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?


  1. Rachel Muers
    Jul 25, 2014

    Fascinating stuff, Steve! I had an entirely unfounded hunch that the answer to “where are these terms used first” might be “in a Quaker pamphlet”… But here’s a question: can we draw any inferences from the fact that the General/ Particular distinction doesn’t appear in the Quaker (or other) controversial literature before 1672? It’s possible that Whitehead was the first to spot an opportunity to play off the groups against each other; but, in the huge volume of controversial literature, that seems unlikely. Is it that during the 1650s/1660s the terms gradually moved from “increasingly widespread self-designation by Baptists” to “widely-known and -understood categories”? But then, a follow-up question from complete ignorance – were both terms originally self-designations; or did one group create both terms (one for itself, one for the “other lot”); or something else?

    • steve
      Jul 25, 2014

      Thanks, Rachel. It seems that the origins of the terms are lost in historical mist; if I had to guess, I would suggest that at some point someone on one side or the other wanted to distinguish themselves from the other side and so invented both terms, but I have absolutely no evidence for that.
      Your idea that these are self-designations in the 1660s that come into more public view in the 1670s seems very plausible, yes; I assume that Fox’s suggestion of his opposition to particular election in the 1650s is not anachronistic, and that the Quakers knew of these debates and which side they were on already that early?

      • Rachel Muers
        Jul 25, 2014

        Yes, that was what made me wonder why the terms weren’t used earlier in the controversial literature – this was a debate where (as far as I can tell) Quakers would very much have known where they stood in the 1650s and even more in the 1660s, viz. with the General Baptists against the Particular. I’d have to go back to the controversial literature in much more depth than I have, to know how many of the anti-“Baptist” writings are recognisably aimed at [what were either already called, or would come to be called] Particular Baptists.

        • steve
          Jul 25, 2014

          Yes, that’s a good point. My instinct is that the big debate was with the General Baptists, where there does seem to have been some degree of porosity. That may just be because I’ve spent far more time on the GB literature from that period, however.

          The – tumultuous – broader political context must affect all this somehow, but I’ve no idea how…

  2. Alan Molineauc
    Aug 28, 2014

    There are two churches in Swavesey in Cambs. On opposite sides of the toad in this tiny village.

    One is the baptist church and the other is the Strict and Particular Baptist Church.

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