Church Planting in Early Baptist History submitted by Prof. Renihan

Almost as soon as Calvinistic Baptists appeared on the scene in 1640s England, they demonstrated a whole-hearted commitment to evangelism and church planting. They were not alone, for many of the Puritans expressed concern for the regions of their country not yet blossoming with Gospel assemblies.[1] None of these men could be content enjoying their own privileges, but actively engaged in seeking to bring the message of Christ to others.

The growth of the early Particular Baptists[2] is amazing. W. T. Whitley, in a 1910 article, estimated that in 1715 there were 220 Particular Baptist churches in existence in England and Wales, and about half as many General Baptist churches.[3] Included in many of Whitley’s entries is a figure of approximate attendance.  After extensive comparisons with other extant records, Michael Watts concludes that the figures are generally accurate for the period.[4] When one remembers that in 1641 there were no Calvinistic churches practicing believer’s baptism by immersion, the statistics take on much meaning.

Among the Particular Baptists, the work of church planting was often done through evangelists.  This was not an office in the church, though the men involved were often elders, but rather appointed emissaries charged with the task of spreading the gospel and establishing churches.  They carried with them authority from the sending churches.  Two early examples of the convictions present in these churches provide the basis for later actions.

In 1649, the Glaziers’ Hall, London church held a day of prayer “to seek the Lord that he would send labourers into the dark corners and parts of this land.”[5] On the next day, John Myles and Thomas Proud appeared in their midst, concerned for the needs of Wales.  They were apparently baptized and sent, within a fortnight, back to Wales for the purpose of planting churches.  On 1 October 1649, baptisms began to take place, and the Ilston church was organized, having forty-three members by October 1650.[6] Myles engaged in an aggressive plan to bring other churches into existence, so that within a year of the first baptism two more assemblies had been formed, and the first “General Meeting”[7] in South Wales was held on 6 and 7 November 1650.[8] White, citing the Ilston church book, states that the commission given to Myles and Proud by the London church was “to gather a ‘company or society of people holding forth and practising the doctrine, worship, order and discipline of the Gospel according to the primitive institution.'”  He then comments,

The terms in which they understood their mission are of considerable importance: they saw their task not only as concerned with the conversion of individuals to Christ but also with the foundation of congregations rightly ordered according to what they believed to be the one, unchanging, apostolic pattern.[9]

White is undoubtedly correct in this assessment.  The well-ordered church was so central to the redemptive purposes of God that any kind of evangelistic thrust must seek, as its highest goal, to establish new assemblies.  For these Welsh evangelists, one church was insufficient.  The needs of the countryside were so great that only the founding of many churches would satisfy.  This early perspective was active among the Particular Baptist churches.

[1]Cf. Christopher Hill, “Puritans and ‘the Dark Corners of the Land,'” in Change and Continuity in 17th-Century England, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 3-47.  Hill demonstrates that a concern for the spread of the Gospel (and its attendant influences) was a significant concern among leading Puritans in the first half of the seventeenth century.

[2]This is the title most commonly given to the 17th century Calvinistic Baptists.

[3]W. T. Whitley, “The Baptist Interest under George I,” Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society 2 (1910-11): 95-109.  Whitley based his statistics on a document known as the “Evans Manuscript,” supplementing it at several points.  The Evans Manuscript is held at Dr. William’s Library in London.  It was an attempt to list “every Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist congregation in England and Wales” in the period 1715-18.  A detailed analysis of its statistics is found in Michael Watts, The Dissenters (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978), 267-89, and in the Appendix, 491-510.  The quote is from Watts, 268.

[4]Watts, The Dissenters, 504.

[5]Cited from the Ilston Church Book by B. R. White, “John Miles and the Structures of the Calvinistic Baptist Mission to South Wales, 1649-1660,” in Mansel John, ed., Welsh Baptist Studies (Llandysul: The South Wales Baptist College, 1976), 36; See also B. G. Owens, ed., The Ilston Book: Earliest Register of Welsh Baptists (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1996), 32; Henry Melville King, Rev. John Myles and the Founding of the First Baptist Church in Massachusetts (Providence, R.I.: Preston & Rounds, Co. 1905); Joshua Thomas, “The Histories of Four Welsh Baptist Churches c. 1633-1770,” in Carroll C. and Willard A. Ramsey, The American Baptist Heritage in Wales (Gallatin, Tenn.: Church History Research and Archives, 1976), 40-66.

[6]White, “John Miles,” 37.

[7]I.e. association.

[8]White, “John Miles,” 40; White, Association Records of the Particular Baptists (London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1971), 3-4.

[9]White, “John Miles,” 36.