Our Baptist Missionary Heritage

by Rick Shrader

Retracing the steps of our Baptist and Independent forefathers is always an enriching experience.  Whether one learns of those brave souls who endured terrible torture and death, or those who languished in prison, or those who fought theological and apologetic battles for the faith, it is always good to be put in remembrance of our heritage.  Having recently returned from another Baptist History module in England and Scotland, I am again encouraged and enlightened in my own Christian walk.  Sometimes the reality of what others did for Christ long ago does not seem close to home until we put our feet on the same soil or walk through the same streets and buildings or even jail cells.  This is true in Bible lands and also in Christian history lands.

The approximately five hundred years between the Protestant Reformation and today is an amazing part of history for all Christian denominations, but especially those independent Bible believing churches like the Baptists who were truly the “step-children” of the Reformation.

Protestant Struggle

In England in the mid 1500s, Protestants were being put to death by “Bloody” Mary Tudor at Smithfield, the Tower of London, and various other notorious places.  John Rogers, compiler of the Matthew’s Bible, was the first to burn in Mary’s fires.  After being held in Newgate Prison he was led to Smithfield Market for execution (the infamous market where William Wallace was tortured centuries before).  Both prison and market are within sight of his own parish church.  Rogers’ wife and eleven children managed only a few words of encouragement before the man of God was placed in the flames.  Rather than recanting, Rogers washed his hands in the flames, “as if it had been cold water” and lifted his hands toward heaven until death came.  John Bradford, who would soon find the same fate, wrote to Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley who were being held at Oxford until their own executions, and said, “Our dear brother Rogers has broken the ice valiantly.”  So began Mary’s 45-month reign of terror which saw over 300 Protestants burn for refusing her Catholic mass.

Independent Baptist Struggle

A hundred years passes quickly but can turn the world upside down.  By 1660 Cromwell’s Commonwealth had ended, British Monarchy was restored, and the Church of England was again the official state Church.  By 1662 the Act of Conformity was in effect requiring all clergy of any religion to give full consent to everything in the Church of England Prayer Book.  Now the same belief system that was persecuted by the Roman Catholic system was itself persecuting others who would not worship as it demanded.  It was during the latter half of this century that John Bunyan, converted tinker and veteran of Cromwell’s army, began preaching publicly and without the Prayer Book.  In addition to that offense, the recently passed Conventicle Act forbid any attendance at a public religious meeting other than the state church.  Bunyan could abide neither, was arrested, and imprisoned for twelve years.  At the end of that time, when he was eligible for release upon promise not to violate these codes, Bunyan assured his captors that if he were released, he would be preaching again within the day.  He was placed in the river bridge gaol for another three years.  It was during these years that Bunyan left the Christian world the most published book in the world except for the Bible Itself, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Evangelistic Baptist Struggle

We may carry our upside down story a little further.  Fast forward another hundred years and we find evangelical Christianity at peace in England and Scotland with state and dissenting churches free to worship as their consciences dictated.  Baptist churches had flourished as they always have in times of religious tolerance.  Particular Baptists (Calvinistic) as well as General Baptists (less Calvinistic and/or Arminian) had flourished and settled into their patterns of belief and worship.  Among the Particular Baptists, John Gill, pastor of New Park Street in London (later to become Metropolitan Tabernacle), was known for his hyper-Calvinism.  Gill had been born in Kettering in the Midlands.  Many others were ardent proponents of this theology as well, including John Rylands, Sr. of College Lane Baptist Church of Northampton in the Midlands.

The Midlands, as the middle section of England is called, would become the cradle of the most important missionary venture of modern times.  With a certain coldness settling in over the churches, God began building a fire under a group of young independent Baptists, including John Rylands, Jr., son of (also co-pastor with) the influential pastor in Northhampton.  The Baptist churches held monthly associational meetings but seldom was there a challenge for missions.  In 1779, Robert Hall, Sr., pastor at Arnsby preached a sermon to the monthly meeting from Isa. 57:14 on the obligation to world-wide missions.  This stirred four young men who began monthly prayer meetings regarding their obligation to missionary work.  They were John Rylands, Jr., John Sutcliff of Olney, Andrew Fuller of Kettering, and an even younger man from Moulton named William Carey.  They also began reading literature on revival from an American theologian named Jonathan Edwards.

In 1785 young Andrew Fuller, pastor of Gold Street Baptist Church in Kettering, published a tract titled, “The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation” in which he urged that it was the duty of all gospel preachers to give the unconverted an opportunity to be saved.  Meanwhile, in Moulton, William Carey was already drawing a map of the world for his young pupils and was growing burdened for the vast people groups of the world.  In 1791 Carey also published a tract titled, “An Inquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathen.”  Carey argued that the Great Commission was not fulfilled by the Apostles and that if we still had the obligation to baptize and teach (which even the most Calvinistic obviously practiced) then we also had the obligation to go into all the world and preach the gospel.

