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Seventeenth Century Baptists

By Timothy Binion

Circumstances have colored each century with unique forces that have shaped the life and work of the church down to the present. Cause and effect continues to shape us culturally and traditionally. Understanding this influence may serve us as a Spiritual compass preserving progress and preventing extremism.


Perhaps no group in England made more use of public disputations than did Baptists. Between 1641 and 1700 at least 109 such public debates involving Baptists were held in England, with 79 of these between 1641 and 1660. These debates pitted one or more Baptist champions against opponents from Anglican, Quaker, Independent, or, sometimes, Roman Catholic groups.

Baptists welcomed these occasions, for they gave opportunity for declaring the gospel to large crowds, helped defend Baptists against unjust slanders, and often led to numerous conversions and the planting of new Baptist churches.


In 1646 Thomas Edwards, a respected Presbyterian, observed, “There are more Books writ, Sermons preached, words spoken, besides plottings and actings for a Toleration, within these four last years…. Every day now brings forth Books for a Toleration.”

During the early 1640s, the authorities made some effort to control illegal printing, but with little success. Baptists wrote books and tracts of truth and flooded their cities with sound doctrine . In 1643 one anonymous churchman chided the Parliament for allowing what he considered heretical tracts:

“I am not ignorant, what a numerous and almost infinite issue of bastard Books daily comes to light: Even the very streets of the most populous Metropolis or Mother-City, being spread with petty Pamphlets…. We are over cloyed with bookes, our eyes are pain’d with reading, and our hands with turning over leaves.”


Perhaps nothing did more to shape and share the Baptist faith in the seventeenth century than Baptists’ many confessions of faith. Baptists have been from the first a confessional people, always ready to give an answer for the faith within them. Individuals, local churches, associations, and national assemblies have from time to time put out statements of their faith, ranging from very short summaries, scarcely a page, to lengthy and elaborate theological treatises.THE MINISTRY

Called either Pastor or Elder and was expected to have a divine call before entering the ministry. Duties involved preaching, teaching, administering the gospel ordinances, leading in worship, witnessing, and discipline in the church. Some had a formal education some did not. Most earned their livelihood as mechanics, tailors, soap boilers, tinkers, and cobblers. Most were bi-vocational receiving little or no income from their church work.

Pastorates for a lifetime 50-60 years were not uncommon. A pastor who wanted to move to a new pastorate had to secure the approval of both churches. This lifetime tenure and the difficulty of ministers moving to other pastorates, had its negative features. Many churches became identified with the pastor.


The oldest record of a Baptist worship service comes from 1609, in a letter from Hughe and Anne Bromhead, who wrote (original spelling used): “The order of the worshippe and government of oure church is. 1. we begynne with A prayer, after reade some one or tw chapters of the bible gyve the sence thereof, and conferr upon the same, that done we lay aside our bookes, and after a solernne prayer made by the. 1. speaker, he propoundeth some text owt of the Scripture, and prophecieth owt of the same, by the space of one hower, or thre Quarters of an hower. After him standeth vp A .2. speaker and prophecieth owt of the same text the like tyme and space. some tyme more some tyme less. After him the.3. the.4. the.5. & as the tyme will geve leave, T’ben the. 1. speaker concludeth wth prayer as he began with prayer, wth an exhortation to contribute to the poore, wch collection being made is also concluded wth prayer. This Morning exercise begynes at eight of the clocke and continueth vnto twelve of the clocke the like course of exercise is observed in the afternowne from .2. of the clock vnto .5. or .6. of the Clocke, last of all the execution of the goverment of the church is handled.”

Though modified somewhat over the next century, this basic pattern of worship continued in Baptist churches. The services were lengthy, centered around biblical exposition and preaching, and allowed worshipers as well as speakers to confer upon biblical texts and offer their insights before the group. The offering for the poor and the business of the church, perhaps including matters of discipline, were appended to the end of the service.

