The Second London Confession in America

THE SECOND LONDON CONFESSION IN AMERICA

When one considers the history and development of Baptist thought and practice in America, one must give a significant place to the Second London Confession of Faith, more popularly known as the 1689 London Baptist Confession. In America, its theological statements shaped and molded much of the thinking and practice of Baptist churches on this side of the Atlantic.

The story must begin with a brief mention of the close ties that existed between Baptists in England and America during the middle of the seventeenth century. In spite of the distance between them, and the difficulties in communication and in fellowship, it is clear that the small and struggling American churches considered themselves one with their English counterparts. When John Clarke, patriarch of the Newport, Rhode Island church wrote his famous Ill Newes From New England in 1652, he included a letter written by fellow-sufferer Obadiah Holmes and addressed to John Spilsbury and William Kiffen of London, asserting their oneness in the Gospel. At the founding of the First Baptist Church of Boston in 1655, three of the original nine members “had walked in that order in old England” (including a member of William Kiffin’s church, Richard Goodall). John Myles and many of his church members moved from Wales to Swansea, Massachusetts in 1663, and William Screven, a member of one of the West Country churches, after his emigration founded in 1682 a new assembly in Maine.

This theological kinship fostered a sense of unity across the Ocean, and paved the way for the introduction into America of the doctrinal views of the English churches. The colonial Americans looked to the English for leadership, counsel and assistance during the latter half of the century. Into this situation came Elias Keach, son of London’s famous pastor Benjamin Keach. He brought with him his father’s commitment to a well-defined theological system, and urged the use of the Confession of Faith that was so well known in the homeland. Elias ministered in Penepek, near Philadelphia, but his influence extended over a wide area of southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, and several churches came into existence. These became the nucleus of the churches of the Philadelphia Association.

It is really through this Association that the Second London Confession gained its greatest influence. While the records of the Association do not list a date at which they adopted the Confession, they refer to it early on. The records state, “in the year 1724, a query, concerning the fourth commandment, whether changed, altered or diminished. We refer to the Confession of faith, set forth by the elders and brethren met in London, 1689, and owned by us, chap. 22, sect. 7 and 8.” In 1727, they responded to a question about marriage in the same way. The records tersely state “Answered, by referring to our Confession of faith, chapter 26th in our last edition.” These statements make it evident that the Association churches had adopted the Confession as their own.

By 1742, it was decided to reprint the Confession, a motion that was repeated in 1765. It is true that, under the influence of Keach’s theology, two articles were added, namely one on singing hymns in worship, and the other treating the “laying on of hands” as a third ordinance of the church. But the rest of the Confession was left intact, and was the doctrinal standard for the churches in the Association.
As the first and oldest Association in America, the influence of the Philadelphia churches was powerful. The Ketockton, Virginia Association adopted it in 1766, as did the Charleston, South Carolina Association, and the Warren, Rhode Island Association, both in 1767. Through these Associations, and others, and the constituent churches, the doctrine and practices of the Second London Confession molded much of the early thinking among Baptists in America.

Writing in 1881, William Cathcart, the editor of The Baptist Encyclopedia, said “In England and America, churches, individuals, and Associations, with clear minds, with hearts full of love for the truth, . . . have held with veneration the articles of 1689.” Certainly, this was true, but sadly, Cathcart failed to see that even in his own day there was a serious departure from this great old document. Many churches moved away from the London/Philadelphia standard in favor of the New Hampshire Confession, a product of J. Newton Brown’s attempt to placate the objections of Arminian Baptists in New Hampshire to the strong Calvinism of the older Confession. With a watered-down theology, theological depth was lost in the churches, and they were swept away by the dueling movements of liberalism and fundamentalism. Without a clear-cut theological system in place, the churches had no defense against the vagaries of liberalism or the reductionism of fundamentalism. For the first half of the twentieth century, awareness of the Second London Confession was at an all-time low among the Baptist churches.

But thanks be to God, through the influence of several men and movements, the grand old doctrines of God’s sovereign grace were recovered among Baptists, so that gradually churches adopted the old Confession, or new churches were formed based on these vital and vigorous convictions. Where once there was a desert, there are now signs that the dry ground is bringing forth beautiful flowers. There is still a long way to go, and most of the Baptist churches in America still wander in a theological wasteland. But God has raised up many churches holding forth a clear testimony to the truth, and we hope that many more will come to birth in the days ahead. By God’s grace, the future looks bright for churches that adopt the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Perhaps this movement will encourage a rediscovery of the kind of unity across the ocean that was enjoyed three centuries ago. With the advent of modern communications technology, as well as the ease of travel, there is no reason for anything less. May God bless our efforts to His glory.