This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the
prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war
a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having
put away concerning the faith have made shipwreck.
1 Timothy 1:18-19
It is an interesting time to be a pastor of a local church especially if you, through conviction and conscience, have come to adopt a definite set of biblical beliefs. Perhaps those convictions have led you into the fellowship of others of like convictions, and all of you together accept a title like “Baptist” because it has historically described those convictions. It is interesting because in a day when many are lamenting a lack of conviction, direction and willingness to take a stand, they are at the same time criticizing (even attacking) the identification and promotion of your convictions by the use of that title.
This forthrightness of your conviction is further complicated (but not abated) by these “many” equating your conviction of conscience with a sort of racism, bigotry or prejudice. Can differences in doctrine and belief really be the same as differences in the color of skin? You begin to feel this new attitude arising that (a) to disagree with anyone is to suggest you think you are right and they are wrong; (b) and to say such a thing is to suggest superiority in your thinking and inferiority in theirs; (c) and since no one can be that sure of what truth is; (d) your attitude of having, and especially promoting, convictions is simply bigotry. And if that is not enough, you are then asked, no implored, to repent of such sin right beside those who are actually guilty of the real kind of bigotry that those of your title have for centuries abhorred!
The most historical identification for this conviction of conscience among those who call themselves Christians is the name Baptist. Not that they alone held this view, but that they were the champions of this cause when no one else would pay the price for it. As one Baptist historian has written, “This was the firm Baptist ground . . . the Baptists located the responsibility of conscience . . . at the tribunal of inspired truth . . . The Reformers could not be made to see that point at all but drifted further and further away from it.”1
These independent thinkers were given the names Anabaptists and Baptists by others. They were intended to be derogatory but Baptists didn’t mind if they carried the correct connotation. The London Confession of 1644 was titled, “The confession of faith of those churches which are commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists.”2 Of course, they never considered themselves to be re-baptizing anyone. They simply, by conviction of conscience, baptized their adult converts, something that Zwingli, Luther and Calvin would not admit was unbiblical but would not by conscience do.
When the Reformers broke from Rome over justification by faith alone, the Baptists were glad, having always agreed on that point of doctrine. They had long held to two important doctrines that the Reformers were just beginning to proclaim: Scripture alone and Faith alone. In the Lanterne of List from the 1400s they had written, “Holy Scripture is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”3 In the Eighteen Dissertations from 1524 they wrote, “Faith alone makes us pious before God.”4 By this same time, Baptists also had long held to three other doctrines of conscience that the Reformers never did embrace: adult baptism, the Lord’s supper as a memorial, and the separation of church and state. These are all well attested in almost every written history of the Baptists and Anabaptists.5
Armitage, in relating long discussions between Anabaptists and Reformers, quotes Zwingli, Luther, Calvin and even Melancthon defending infant baptism on the basis that although the Bible doesn’t teach it directly, it nevertheless doesn’t teach against it. At one place Zwingli says, “There are many things besides infant baptism, not expressly mentioned in the Bible, not against God.” To which the great Balthazar Hubmaier replied, “Be still, Zwingli, or the Catholic Faber, will hear you. That is what he said to you but you demanded a plain passage from him.”6 For no greater crime than this, Zwingli drowned hundreds of Anabaptists in the Rhine. He insisted on freedom of conscience for himself and refused it to anyone with whom he disagreed.
The 1500s had hardly gotten underway before the Reformers were firmly entrenched in their state churches. First, Zwingli in Switzerland, then Luther in Germany and finally Calvin in Geneva. Feeling the need to hold control over the people and churches, all three began to persecute dissenters, particularly the Anabaptists. Even a non-Baptist book admits, “The combined forces of the Catholics and Lutherans were intent on destroying the Anabaptists’ threat to the established order. The defendants were butchered and their leaders cruelly tortured to death.”7 In fact, each of these three leaders were instrumental in putting specific Anabaptist dissenters to death. Zwingli had Felix Mantz drowned in Zurich because he baptized his converts.8 Luther praised the burning of Leonard Kayser9 and Melancthon said, “One Anabaptist is better than another, as much as one devil is better than another.”10 Calvin had Michael Servetus burned alive in Geneva in 1553.11 There were hundreds and thousands more. In fact, Armitage estimates 50,000 were hanged, beheaded and buried or burnt alive in the Netherlands alone under Charles V.12
All that the Anabaptists and Baptists wanted was liberty of conscience to believe what they were convinced the Scriptures taught and to practice the same openly. But “Catholic and Protestant alike made it the duty of the magistrate to establish religion and enforce it by fine, imprisonment and death; but the Baptists said, ‘no, this is a remnant of heathen usurpation, of which Christ’s law knows nothing.'”13 This is why Armitage calls these years “The Reformed Inquisition”14 and “The Evangelical Inquisition.”15
In the 1600s when religious groups began to formulate and write down doctrinal statements, the Baptists were the first to include, in The London Confession of 1644 for example,16 a statement of conscience under civil authority. Vedder says, “They were the pioneer body among modern Christian denominations to advocate the right of all men to worship God, each according to the dictates of his own conscience, without let or hindrance from any earthly power.”17 In America it was the Baptist settlement of Rhode Island with its capital uniquely called “Providence,” which from the beginning advocated separation of church and state according to conscience.18
In light of these things, it seems odd that Baptists are actually being coaxed by some leaders to repent of their heritage and conscience. Sure, there have been Baptists that have been less than gracious but that is in spite of their heritage, not because of it. For some to suggest that treasuring such a heritage is tantamount to bigotry or racism is not only a prevarication, but it is to fall prey to a greater and more harmful error itself. It is to ask believers to set aside their own conscience about Scripture for sake of a more influential person’s agenda. This is something Zwingli demanded of Baptists long ago. They could not be deceived then and I doubt that they will be now. Of Hubmaier it was said, “To the law and the testimony he referred every doubtful question, and by the decision thus reached, he loyally abided.”19 A good conscience cannot do less in our own day.
Notes: 1. Thomas Armitage, The History of the Baptists (Reprinted by Klock & Klock, 1976. Originally by Bryon, Taylor & Co. 1890) 401. 2. William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1980) 153. 3. Lumpkin, 12. 4. Lumpkin, 20. 5. See Henry Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969) chapters 10 & 11. 6. Armitage, 382. 7. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity (New York: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Pub. Co., 1977) 401. 8. Vedder, 138. 9. Armitage, 403. 10. Armitage, 404. 11. Erdmans, 381. 12. Armitage, 411. 13. Armitage, 399. 14. Armitage, 336. 15. Armitage, 395. 16. Lumpkin, 169. 17. Vedder, 213. 18. Vedder, Chapt 20. 19. Vedder, 156.