In the early days, few Baptist churches had their own buildings, though this became more common after 1700. They met in private homes, sometimes in public halls, and quite often out of doors in good weather. Most immersions were conducted in rivers and lakes, but some churches prepared indoor “baptisterions,” or “baptismal cisterns,” as they called them. Some churches with convenient baptistries levied a fee for other churches to use them, charging for converts baptized, with two shillings per head being the going rate.

Baptists required complete spontaneity in worship, so that individuals could respond to God as the Spirit might lead them at any moment. This made Baptist worship somewhat unpredictable, for at any moment a worshiper might be given a doctrine, an exhortation, or a psalm to share with the group. Baptist resistance to set forms of worship in the Prayer Book helps explain their freewheeling style. Baptists insisted that they could not pray out of a book but that prayer and praise must come directly “from the hart.”

Modern worship practices of Baptists, with hymns, printed orders of worship, Scripture readings, and choral responses all determined in advance, would have been unthinkable to early Baptists. Even Helwys, more moderate than Smyth on many issues, said, “All bookes even the originalles them selves must be layed aside in the tyme of spiritual worshipp.”

Even the Bible could not be used in worship, but only “for the preparinge to worshipp.” Such extreme emphasis upon complete spontaneity called in question the practice of preparing or “premeditating” sermons. However, they soon allowed at least some sermon preparation, for otherwise they were likely to get “for the most part raw and undigested matter.”

By far, the most important Baptist contribution to worship in the seventeenth century involved the singing of hymns. At that time practically all English churches opposed hymn singing, though some would allow the chanting or even solo singing of biblical texts. At first the Baptists, like others in England, stoutly opposed singing and developed intricate arguments against this “carnal exercise.” However, in later years Baptists adopted and helped to popularize singing, some of them writing hymns and publishing hymnals.

Some of the early objection to singing may have grown out of reluctance to call undue attention to Baptist meeting places. Such “conventicies” were illegal, and group singing might alert passerby or the authorities that an unlawful worship meeting was taking place.

The early General Baptists (the word General referred to General Atonement) rejected group singing and held adamantly to that restriction for over a century. One major statement of the case against singing was made by Thomas Grantham in his masterful book Chfistianismus Primitivus. Grantham, a messenger of the churches of Lincolnshire, was perhaps the most influential General Baptist leader in the second half of the century. He set out to trace “the singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs in the Christian Church, according to Scripture and Antiquity,” and lamented the recent “encroachment of humane Innovations” in these areas.

Like other General Baptists, Grantham would allow some singing, but with severe restrictions. There were of course no musical instruments; any singing had to be by a man (women were to keep silent); any singing had to be strictly solo, with no mixed voices or “promiscuous singing” by a multitude; only biblical texts, preferably psalms, could be sung; no songs of “human composure” could be allowed; and any singing had to be done in a loud, clear voice, with “no warbling,” as Grantham put it. Grantham criticized “the Custom which many have taken up to sing David’s Psalms, or their own composures, in a mixed multitude of voices.” He concluded “that a multitude of Christians, or a whole Congregation ought to sing together at the same time, is not at all warranted from Scripture.”

To the General Baptists, group singing of “manmade” hymns carried a number of dangers. “Set songs” were as bad as “set prayers,” or even “set sermons,” and might lead to them. A singing congregation might include some non-Christians, and their participation would pollute the worship. “For all to sing the same words and same musical notes would be an obvious denial of spontaneity in worship. What if one person should be led by the Spirit to sing another word, or another note, at that time?” Besides, said Grantham, few people had “tunable voices,” and women were not to participate at all.

The General Baptist Assembly of 1689 pronounced singing “foreign to evangelical worship.”

Though not as adamant, Particular Baptists (the word Particular referred to limited or particular atonement) also opposed hymn singing and instrumental music in worship. Their early arguments against the practice were about the same as General Baptists, though less intense. However, by mid-century some Particular Baptists regarded singing with new interest. Perhaps the Fifth Monarchy Movement, so devastating to Baptists in other ways, helped teach them to sing. Fifth Monarchy leaders quite early saw the value of rhyme and music to instruct people and motivate them to action. Particular Baptists eventually followed the lead of Independents like John Cotton who wrote about 1640, “Singing of Psalms with a lively voyce is an holy duty of God’s worship. Women should not take part in this.”

