Assumptions or Conclusions: The Treatment of Early General Baptist Doctrinal Conflict by Selected Surveys of Baptist History

By Hawkins, Merrill M., Jr. | Baptist History and Heritage, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Assumptions or Conclusions: The Treatment of Early General Baptist Doctrinal Conflict by Selected Surveys of Baptist History


Hawkins, Merrill M., Jr., Baptist History and Heritage


Baptist historians who have explored General Baptist doctrinal conflict in the late 1600s and early 1700s generally present the time as one of doctrinal decline, conflict, and ultimately extinction of Baptists who were either Unitarian or tolerant of unitarianism. (1)

Historians also attribute the survival of the evangelical General Baptists who formed the "New Connection" in the late eighteenth century to their Wesleyan-inspired revivalism and their traditional, non-rationalist Trinitarian commitments.

There is no doubt that many General Baptists did adopt Unitarian theology as a natural consequence of their strict biblicist reading of the scriptures. Many others, while retaining Trinitarian views, did not wish to make Trinitarian belief a test of fellowship. The same train of biblicist thought that led early Baptists to reject infant baptism for believer's baptism led these General Baptists to reject post-biblical Trinitarian theological categories. These Unitarian Baptists believed precise doctrinal formulas were nonbiblical ideas developed in the first four ecumenical councils, claiming instead a more biblical confession and creed such as "Jesus is Lord." Everything else was considered adiaphora. Their Trinitarian Baptist supporters were non-creedalists who did not believe doctrinal tests on the Trinity were biblical. Many General Baptist Trinitarians supported a basis of union broad enough to include Unitarian Baptists. Many other General Baptists insisted on firm statements of Christology and Trinitarian thought and refused any cooperative effort or unions with those who did not share this belief. There is no doubt that this time period was one of division and conflict for the General Baptists, but the historical treatments of the division have often relied on unproven assumptions rather than measured conclusions.

This article examines the modern Baptist historiography of both the Christological controversy among General Baptists in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the creation and influence of Dan Taylor's "New Connection" of General Baptist churches in the late eighteenth century. The analysis suggests that those General Baptists who possessed Unitarian views and those who possessed Trinitarian views but did not insist on Trinitarian agreement as a test of fellowship have almost always been identified as the parties responsible for the division and decline of the General Baptist movement. Conversely, the same histories suggest, it was a commitment to Trinitarian confessional unity that was responsible for subsequent General Baptist resurgence under the leadership of Taylor.

Matthew Caffyn and the First Divisions in General Baptist Life

Discussions of General Baptist conflict begin with what historians often describe as a doctrinal decline connected with the work of Matthew Caffyn (1628-1714). An active General Baptist minister, Caffyn ultimately rejected Trinitarianism in favor of a strict monotheistic unitarianism. Many General Baptists adopted his views, and many others who held different views welcomed Caffyn's freedom to hold this view. Some General Baptists, however, firmly opposed Caffyn's views and vigorously fought their presence. Historians recounting this story generally take an anti-Caffyn perspective in their narratives, using value-laden language to describe Caffyn in heretical terms, as well as concluding that he caused the conflict that ultimately resulted in the numerical decline of the General Baptists. However, the general surveys examined below fail to demonstrate a causal connection between the possession of Caffyn's views or tolerance for Caffyn's views and the ensuing conflict in the General Baptist movement.

William T. Whitley's 1923 survey, A History of British Baptists, proclaims that Caffyn's "life [was] abnormally prolonged," and that the legacy of his long life was permanent division among General Baptists. …

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