Historical Reflections on Baptist Ordination

A few weeks ago I participated in the ordination of a dear brother, Scott Bowman. As I thought about what that event entailed I realized afresh the scriptural principle that leadership is vital to the people of God. I suppose it was a French-speaking pastor by the name of Jacques Alexanian, who has spent nearly all of his ministry in Quebec and who has been something of a father in Christ to me, who first drilled this into my thinking and convictions. Right from the very beginning of her existence the Church has had leaders. One thinks, for instance, of the Twelve appointed by our Lord to be witnesses to his life and resurrection. Or consider Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, among the earliest of the New Testament texts.

Moreover, formally or officially recognizing the call of God on a man’s life to be a leader among God’s people is clearly grounded in the Scriptures (see Acts 13:1-3 and 1 Timothy 4:14). And Baptists, convinced that ordination to pastoral ministry was indeed a biblical pattern for the good of the Church, have ordained men since they first emerged in England in the mid-seventeenth century. For example, on February 16, 1769, in a London Baptist congregation, Abraham Booth (1734-1806), just twenty-four at the time, was ordained “to the pastoral office…according to the primitive manner, by prayer and imposition of hands.” [William Clarke, Introductory Discourse in A Charge and Sermon together with an Introductory Discourse and Confession of Faith delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Mr. Abraham Booth Feb. 16, 1769, in Goodman’s Fields (London: G. Keith et al., 1769), 9].

Or consider the ordination of Thomas Morgan (1776-1857) to the pastoral charge of Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, England, thirty-three years later in 1802. Morgan was twenty-five or so at the time. A fellow Baptist minister by the name of John Sutcliff (1752-1814), a close friend of William Carey (1761-1834), introduced the occasion. Sutcliff noted that the church was “satisfied that” Morgan possessed “a ministerial talent” and was convinced that Morgan’s “doctrine [was] sound, and his manner of life becoming the gospel.”

The church therefore wished to ordain Morgan as their pastor, an ordination “accompanied with prayer, and the imposition of hands.” Sutcliff was quick to note that the hands to be laid on Morgan were “empty.” The laying-on-of-hands did not convey any ministerial gift. Rather, hands were laid on Morgan as “a solemn and significant rite; a fit sign of his being set apart to a particular office.” [Introductory Discourse in The Difficulties of the Christian Ministry, and the Means of surmounting them; with the Obedience of Churches to their Pastors explained and enforced (Birmingham, 1802), 6-7].

It was a privilege to be involved in such a historic and meaning-laden rite as Scott Bowman was set aside for pastoral ministry.