The following post contains excerpts from a recent paper I wrote for a doctoral seminar at Southern Seminary. I have included the introduction, one section of the body, and the conclusion. The sections from the body of the paper that I did not include (the bulk of the paper) are similar to the section I did include–historical examinations of Baptist churches that Hugh Wamble categorizes as “scattered.”
The question “Is multi-site biblical?” is a much more important question than whether multi-site is Baptist. Nevertheless, since some theologians favorable to the multi-site movement have recently argued that precedent for multi-site church structure exists in early Baptist history, a response to the question of whether multi-site is Baptist seems warranted. To support their claims, these theologians appeal to G. Hugh Wamble’s dissertation entitled, “The Concept and Practice of Christian Fellowship: The Connectional and Inter-Denominational Aspects Thereof, among Seventeenth Century English Baptists.” Wamble shows that some early English Baptist churches considered themselves one church though they consisted of multiple meetings and meeting places. One theologian who has used Wamble’s work to argue that multi-site church structure is consistent with historic Baptist ecclesiology is Chad Owen Brand. In his book on the Cooperative Program, Brand states,
[I]n some cities individual congregations are developing several satellite churches. This does not necessarily entail a violation of Baptist principles. Many seventeenth-century Baptist churches existed in two or more locations at the same time for various reasons, but they retained a commitment to Baptist integrity.
Brand cites Wamble here to support his claim. Another theologian that has recently appealed to Wamble to claim that multi-site has a home among Baptists is Gregg R. Allison. In an article entitled “Theological Defense of Multi-Site,” Allison argues that “concrete precedents for multi-site churches can be found in seventeenth-century British Baptist history,” and that
[c]onsideration of these historical precedents may help to dispel the notion that the contemporary multi-site church phenomenon is merely the latest (twentieth- and twenty-first century) fad fueled by business models of franchising and branding, a lust for notoriety, or other insidious reasons.
Allison bases his claim on Wamble’s work.
It is in response to Wamble and to these recent theologians who have used his work to claim that multi-site is not antithetical to historic Baptist ecclesiology that this paper is addressed. This paper will argue that though scattered congregations did exist among some seventeenth century English Baptist churches, this practice was short-lived and did not become part of the Baptist identity that was just beginning to take shape in this early period. This will be argued in two steps. First, in order to understand the nature of the scattered church among early English Baptists, a description of the structures of the nine churches that Wamble cites as scattered congregations will be given. Second, it will be demonstrated that this form of church structure fell out of practice very early in Baptist life, and was replaced by a commitment to the autonomy of the local assembly. Thus, while some examples of early Baptist churches may be found whose structure is similar to modern day multi-site church structure (though, as will be shown, the number is less than Wamble claims), this practice never became part of Baptist identity, and, thus, should not be considered “Baptist.”
[Much of the body of the paper has been ommitted here. With many of the churches that are discussed, I have found that the sources Wamble cites to prove that they were one church consisting of multiple assemblies do not sufficiently support his claim.]
Yorkshire and Lancashire
From the three sources cited by Wamble on the church at Yorkshire and Lancashire it does seem that this church, better known as the church of Christ in Rossendale, considered itself one church in multiple locations. As Frederick Overend notes, the church in Rossendale was “a Church with its centre in Rossendale, and covering with its network of branches the whole district of Rossendale and an area extending to Bradford, Rawdon, and Keighley, in Yorkshire.” After the church’s original meeting house was built, Overend states, “In course of time other meeting houses were built or set apart for the use of the many-branched ‘Church of Christ in Rossendale.'”
W. E. Blomfield recognizes the scattered structure of the Rossendale church and the views on church leadership held by one of its founders and states, “This is Presbyterianism.” What is the explanation for this Presbyterian church structure in this supposedly Baptist church? The answer, Blomfield suggests, is that at this point (late seventeenth century) the church of Christ in Rossendale was not yet Baptist; in fact, it “was not Baptist for some years to come.” Thus, at first, this church was “nearer to Presbyterianism than aught else, for the religious atmosphere was Presbyterian.” Nevertheless, in the late 1690s the church was “moving in the direction of the Baptists.”
Overend draws similar conclusions, noting that, even as late as 1705 the church at Rossendale “had not yet become distinctly Baptist,” though its founders “had long been Baptists. The Rossendale Church,” states Overend, “was in process of transformation into a Baptist Church,” but did not reach this state until 1710. Within five years of becoming distinctly Baptist, branches of the Rossendale church started breaking off to form their own separate churches. Within a decade, all of them had separated. Now, instead of being multiple branches of one church, there existed multiple Baptist churches that came together to form an association, the first meeting of which was held at Rawdon (originally a branch of Rossendale, now its own church) in 1719.
The church of Christ in Rossendale provides a good example of how dissenting churches in general might have transitioned into Baptist churches in particular. This church was influenced by Baptist ministers, was taught Baptist views, and then, eventually, adopted a Baptist identity. Being one church in multiple locations certainly did not become a part of this developing Baptist identity in the church at Rossendale, for by the time they had become distinctly Baptist it was only a matter of a few years before each branch became its own separate church. It will now be argued that what was true of the Rossendale church became true of Baptist churches in general.
The End of the Scattered Church and the Question of Baptist Identity
Wamble himself suggests that what happened in the case of the church at Rossendale became the norm for scattered country churches. Toward the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, large scattered churches became multiple, localized churches. Thus, the simple fact that scattered churches consisting of multiple meetings occupied such a brief moment in Baptist history would explain why this form of church structure never became an identifying mark of Baptist ecclesiology.
