Samuel Pearce: Instructive Views on War

Though Baptists have uniformly deplored war, they have nonetheless recognized that sometimes armed conflict is necessary. In the words of The Second London Confession of Faith, the so-called 1689 Confession of Faith, which functioned as the key Baptist doctrinal standard from Baptist origins in the mid-17th century down to the Victorian era: “New Testament teaching authorizes [kingdoms and states] to wage war when this is found to be just and necessary.” [The 1689 Confession 24.2 [A Faith to Confess : The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (8th ed,; Leeds: Carey Publications Lrd., 1997), 54]. To be sure, there needs to be determined in every individual case when a war is or it not a just war. But if that can be done, then the Baptists of those eras and succeeding ones have not had problems engaging in war. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), for example, numerous Baptists supported the cause of the Puritan Parliament against the King, Charles I (1600-1649). The London Baptist pastor William Kiffin (1616-1701), one of the key signers of the Second London Confession, contributed horse and riders for the Parliamentary cause in 1642. And documents from the late 1650s speak of Kiffin as a “captain” and “lieutenant-colonel” in the London militia.

A Christian attitude to war

Other examples of Baptist involvement in what were ruled just wars could be cited. But an extremely instructive approach to the whole issue of war can be found in the life of Samuel Pearce (1766-1799), the Calvinistic Baptist minister of Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, from 1789 to 1799, an anointed preacher, and a zealous advocate of missions. Pearce was a key figure in the early years of the Baptist Missionary Society, which sent William Carey (1761-1834) to India in 1793. In fact, it was on a trip seeking to raise finances for this mission that Pearce contracted tuberculosis in the fall of 1798. By mid-December, 1798, he could not converse for more than a few minutes without losing his breath. Yet, as we shall see, Pearce’s passion for the salvation of the lost gripped him as strongly as the disease that was slowly killing him.

Writing to his close friend William Carey around this time, he told him of a plan to take the gospel to France that he had been mulling over in his mind. Now, at the time of this letter Great Britain and France were locked in a titanic war, what would be known as the Napoleonic War, that would last into the middle of the second decade of the next century and not be brought to a conclusion until 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. This war was the final and climactic episode in a struggle between the French and the British for world hegemony and one that had dominated the history of these nations during the 18th century. Not surprisingly, there was very little love lost between the British and the French. Pearce, though, was gripped by a far different passion than the hatred for the enemy that gripped many in Britain and France—his was the priority of the kingdom of Christ. In one of the last sermons that he ever preached, on a day of public thanksgiving for Horatio Nelson’s victory of annihilation of the French Fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1798), Pearce pointedly said:

Should any one expect that I shall introduce the destruction of our foes, by the late victories gained off the coasts of Egypt and Ireland, as the object of pleasure and gratitude, he will be disappointed. The man who can take pleasure at the destruction of his fellow men, is a cannibal at heart;… but to the heart of him who calls himself a disciple of the merciful Jesus, let such pleasure be an everlasting stranger. Since in that sacred volume, which I revere as the fair gift of heaven to man, I am taught, that “of one blood God hath made all nations,” [Acts 17:26] it is impossible for me not to regard every man as my brother, and to consider, that national differences ought not to excite personal animosities. [Motives to Gratitude (Birmingham: James Belcher, 1798), 18-19].

Here Pearce clearly indicates that while war may be a necessity, Christians should never harbour animosity towards their foes of their nation. To do so and to take delight in their deaths and destruction is to show oneself a stranger to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, who died to save his enemies. Moreover, such an attitude runs against the grain of sympathy that Christianity is meant to awaken and perfect, a sympathy that is rooted in the fact that all of mankind are made by the one true God.

The priority of the Kingdom of Christ

A few months later—when Pearce was desperately ill—he wrote a letter to Carey telling him of his plans for a missionary journey to France. “I have been endeavouring for some years,” he told Carey, “to get five of our Ministers to agree that they will apply themselves to the French language, … then we [for he was obviously intending to be one of the five] might spend two months annually in that Country, and at least satisfy ourselves that Christianity was not lost in France for want of a fair experiment in its favour: and who can tell what God might do!” What a remarkable attitude! In the midst of a horrific war with the French, when so many in England were rejoicing in the deaths of their foes, Pearce is longing for their salvation.

While Baptists have historically recognized the right of nations to go to war and for Christians to take up arms in wars that are just, Pearce’s attitude models how Christians should think and act in times of such wars. God would use British evangelicals, notably Pearce’s Baptist contemporary Robert Haldane (1764-1842), to take the gospel to Francophones on the Continent when peace eventually came, but Pearce’s anointed preaching would play no part in that great work. Yet his ardent prayers on behalf of the French could not have been without some effect. As Pearce had once noted on another occasion, “praying breath” is never lost.