As the 17th century progressed, General Baptist churches formed a national assembly. This group sought to ensure that its’ churches were not vacillating on the doctrine of the Atonement:
“Several years before 1671 a General Assembly of the churches of the entire connection had been formed, which usually met in London. The General Baptist churches exercised a rigorous discipline over their membership in matters of doctrine and life. Persistence in Calvinistic teaching (as in denial of the universality of the atonement) was a ground of excommunication.”
The General Baptists reached America, and from 1656 to the Great Awakening (1720-1740), they increased impressively.
The English General Baptists did well during the Cromwellian period [mid-1600’s], but “along with other dissenters, they suffered severely under Charles II.”
The report from the late 1600’s into the 1700’s was not so positive:
“After the Revolution (1688-1689), owing in part to the disciplinary system already described and still more to the pervasive influence of Socinianism, disintegration set in. The process was accelerated by their resistance to the evangelical revival led by the Wesleys and Whitefield. By 1770 they had dwindled to small proportions and most of them that remained had become Unitarian.”
Take for example, a typical response of the General Baptists to the Great Awakening:
“The First Church of Boston, under the influence of Jeremy Condy (pastor 1739-1765), had become Arminian (Socinian) in sentiment and strongly opposed the revival. Under the well-educated and eloquent Samuel Stillman (pastor after 1765) the church regained its evangelical zeal . . . In 1769 the membership of the church was more than doubled”
The strength that that the General Baptists exhibited in the 1600’s had all but vanished by the mid-1700’s. “The Arminian position that Christ has earned salvation for all men and God has made provision for man so that all can accept, found further development in the revival of the position that all men will eventually be saved . . .” Thus, the Arminian theology degenerated in full blown Unitarianism, at least among the General Baptists.
The “New Connection” movement “rescued” a portion of General Baptist churches from Universalism in the 1800’s. In this movement, “Socinian views of the person of Christ and hyper-Calvinistic anti-nominism are explicitly condemned.” There was actually a coming together with the Particular Baptists on the part of the General Baptists:
“Until recent times the General Baptists had almost uniformly practiced restricted communion and rigorously excluded Calvinistic Baptists from the Supper. During the nineteenth century their views on this matter became assimilated to those of the great majority of the Particular Baptists.”
“Though few men may legitimately be called pioneers, John Spilsbury deserves that title. As the first pastor of the original Particular Baptist Church in London, he stands at the head of a long and worthy line of Calvinistic Baptists.” Spilsbury formed his church in opposition to the all ready established General Baptist thought. “The year 1633 was the formation of the first Particular Calvinistic Baptist Church in England. Hitherto the Baptists had favored Arminian views.” Others Particular Baptist churches followed. “By October 1644, the Calvinistic antipedobaptists of London who had adopted immersion as the exclusively valid form of baptism “had become seven churches.” The earliest English Particular Baptists (c. 1630’s) included Henry Jacob, William Kiffin, Henry Jessey, and Hanserd Knollys. In time, other notable preachers and theologians came to embrace this theology. Among these men were: Bunyan, Keach, Gill, and Ryland.
In 1644, the Particular Baptists produced a Confession of Faith around which their churches could unite. Arminianism and its extreme brother, Socinianism, were belief systems with which churches were struggling. The Particular Baptists formed The London Confession of 1644 as a rallying point for doctrinal protection. “Spilsbury was known as ‘the great Patriarch of the Anabaptist confession,’ and he must have played a prominent part in its preparation.” The London Confession exhibits a “moderate type” of Calvinism, and its’ definition of the church is “not unlike that of the Helwys church of 1611. It includes the concept of the invisible Church.”
Particular Baptists were not entirely united by this Confession. Substantial doctrinal differences existed among these early preachers. For example, William Kiffin and John Bunyan differed on the issue of the Lord’s table:
“Open communion was from the first practiced by most of the churches. Controversy between Kiffin and Bunyan, in which the latter denied that differences of opinion and practice should be allowed to hinder the manifestation of Christian love and brotherhood in the Supper, left the question an open one.”
