Just forty years after King James authorized the translation of the Scriptures into the English language, several Christians could be found in London, England who were politely refusing to be members of the Anglican state church. My maternal ancestor, John Donne, was Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral at the time. He, like all his fellow English religious and political leaders, held a dim view of those non-conformist Christians they falsely called Anabaptists. It is difficult for us Baptists in modern day America--we who who cherish personal liberty and freedom above all things--to even begin to comprehend the persecution that our Baptist forefathers in London, England experienced during the 1630's and 1640's. Any Christian deemed a traitor to England for refusing to baptize infant children, or any Christian determined to be a heretic for teaching doctrines contrary to official Anglican soteriology risked public execution in the courtyard of St. Paul's as a warning to fellow countrymen. In 1641, those Baptists who were meeting in the seven congegregations within walking distance of St. Pauls were placed squarely in the spotlight of persecution. An English church and political leader published a pamphlet entitled A Warning for England, especially for London; in the famous History of the frantick Anabaptists, their wild Preachings and Practices in Germany. The pamphlet warned the English that the 1534/1535 Anabaptist rebellion in Munster, Germany could be replicated in London, England if the Anabaptists (meaning the Baptists) in London were not silenced. The last sentence of the pamphlet issued an ominous threat to those Baptists living in London at the time: "So, let all the factious and seditious enemies of the church and state perish; but, upon the head of king Charles, let the crown flourish! Amen."
The leaders of the seven Baptist churches in London, England came together to discuss how they could make known to England's political and religious leaders that they were not heretics, nor were they Anabaptists, nor were they traitors to the crown. They decided to issue a confession of what they actually believed about salvation in order to refute the rumors. Their confession, published for all of London to read, became known as The 1644 Baptist First London Confession of Faith. This is my favorite Baptist confession of all time. It was written two years prior to the 1646 Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith and as such is untouched by Presbyterian ecclessiology or the English politics that resulted in the English Civil War. This 1644 First London Confession of Faith is lingquistically simple, supremely biblical, sweetly evangelical, and succinct when compared to later Baptist confessions. It brilliantly shows that the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant (a truth Presbyterianism misses), that there is equality among all Christians (a truth that is in direct opposition to clergy superiority and laity separation taught by Catholicism), and that the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper are commandments of Jesus Christ (not "church" ordinances as later taught by Landmark Baptist churches who err in emphasizing "the authority the church" rather than the authority of Christ).
In addition to the items mentioned above, three things stand out in the 1644 First London Confession of Faith that should speak clearly to any Southern Baptist who claims to know the historic traditional Baptist view of "God's Plan of Salvation."
(1). The London Baptists disavowed any ties to Continental Anabaptists.
This is seen in the title page where the Baptists wrote: ""The Confession of Faith, of those Churches which are commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists." These London Baptists were NOT Anabaptist, did not wish to be known as Anabaptist, and disavowed any association with Anabaptists.
Why is this important? Dr. Paige Patterson wrote a book on Anabaptist Balthazar Hubmaier where advocates his Anabaptist theology. The seminary he leads, Southwestern Theological Seminary, regularly hosts conferences honoring Anabaptists. Interestingly, the children of European Anabaptists are Mennonites, General or Free-Will Baptists, and other Arminian evangelicals, not Southern Baptists. Though some Southern Baptist leaders today wish to identify closely with European Anabaptists, the early London Baptists of 1644 wanted nothing to do with continental Anabaptists. They considered the European Anabaptists unorthodox in their soteriology and other important theological doctrines, while maintaining sympathy for their ecclesiology and separation of church and state views.
(2). The London Baptists thoroughly owned Calvinistic soteriology and repudiated Arminianism.
Take a moment to read what these 1644 London Baptists believed and taught about original sin, election, particular redemption, effectual calling and the perseverance of the saints. Those early London Baptists believed like most English and American Baptists of the 1600's, 1700's, and 1800's -- beliefs epitomized by the words of a twenty-two year old London Baptist preacher named Charles Spurgeon in 1853, "I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, 'It is Jesus Christ.'"
These early London Baptists loved Jesus Christ. They wrote of Him. They spoke of Him. They preached Him. They magnified Him. They honored Him. Their confession of faith was designed to show the Anglican Christians that the differences they had with them were minor and ecclesiological, not major and doctrinal. After the publication of the First London Confession of Faith, Daniel Featley, a Westminster politician, Anglican theologian and chief Baptist critic, wrote of the confession:
"If we give credit to this Confession and the Preface thereof, those who among us are branded with that title [i.e. Anabaptist], are neither Hereticks, nor Schismatics, but tender hearted Christians: upon whom, through false suggestions, the hand of authority fell heavy, whilst the Hierarchy stood: for, they neither teach free-will; nor falling away from grace with the Arminians, nor deny originall sinne with the Pelagians, nor disclaim Magistracy with the Jesuites, nor maintain plurality of Wives with the Poloygamists, nor community of goods with the Apostolici, nor going naked with the Adamites, much less aver the mortality of the soul with the Epicures and Psychophannichists: and to this purpose they have published this confession of Faith, subscribed by sixteen persons, in the name of seven Churches in London" (emphasis mine).
Read the above paragraph carefully again. Featley is rightly telling his fellow Englishmen that the London Baptists were NOT doctrinal heretics based on their confession. However, he despised the Baptists as people and would later write his belief that they could not be believed. He wrote: "they cover a little rats-bane in a great quantity of sugar." Ratsbane is rat poison. Featley believed that the London Baptists could cover for their political and ecclesiological heresies with sweet theological writings that are Christian and orthodox. One wonders what Featley would say of the so-called 2012 Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation which boldly and forthrightly denies original sin and proclaims free-will, the very things Featly calls heresy? It's one thing to cover rats-bane with sugar; it's altogether different to call rats-bane sugar. The self-proclaimed modern traditional Southern Baptists when compared to early London Baptists seem no more Baptist, no more traditional, and no more theologically orthodox than rats-bane is sugar.
(3). The London Baptists gained influence in England throughout the late 1600's and America in the 1700's because the First London Confession of Faith was accepted as a statement of Christian orthodoxy.
Stephen Marshall, a member of the Westminster Assembly, once again publicly attacked London Baptists in 1645 and called them heretics. However, the influential John Tombes replied by pointing to the First London Confession of Faith and publicly proclaiming the Christian orthodoxy of the Particular Baptists of London, England (source: John Tombes, Two Treatises and an Appendix to them Concerning Infant Baptisme (London: George Whittington, 1645), 31, 34. The statements are in the second treatise, entitled "An Examen of the Sermon of Mr. Stephen Marshal, about Infant Baptism, in a Letter sent to him).
In closing, the current controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention needs to be understood within the context of Baptist history. I am a Bible-believing Baptist. I believe in Christian freedom, New Covenant superiority, gender and racial equality, congregational governance, and the grace of God in saving sinners through faith in the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. I hold to the First London Confession of Faith. My creed is Jesus Christ, but I am a Baptist because I believe we Baptists have historically believed the Bible. Those Baptists who deny original sin, proclaim free-will and human works to obtain divine favor, and altogether deny historic Baptist soteriolocial principles are the ones who need to explain to the rest of us why indeed they have strayed from the was clearly, boldly and unashamedly proclaimed by our our London Baptist forefathers.