Besides the circumstances of history, such as distance and persecution, there were theological reasons for the breakdown of scattered churches. Wamble cites Hanserd Knollys’ argument from the New Testament as follows:
Although the Church in any City, at its beginning and first Planting of it, was but one Congregation, and assembled themselves together in one place . . ., yet when the number of the Disciples was multiplied . . . and the Multitudes . . . were added . . . then the Church was necessitated, for the edification of the Multitude, and great number of Members thereof, to assembled themselves together in particular Congregations, and become distinct Companies . . . and each Company or Congregation had their Elders and Deacons.
Similar theological arguments for the church as an autonomous, local gathering abound in early Baptist literature. For instance, Benjamin Keach writes,
A Church of Christ, according to the Gospel-Institution, is a Congregation of Godly Christians, who as a Stated-Assembly (being first baptized upon the Profession of Faith) do by mutual agreement and consent give themselves up to the Lord, and one to another, according to the Will of God; and do ordinarily meet together in one Place, for the Public Service and Worship of God; among whom the Word of God and Sacraments are duly administered, according to Christ’s Institution.
Similarly, W. B. Johnson states, “[T]he term church indicates one church, one body of the Lord’s people, meeting together in one place, and not several congregations, forming one church.” J. L. Reynolds also held that a church is a gathering that meets in one place. He states, “[T]he only organized church is a particular church, a society of believers, who statedly meet in one place.” Likewise, P. H. Mell argues, “The word “church” is used again in the New Testament to designate a local society . . . who are able to meet together in one place.” John L. Dagg makes a similar statement when he writes, “Whenever the word ekklesia is used, we are sure of an assembly; and the term is not applicable to the bodies or societies of men that do not literally assemble.” Dagg expresses his disdain for the practice of subordinating smaller assemblies of Christians to the rule of one larger church government when he calls this practice “progress towards popery.” Thus, while there were historical circumstances (distance and persecution) that led to the breakdown of early, scattered Baptist churches, there were many theological convictions that drove Baptists in this direction as well.
Whether the reasons were historical or theological, the fact is that scattered churches that consisted of multiple gatherings did not last long in early Baptist life. As the several parts of these congregations separated to become their own distinct churches, whatever scattered churches did exist were replaced by a network of autonomous churches that cooperated for the cause of the Gospel without being connected by a hierarchical form of church government.
This paper has sought to show that while some early English Baptist churches met in multiple locations and still considered themselves one church, this structure was short-lived in Baptist history and never became an identifying mark in Baptist ecclesiology. After evaluating the sources that Wamble cites for support, it has been shown that, in many cases, they provide insufficient evidence for his claim. What was much more common among Baptists both before and after the dissolution of scattered churches was the full ecclesial status of each local assembly and a commitment to local church autonomy. Thus, while there seems to have been a brief period of time in which some Baptist churches incorporated a one church in multiple locations model of church structure, this can by no means be considered a Baptist distinctive. Because of this, the modern multi-site church structure cannot be considered Baptist.
G. Hugh Wamble, “The Concept and Practice of Christian Fellowship: The Connectional and Inter-Denominational Aspects Thereof, among Seventeenth Century English Baptists” (Th.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, 1955).
Chad Owen Brand and David E. Hankins, One Sacred Effort: The Cooperative Program of Southern Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 72.
Gregg R. Allison, “Theological Defense of Multi-Site,” 9Marks eJournal 6/3 (May-June, 2009): 14 [on-line]; accessed 14 November 2009; available in PDF from http://involve.9marks.org/site/DocServer/eJournal200963MayJune.pdf?docID=641; Internet.
Frederick Overend, History of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Bacup: Together with an Historical Account of the “Church of Christ in Rossendale,” Based on the Mitchel and Crosley Letters, hitherto Unpublished (London: Kingsgate, 1912).
W. E. Blomfield, “The Baptist Churches of Yorkshire in the 17th and 18th Centuries,” in The Baptists of Yorkshire: Being the Centenary Memorial Volume of the Yorkshire Baptist Association (London: Kingsgate, 1912), 80.
Ibid., 82. See also another source cited by Wamble that points out that the term “Baptist” did not even appear in the 1712 deed of the Rawdon church when it separated from Rossendale to form its own congregation: David Glass, “Baptist Beginnings in the West Riding,” The Baptist Quarterly 3 (1926-27): 182.
Overend, History of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Bacup, 8-9.
Ibid., 120, 122, 127-28.
Wamble, “Christian Fellowship,” 259ff.
Hanserd Knollys, An Exposition of the Whole Book of the Revelation (London, 1689), 172. Cited in Wamble, “Christian Fellowship,” 259-60.
Benjamin Keach, The Glory of a True Church and Its Discipline Display’d Wherein a True Gospel-Church Is Described. Together with the Power of the Keys, and Who Are to Be Let in, and Who to Be Shut Out. (London: John Robinson, 1697; reprint in Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, ed. Mark Dever [Washington DC: Center of Church Reform, 2001]), 64-65. Emphasis added.
W. B. Johnson, The Gospel Developed through the Government and Order of the Churches of Jesus Christ (Richmond, VA: H. K. Ellyson, 1846; reprint in Dever, Polity), 171.
J. L. Reynolds, Church Polity or the Kingdom of Christ in Its Internal and External Development (Richmond, VA: Harrold & Murray, 1849; reprint in Dever, Polity), 396.
P. H. Mell, Corrective Church Discipline: With a Dvelopment of the Scriptural Principles upon Which It Is Based (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1860; reprint in Dever, Polity), 442.
J. L. Dagg, Manual of Theology, Second Part: A Treatise on Church Order (Charleston, South Carolina: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858; reprint, Harrisonburg, Virginia: Gano Books, 1990), 77.