By Michael A.G. Haykin
The history of the Baptists’ reception of their own past is a fascinating one in its own right. Most of the Baptist works of the seventeenth century were never reprinted and consequently a significant amount of their thought was obscure to their eighteenth-century heirs. To be sure, there was a certain amount of reflection on the past by eighteenth-century authors like Thomas Crosby (1683–c.1751) and Joseph Ivimey (1773–1834), but it was the Victorian Baptists who really began to delve into Baptist history and that for a variety of reasons: the Victorians in general were fascinated by the past; in England this exploration of Baptist history was linked to the realization of the strength of the Nonconformist cause and became a vehicle to express Baptist pride; while, in America it was used by many to prove (or disprove) the theology of Landmarkism. Then came the twentieth century, which was probably the worst of all centuries for remembering the past. After World War I the ambience in the west was increasingly one in which the past was seen as old lumber to be discarded to make way for new perspectives, in the very same way that Victorian Gothic buildings were being leveled to make way for Art Deco and postmodernist structures. Even in the renaissance of interest in the Puritans that has been taking place in the past fifty years, both in regard to academic scholarship and to popular literature, it seems that the Baptists have been forgotten. Nearly all of the Puritan figures who are being studied or read are either Presbyterians or Congregationalists. With the exception of the celebrated John Bunyan (1628–1688) and to a lesser degree, Hanserd Knollys (1599–1691), William Kiffin (1616–1701) and Benjamin Keach (1640–1704), the Baptists of the seventeenth century have been largely forgotten. Thankfully this is changing, however, as Baptist scholars are rediscovering their forebears. And among these forebears is the subject of this post, Abraham Cheare (1626–1668).
Why should an early twenty-first-century Christian take the time to learn about Abraham Cheare and read his writings? Well, first of all, suffering for religious beliefs, as he did for eight years till it killed him, is not foreign to the modern world. Around the world, there are numerous contexts where religious toleration is all but non-existent and men and woman have to count the cost if they wish to be public about their convictions. And increasingly in the west an intolerant cultural elite are targeting the Church and seeking to muzzle Christian witness. Here then, Cheare can help us enormously, for Cheare was a Puritan and after 1660, when the Anglican state church sought to extirpate Puritanism, Cheare and many others knew first-hand what it was to suffer for Christ’s sake. His example and writings in this regard are tremendously helpful for Christians undergoing the same today.
Then, Cheare, above all things, sought to be guided by the Scriptures, not simply when it came to church polity but in all of his life. His life and writings exemplify what “being biblical” looks like. In this regard, then, he is a quintessential Puritan, for Puritanism was above all things a movement that sought to be Word-centered. Modern-day Christians would not cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ the way Cheare does; but his passion to be found living in accord with the Scriptures is certainly worthy of imitation.
And simply reading the past for its own sake is important, for there we see God at work. To quote Richard Baxter, the Puritan contemporary of Cheare: “[T]he writing of church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word… He that knoweth not what state the church and world is in, and hath been in, in former ages, and what God hath been doing in the world, and how error and sin have been resisting him, and with what success, doth want much to the completing of his knowledge.”
 The Life of Faith in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 12:364.
Michael A.G. Haykin is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He also serves as Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Haykin and his wife Alison have two grown children, Victoria and Nigel.