A Threefold Cord: Three Baptist Scholar-Ministers of the Seventeenth Century
by Ian McDonald
December 17, 2013
Ian McDonald is the Research Officer in the Faculty of Technology, Engineering & the Environment at Birmingham City University in the UK. He is a member of the UK Baptist Historical Society, Strict Baptist Historical Society and Chapels Society. He is an active member of City Church, Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @IanCMcD
On 30th November, Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford held, held a day conference, in conjunction with the Baptist Historical Society, to celebrate the launch of three new books by three distinguished Baptist historians. The day saw each author deliver a paper on their subject, before it concluded with a discussion session chaired by Dr. Sarah Apetrei (Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History, University of Oxford).
The first paper was delivered by Clint Bass (Assistant Professor of Church History, Southwest Baptist University) and looked at the “catholic spirit” of the General Baptist Thomas Grantham, by far the least known of the three Scholar-Ministers examined during the day.
If examined very briefly it could be concluded that Graham was an early ecumenicist who looked to build bridges between denominations at a time when this was rare. He wrote that Christian division pained him and he stated he believed that there was a fellowship of all Christians across denominations – it must be remembered that denominations were generally extremely insular during the seventeenth century and the attending of a church outside your own denomination or the marrying of a partner from another denomination were deeply frowned on to say the least.
However, if examined in more detail Grantham had a very skewed view of ecumenism. He argued strongly against the views of paedo-Baptists, Quakers, Particular Baptists and, as was common for the vast majority of all Protestants at the time, he held an extremely low view of the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted a merger between Baptists and the Church of England, but it would have been a merger which involved the Church of England adopting General Baptist, or perhaps we should say ‘Grathamite’, positions on all divisive issues – not a merger, but more of a takeover? One of Grantham’s more realistic desires was for closer ties between General, Particular and Seventh Day Baptist churches, where at least all were in agreement on the question of baptism. He was not averse to refer to accounts of the early church to try to demonstrate that Baptists were the true successors of the church of the Biblical age. On the face of it Grantham’s acts may appear praiseworthy, but when examined further perhaps they are less so.
Second on the agenda, was an examination of William Kiffin and his role in the trial of James Nayler, by Dr. Larry Kreitzer (Fellow at Regents Park College, University of Oxford). Quaker leader Nayler sprung to prominence when, in 1656, he made a Christ-like entry into the city of Bristol on horseback. Nayler denied he was impersonating Christ, arguing instead that “Christ was in him” but he was arrested and imprisoned for “horrid blasphemy.” The crime was deemed worthy of the death penalty, but as Parliament could not reach a majority on the subject he escaped this fate. The debate in Parliament only contained one favorable comment regarding Nayler.
William Kiffin, then Member of Parliament (MP) for Middlesex, took part briefly in the debate concerning Nayler and his contribution was noted by a fellow MP. Kiffin viewed Nayler as a “vile wretch” and “horrid blasphemer”, but he was “not convinced…..he ought to be punisht (punished) by death.” Whilst having no truck with Nayler’s behaviour, it is likely that Kiffin’s actions were motivated by the fact that he had himself be charged with ‘heretical teaching’ after speaking out against paedo-baptism some years before. The charges were eventually dropped.
During his speech, Kiffin is recorded as arguing against interpretations of passages from Zechariah and Leviticus, stating that in the case of Zechariah’s prophecy it would require Nayler’s parents to execute him if taken literally. Eventually Nayler, who suffered many tortures and physical punishments, was released.
Whilst Kiffin’s views are quite enlightened for the seventeenth century but he still fell short of the views of Thomas Helwys who had argued for freedom from all blasphemy laws for all, including Jews, Muslims and Atheists.
The third and final paper of the day was presented by Dr. Jonathan Arnold (Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage, Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford). Dr. Arnold’s topic was Benjamin Keach and his eschatological views.
Like many Baptists of the period, Keach was concerned to show he and his colleagues were not a threat to society and he went to great lengths to show that his views were in fact mainstream. Despite this, he had his first significant clash with local authorities in 1664 when he was arrested and pilloried for writing a catechism.
Keach developed a keen interest in eschatology and was accused of being a Fifth Monarchist by Judge Hyde. He was quick see, and worried by, a lack of preparedness for Christ’s return amongst his fellow believers. In the opinion of Dr. Arnold, whilst he may not have been a Fifth Monarchist he certainly held similar views and could easily be ‘mistaken’ for one.
Dr. Arnold added that he himself pastors a church in the dispensationalist tradition and amusingly mocked some of the more eccentric versions of this tradition, adding that in the past month he had heard the anti-Christ described as being Barack Obama, the Pope Emeritus and Ayatollah Khamenei.
The three books launched at the conference can be purchased via this link on Regent’s Park College’s website:
William Kiffen and his World (Part 3) by Larry J. Kreitzer
The Reformed Theology of Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) by Jonathan W. Arnold
Thomas Grantham (1633-1692) and General Baptist Theology by Clint C. Bass
N.B. The quotes relating to Kiffin’s speech come from an extract from ‘An Act Against Several Atheistical, Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions’ (9 August 1650), distributed by Dr. Kreitzer.