The reigning paradigm for interpreting English Calvinistic Baptist history is as follows: Significant growth in the 1640s and 1650s
Persecution but still growth from 1660-1688
Increasing stagnation and even decline from 1688 to the 1770s /1780s
Revival between the 1770s/1780s and the 1830s
This is a common-enough hermeneutic grid for making sense of the English Calvinistic Baptist story. But it makes sense only if one presumes that the whole story is about numerical growth.
But what if we approached the whole history from the 1640s to the 1830s from a somewhat different angle, say the angle of being pilgrims and strangers? Do you still get the same graph of growth, decline and growth? No, then the pattern is somewhat different. Then the early period—when the historical background was the Puritan Cause Triumphant—is not as close to the New Testament pattern, since many of the Calvinistic Baptists were wielding power in the army and were influential in Puritan politics (witness Ireland, for example, and William Kiffin). The second era, the one of overt persecution, looks a lot more like New Testament faithfulness.
And the third era is not so stark. Why? Because the Baptists have been relegated to second-class status—and there are significant numbers abandoning the good ship Dissent (witness the Wesley brothers’ parents and Faithful Teate’s son, Nahum Tate). Then, the Baptists increasingly see themselves as a beleaguered minority, a pilgrim people in an alien land. Now, the question which must be asked is this: how did the Baptists of the third era from the 1680s to the 1770s—nearly hundred years—interpret the pilgrim people themes of the New Testament. Are they truly a pilgrim people? If so, then the story of that period is not so bad after all.
Two important caveats to all of this: I am not discounting the importance of evangelism. Far from it. But I am asking whether or not that is the only heuristic tool available. Second, I am not completely rejecting the older interpretation of this era from the 1688 to the 1770s as one of stagnation and decline. I am just seeking to see whether or not other interpretative models can yield valuable insights. PS: a blessed new year to all of my readers!