Next year will see the 50th anniversary of the publication of a very significant document – the 1966 Strict Baptist Affirmation of Faith.
The committee of the Grace Baptist Assembly is keen that the 2016 conference should include a session marking that anniversary. But none of the present committee members were in positions of leadership when the Affirmation was produced. None of us really know very much about the events which led to its publication. So we’ve been trying to find out what we can.
I’ve talked to various friends who were active in Strict Baptist circles in the 1960s. I’ve read various reports from the SB magazines of the time. There are still lots of gaps in the information. But bit by bit a picture is emerging.
The Affirmation and Us
When Grace Baptist Church (Stockport) was established in 1984, we wrote into our constitution that:
“Elders or Overseers shall be male members of the church, judged by the church to fulfil the qualifications of Scripture and assenting to the system of doctrine taught in the 1689 London Confession of Faith and the 1966 Affirmation of Faith”
The 1689 Confession is a great historic summary that has stood the test of more than three hundred years. But we decided it would be wise to make reference to the 1966 Affirmation as well – a summary that was drawn up in our own lifetime. We tried to phrase our constitution carefully. We didn’t say that the elders (and the church) must assent to the 1689 Confession full-stop. Nor did we say that they must assent without reservation to the 1966 Affirmation. There will always be questionable points in any doctrinal summary drawn up by human beings. Instead we said that they must assent to the system of doctrine shared by both these documents. In other words if you want to know where the church stands, look at the 1689 Confession and the 1966 Affirmation side by side. And you’ll find that there is an overall understanding of Christian doctrine common to the two documents. And we’re committed to that.
So of course, I’m interested in the 1966 Affirmation. As an elder in this church, I’ve declared that I agree with the system of doctrine that it teaches. I’m committed to preaching that system of doctrine. If I depart from it, the church will have no option but to remove me from office.
We don’t say that every member of the church must have read either the 1689 Confession or the 1966 Affirmation. Nor do we say that every member must have understood the whole system of doctrine that they set forth. Nor do we say that they must agree with it all. But we do say that everyone who joins the church must realise that the elders are committed to those statements of faith, and that the preaching and practice of the church will be in line with them.
Strict and Particular Baptists
So let me try to summarise what I’ve understood so far. But first I need to fill in some background – starting with the words “Strict Baptist”. We’re talking about the Strict Baptist Affirmation of Faith. So what do those mean?
Well, they’re rooted in history. As early as the 17th century there were churches known as “Particular Baptist” churches in England and Wales. They were Baptist churches – they baptised only professing believers (not babies). They taught the Biblical doctrine of predestination – the truth that:
“Some men and angels are predestinated or foreordained to eternal life, through Jesus Christ… Those of mankind that are predestinated to life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love…”
And they taught “Particular Redemption” – the truth that Christ died to save these particular people:
“The Lord Jesus by his perfect obedience and sacrifice… procured reconciliation and purchased an everlasting inheritance… for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.”
If you hadn’t guessed, I’m quoting the 1689 Confession – the 2nd London Confession of Faith. It spells out these doctrines of grace so clearly.
These Particular Baptist churches were agreed about many things. But on some issues there were differences of opinion. One of them was the question of who should take part in the Lord’s Supper. Some said it should be open to all believers. Others said it should be restricted to baptised believers. During the early nineteenth century, the Particular Baptist churches which practised restricted communion were given another label: Strict Baptist churches – or if you want the full title: “Strict and Particular Baptist Churches”.
Most of these Strict Baptist Churches were originally independent. In each church, the members had the right to make decisions together, to appoint pastors and deacons, to exercise discipline, to decide who should be admitted into membership. And when the Baptist Union was formed in 1813, these churches refused to join it. They judged that it was weak in its commitment to the doctrines of grace and unclear about who should become members or sit at the Lord’s Table. They were right on both counts – and Spurgeon’s experience in the Downgrade controversy was to prove them right.
