership.  Rather than ‘a knowledge of the principles of religion’ which satisfied the Presbyterians, the Independents of the time required some evidence of a regenerated heart.  Back at the time of the writing of the Westminster Confession, the Scottish Puritan, Robert Baillie had written that the Independents, “Will admit of none to be members of their congregations of whose true grace and regeneration they have no good evidences’ (31).  He went on to admit that if this principle were applied to the Presbyterian churches only around two or three percent of their members would remain! 

 Thirdly, it is necessary that theological seminaries by staffed by regenerate men who have a clear vision of what is needed to produce the evangelical Pastors of the future.  We have seen that the Baptists possessed such a man in Bernard Foskett.  Far different was the state of the Presbyterian seminary at Taunton!  Henry Grove was its Principal from 1725-1738.  Bennet and Bogue relate that he was a man of considerable intellect, writing learned articles for the Spectator and other secular publications.  They continued,   ‘His knowledge of moral philosophy was unsurpassed and he published many erudite documents on a variety of subjects, ‘But important and valuable as all these qualities are, one thing was wanting to complete his character and give efficacy to the whole; and the want of that rendered many of the others worse than useless.  It is by the principles of religion which a tutor instills into his students, that they become a blessing or a curse to the human race; assassins of souls or instruments of salvation.  Unhappily Mr. Grove was not sound in the faith; and as he advanced in years, he became more averse to evangelical doctrines.  The greater part of the students imbibed the spirit of their tutor, and going forth with their new divinity, they starved and scattered the flourishing churches, which the pure doctrine of Christ had gathered and increased’ (32).

It may seem to be stating the blindingly obvious, but nothing can be more important for the recovery of the churches than for the ministers and elders of evangelical churches to ensure that the seminaries to which they send their young people should be sound in the faith, and they should take a lively interest in the progress of the students each time they return on holiday.  Churches should only support seminaries that have a clear statement of faith to which all faculty members are required to give wholehearted and continuing support.

Finally, would it not be a wonderful thing if the Bible-believing churches in each area came together for earnest, repentant prayer?  All the books on ‘Church Growth’  and on ‘Preaching with Power’ have not raised the nation from its spiritual decline, any more than  they did 300 years ago.  Our Lord would tell us that ‘This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting’ (Matt 17:21).  Back in the 17th Century, we hear of the Independent church in Basingstoke writing to the church at the Three Cranes, London,  “…..Since the presence of the Lord is greatly withdrawn from our solemn assemblies, the great work of conversion is at a stay….we cannot but be alarmed…..and concerned for the departing glory.  And having therefore separated some time to humble ourselves before the Lord by fasting and prayer, and to plead with Him for ourselves and families, relations, and neighbours, that the Lord would revive His dying cause among us……..But as the Lord is calling, warning, and alarming us by His providence, we have thought it our duty to certify this to you, as desirous of promoting fellowship with you in the Lord, and not doubting your tender sympathy and affectionate concern for the Lord’s poor and afflicted remnant here.  We do hereby entreat, if it may be convenient for you to devote some time to spread our case before the Lord, and help us by your prayers, that we may yet receive the blessing of the Lord of increase and prosperity” (33).

The Basingstoke church did not suppose that it could revive their fortunes by accommodating their ministry to the tastes of unbelievers (34), but it looked to the great Head of the Church for help and enlisted the help of a like-minded congregation to pray with them.  Their prayers were gloriously answered by the Lord when, starting around 1738, the great Methodist Revival led by Wesley and Whitefield swept thousands into the kingdom of God.  My continuing prayer is that the true Gospel churches of today will eschew the quack remedies proposed by the ‘Church Growth’ gurus and come together in earnest and importunate prayer until the Lord comes once again in power to our poor benighted land.

‘Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down! That the mountains might shake at Your presence– As fire burns brushwood, As fire causes water to boil– To make Your name known to Your adversaries, That the nations may tremble at Your presence! When You did awesome things for which we did not look, You came down, The mountains shook at Your presence.  For since the beginning of the world Men have not heard nor perceived by the ear, Nor has the eye seen any God besides You, Who acts for the one who waits for Him’ (Isaiah 64:1-4).


(23)  The General Baptists were revived later in the Century by a group under Dan Taylor who left Methodism after becoming convinced of Believers’ Baptism.  Presbyterianism in England did not reappear until the 19th Century when it was restarted with the help of the Free Church of Scotland.  It collapsed again into liberalism in the 20th Century and merged with the Congregationalists to become the United Reformed Church.  United that church may or may not be; Reformed it isn’t.
(24) David Fountain, Isaac Watts Remembered and The Forgotten Baptists 1660-1760 both published by Gospel Standard Baptist Trust.
(25) History of Dissenters From the Revolution to the Year 1838  by James Bennet and David Bogue (3 Volumes.  Tentmaker Publications, 2000).  Originally published in 1833 & 1839.  Tentmaker have done the Christian public a great service by republishing this book.
(26) In fairness to Michael Haykin, I should mention that in his book, One Heart and One Soul (Evangelical Press, 1994), he mentions another survey of Particular Baptist churches, taken in 1753 by J. C. Ryland and showing only 150 congregations.  Perhaps more research needs to be done to resolve these apparent discrepancies.
(27) Figures taken from Beddome’s biography by Michael Haykin in The British Particular Baptists 1638-1910 (Particular Baptist Press, 1998).
(28) Figures taken from Evangelical Calvinism by Roger Hayden.
(29) The Heath Church has published its own history, Holding Forth the Word of Life, (Heath Christian Trust. ISBN 0 907192 09 0).
(30) Bennet & Bogue, op cit.
(31) Quoted by David Gay, Battle for the Church (Bracchus Books, 1997. ISBN 0 9529982 0 3)   Exact provenance unknown.
(32) Bennet & Bogue. op cit. Vol 2.
(33) Waddington op.cit.
(34) There is no doubt that some 18th Century churches were tempted to compromise the Gospel.  Dodderidge, in an address to an assembly of ministers declared, “I hope we shall never practise so dangerous a complaisance to unbelievers of the present age as to waive the Gospel that we may accommodate ourselves to their taste, which if we do, we may indeed preserve the name of virtue; but I fear we shall destroy the thing itself.”


  1. Thank you again.

    The period 1690-1740 is generally skipped over in evangelical history, but it is surely worthy of enquiry as to why such a comparatively barren age followed that of the great puritans, so I appreciate what you have written.

    I think you may overstate the benefits of independency – it wasn’t able to resist the challenge of higher criticism in the late 19th century, and presbyterianism fared better in Ireland and Scotland, at least where subscription was maintained (confirming your point about the importance of a strong confession of faith). As nonconformists we should be humbled that revival in the 18th century originated in the Anglican church.

    I think you are right about the current need for prayer. I know of some churches in Northern Ireland that are coming together in the way that you suggest, let’s hope the idea spreads.

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