Of Baptists, General and Particular
A question occurred to me this week; Baptist historians are very accustomed to speaking of the ‘General Baptists’ and the ‘Particular Baptists’ to denote the Calvinistic and Arminian streams of the movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but when did those terms become current? Thanks to the wonders of EEBO (Early English Books Online; an utterly magnificent research tool), I can say with confidence that the answer is ‘surprisingly early’.
Thomas Crosby’s 1738 History of the English Baptists was my first try: vol. I, p. 173, says this:
It may be proper to observe here, that there have been two parties of the English Baptists in England ever since the beginning of the reformation; those that have followed the Calvinistical scheme of doctrinesand from the principal point therein, personal election, have been termed Particular Baptists: And those that have professed the Arminian or remonstrant tenets; and have also from the chief of those doctrines, universal redemption, been called General Baptists.
(Crosby goes on to suggest that these differences should not, in his view, be a bar to Christian fellowship.)
From this it seems obvious that the terms were already common in Crosby’s day. I took to Twitter; Emma Walsh, of the Angus Library in Oxford, suggested the OED, which lists the founding of the Particular Baptist Fund in 1717 as its first exemplar (it has no entry for ‘General Baptist’); again, this seemed to me to imply that the term was already common; it would seem strange to name a fund using a new coinage. I found a list of dissenting sects from 1706 (in a book intriguingly called The Post-Boy Robbed of his Mail… by Charles Gildon) which included both terms:
‘Tis now time to adjourn to a new Cause. The Anabaptists allow no Ordination; reject School-Learning; are chosen Ministers by the People. They hold, That Lay-men are qualify’d to Preach. That there are to be no Tithes but Benevolence. That Children are not capable of Baptism, since they can’t Believe, nor Confess and Repent; and therefore, that they nuft be left to God’s secret Will. That no Man ought to be Baptiz’d till he Believes, or be convinc’d that he stands in need of Christ for Salvation. They deny, That Magistrates have any Power to make Laws to Oblige Conscience; deny Episcopacy; and that the Psalms ought not to be sung unless Men had David‘s Spirit since, how can Drunkards, &c. sing, Lord, I am clean of heart? &c. So that by Singing of Psalms, most of the Congregation must sing Lies, their Vices contradifing the Psalm they sing. There are a sort of General Baptists, that hold, That Christ died for All in General, or, for an Universal Salvation; and Particular Baptists that are for the Salvation of the Elect alone, and, That Christ died effectually for none but those who embrace his Offer in the Gospel. They give the Sacrament at Night, as a Supper ; and use Two Cups, one to represent the Old, the other the New Testament. They altow no Liturgy, Churches, nor Bells. They Baptize in Rivers at all Seasons, Winter and Summer, Men and Women.
Again, this strongly suggests the terms were in common use at the time. There are a fair number of uses of ‘Particular Baptists’ in controversial works in the 1690s, but the earliest unquestioned use I can find of that term is in a Quaker controversialist, George Whitehead. In his delightfully-titled pamphlet ‘ The Babylonish Baptist, or H.G. Contradicting H.G….’ dated 1672, he comments:
I have writ a Full Answer unto their said Book, which as yet I forbear to divulge, being informed that some of the particular Baptists are about to bring forth more against us… (p. 7)
The following year, in ‘An Appendix…’ which is bound with William Penn’s Reason against Railing and Truth against Fiction, both being answers to pamphlets by the Baptist Thomas Hicks, Whitehead wrote:
…Christs Coming, Suffering, Death, and becoming a Ranson for ALL, for a Testimony in due time of God’s free Love and Grace. And with this the General Baptists agree, against the Contrary, Partial, and Pinching Opinion of the Particular Electioners. (p. 48)
We can push the use of ‘General Baptist’ back even further, however; Henry Adis describes himself as ‘a Baptized Believer, undergoing the Name of a Free-Willer’ on the title page of his A Fannaticks Addresse Humbly Presented… (1661; it is a plea for toleration presented to King and parliament), but in the body of the text he says:
…if they have at any time undergone Persecution for Conscience sake, and have not cryed out against it as abominable, as the Roman Catholicks and Episcopals have done, in that Grand Usurper Oliver Cromwells dayes, and the General Baptists, confident I am, should have done, had he longer continued… (p. 12)
This gives us ‘General Baptists’ in 1661, and ‘Particular Baptists’ in 1672; there is the possibility of pushing this a little further still, though. George Fox, in his journal writes:
Parting from him, we went to Honitone; and at our Inn inquired, What People there were in the Town, that feared God; and sent for them. There came to us some of the Particular Baptists, with whom we had a great deal of Reasoning. I told them, ‘They held their Doctrine of particular Election in Esau‘s Cain‘s and Ishmael‘s nature, and not in Jacob, the second Birth: But they mufl be born again, before they enter the Kingdom of God. And that as the Promise of God was to the Seed, not as many, but as one, which was Christ; so the Election and Choice stands in Christ: and they must be such, as walk in his Light, Grace, Spirit and Truth. And many more Words we had with them.’
This is dated 1655.
Now, Fox’s Journal was published in 1694, and was not a diary he kept, but a later recollection of events, so the term ‘Particular Baptists’ here may well be an anachronism; but if Adis can unselfconsciously refer to his people as ‘General Baptists’ in 1661, that term must have had some earlier use, and it seems plausible to suspect that the two terms were coined together as a way of distinguishing the two strands of the movement, so perhaps their use in the mid-1650s is not impossible?