The Spirit-Filled Life of Early Baptists
The Spirit-Filled Life of Early Baptists
Dr. Christopher L. Schelin
A common story told about and among Baptists is that we have ignored the Holy Spirit. History (supposedly) tells us that we have always been cessationists who restricted the miraculous charismata to the biblical era. Our devotion has been Jesus-centered to the point of eclipsing the Father and the Holy Spirit, a phenomenon Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman has called a “Unitarianism of the Second Person” (Freeman, Contesting Catholicity, 144). Our spirituality has been defined by the study of Scripture for insight and wisdom, affirming the illuminating work of the Spirit but otherwise having little to say about the Spirit’s guidance. As a favorite hymn declares, when we “come to the garden alone,” it is so that we may tarry with Jesus, sharing a joy that “none other has ever known.”
With his monumental study of the interactions between Baptists and the Christians of the Holiness, Pentecostal, and Charismatic movements, Baptist historian C. Douglas Weaver aims to dispel this narrative. Some Baptists have identified with the broader charismatic movement, most have responded with either opposition or indifference, but all have reasserted the vital role of the Spirit in Christian life, such that he cannot be identified as the “shy member of the Trinity” in our faith and practice (Weaver, Baptists and the Holy Spirit, xi).
In the introduction to Baptists and the Holy Spirit, Weaver suggests some historical Baptist precedents for charismatic Christianity, specifically naming the Separate Baptists who arose during the Great Awakening in 18th-century colonial America. Their example piqued my interest, so I began searching deeper into the historical record to discover how our forebears sought to embody a Spirit-filled faith. What I learned is that the first generations of Baptists in 17th-century England expressed, in various ways, a robust concern that the Holy Spirit empower believers for ministry, inspire their worship, and manifest in moments of prophecy and healing. To put it plainly, early Baptists pursued the Spirit-filled life.
Let me be clear that I am not claiming early Baptists were pentecostals before Pentecostalism. By and large, they explicitly claimed that the “extraordinary” gifts of the Spirit had ceased at the end of the apostolic age. Baptists were a part of the broader Puritan movement and did not want to be condemned by association with “miracle-mongering” Roman Catholics or “fanatical” Seekers and Quakers who prioritized Spirit over scripture and freedom over order. But if that was all we said about early Baptists and the Spirit, we miss out on a more interesting story and the surprising resonances with the contemporary charismatic movement, which counts plenty of Baptists among its participants. My hope is that this research will be more fully expressed in a journal article, but for now I am delighted to share a summary of the findings so far.
A significant movement among 17th-century Baptists sought the Spirit to empower believers for ministry. Beginning in the 1640s, some became convinced that Christ had set as an ordinance the laying of hands upon persons after they had been baptized. A central text in support of this belief was Hebrews 6:1-2, which identifies the imposition of hands as one of the elementary doctrines of Christian faith:
Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, 2 instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (NRSV)
Baptists debated the practice through the rest of the century. Most General Baptists came to accept it and wrote it into their confessions of faith. Laying on of hands found some support among Particular Baptists but not nearly to the same extent.
The first Baptists were ardent biblicists who insisted on following what they took to be the clear precepts of scripture. It is not surprising, then, that proponents of the laying on of hands grounded it in the principle of obedience. However, their very biblicism also led Baptists to a rich pneumatological interpretation of the rite. Laying on of hands was, for them, no “mere symbol” representing a divine work that was already accomplished. Rather, this ordinance was God’s appointed and ordinary means to receive the Holy Spirit.
Benjamin Keach, a prominent Particular Baptist leader, contented in his pamphlet Laying on of hands upon baptized believers that imposition of hands was of equal importance to baptism and that together these ordinances served as “two Doors to be passed through” (Keach, Laying on of hands upon baptized believers, 89). Every divine institution conveys a certain blessing and the one belonging to laying on of hands is the reception of “a further measure and increase of the Spirit of God” beyond what the believer obtains upon conversion. Keach enjoined his readers to consider their need of the Holy Spirit and fulfill their duty that this need may be satisfied in fuller empowerment (Keach, Laying on of hands upon baptized believers, 99).