And yet, though they stayed outside the BU, the Strict Baptist churches did come to think of themselves bit by bit as a denomination and they did develop various structures to help them to co-operate with one another. In 1829, the Strict Baptist churches in Suffolk and Norfolk linked themselves together to form the first Strict Baptist association. Other Associations were formed in other parts of the country in the years that followed – in London in 1871, in the Midlands in the 1920s. Various magazines were published under the influence of key leaders: the Gospel Herald began in 1833 and acted as a focus for the churches which looked to John Stevens. The Gospel Standard was founded in 1835 by John Gadsby and for many years was edited by J C Philpot. The Earthen Vessel, the mouthpiece of James Wells, was founded in1845 and merged with the Gospel Herald in 1887.
All sorts of Strict Baptist organisations and societies were established, and the churches worked together to support them. The most significant was perhaps the Strict Baptist Mission. It was founded in 1861 and operated chiefly in India, Ceylon and Malaya. By 1894, it was supported by around 100 Strict Baptist Churches and Sunday-schools.
So yes, the Strict Baptist churches did think of themselves as a distinct grouping, often referred to as a denomination. They were bound together by their firm hold on the doctrines of grace, by their common belief that attendance at the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to baptised believers, by a common ethos and culture (strict baptist churches were particularly strong in working class communities and in rural areas), and by the various institutions which were established.
But there were also many differences among them. Perhaps the most serious disagreement was in their teaching about the Person of Christ. Is it right to say that God the Son was eternally begotten by God the Father? Did the human soul of Christ exist before the Incarnation? (There were the questions that chiefly divided John Stevens and William Gadsby). But there were other very significant disagreements.
Sinful human beings have no ability in themselves to turn to Christ. Is it right then to urge unbelievers in general to repent and believe? Is it their duty to do what they cannot do? What about the Old Testament law – what part does it have in the life of the New Testament Christian? Should a church allow all baptised believers to attend the Lord’s Supper, or only those who attend other Strict Baptist churches? Issues like these led to clear divisions among Strict Baptists
Well, I can’t take you through the history of the Strict Baptist movement as it developed over the next hundred years or so. If I did, I’d be writing a book, not a letter from the manse. So let’s jump forward to the 1960s. What had become of the Strict Baptist denomination?
The short answer must be that it was in a sad state. Altogether, there were more than 450 churches calling themselves “Strict Baptist”, some of them with large congregations. But they were sadly divided among themselves. The differences they had inherited from their 19th century forefathers had continued, and been prolonged by personal suspicions and rivalries.
From 1934 onward, the Gospel Standard churches had virtually withdrawn from fellowship with other SB churches and become a denomination within a denomination. But the remaining churches were fraught with further divisions. Strict Baptists who read the Christian’s Pathway (yet another magazine, first sent out in 1896) were suspicious of those who read the Gospel Herald and vice-versa. Churches which allowed only members of Strict Baptist Churches to take the Lord’s Supper frowned on those which allowed all baptized believers “walking in the fear of God” to take part.
However, in the judgement of many who knew the denomination well, that simply was not true.
One observer wrote this in 1964:
“…one rarely hears sermons of really systematic content, and because of this, all sections are poorly instructed in the Calvinistic faith which the term ‘Particular’ impies. This may be due, in part, to an untrained ministry, but may also be because recent years have seen a dearth of outstanding men in the ministry… to halt the decline of congregations and closure of chapels, something very drastic needs to happen. The prayer of those of all generations who are genuinely concerned about this sad state of affairs is that there will be a wholesome return to the doctrines which were held dear by the Particular Baptists who formulated the 1677 and 1689 Confessions of Faith…”
Think about this description of a Strict Baptist church in a village in Suffolk. It was written by a journalist who visited the church in the 1960s and spent time interviewing the church members.
“It is strangely enough, a rather cosy and gay church, a church of summer marquees, enormous Sunday-school anniversaries announced by florid posters, vast tea-parties and outings… an intimate, inter-married rural minority, an exclusive religious club whose deliberations smell more of tea and trodden grass, Sunday-best suits and varnished wood than of brimstone”.
