The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith was written by Calvinistic Baptists in England to give a formal expression of the Reformed and Protestant Christian faith with an obvious Baptist perspective. This confession, like the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Savoy Declaration (1658), was written by evangelical Puritans who were concerned that their particular church organization reflect what they perceived to be Biblical teaching.

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The General and Particular Baptists in England

The creation of the 1689 Confession is linked to Early English Baptist history and the differences between the “General” and “Particular” brands of Baptist belief. In the early 17th century, English Baptists were mainly a loose organization of churches, rather than an established denomination. With the advent of Arminianism at around the same time, many Baptist churches adopted the Arminian concepts of Christ's atonement and man's free will. The General Baptists were so-called because they held to an Arminian general atonement, in which Christ died for all alike. On the other hand, many Baptists rejected the teaching of Arminianism and asserted that a Christian's salvation was ultimately the work of God and his sovereign choice. These Baptists were called “Particular” because they held to the Calvinistic particular atonement, in which Christ's atonement was limited to those whom God had chosen to save. The terms Particular Baptist, Calvinistic Baptist and Reformed Baptist are essentially synonymous with one another in this regard.

While these differences in theology were serious, both General and Particular Baptists suffered overt and covert persecution from the established Church of England. Virtually all Baptists had left the established church because they were convinced that the Bible did not support either an Episcopalian form of church government, nor the role of the Monarch in determining the affairs of the church. Other Puritans at the time, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, also suffered persecution, but their numerical strength and influence allowed them to escape much of the persecution that Baptists suffered at the time. The assertion by Baptist churches that only adult converts could be Baptized put them at odds not only with the Church of England, but also the Presbyterians and Congregationalists – all of whom supported infant baptism.

The 1644 Confession and the English Civil War

As the 17th century continued, relations between the Puritans and the Monarchy deteriorated. Many Puritan leaders were members of Parliament and this tension eventually resulted in civil war, which lasted from 1642 until 1649. King Charles I lost the conflict and was executed, and England entered into a short period of Republicanism. These events are recorded in more detail elsewhere.

With this rise in civil unrest, Particular Baptists took the opportunity to write their own statement of faith. Seven congregations sent representatives to write the document. The purpose of the document was to formally differentiate the beliefs of the Particular Baptists from the General Baptists. This was completed in 1644, and, while not very detailed, was clearly Calvinistic in tone. This was known as “The First Baptist Confession”, and predates the far more well-known Westminster Confession of Faith which was written in 1646.

With the demise of the monarchy, the Westminster Confession was officially declared the statement of faith for both the Church of England (Anglican) and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). The smaller Congregationalists created their own version of the Westminster Confession in 1658 called the Savoy Declaration. The original 1644 Baptist Confession, while similar in theology, was nowhere near as expansive as these two English Confessions, and it became clear that another Baptist confession be written.

Problems after Restoration

After the execution of Charles I, Scottish Presbyterians and English Anglicans and Congregationalists, despite sharing a common theology, were divided over the place of the Monarchy – the former supported it while the latter were opposed to it. Oliver Cromwell, a Congregationalist, ruled England as Lord Protector until his death in 1658. The Monarchy, under Charles II, was restored in 1660. Relations between Scotland and England, as well as their respective Puritans, continued to be abrasive as laws were passed regulating worship. In 1662, the Act of Uniformity made it illegal to use anything but the new Anglican Prayer Book in all Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist churches in England. Moreover, the Anglican church had dispensed with the Westminster Confession and had returned to the Thirty-Nine Articles as their confession of faith.

The 1677 Confession

The result was that, with the restoration of the Monarchy, English Baptists everywhere were suffering persecution for their faith. In 1677 a much larger group of Particular Baptists met together for the purpose of creating a more detailed confession of faith. The process was modelled on the Westminster Confession, which was being used by many Particular Baptist churches despite the differences in church government and mode of baptism.

The 1677 document differed from the Westminster and Savoy confessions in two important ways. Firstly, it had to define the power of the Baptist association (denomination) in its relation to individual congregations. Secondly, and most importantly from a Baptist perspective, it made clear their adherence to Believer's Baptism over and against Infant Baptism. In the latter case, it was their adherence to their view of scripture that resulted in this belief, rather than any historical link with the Anabaptist movement that arose soon after the reformation.

Persecution and secrecy kept the 1677 document from being officially endorsed by Particular Baptists, though it was obvious that many Baptist church leaders were able to make its contents known to church members.

The Toleration Act of 1689

In 1689, The Toleration Act was passed, which enabled religious freedom and plurality to co-exist alongside the established churches in England and Scotland. This official reprieve resulted in representatives from over 100 Particular Baptist churches to meet together in London from 3 July - 11 July to discuss and endorse the 1677 document. Despite the fact that the document was written in 1677, the official preface to the document has ensured that it would be known as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

Historical effects of the 1689 Confession

The 1689 Confession, alongside the Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration, are considered to be the most important Reformed Confessions made in the English-speaking world. There is no doubt that the 1689 confession relied heavily upon the work already done in writing the two other confessions, but this is not to understate its importance and influence in Baptist churches specifically, and Reformed and Calvinistic churches generally, since that point.

Particular Baptists were quick to develop churches in colonial America, and in 1707 the Philadelphia Baptist Association was formed. This association formally adopted the 1689 confession in 1742 after years of tacit endorsement by individual churches and congregational members. It was then renamed The Philadelphia Confession of Faith. Further Calvinistic Baptist church associations formed in the mid-late 18th century and adopted the confession as “The Baptist Confession”.

During the Second Great Awakening in America, Particular Baptists and other Calvinistic expressions of Protestant Christianity came under sustained attack from the successful ministries of evangelists such as Charles Grandison Finney and theologians such as Nathaniel William Taylor. Many Particular Baptists retreated into Hyper-Calvinism, despite the fact that the 1689 confession does not espouse or support such extremes in Reformed theology.

The 1689 confession remains, to this day, a very important document for all Reformed Baptist churches internationally, allowing them to have an historical confession of faith that compares favourably to the Westminster Confession. Modern relationships between Reformed Baptists and other Reformed denominations (such as Presbyterians) have no doubt been strengthened by the historical similarities between the two confessions.

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