Thomas Tillam, a Particular Baptist who became a Seventh-Day Baptist, described the imposition of hands as the “conduit pipe” for conveying “many gifts of the Spirit” (Tillam, The Fourth principle of the Christian religion, 19). Save for the “extraordinary” gifts of the apostolic age, these gifts are those listed by the Apostle Paul, such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, and the discerning of spirits (Tillam, The fourth principle of the Christian religion, 31-32).
Thomas Grantham, General Baptist leader and arguably the first Baptist systematic theologian, offered a detailed exposition of what it means to “receive” the Spirit within his greatest work, Christianismus Primitivus. According to Grantham, the Spirit can be said to indwell believers by manifesting the gifts and fruits (Grantham, Christianismus primitivus 2.2, 32). The work of the Spirit in bringing about conversion is distinct from the reception of the Spirit as “seal and confirmation” of the believer’s new life. Laying on of hands accompanied by prayer is God’s designated means for Christians to receive the Spirit and begin to exercise spiritual gifts (Grantham, Christianismus primitivus 2.2, 41).
The first Baptists sought the Holy Spirit to inspire their worship. Like their fellow Puritans, early Baptists were keen to reform public worship so that it conformed to their understanding of biblical faithfulness. They rejected the ceremonial liturgy of the established Church of England and replaced it with a simplified service of scripture reading, preaching, and prayer. In this effort, Baptists also paired the desire to be “Bible-based” and the desire to be “Spirit-filled.” Again and again in their writings they alluded to John 4:24, declaring that true worship must be conducted “in Spirit and in truth.” It is not enough to follow a biblical pattern for worship; one must seek and depend upon the Spirit’s inspiration. As Benjamin Keach put it, “There is no Duty nor Ordinance of the Gospel, that can be performed acceptably to God without the Spirit, or the gracious Influences thereof” (Keach, The breach repaired in God’s worship, 170).
An example of Baptists’ dependence on Holy Spirit inspiration was the practice of “prophesying,” which had originated among the Puritans of the previous century. By prophecy, they meant scripture-based exhortation, not a particular revelation or prediction of the future (but more will be said about that kind of prophecy below). Puritan prophesying first emerged as gatherings of ministers to hone their preaching skills. Baptists radicalized the practice, shifting it to the main worship service on Sunday and allowing multiple men to rise and address the congregation. The very first Baptist church, led by John Smyth in Amsterdam, conducted gatherings in which up to five men would, as they felt led by God, would explain their understanding of a single Bible passage.
For some Baptists, prophesying was restricted to men who were recognized by the church as possessing a gift for proclamation. But for others, any man could rise and speak. Services often included a time for questions or open discussion by the whole (male) community. Regrettably, women were rarely allowed to participate. Supporters of prophesying emphasized the gifting of the Spirit over formal education and ordination. The Baptist leader William Kiffin, in a pamphlet directed against the establishment Puritans, accused them of “the quenching of the spirit” for denying the right to prophesy (Kiffin, A briefe remonstrance, 9).
A characteristic of early Baptist worship unknown to most of us today was the general absence of congregational singing. The practice was rejected on the grounds that singing was a “carnal” act. Although communal singing is quite obviously depicted in the Old Testament, Baptists saw it as part of the old covenant that had been abrogated by Christ’s death and resurrection. New Testament passages that seemed to describe singing either referred to an internal “spiritual” experience or to the Spirit’s extraordinary inspiration of individuals during the apostolic age.
