[March 15, 2016] ‘Baptists and Jews Over Four Centuries’

Report on ‘Baptists and Jews over Four Centuries’ Day Conference at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford

by Ian McDonald

On Saturday 12th March I had the pleasure of attending the latest day seminar organised by the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and the (UK) Baptist Historical Society. The day was entitled ‘Baptists and Jews over Four Centuries’ and promised to be a fascinating one, exploring an unusual subject and some ground-breaking research. As Professor Paul Fiddes (Regent’s Park College) stated in his introduction, this was possibly the first ever conference on the subject (certainly the first ever in the UK).

The first paper of the day was John Coffey (Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester). Professor Coffey’s paper, entitled ‘Baptists and the Whitehall Conference: the Intellectual Context of the Readmission of Jews’, gave a fascinating and illuminating overview of Baptist intellectual viewpoints on the subject of the readmission of Jews to England. Baptists had been involved in calling for the readmission of Jews prior to the Whitehall Conference of 1655. Professor Coffey started his overview of Baptist writings on the subject of religious liberty, particularly in relation to Jews, by reminding the audience of Thomas Helwys’ call for toleration in 1612. In is important to note that Helwys went further than many did in supporting toleration of ‘heretics’ as well as Muslims and Jews (it should be remembered that at this time magistrates had powers over religious affairs as well as temporal ones). A similar view was adopted by Leonard Busher, as long as the debate surrounded the Bible with no recourse to other traditions or texts. This desire for toleration can also be seen in America, where Roger Williams (influenced no doubt by his time living with Native Americans) believed that sound doctrine could only be maintained by the ‘sword of the spirit’ (i.e. God’s Word) and not by any state authority. Such thinking led to a number of other Baptists turning their attention to the question of the readmission of Jews to England, for example, Johanna and Ebenezer Cartwright, John Vernon and Thomas Collier).

The views adopted by Baptists were not supported by many other Christians in England and there was a strong anti-Jew lobby in Protestant circles as well as Catholic ones, for example, John Fox, the famed martyrologist, spoke strongly against readmission. Baptists stood apart from other denominations and traditions. Why was this? As a minority group themselves, Baptists no doubt felt a natural sympathy with Jews. Professor Coffey also argued that Baptists were well aware that Jews were tolerated in other European nations and successful ‘multi-confessional’ cities existed in Poland, parts of Germany and the Netherlands (with obvious Baptist links). There was also religious diversity in Constantinople. There were also good economic reasons for readmission, argued by Collier and Kiffen, after all many Jews were wealthy merchants. Baptist thinking also highlighted a move away from the idea of Christian magistrates punishing blasphemy, in a way akin to the Old Testament, and led to a growing belief that religious coercion should end. There was also the re-examination of key Biblical texts on the subject, such as Romans 11, and a belief there would be a mass conversion of the Jews, after all, how would Jews convert if they faced persecution? The growth of the idea that the name ‘Israel’ in the Bible meant ethnic Israel and not ‘the church’ gave rise to a number of new ideas and some agreement over prophecies between Christians and Jews (except, of course, which coming of Christ was being referred to!). Professor Coffey’s paper gave a brilliant insight into the intellectual context and content of writings by Baptists on the subject of readmission.

Dr Larry Kreizer, (Fellow of Regent’s Park College, Oxford), delivered the second paper of the day, in which he explored the role of the Particular Baptist Pastor/Businessman William Kiffen in the nation’s response to the Amsterdam-based rabbi Manasseh ben Israel’s call for the readmission of Jews to England. It was in 1649 that ben Israel began significant work to campaign for readmission. Six years later he arrived in England to appeal to the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. The result of this was that a seven member Committee of Council of State was asked to investigate the proposal and, in turn, they assembled a list of names to attend the Whitehall Conference itself to discuss the situation. One of those called to attend was William Kiffen, one of three Baptists invited, along with Dyke and Jessey, although it is important to note that in the records of the Conference Kiffen is grouped with the merchants as he was invited primarily to advise on business grounds as opposed to theological ones. Kiffen’s views on toleration did not go as far as Helwys, as evidenced by his involvement in the James Nayler controversy, however he appears, on economic grounds, to have supported readmission. He had, after all, strong trading connections in Amsterdam and had a track record of supporting free trade (such as the London soap boilers in an earlier dispute against large monopolies). His views were not supported by many of the other merchants at the Conference who feared readmission would “enrich foreigners” at the expense of Englishmen – arguments which sound remarkably familiar to some of the current debates on immigration in the UK!

ben Israel died in 1657, his desire for Jews to be readmitted to England unfulfilled, although Cromwell’s sympathy to the cause led to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ philosophy which gave those Jews already in the country a certain degree of breathing space. Kiffen’s contribution was very distinctive when compared to his fellow merchants and in line with his free trade principles.

The day’s final speaker was Frank Fornaçon, a German Pastor from Kassel, and Secretary of the German Baptist Historical Society, whose paper was entitled ‘European Baptists and Jews as Neighbours during the period of Nazi Rule’. Whilst very sadly many German Baptists took the line of least resistance during the years of Nazi rule in Germany and ‘kept their heads down’, their fellow Baptists around continental Europe were often engaging in remarkable acts of bravely and love towards their Jewish neighbours. Pastor Fornaçon’s paper recounted some remarkable stories of Baptists such as Ivan Yatsyuk and Sava Mironyuk, who deserve to be better known. It is also worth noting that in the official archives in Jerusalem, the names of 120 Baptists are recorded for posterity due to their bravery rescuing Jews in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Over in Western Europe, latent anti-Semitism in France increased as more and more Jewish refugees arrived. Many French Baptists began by initially supporting the puppet Vichy regime, before they turned their support to the resistance and played an active part in assisting Jews. In the Netherlands, Nazism was discussed and condemned well before the outbreak of war and Baptists opened their homes the persecuted. One Dutch family even went as far as to always dress a Jewish child in the same clothes as their own son in order to pass them off as twins! Remarkably inspirational stories of people truly putting God’s love into action in the most extreme and difficult situations imaginable!

I left the conference reflecting on the lessons we should learn for today and also the similarities between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries and 2016. We continue to see persecution of religious minorities around the world, we wrestle with issues surrounding multi-faith and multi-cultural societies, we hear hateful rhetoric from political leaders, and we hear concerns about migration. Our world is not too dissimilar, in many ways, to Second World War Europe and even mid-seventeenth century England. It is important that, as Baptists, we continue to stand for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, the separation of church and state, and be supportive of minority groups.

About the Author: Ian McDonald is a Deacon at Shirley Baptist Church in the English West Midlands. He is a member of the UK Baptist Historical Society, Strict Baptist Historical Society and Chapels Society. He works in research support at Birmingham City University. Follow him on Twitter @IanCMcD