Anniversaries Matter

Summer 2012 • pp. 1-6

Every married couple knows that anniversaries matter. I write this on the forty-fourth anniversary of my being wed to Margaret. Year by year of life together creates new depths of love and appreciation for one’s mate. Each year marks a memorial of faithfulness to a covenantal commitment and invites reflection on the increasing loveliness of the spouse and the maturing joy of life together. Anniversaries also bring to mind a massive exhibition of particular providences of God.

Also historians love anniversaries–and for much the same reason. Anniversaries remind us of how awesome it is to be the bride of Christ and observe how the Lord operates through decades and centuries to purify His bride that He might present her to Himself spotless, blameless, and beyond reproach. Particularly useful is the heuristic device of using those century and half-century markers as an occasion for profitable reminiscence. The year 2012 gives just such an opportunity. In 1612, four hundred years ago, Thomas Helwys published his famous, and perennially profitable work, The Mistery of Iniquity. Fifty years later, in 1662, in opposition to all that Helwys stood for, the English Parliament passed the “Act of Uniformity” that effectively brought to an end the Puritan experiment of purifying and reforming the parish congregations of the Church of England. In 1812, Ann Judson, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice, Congregational missionaries, placed themselves on the mercy of divine providence when they dissolved their relationship with Congregationalism because they had adopted, and had personally submitted to, believers’ baptism. These events stand as pivotal history changers and allow us to admire the truth that God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. All of these events led to extraordinary displays of courage, much suffering sustained by the secret operations of divine consolation, and observable changes in the character of Christian discipleship, particularly the Baptist influence on important Christian issues.

The anniversary of the Act of Uniformity will be memorialized in this fascicle by Steve Weaver’s article giving a description of the impact made by that event on Baptists. The year 2012, the rise of the “Traditional Baptist,” is treated in a critical analysis of their peculiar claims. As for Helwys and the Judsons, a few paragraphs will have to suffice.

Thomas Helwys

Thomas Helwys was a member of the Separatist congregation served by John Smyth as pastor. Their exile to Amsterdam led to the adoption by the church of believers’ baptism When Smyth decided that they had gone about this change the wrong way, and should try to unite with the Mennonites, Helwys halted, separated from Smyth and returned to England with less than a score of the original congregation. He made the return in order to provide a witness to the truth and against condemning error to his “natural country men” many of whom were their “loving kindred in the flesh,” and others their “most worthy and dear friends to whom we owe the best fruits of our lives and the entire affection of our hearts.”1 In 1611 Helwys wrote A Short and Plaine Proof by the Word and Works of God that God’s Decree is Not the Cause of Any Man’s sins or Condemnation. God did not decree that Adam sin or not sin, but gave him free will and left the determination of his destiny to his own choice. God’s decree simply was “Obey and Live” or “Disobey and die.” The options to obey or disobey were left entirely in the will of Adam possessed of free will. Adam fell, however, and his posterity have inherited a corrupt nature; They still, however, by proffered grace have a power to believe though their disposition is to evil. Christ has died for all and God’s decree of election extends to all men that will believe, for He has not elected particular individuals thus passing by the rest, but has elected all that will believe. A refusal to believe, therefore, duplicates Adam’s choice to disobey and secures one’s condemnation. Helwys closed this work with a strangely ambivalent affirmation:

Thus Christ offers himself and man has the power and does reject Christ. He has put the word of God from him who resists the Holy Ghost and freely of his own will works his own condemnation. But he does not have the power at all to work out his own salvation. We say this only to clear ourselves from that gross and fearful error of free will from which the Lord in his great mercy has freed us.[2]

Helwys’ most useful and justly celebrated writing is The Mistery of Iniquity. In spite of the periodized interpretation of Revelation 13 with Roman Catholicism and the pope as the first beast and Anglicanism as the second beast, Helwys’ vigorous denunciation of the state church system and his clear and unalloyed call for liberty of conscience marks an important threshold in the history of Christian thought and political theory. He added strong criticism of the “so much applauded profession of Puritanism” for clinging to the hope of a purified Anglicanism and their, the Puritans, consequent inclusion in the establishment. Submission of conscience to Parliament was a spiritual atrocity in Helwys’ view and of the essence of an antichristian posture. He challenged them with this observation: “By this you testify against yourselves that you are unreformed, and that there is a way of reformation, of which you would be, if you might have leave or license to enter into it. Seeing you cannot obtain it, you justify that it is lawful to walk in an unreformed profession upon this ground because you may not have leave by act of Parliament to reform. What more false profession can be found on earth than this of yours, who profess that you know a way of much truth in which you would walk, but you do not, because you cannot by superior power be permitted.”[3]

The Separatists held on to infant baptism that they had inherited from antichrist. Inherited from Rome and defended as the fulfillment of Old Testament circumcision, infant baptism according to Helwys is the “mere vain invention and tradition of men” which can “never have favor or acceptance with God.” Under the New Covenant, however, that promises the Law to be written in the heart, to be manifest in repentance and belief, “it cannot possibly be conceived that under, or by this covenant of the New Testament infants should be baptized. The Lord requires no such thing in this covenant of men to baptize their infants.”[4] Helwys points out the absurdities to which the assumptions that undergird infant baptism lead.