He goes on to point out that the Anglican church in the village and the SB chapel “have managed to practise ecumenicism for years…” So, for example, they would worship together on Whit Sunday “as an act of unity”. The journalist recorded his interview with the deacon who ran the chapel (there was no pastor at the time). The deacon talked about his conversion which, he said, happened when an evangelist visited the village with his tent:
“On the last evening, at the end of the meeting, he said, ‘I don’t want to force anybody but if there are those present who would like to come forward and make a confession of the Lord Jesus, they would be very welcome’. Well, funnily enough, there were seven of us went forward.”
And how does he account for the decision he took?
“This is because the evangelist is a man who is well-equipped with the Word and can more or less explain himself to everyday people in church or chapel. He created a wonderful spirit in his tent and all the village felt it”.
Of course, it would have been nice if all the converts had joined the SB chapel. But that would be too much to hope for since first
“you must be baptized by total immersion in our pool. You’ve got to have courage to face this… A lot of folk can’t face this so they just come to the services. They don’t belong and they can’t take the Supper… But we are the Strict Baptists – so it can’t really be any different, can it? The thing of it is, you see, we don’t want any impostors…”
The whole interview is telling. The deacon could describe the way the church operated. But he had no idea of why. These were just the traditions inherited from the fathers. And he never noticed that the message and the methods of the travelling evangelist were completely at odds with the doctrines of grace. And when it came down to it, he had no problem with forgetting the differences and worshipping with the Anglicans.
A “cosy and gay” atmosphere may have pervaded many Strict Baptist chapels. But not all. There were others where hyper-calvinism was dominant. What does that mean? “Hyper-calvinists” emphasise God’s sovereignty and power, but are wary of talking about the responsibility of human beings to keep God’s commands or to believe the gospel. All three Associations of Strict Baptist churches had included in their Basis of Faith a statement that fallen human beings had no duty to believe the gospel.
“We deny duty-faith and duty-repentance” – the teaching that “it is every man’s duty to spiritually and savingly repent and believe”.
Why? The reasoning was that if we tell sinful people that they have a duty to believe, that implies that they can do so of their own accord, without God’s sovereign intervention. But the result was that in many Strict Baptist chapels, unconverted people – including children of church members – sat week by week and were never told that they must repent and turn to Christ.
The “Gospel Standard” churches were particularly definite that it is wrong for preachers to “to address unconverted persons, or indiscriminately all in a mixed congregation, calling upon them to savingly repent, believe, and receive Christ”. But there were many other churches outside the Gospel Standard grouping where the same view was held and put into practice. Inevitably, such teaching led to a decline in evangelistic activity and fervour.
Divisions, doctrinal ignorance, loss of evangelistic zeal… And beyond all these things, a sad sense of spiritual coldness, a decline in prayerfulness, a loss of delight in spiritual things. One pastor in 1965:
“We thank God that in most of our Churches the Prayer Meeting survives, but we must confess with shame that it is often poorly attended, and lacking in zeal”.
First Steps Forward
There were some Strict Baptist leaders who were well aware of the sorry situation. From the 1940s onward, there were moves to bridge the gaps between the different groupings within the denominnation. Concerned men initiated The National Strict Baptist Federation – an umbrella organisation intended to bring together churches from the different groupings. Yet by 1964 only 110 of the 450 churches had aligned themselves with the Federation and it appears to have achieved little.
And yet during the 1960s, the Lord was raising up a circle of men among the different Strict Baptist groupings who were to be the pioneers of a remarkable work of reformation and renewal. They included such men as Frank Ellis, secretary of the Strict and Particular Baptist Trust Corporation, a strategic thinker with a clear grasp of Bible principles, J K Thorpe had been General Secretary of the Strict Baptist Mission for many years and was now pasturing a Strict Baptist church in Ipswich. He was respected as a statesmanly figure marked by wisdom and integrity. Charles Phillimore was a passionate evangelist, earnest, emotional, fervent. He was then engaged in church planting in Basildon. The Lord gave to these men, and others with them, a longing – and determination – to see the churches returning to the doctrines of grace, and experiencing new spiritual life.
