In many ways the eighteenth-century British Particular Baptists characterized vibrant evangelical faith and practice. They were theologically engaged yet fully devoted to leading their churches to practice the faith. They were committed to social good yet uncompromising on the priority of evangelism and missions. They wrote profoundly rich theological works but did so as local church pastors, bringing the academy into the service of the church.
Many of them were also historians who believed that awareness of history was important for Christian maturity. In service to this vision, several authored historical works. John Rippon (1751 – 1836), for example, edited and published the Baptist Annual Register from 1790 to 1802, in part, to correct the error that Baptists “have not been, at all times, sufficiently acquainted with their own history—a history which demonstrates them to have been a body of the worthiest of men, and of the best of citizens.”
Retelling history was extremely important to eighteenth-century British Particular Baptists for the same reason it was to other dissenting groups in England: it allowed them to form what John Seed has called “a narrative identity” in which the group is able to maintain a sense of identity through changing historical circumstances by telling and retelling a story about their past.
However, for the Baptists in particular, legal and social discrimination presented unique challenges that hindered them from being able to tell their story well. Often persecuted and misunderstood as radical “anabaptists” by their opponents, eighteenth-century Particular Baptists lacked the organization and formal training usually associated with good historiography. In order to rectify this troubling void, pastors assumed the mantle of historian and, though untrained, maximized their shared resources to forge a narrative identity within their churches.
Caleb Evans (1737 – 1791) epitomized this role of pastor-historian. As pastor of Broadmead Church in Bristol, Evans also led the Bristol Baptist Academy and founded the Bristol Education Society. As a prominent pastor and educator, he was committed to cultivating historical awareness among his students and within his congregation.
That historical aim can be seen clearly in a sermon Evans preached on November 5, 1778. Students of English history understand the significance of that date. On November 5, 1606, Guy Fawkes (1570 – 1606), an English Catholic, was apprehended in the cellar beneath Parliament with over thirty barrels of gunpowder. After a day of torture and interrogation, Fawkes revealed his role in a plot, along with several co-conspirators, to assassinate the Protestant King James in hopes of replacing him with his Catholic daughter, Elizabeth. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were executed and publicly displayed to serve as a warning to future would-be traitors, and November 5 became Guy Fawkes Day, a British holiday ironically celebrated with fireworks and bonfires.
The day was especially revered by English Protestants who took advantage of the national holiday to preach and publish sermons of thanksgiving that often warned against the dangers of Catholic tyranny. Though legal efforts toward toleration for British Baptists would not begin until 1689, they joined their fellow Protestants in revering what the day symbolized, and several Particular Baptist pastors took advantage of Guy Fawkes Day each year to connect their respective congregations to a shared story about their past.
On November 5, 1778, Caleb Evans preached a sermon at Broadmead Church called “Remembrance of Former Days.” In the sermon, Evans listed several reasons why it was important for the church to remember history. Then he said this:
The study of history is one of the most improving as well as entertaining studies the human mind can be engaged in. It extends our views, elevates our minds, blots out our narrow prejudices, and from a just and comprehensive view of the past, enables us to improve and enjoy the present moment, and prepare for the future. The far greatest part of the bible itself is history, which may serve to convince us in the most striking manner, of the importance of this study, and the vast advantages to be derived from it. Every Christian ought to be a good historian, and if his knowledge of history be improved by him as it ought, the better historian he is, the better Christian will he be.
So, in the spirit of the eighteenth-century British Particular Baptists, I offer this blog. As a local church pastor and historian-in-training, I share their burden for the church to understand its rich history. May we all commit ourselves to the “Remembrance of Former Days.”