What words might we take to ourselves to make this madness and the madness of all the world appear, who pretend that all the seed of Christians and of the faithful are to be baptized only under this pretense, and approve of baptism of the seed of all the wicked to the third and fourth generation, and to the tenth generation enemies of God, and blood persecutors of his truth, destroying the faith of Jesus, and advancing the man of sin. The seed of all these that are baptized, and by reason of this baptism they are all held and accounted as Christians by you, although they walk in the steps of their forefathers. Is there any knowledge of God in these things?[5]

Though they defended it, and claimed that if they sinned in maintaining this baptism, it was a sin of ignorance and, therefore, not damaging. Helwys responded, “Their ignorance is because of their own willful neglect. When through such ignorance they overthrow the ordinances of Christ, and abolish the laws of his testament, and do not repent, but justify themselves in their sins and say that they have not sinned in the matter.”[6] The pope could as easily claim the innocence of ignorance in all his bloody persecutions against the Protestants.

In his defense of religious liberty, Helwys argued that “none should be punished either with death or bonds for transgressing against the spiritual ordinances of the New Testament, and that such offences should be punished only with the spiritual sword and censures.”[7] Helwys wrote plainly and forcefully to the King, that like Helwys himself, he is but “dust and ashes.” He granted to him all legitimate power commanded by Scripture, but did not allow any power over conscience. Helwys pled, politely, but forcefully, that the king might remove the power of the earthly sword from the prelates of the English church and that he might not seek any power over the consciences of his subjects. Helwys transcended virtually all thinkers before him in the scope of his vision for liberty.

We still pray our lord the king that we may be free from suspicion for having any thoughts of provoking evil against those of the Romish religion in regard of their profession, if they are true and faithful subjects to the king. For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has not authority as a king but in earthly causes. If the king’s people are obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our Lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.[8]

Adoniram Judson

Two hundred years later, a son of the Puritans broke with the prestige of the established church of Massachusetts and the supposed privilege of infant baptism, risked the disappointment of the Fathers of the church and his own earthly father in the flesh, by denying the validity of infant baptism and coming to the conviction “that the immersion of a professing believer is the only Christian Baptism.” On August 27, 1812, Adoniram Judson wrote to William Carey, Joshua Marshman, and William Ward that he and his wife, Ann Jusdon, had simultaneously but independently reached the conclusion that they were in “an unbaptized state” and that they wished to “profess our faith in Christ by being baptized in obedience to his sacred command.”

On February 7, 1812, Judson, along with Samuel Nott, Samuel Newell, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice had been commissioned by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a newly formed body for the support of foreign missions among the Congregational churches of New England. They were sent to India with instructions that, as soon as possible, they would establish the seat of their mission in “some part of the empire of Birmah.” At the meeting of this Board in September 1813 they voted “that this Board consider the relation between this Board, and the Rev. Adoniram Judson, jun., as having been dissolved on the first day of Sept. 1812, when, in a letter to the Corresponding Secretary, he announced his withdrawal of himself from under our instructions.” The same notice was made concerning Luther Rice who stated that “it was no longer compatible with his sentiments to follow our instructions.” These instructions that they could no longer follow were to “baptize credible believers and their households.”

The Serampore, Carey, Marshman, and Ward, immediately took up the cause and admonished their American brethren to improve the surprising providence to the advantage of the Kingdom of Christ. “I hope the Baptist Brethren in America,” they wrote, “will exert themselves to support the two who have for conscience sake deserted their all.” Marshman wrote independently of both the poignancy and the privilege of the events. “It can scarcely be expected that the Board of Commissioners will support a Baptist missionary, who cannot of course comply with their instructions, and baptize whole households on the parents’ faith.” He reminded his Baptist brethren that this young man “ought not to be left to perish for want, merely because he loved the truth more than father or mother; nor be compelled to give up missionary work, for want of support therein.” He then surmised, “It seems as though Providence itself were raising up this young man, that you might at least partake of the zeal of our Congregational missionary brethren around you.” He continued, “After God has thus given you a Missionary of your own nation, faith, and order, without the help or knowledge of man, let me entreat you, and Dr. Messer, and brethren Bolles and Moriarty humbly to accept the gift.”

The Congregationalists were as bewildered by these events as the Baptists were joyfully startled. Without impeaching the sincerity of the Judsons and Luther Rice, the Congregational brethren acknowledged that “it cannot, however, but be regarded with regret, if they had not… examined that subject, before so late a day:–before they assumed engagements of so high and responsible a character.” Their actions, so they believed, placed everyone in an embarrassing and awkward position and had potential to damp the spirits of the recently energized missionary enterprise. It showed the necessity of thorough examination of the candidates before appointment and a sober self-examination on the part of candidates themselves. They recognized, however, that God was able to overrule these events “as to bring an accession of strength to the missionary cause.” Such an outcome would be joyous.

Aside from the feelings of the Baptists and the Congregationalists, this change of mind did not come easily for the Judsons. Judson considered the separation from his denomination and from his missionary brethren “most distressing consequences of my late change of sentiments, and indeed, the most distressing events which have ever befallen me.” When Ann wrote a friend in Massachusetts about the change, she began the letter, “Can you, my dear Nancy, still love me, still desire to hear from me, when I tell you I have become a Baptist?” She explained the lengthy and detailed process of examination and study and translation that led to the change and summarized, “Thus, my dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be.”

As the Congregationalists conceded, as the Baptists hoped, and as the Judsons had little reason to anticipate, their baptism in 1812 began a missionary enterprise that still maintains its zeal for taking the gospel to the nations. Their following of truth, though the cost was high for them both, unleashed a missionary energy pent up in the heart of Baptists in America that has not been expended.

May all of our anniversaries bring to mind such profitable events.


1 Thomas Helwys. The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys, ed. Joseph Early (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009) 67.

2 Ibid., 92.

3 Ibid., 220f

4 Ibid., 275.

5 Ibid., 273.

6 Ibid., 300.

7 Ibid., 160.

8 Ibid., 209.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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