The “Hymn-Singing Controversy” erupted among Particular Baptists during the last decade of the 17th century. As one can expect, much of the argument centered on the proper interpretation of biblical texts. Baptists debated as to whether congregational music was established as a moral duty in the New Testament. But, as noted above, the early Baptists prioritized worshiping in Spirit as well as in truth. We therefore find that advocates of singing heavily stressed the role of the Holy Spirit. In one pamphlet, Benjamin Keach compared the composition of hymns with sermons. In both cases, a truly divine work must be in accordance with the Word of God as well as created with the Spirit’s aid. (Keach, The breach repaired in God’s worship, 136). In the same manner, Hanserd Knollys declared that both singing and prayer are two ordinances that “are to be performed by the anointing of the Spirit” (Knollys, An exposition of the whole book of Revelation, 76).
Manifesting in Power
Despite their cessationist orientation, many of the first Baptists trusted that the Spirit could manifest in power. Not only did they believe this, they also claimed to experience such a reality.
The historian Jane Shaw devotes a section of her book Miracles in Enlightenment England to the practice of healing among Baptists. She begins by retelling an incident from the life of Welsh evangelist Vavasor Powell, who fell ill with a fever in 1646. Powell requested aid from some pastors in London. They met Powell in Dartford and, in accordance with the directions of James 5:14-15, prayed over him and anointed him with oil. According to Powell’s autobiography, he entered into a sweating, six-hour trance. When he revived, the sickness was gone (Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England, 33-34).
Some Baptist writers justified their support for physical healing by distinguishing the “extraordinary” gift of healing, which was bestowed on certain persons in the early church, from the process described in James 5. This passage described a general and continuing responsibility that elders held by virtue of their office (Rider, Laying on of hands asserted, 2-5). But this distinction wasn’t always so clear-cut; Thomas Tillam considered the elders’ ministry to the sick to be the same as the gift of healing endued by the Spirit (Tillam, The fourth principle of the Christian religion, 27).
Several accounts of healing ministry are recorded in the life of the Particular Baptist leader Hanserd Knollys, despite his general cessationism. The most notable occurred late in his life when Benjamin Keach had become gravely ill and was expected to die. Knollys prayed over his friend, pleading for God’s mercy. When he finished praying, he confidently declared, “Brother Keach, I shall be in heaven before you.” Knollys passed away two years later but Keach lived for another fifteen (Bustin, Paradox and Perseverance, 147).
This account exemplifies a tentative openness to prophecy in the sense meant by modern charismatics; that is, a specific revelation of God for the present context. This acceptance of prophecy was most fully expressed by a remarkable set of women in the movement, as documented by Curtis Freeman in A Company of Women Preachers. These prophetesses claimed words of inspiration, declared words of judgment, and made bold predictions about the future. Elizabeth Poole was one among their number and was, for a time, a member of William Kiffin’s church in London. During the winter of 1648-1649, she addressed the leadership of the Parliamentarian Army, reporting a vision and urging them not to execute King Charles I. She recounts her vision and defends her prophetic gifts in a pair of pamphlets produced after this experience (Freeman, A Company of Women Preachers, 265-304).
Another prophetess, Katherine Sutton, claimed the gift of singing. Her written testimony, A Christian woman’s experiences, reproduces some of the hymns she understood to have been revealed by the Spirit. Sutton’s work includes a preface by Hanserd Knollys, who declared that he, too, had “some experience of this kinde of Anoynting of the spirit of praise” (Freeman, A Company of Women Preachers, 595). Alongside her hymns, Sutton also uttered short prophecies in verse, such as the following that she received in 1657:
There is a time approaching near at hand,
That men shall be in fear by sea and land:
There is a time, there will be alteration;
And this same time doth hasten to this nation;
Let now my children hearken to my will,
And they shall see I will be with them still. (Freeman, A Company of Women Preachers, 612)
We see that a number of early Baptists were able to qualify the cessationist doctrine they had received from the larger Puritan tradition. While they did not typically expect or seek the so-called “extraordinary” or “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit, their personal experiences led them to accept that God could sovereignly manifest signs in their own time. As Thomas Tillam declared, “[W]onders are not totally ceased” (Tillam, The fourth principle of the Christian religion, 36).