Missionary Baptist Struggle

In the following decade events would transpire more quickly toward the establishment of modern missions.  On April 27, 1791 in the associational meeting at Clipston, Andrew Fuller of Kettering, and John Sutcliff of Olney preached on the necessity of missionary work by the churches.  A similar meeting was held in Northampton where John Rylands, Sr. presided over the session.  Carey rose to ask the association to consider whether the Great Commission to take the gospel into all the world was not obligatory on all ministers in all ages.  It was such a provocative question that the others could hardly believe he would dare to ask it.  Incensed, Rylands, Sr., rose, fixed his eyes on Carey, and said, “Sit down, young man, you are an enthusiast.  When God pleases to convert the heathen, He’ll do it without your help or mine.”

However, the fire was lit and would not be extinguished.  On May 29, 1792 Carey was to preach in Nottingham, at Friar Lane Baptist Chapel.  This was the opportunity for which he had been waiting.  Carey preached from Isa. 54:2-3, “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitation.”  From this sermon came his nearly immortal words, “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.”  But Carey was to be somewhat disappointed.  He had urged his friends the night before, as they talked late into the night at the Angel Inn, to do something of a definite nature about world-wide missions.  But the meeting ended with no action taken.

On October 2, 1792 the pastors’ meeting would be in Kettering at the church of Andrew Fuller.  As was their custom, they met the previous night at an Inn for fellowship.  This time they stayed in the house-turned-Inn of a member of the church, the Widow Wallis.  About a dozen men sat up late into the night while Carey read how the Moravian missionaries had been used of God in great ways.  By the end of the evening a resolution was passed:

Humbly desirous of making an effort for the propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen, according to the recommendations of Carey’s Enquiry, we unanimously resolve to act in Society together for this purpose; and, as in the divided state of Christendom, each denomination, by exerting itself separately, seems likeliest to accomplish the great end, we name this the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen.”

An offering was taken that night which amounted to a little over thirteen pounds.  Names and amounts were recorded which are still available to the public.  Surprisingly, Carey’s name is not on the list!  He was so poor he could not give but promised rather that, if they would all hold the ropes, he would descend into India to mine for souls!  From that day Carey became the first and life-long missionary and Andrew Fuller the first and life-long secretary.  The Baptist Missionary Society (BMS as it was referred to) became the model for Faith Missions and Carey, the Father of Modern Missions.  Carey went to India and never returned and is buried there still.  Fuller went on to be a great theologian and ambassador for the BMS and for all foreign missions.

Local Baptist Church Struggle

Our story doesn’t end in the Midlands.  Although the BMS strongly influenced churches in London, it also had a providential effect in Scotland.  The Baptist movement there had various beginnings but none more influential than the Haldane brothers, Robert and James.  At a time when most Scottish Independents were overly influenced by Presbyterian principles (non-immersion, elder rule), the Haldanes became convinced of adult baptism and congregational rule.  One of their converts, Christopher Anderson heard Andrew Fuller preach on missions while in Scotland and surrendered to the mission field.  After attending Bible College in Bristol, health issues forbade him to go to the field.  Anderson returned to Edinburgh and began a church in Richmond Court which maintained a strong missionary zeal due to the influence of Fuller and the BMS.  The church collected money for the BMS and itself sent two missionaries to work with Carey in India.  That same church later purchased a building off Charlotte Square which is today still called Charlotte Baptist Chapel.  It has had illustrious pastors such as Graham Scroggie and J. Sidlow Baxter.

A century later, Charles Haddon Spurgeon would call Andrew Fuller the greatest theologian of the nineteenth century.  Spurgeon himself carried on the Baptist conviction of soul-winning and world-wide missions from a Particular Baptist perspective.  Metropolitan Tabernacle still sells Carey’s and Fuller’s books for its congregation and visitors.

And So . . . .

Baptists, mere step-children of Reformers and disconnected entirely from Rome, never persecuted anyone.  They have wrangled among themselves but only pursued others with ideas and truth.  Their faithfulness to evangelism and missions was born out of difficulty and perpetuated by obedience to God’s command.  We are still practicing Faith Missions in our independent churches largely after the model that was born in the Widow Wallis’ house that night in 1792, which, according to those faithful men, was born in the pages of God’s Word.

The twenty-first century must be influenced also by Baptist missionary work.  It must also be grounded in the understanding of the depravity and lostness of the multitudes of the world’s people groups.  It must preach the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and Him alone for forgiveness of sin and access to God the Father.  It must baptize those who will believe by faith and establish churches to teach them all things that the Lord Jesus taught us, especially that we too must go into all the world and give men the opportunity to respond to the gospel.  It is not necessarily ours to win the whole world, but it is ours to evangelize the world with the Good News that Jesus saves.