 Benjamin Keach is often credited with introducing hymn singing to English Baptists and, indeed, to all the English churches. Keach does indeed rank as an important pioneer, but others preceded him. Anna Trapnell, a Fifth Monarchy Baptist, published The Cry of a Stone in 1654. This was a collection of prayers and spiritual songs, which was recommended by Hanserd Knollys, another Fifth Monarchy Baptist.

Katherine Sutton published her collection of hymns in 1663, to which Knoflys wrote an introduction recommending its use and giving further directions for the use of singing in worship. John Bunyan also wrote songs for children but could not persuade his adult congregation to sing.

In 1664 Keach introduced his Children’s Primer, which included songs for children. Keach introduced congregational singing into Baptist churches, despite what one called a “gruelling controversy” over the practice. In 1673 he persuaded the church at Horsleydown to sing a hymn at the close of the Lord’s Supper, allowing those who objected to leave before the hymn. Six years later the church agreed to sing a hymn on “public thanksgiving days,” and fourteen years after that, to sing as part of every Sunday’s worship. Keach was patient; twenty years were necessary to complete the transition to singing. Even so, twenty-two of Keach’s members withdrew to join a non-singing church. They could not escape, however, for that church soon adopted singing, the church’s new pastor making it a condition of his coming.

Keach put out two important Baptist hymnals, Spiritual Melody (1691) and Spiritual, Songs (1696), containing about four hundred hymns, most his own writing. One observer concluded, “His hymns are best forgotten, but for his long campaign to establish hymn singing in our churches he deserves our cordial thanks.”

Keach’s main antagonist was Isaac Marlow, a Baptist layman who wrote at least three books against singing. To refute Marlow, Keach wrote his major defense in 1691, entitled The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship, or Singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ.

At the 1689 assembly, the Particular Baptists gave cautious approval to singing or at least to the concept of each congregation deciding its own practices without censure from others. With even that much approval, singing quickly caught on. By the next century, General Baptists had also adopted the practice, mostly through the influence of Dan Taylor and the New Connection.


Baptist congregations had limited contact with one another because of their insistence that churches be independent. Despite this exaggerated independence, early Baptist churches did form the rudiments of denominational structure. By mid-century the Baptist “association,” a group of cooperating churches in a given region, had made its appearance. By 1660 both General and Particular Baptists had a number of associations; and before the end of the century, both had also a general assembly, a national affiliation of Baptist churches.


The records show that Baptist churches in early America were plagued by persistent internal controversy. Most of these problems centered around four controversial doctrines and practices.

First, Baptists could not agree on the extent and nature of divine predestination. Of course that was the heart of the conflict between Particular and General Baptists in England. The tendency of Baptists in Colonial America was to moderate their-Calvinism to allow some degree of human responsibility response and to encourage human “effort,” such as preaching, missions, and evangelism.

Second, Baptists argued over the practice of “Laying on of Hands” upon new converts, much as is done in ordinations. General Baptists favored the practice, and sometimes took the name of Six-Principle Baptists for their adherence to the six points of Hebrews 6:1-2, which includes hands. Particular Baptists gave less importance to the laying on of hands, often abandoning the practice altogether. They were sometimes called Five-Principle

A third problem concerned singing during worship. Few elements in a typical Baptist worship service today are more familiar than hymn singing. However, that was a controversial practice in the late 1680’s among Baptists both in England and America. Benjamin Keach introduced hymn singing among English Baptists in the 1680’s, but the practice had not really caught on, especially among the General Baptists. Some churches in America allowed the singing of biblical texts, such as the psalms, but not ‘man-made” songs. Others would not allow singing of any kind. Many Baptist churches were kept in internal turmoil, and many were split by the controversy over “psalmody.”

Fourth, should Christians meet for public worship on the first day of the week, Sunday, or on the seventh day, the Sabbath? This question troubled Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Colonial America, Sabbatarianism was strongest among Baptists in Rhode Island, where they had their first church by 1671.

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