Finally, it must be said that one Baptist leader rejected cessationism entirely. Writing in Christianismus Primitivus, Thomas Grantham declared that the church “hath a perpetual right” to all the spiritual gifts, including the so-called “extraordinary” ones such as prophecy and tongues. He contended that God has not placed the Spirit in the Body of Christ for only a short while, then to depart; rather, the Spirit must remain, and no gift will be “done away,” until the people of God reach the fullness of Christ. The church of the present day has no less need of the Spirit’s help than did the apostles if it is to fulfill its mandate:
Surely if these duties remain, and that she is still bound as much as ever to suffer for Christ and his truth, it cannot reasonably be imagined, that God hath recalled his holy Spirit in the gifts or graces thereof from her…we have no reason to think that God will now require the services in general, but he will afford…the same supplies of grace and gifts.
Without providing details, Grantham also teasingly claimed that an abundance of spiritual gifts were being received in his own day and that miracles were still occurring, even if they were rare. He reported firsthand observation of God granting the gift of prophecy, such that the speaker was able to edify and exhort others beyond his natural abilities (Grantham, Christianismus primitivus 2.2, 34-39).
Anyone who is involved in, or at least familiar with, Pentecostalism and the broader charismatic renewal can readily identify some similarities with the early English Baptists. The core tenet of charismatic Christianity, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, is conceptually equivalent to the laying on of hands. In both cases, advocates describe a “second blessing” or increase of the Spirit that is received subsequent to conversion and baptism and that empowers the believer for ministry. Both charismatics and the first Baptists have allowed for spontaneity in worship, emphasizing the guidance and anointing of the Spirit for persons to exercise their gifts as they discern the need. Finally, 17th-century Baptists did claim to experience some of the “signs and wonders” that define contemporary “Spirit-filled” Christianity, specifically healing and prophecy.
The differences are just as notable. There is absolutely no indication of tongues-speaking among the early Baptists as there is among the Quakers. Providential manifestations of the Spirit were exceptions to the general rule that the miraculous was confined to the apostolic era and was not to be sought by Christians in the present. Laying on of hands was meant to follow immediately upon baptism and there was no sense that the believer should labor in preparation for the gift of the Spirit. Every point of comparison that has been named was also a point of controversy within the Baptist movement as they argued over the proper understanding of scripture and of the Spirit’s work among them.
Taken on their own terms, however, early Baptists were undeniably a people of the Spirit as well as the Word. They were conscious of their dependence on the Spirit in every aspect of the Christian life. Their quest to embody the “true church” entailed not just sorting out correct teaching from false but relying on a power that had been promised to indwell them. “[W]hat can a poor Saint do without the Spirit?” asked Benjamin Keach. The answer was clear: nothing at all.
Rev. Dr. Christopher Schelin serves as an administrator and faculty member at Starr King School for the Ministry. Chris holds a Ph.D. in ecclesiology and political theory from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His doctoral studies were conducted in collaboration with the International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists.
Dennis C. Bustin, Paradox and Perseverance: Hanserd Knollys, Particular Baptist Pioneer in Seventeenth-Century England. Wipf & Stock, 2006.
Curtis W. Freeman, A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England. Baylor University Press, 2011.
Curtis W. Freeman, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists. Baylor University Press, 2014.
Thomas Grantham, Christianismus primitivus. Francis Smith, 1678.
Benjamin Keach, The breach repaired in God’s worship. John Hancock, 1691.
Benjamin Keach, Laying on of hands upon baptized believers. Benjamin Harris, 1698.
William Kiffin, A briefe remonstrance of the reasons and grounds of those people commonly called Anabaptists. 1645.
Hanserd Knollys, An exposition of the whole book of Revelation. William Marshall, 1688.
William Rider, Laying on of hands asserted. R. Moon, 1656.
Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Thomas Tillam, The fourth principle of the Christian religion. William Hucheson, 1655.
C. Douglas Weaver, Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements. Baylor University Press, 2019.