In the background other influences were at work. Ernest Kevan, who had pastored a series of Strict Baptist churches became principal of the newly established London Bible College in 1944. Many students – some from Strict Baptist Churches – came to a clear understanding of the Bible and reformed doctrine through his teaching at the college. Some went on to pastor Strict Baptist churches. Other men listened to Dr Lloyd-Jones preaching at Westminster Chapel and were captivated by his sense of God’s greatness, his piety, his expository preaching, his longing for revival. Pastors who had been bound in hypercalvinist chains began to question the doctrine they had absorbed. (Read Bernard Honeysett’s The Sound of His Name for one Strict Baptist pastor’s account of his escape from hypercalvinism). And Billy Graham’s forthright “The Bible says” preaching was stirring many believers – including Strict Baptists – to a new confidence in the Bible.
In 1962, the Metropolitan (ie London & Home Counties) Association of Strict Baptist Churches sent out an invitation to a prayer conference for Strict Baptists. It was held on September 11th and seventeen different Strict Baptist organisations sent representatives. A further meeting was held in November. At that meeting a panel was appointed and given the task of drawing up a summary of doctrine that would unite Strict Baptists. Another meeting was held in April 1963. At that meeting the decision was taken to call an Assembly of Strict Baptists to be held in London in 1964.
So the first Strict Baptist Assembly met on April 25th 1964. One hundred and fifty-two pastors and deacons were present at the first session. Mr Charles Sleeman spoke on the “New Testament Doctrine of the Local Church” and showed from the New Testament how important it is that there should be brotherly love between the churches. Frank Ellis went on in the afternoon to apply those principles boldly to the present situation among the Strict Baptist churches. Folk went back from the Assembly with much to think about.
Another Assembly was held in 1965. It was to became an annual event which continued until 1979. But the 1965 Assembly was not the most memorable event of that year. Peter remembers another conference far more vividly. It was to leave his mark on him and on many other men. On Friday the 25th July 1965, 55 pastors of Strict Baptist churches gathered in Leicester. The plan was that they should spend the weekend together. And the purpose of the gathering was that they should search their hearts, and seek God in repentance for their sins and the sins of the churches.
The 1965 Conference
This was what Frank Ellis wrote in the Free Grace Record, looking back on the conference:
“The weekend July 23rd-26th, 1965, will remain in the memory of the 55 pastors of Strict Baptist Churches for as long as God preserves that faculty to them… To use the words of one brother who was not able to be present for the whole time, ‘I could feel the presence and power of God as I entered the building’. It was this that produced the penitence and gave purpose to the meetings so that the same brother could say, ‘I have wept more tears of real humiliation and joy since last Sunday than for a very long time’. Indeed the unanimous testimony of all present was that they had never before been through an experience as deeply moving as this. We knew ourselves to be in the presence of Him to whom all things are ‘naked and open’ and came under the searching power of the Word of God.”
Over the course of the weekend different speakers spoke about personal repentance, church repentance and denominational repentance. It fell to Mr Thorpe to describe the state of the denomination. Frank Ellis summarised it:
“It was painful to survey what was described by the speaker as…‘50 years of waste’ among the churches”.
Mr Thorpe pointed especially to
“the fact that there had been (1) a new appreciation of the doctrines of grace, but it had taken place largely outside our own ranks; (2) there had been great advances in education and spiritual training but they had mostly been outside our own ranks; (3) there had been increased material prosperity, but far less had been done than in years of comparative poverty; (4) there had been the deep concern of true evangelicals but Strict Baptist Churches had been largely discounted because they had been judged as having little, if anything to contribute to the movement of evangelical religion; (5) there had been, since 1907, no bold advance in Strict Baptist circles in missionary work… Other missions had gone ahead – but not us.”
