Church Planting in Early Baptist History (Part 2) Submitted by Prof. Renihan

The London church under the ministry of Hanserd Knollys sent Thomas Tillam[1] to another one of the “dark corners of the land,” the North (County Durham), in December 1651. He was appointed to a lectureship by the “Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel” established by Parliament in February 1649/50,[2] and used this post as the base to plant a Baptist church in Hexham.In seven months, sixteen individuals were baptized and a church was formed. Tillam saw this as the great end of his mission:

upon the 21st day of the 5th month, 1652 . . . after serious consideration and some gospel preparation, a living temple began of these living stones. . . . These, solemnly giving themselves to the Lord and one to another, to walk in communion together, with submission to all the ordinances of the Gospel, I, Tho. Tillam, espoused to one husband; hoping that I shall present them a chaste virgin to Christ.[3]

The formula for church planting was at the front of this action. Evangelism was not carried out simply to seek after conversions. Churches had to be planted. Those who received the gift of salvation were expected to become part of a well-ordered church. The Baptists could not conceive of evangelism apart from church planting. Converts were to be baptized, and formed into a church by a (to use Benjamin Keach’s term) “wise master builder.”

The difficulties of the Restoration Era hindered the spread of churches, but in the relative freedom of the 1690s, several attempts were made to form new congregations. Benjamin Keach argued that ministers should be active in preaching in the towns and villages near where they were located, so that new churches might be planted.[4] The Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, church ordained David Crosley as an evangelist in 1692 stating “we by virtue of authority given unto us by our Lord Jesus Christ, have called our Brother forth to preach the gospel and baptize wheresoever the Providence of God shall open a door to his ministry.”[5] This “roving commission”[6] was not simply to preach. It included the necessary attendant for converts, baptism, implying the next logical step, the formation of churches.

This evangelistic impulse was the driving force behind the 1689 London General Assembly’s initiative to begin a fund intended (along with other purposes) “to send Ministers . . . to preach, both in City and Country.”[7] In the Narrative of the 1690 London General Assembly, the participating churches rejoice at the good work already done through the fund, “especially in Essex and Suffolk, where were no Baptized churches,” because the mission was so well received that “two churches are like to be gathered.”[8] According to Murdina MacDonald, Richard Tidmarsh had been sent into those counties, with two new churches as the apparent result.[9]

These examples give some indication, at least from among the leaders of the movement, for the spread of their message and the desire to see churches multiplied. For them, the church was not simply a society of holy people gathered for fellowship with one another, but was an instrument to bring light and life to the darkest places. When they were able, they encouraged and engaged in mission efforts within their capabilities. Undoubtedly, the relative poverty of many of the churches and their ministers hindered expansion.[10] But efforts were made, at times with positive results.

[1]Ernest A. Payne, “Thomas Tillam,” BQ 17:2, (April 1957): 61-66; David Douglas, History of the Baptist Churches in the North of England, from 1648 to 1845 (London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1846), 8-69; E. B. Underhill, Records of the Churches of Christ, Gathered at Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham. 1644-1720 (London: Hanserd Knollys Society, 1854), 289-96. Tillam used the phrase “dark corner” in the first entry to the Hexham records, and the church, in a letter sent to Knollys’ assembly in London, used the full phrase five months later, 289, 304.

[2]Underhill, Records, 304; Payne, “Thomas Tillam,” 61. On the “Committee” see Hill, “Puritans and the Dark Corners,” 32-44.

[3]Underhill, Records, 289.

[4][Benjamin Keach], The Gospel Minister’s Maintenance Vindicated (London: John Harris, 1689), 92-96; cf. Keach, Exposition of the Parables: Series Two (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1991 reprint), 362-63, where he likened ministers to “planters” whose fruit is to be “planted in a visible church of Christ.”

[5]Peter Wortley, transcriber, “Church Record Book, Volume One 1670-1715” (Bromsgrove: Bromsgrove Baptist Church and The Baptist Historical Society, 1974), 51.

[6]W. T. Whitley, Baptists of North-West England, 1649-1913 (London: The Kingsgate Press, 1913). 76. See also Frederick Overend, History of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Bacup (London: The Kingsgate Press, 1912), 71.

[7]A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly (London: 1689), 12.

[8]A Narrative of the Proceedings of the General Assembly (London: 1690), 4-5, emphasis in original.

[9]Murdina MacDonald, “London Calvinistic Baptists 1689-1727: Tension Within a Dissenting Community Under Toleration,” Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 1982, 42.

[10]In the 1689 Narrative, this point is explicit. They mourned the financial neglect of ministers who must be “so incumbred with Worldly Affairs, that they are not able to perform the Duties of their Holy Calling, in preaching the Gospel . . . .” 1689 Narrative, 5.