Two Reasons for Baptists to Read Their History

In Jane Austen’s early novel Northanger Abbey, one of the characters, Catherine Morland, states that history “tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men are all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome” [Northanger Abbey, ed. Claire Grogan (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1994), 122]. How accurately this statement reflects modern Western attitudes towards history! Generally speaking contemporary men and women in the West rarely think of going to history for wisdom. History, at best, contains stuff for entertainment. But wisdom? No, that’s found by looking to the present and to the future. Tragically this modern attitude towards history is also characteristic of all too many 21st century Baptists. We have prided ourselves on being New Testament people who are not weighed down with the freight of church traditions. But we need an intimate knowledge of our history as Baptists. Why?

Well, many reasons could be given, but for starters, the study of Baptist history informs us about our predecessors in the faith—men and women like John Bunyan and Anne Steele, John Gill and Andrew Fuller, C.H. Spurgeon and Henrietta Feller, D.A. McGregor and T.T. Shields—those who have helped shape our Christian communities for both good and ill and thus made us what we are. Such study builds humility into our lives, and so can exercise a sanctifying influence upon us.

Reflecting on their lives and thought can also provide encouragement in being faithful for Christ in our day. To take but one example. In the English-speaking world, Baptists upheld the biblical doctrine of believer’s baptism for at least two and a half centuries before other Christian communities embraced this doctrine. It cost the Baptists much to do so. Since few Baptist churches before the 19th century possessed an indoor baptistery, baptism was usually done outdoors in a pond, stream, or river where all and sundry could come and watch. The Baptists were thus provided with excellent opportunities to bear witness to their distinct convictions and their commitment to Christ.

However, the public nature of the rite also exposed them to ridicule and censure. James Butterworth, who pastored at Bromsgrove near Birmingham from 1755 to 1794, could state at a baptismal service in 1774: “Baptism is a thing so universally despised, that few can submit to it, without apparent danger to their temporal interest; either from relations, friends, masters, or others with whom they have worldly connections” [Repentance and Baptism considered (Coventry, 1774), 36].

Andrew Fuller, the Baptist leader from the same century, found this out when he was baptized in the village of Soham, Cambridgeshire. A couple of days after he had been baptized in the spring of 1770 he met a group of young men while he was riding through the fields near his home in Soham. “One of them,” he later recorded, “called after me, in very abusive language, and cursed me for having been ‘dipped’” [cited John Ryland, The Work of Faith, the Labour of Love, and the Patience of Hope, illustrated; in the Life and Death of the Rev. Andrew Fuller (2nd ed.; London: Button & Son, 1818), 22].

It was the steel of such men and women, though, that preserved Baptist witness and so passed down a heritage to us. They thought it worth while to be “despised,” as Butterworth puts it. Shall we, their heirs, not seek to be as faithful in our day? And can we not draw courage to do so from meditating on their example?