Our story begins in exile: ‘Baptist social theology’ and the EU referendum

One of the books I have recently been reading with interest and profit is Anglican Social Theology (ed. Malcolm Brown) (London: Church House Publishing, 2014). Apart from the intrinsic interest in tracing significant contributions to political theology that happened to come from within the Church of England, I was struck by the contributors’ awareness that the project, or projects, they were tracing were distinctively ‘Anglican’. As Brown puts it in an early prospectus:

We have chosen to speak of an Anglican social theology with a deliberate intention of echoing the concept of Catholic social teaching because we recognise that the latter is much better known as a theological school or tradition that informs practice. Our contention … is that a distinctively Anglican tradition of social engagement can be discerned through most of the twentieth century… (p. 2)

I find this interesting because I have long had a minor interest in the extent to which different Christian traditions in fact propose different practices in various areas—and of course a sustained interest in the distinctively Baptist contributions that may be available. What, I have begun to wonder, would a ‘Baptist social theology’ look like? We are, after all, the largest protestant tradition in the world, and have had our fair share of social reformers whose programmes were in some way shaped by their faith—a list headed, but far from exhausted, by Martin Luther King.

At the same time I have been following what Christian contributions to the debate over the EU referendum I have been able to find. Most are Anglican, whether for Remain (Michael Sadgrove, ex Dean of Durham, founded Christians for Europe), Brexit (Christians for Britain is run by Giles Fraser and Adrian Hilton), or thoughtfully neutral (Andrew Goddard‘s personal contribution, or the excellent and thoughtful Reimagining Europe blog, which is billed as a joint project between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but a glance down the contributors list suggests the balance is heavily tilted south of the border).

Is there, I have wondered, a specifically Baptist approach to the EU referendum, and to the wider questions it crystallises?

Political matters are generally questions of practical wisdom, and so do not admit of definitive theological answers. We might argue theologically that the most vulnerable in our society must be protected, but theology cannot then guide us to the best way to offer such protection. A robust doctrine of original sin will warn us that greed and fraud will be endemic under any tax regime, but it will not then help us to construct a regime that protects effectively and efficiently against these problems.

I am not, then, looking for an argument that will insist that all Baptists should vote one way; there are issues where this might be the case (a narrow proposal to limit religious liberty, for example), but it seems clear enough that the EU will not be one of them. Rather, I want to suggest that Baptists, if they are faithfully Baptist, will argue and evaluate differently. Things will matter to us that others will be careless of; things that are decisive for others will be unimportant to us. Although not decisive, such considerations might well make us more likely to lean one way, so that Baptists might split 70-30 when society is 50-50. In other cases we will split the same as others, but for very different reasons.

An obvious example of this is the sermon many of us preach in the run up to each general election. The messaging from every party is often enough ‘you will be richer if you vote for us’; we preach that Christians should not vote selfishly, to enrich themselves, but for other reasons (which vary: for some it will be, pick the pro-life candidate, regardless of party; for others issues of justice and ‘good news to the poor’ will loom largest; for others again it might simply be the personal morality or faith of a candidate).

I want to suggest that one of the main themes of the EU referendum is a matter Baptists should have a distinctive view on. The matter is national sovereignty; and at the heart of our Baptist distinctiveness is, I suggest, the historical fact encapsulated in my title: ‘our story begins in exile’.

The British Baptist movement began in 1609 when, as John Robinson reports, ‘Mr Smith [sic] baptized first himself and next Mr Helwys and so the rest.’ Smyth and Helwys were the officers of an illegal separatist congregation that had been meeting in Gainsborough, north of Lincoln, but like many others they fled Anglican persecution and by 1609 were resident, with much of their old congregation, in Amsterdam. Our story begins in exile.

This is historical accident, of course, and on one level should not be pushed too hard. It seems almost certain that the beginnings of the Particular Baptists were entirely disconnected from Smyth and Helwys, and revolve around the complex history of the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church, that for all its disputes and splits, never left London. But Smyth and Helwys’s presence in Amsterdam points to a conviction that is near the heart of Baptist identity, whether acted on or not: religious faithfulness is more important than national identity.

Now, this principle does not apply directly to the EU referendum, of course: neither remaining in nor leaving the EU will compromise our religious identity. Both sides of the English Channel, thankfully, the days of persecution of religious minorities are over. That said, there are two themes derived from this Baptist position that are interesting.