I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to read Mr Ellis’s report in its entirety. It is a moving reminder of the way God can reawaken spiritual life among his people. Mr Ellis’s verdict was that for the 55 men who were present, that weekend was a turning-point. When the conference came to an end, they drew up a covenant committing themselves to put aside all their differences, to support one another in love, to continue to seek more of the Lord’s Spirit for themselves and for one another. They also agreed that a letter should be sent to the churches, describing what the Lord had done during the conference and urging the churches to pursue the work of reformation and spiritual renewal. I have that letter in front of me. It is a moving confession and an urgent plea for repentance and reformation. It ends with these words,
“May the Lord grant unto us an outpouring of His Spirit, so that these things to which we have given expression, may be known and felt throughout our Churches, and to His glorious name be all the praise”.
The Affirmation Published
The following year, the panel appointed to draw up a summary of doctrine completed its work and the 1966 Assembly approved its publication as the 1966 Affirmation of Faith.
Read through it and you will quickly see that it reflects the wonderful work that God was doing among these Strict Baptist men and churches.
It shows their longing for the churches to return to the doctrines of grace that had been preached so powerfully in the past. It shows their desire to break away from unhelpful traditions that had hindered the witness of the churches. It shows their eagerness to spell out what it means to live for Christ in contemporary society. It shows their concern to express true love between like-minded churches while rejecting any compromise with so-called churches which deny the gospel.
“Those who are born again are bound together in an unbreakable spiritual unity in Christ. Schisms arising from tradition and prejudice grieve the Holy Spirit and are not to be tolerated. Visible unity is desirable, but cannot be achieved by amalgamation of denominations, by joining true believers with those who are unregenerate, or by any means that compromise the evangelical faith”.
The more carefully I study the 1966 Affirmation, the more it impresses me with its balance, its rigour, its clarity, its earnestness. At points it supplements the 1689 Confession, at points it clarifies it, at points it corrects it, at points it deals with issues that had not arisen back in the seventeenth century.
It would not have been written if the Lord had not moved in a remarkable way in the mid-sixties. Many grand things came out of that time of renewal. Many old Strict Baptist churches were restored as clear, gospel-preaching, reformed churches. Many pastors discovered the value of expository Bible preaching and began to preach with a new freshness and relevance. A new vision for mission was born and the Strict Baptist Mission (later to be renamed “Grace Baptist Mission”) was enabled to send out missionaries to many new fields. Grace Hymns was published. But the 1966 Affirmation is still perhaps the clearest testimony to the way that the Lord restored a group of churches that had lost their way.
Strict Baptists – and Us
When Grace Baptist Church Stockport was formed in 1984, none of the founding members had any knowledge of the Strict Baptist world. Nor did we have any interest in joining a denomination. We valued our independence and we saw no benefit in linking ourselves into any exclusive association. But from the beginning we found ourselves welcomed by Strict Baptist churches and encouraged by Strict Baptist pastors. These were men who had shared in that time of spiritual awakening in the 1960s. They stretched out a loving hand of fellowship to a new-born and needy church. We owe them so much. We continued to see ourselves as an unaffiliated church but we were happy to point in our constitution to the Affirmation that these Strict Baptists prepared. And I am happy to declare my allegiance to the truths which it teaches.
Happily, the distinction between churches that were attached to the old Strict Baptist denomination, and churches like this church which came to reformed (ie particular) Baptist convictions independently, is becoming less and less noticeable. Today, believers from both streams of churches meet together at the Grace Baptist Assembly. And no-one ever asks which background you come from. We’re there together because we all love the doctrines of grace, and we all want to build baptised churches on the Biblical pattern. Some of the churches have given their assent to the 1689 Confession, some to the 1966 Affirmation, some like this church to both. We stand together.
If you’ve never read through the 1966 Affirmation of Faith, I would urge you to do so. You’ll find it does wonderfully summarise the things most surely believed among us. But then turn to prayer. And plead with the Lord to do something as wonderful in our day as he did among our brethren fifty years ago.