Despite a lack of complete adherence to it, this Confession had a wide-ranging influence. “Though issued in the name of London Baptists, it served Baptists all over the country at a time when the Particular Baptist stream was becoming the major stream of Baptist life.”
It appears conclusive that Particular Baptist theology was a reaction to the Socinian theology that was gaining traction in Baptist circles; however, among many Particular Baptists, the reaction was an overreaction:
“By way of reaction against the Socinian teachings that were pervading the Established Church and all the dissenting bodies, Particular Baptist theologians like John Gill and John Brine promulgated a high type of Calvinistic teaching that in the minds of the uncultured easily degenerated into fatalism and antinomianism. Many Particular Baptist ministers went to the extreme of considering it an impertinence to preach to the unregenerate or to pray for them, and many churches excluded from fellowship any who dissented from their fatalistic views. By 1753, there had been such a decline that John Ryland, who made a careful inquiry, could find only 4,930 Particular Baptists in England and Wales. They opposed the evangelical revival with almost fanatical zeal.”
The ramifications of “Hyper-Calvinism” among Baptists reeked havoc on their churches. The extremes of the General Baptists led them to Unitarianism, while the direction of the Particular Baptists was pushing them into dead orthodoxy. As the 17th century drew to a close, new birth and spiritual vibrancy among churches of both groups was at low ebb. Soon, however, some intriguing developments sprang forth among the Particular Baptists.
The influence of Jonathan Edwards on the Particular Baptists is immeasurable. “The most decisive evangelical influence on the Particular Baptists was that of Jonathan Edwards.” His ministry and writings affected the life of Andrew Fuller:
“The conversion of Andrew Fuller to evangelical views, chiefly through the reading of a pamphlet by Jonathan Edwards on the importance of a general union of Christians in prayer for a revival of religion, and through the influence of the evangelical revival in England, marks an epoch in the history of the Particular Baptists.”
Particular Baptist thought was spreading in the American colonies. “The Philadelphia Association, being long the only body of the sort among the Calvinistic Baptists, had by 1762 extended its influence so as to embrace churches in New England, New York, Virginia, and Maryland.” The Philadelphia Association of Particular Baptists was modeled on the English and Welsh Baptist Association of the 1600’s. “The Welsh Baptists made much of associations and these were the prototypes of the Philadelphia Association in America.”
By 1792, Englishman William Carey combined his Particular Baptist theology with the goal of world evangelism. “His popular but profound publications disseminated moderate Calvinistic views suffused with missionary enthusiasm.” Carey needed the support of fellow Baptists to carry out his mission. He found such help it the notable character of John Sutcliff:
“Among the Calvinistic Baptist figures of the late eighteenth century one of the most important is also one of the least known – John Sutcliff (1752-1814) . . . An extremely close friend of Andrew Fuller and William Carey and one of the founders of the Baptist Missionary Society, Sutcliff played a central part in bringing revival to the English Calvinistic Baptists . . .”
No study of Particular Baptists is complete without a mention of the “Prince of Preachers. “The coming of Charles Haddon Spurgeon to the pulpit of New Park Street Church, London, in 1854, marks an epoch in the history of British Baptists.”
The General and Particular Baptists each exhibited strengths, while at the same time struggling with destructive doctrines. The extremes of each movement are frightening: Unitarianism (General) and Hyper-Calvinism (Particular) are both deadly doctrines. The desire to unite in associations crippled the autonomy of their respective churches. The Baptists were simply following the methods of the Reformers in this “association” mentality.
Lastly, it is often claimed that Baptist can trace their origin to the Separatist John Smyth. This is revisionist history at best, although best-selling Baptist history books make this claim (Vedder’s Short History of the Baptists, for example). Thankfully, able defenders of Bible truth and accurate history (such as John Christian) have rebuffed this nonsense. For those who practice their faith sincerely, Baptist truth is Bible truth. One does not need to be a General Baptist or a Particular Baptist. Every new generation of Baptists can and should go straight back to the testimony of scripture to determine doctrine and practice.