First, implied in this claim is a significant relativising of national identity; in the age of the Westphalian nation-state, Baptists were discovering practices and political commitments that were seriously counter-cultural. This plays into some lines in the present referendum debate. One of the most lasting ‘eurosceptic’ arguments has been about national sovereignty; national sovereignty is held to be a good thing, perhaps a supremely good thing, and the loss of national sovereignty involved in membership of the EU is thus a powerful reason to leave. (This has been the thrust of most of Michael Gove’s eloquent interventions, for instance.)

Anabaptists/Baptists in Europe and in the UK have enough memory—some of it worryingly recent—of the misuse of national sovereignty to not see it as an unalloyed good. We have been persecuted often enough by powerful national governments—and we have from the start insisted that freedom of conscience is an absolute, God-given, limit to national sovereignty. As Helwys wrote in 1611 ‘For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their [Roman Catholics’] consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king … Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it does not appertain to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.’

Our view of government has tended to limitation: the magistrate is to keep the peace, and then keep out of our lives. Isaac Backus at the time of the American revolution asserted: ‘…truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men; to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcomed.’

An argument based on the retention or maximisation of national sovereignty, then, will not be as convincing for Baptists as for others.

Our foundational experience of exile and persecution will play out in another way in our social theology, I suggest, although I am not sure I have too much historical precedent for this. We instinctively do not really trust governments (Backus above); and so we will want power dispersed, not concentrated. Any given magistrate is likely to become corrupt in one direction or another; if s/he holds power unilaterally, his/her corruption will be devastating for at least some. If power is spread around, there is more hope of corruption being contained.

The principle of ‘subsidiarity’, that decisions should be taken as locally as is possible, and so power dispersed into several distinct centres, is an EU ideal that will appeal to Baptists—we will of course debate the extent to which it is real in the EU structures, as others do. At present, I live under the rule of Fife County Council, the Holyrood parliament, the Westminster parliament, and the various EU decision making bodies. In principle, this dispersion of power is something I welcome as a Baptist. Of course, at every one of those four levels I might dispute whether processes for decision making are good or bad—Holyrood concentrates power in the executive rather than the parliament far more than Westminster, for example, and this difference bears reflection. Regardless, our instincts will be that sovereignty should be dispersed, not centralised, whatever we make of particular modes of exercise of power.

For these two reasons, then, I suspect that Baptist social theology will find Brexit arguments about the maintenance of national sovereignty not just irrelevant but actually counter-productive, and in this we will be distinctive (along, probably, with some of the other Free Churches who share our history of persecution and beliefs about the limits of state authority, particularly the Quakers). This does not mean that all Baptists should vote to stay in the EU; there are countless other issues to be considered. Baptist Brexiters, however, will (if they are authentically Baptist) not reach that position through concerns over national sovereignty, or so I have argued.


  1. Andy Jarvis
    Jun 9, 2016

    You say above “neither remaining in nor leaving the EU will compromise our religious identity. Both sides of the English Channel, thankfully, the days of persecution of religious minorities are over.” I wonder whether you truly believe these statements to be true. The EU agenda appears to be uniting around mutual tolerance and the removal of absolute truth and there is no guarantee that an ‘independent’ UK would reverse the trend towards elevating the rights with regard to sexuality above those regarding religious faith. The persecution of the Christian minority in the UK and Europe it seems to me is increasing and likely only to continue to do so.

    • Martin Hatfield
      Jun 9, 2016

      Sorry Andy; I think to suggest Christians are persecuted in the UK is just nonsense. Do you fear for your life when you meet with other Christians? Do you hide your Bible for fear of arrest? Do you meet in a church building that is secluded, with believers for whom mission is a covert activity?

      • Stephen Hodgson
        Jun 17, 2016

        Whilst persecution of Chrisitians in the UK is not on the same level as in Asia, Ukraine and Russia, there have several inicdents in the past few years, when Chrisitians bearing witness faithfully to Christ in the workplace, has led to bullying, harrassment, and being wronlgy fired from jobs. I cite the case of a British Airways Stewardess who rpevented from wearing a cross at work on so called, ` Health and Safety ` reasons. However, there are no significant Health and Safety reasons relating to this, and this is persecution by the back door.

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