How Did the Early Baptists Worship?

It’s no secret that my understanding of scriptural ecclesiology, or the study of the doctrine of the church, took a profound turn in 2014. As I’ve made known, that year I undertook a course from Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary on the Doctrine of the Church. Under the instruction of Dr. Sam Waldron* students were introduced not only to the what’s, when’s, how’s, and who’s of the church, but more importantly to every single use of church (Greek – ecclesia) in the New Testament, as well as it’s normal Hebrew counterpart, qahal. You can find my research on those in the doctrinal index above.

Having been exposed to every use of ecclesia along with its background in qahal, I saw for the first time church in context. Needless to say, this began a long journey, now extending into 2020, on what the Scriptures have to say about the gatherings of God’s people. My journey has often been met internally with personal tears and frustrations, as well as being met externally with questions, side-glances, derogation even to the point of being called inconsistent or that I hold to a fringe/minority view of church from history. As a result, more than once I’ve considered just throwing it all away and falling in line like a good pew-sitting, church attender should. Ah, but then I wouldn’t be faithful to Scripture and conscience; and then the principal of Sola Scriptura, the hill upon which I have died many times, would be overturned. As the Lord would graciously have it, I press on, now into perhaps a time where a clear, Scriptural understanding of the gatherings of God’s people has never been more important since the early, founding years of this country.

In this post, we will look briefly at a historical review of worship from the perspective of Baptist history which has been a great encouragement to me in my journey to understand and apply what God has to say about the gathering of His people. Said simply, how have baptists historically gathered together? What has it looked like? I have often been told that what we see on Sunday mornings in churches, at least in the United States, has been the majority report for church gatherings for almost 2,000 years, but is this true?

Historian H. Leon McBeth claims that the oldest record of Baptist worship comes from a 1609 letter from Hughe and Anne Bromhead. He records the contents of this letter as follows (original Old English has been retained):
The order of the worshippe and government of oure church is .1. we begynne wth A prayer, after reade some one or tow chapters of the bible gyve the sence thereof, and conferr vupon the same, that done we lay aside our bookes, and after a solemne prayer made by the .1. speaker, he propoundeth some text owt of the Scripture, and prophecieth owt of the same, by the space of one hower, or thre Quarters of an hower, After him standeth vp A .2. speaker and prophecieth owt of the same text the like tyme and space. some tyme more some tyme less. After him the .3. the .4. the .5. & as the tyme will geve leave, Then the .1. speaker concludeth wth prayer as he began with prayer, wth an exhortation to contribute to the poore, wch collection being made is also concluded with prayer. This Morning exercise begynes at eight of the clocke and continueth vnto twelve of the clocke the like course of exercise is observed in the afternowne from .2. of the clock vnto .5. or .6. of the Clocke, last of all the execution of the government of the church is handled.

McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, pg. 91, citing Champlin Burrage, The Early Dissenters in Light of Recent Research.
Despite the somewhat different spellings and use of Old English, it’s clear these early baptists did not primarily rely on one speaker, or one professional expert to “preach a sermon”. Instead, what we may observe is that there were multiple speakers, as many as they had time for, each interacting with the passage and each interacting with the group.

Summarizing this letter, McBeth comments the following:
Though modified somewhat over the next century, this basic pattern of worship continued in Baptist churches. The services were lengthy, centered in biblical exposition and preaching, and allowed worshipers as well as speakers to confer upon biblical texts and offer their insights before the group. The offering for the poor and the business of the church, perhaps including matters of discipline, were appended to the end of the service. Baptist worship was usually conducted on Sunday, although there were a few Seventh-Day Baptists in England McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, pg. 92 (bold and underlines are my own)
At this point, here is the question I want to pose: Does the above from the early Baptists in 1609, and largely baptists for the next century, resemble more closely our modern church services or does it resemble more closely the following passage from 1 Corinthians:
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a
Continuing on with McBeth’s overview of the earliest baptist worship gatherings, there are three more points I would like to highlight that need to be considered in light of Scripture and then with reference to our own modern contexts. First, the ownership and purchase of buildings specific for worship gatherings or otherwise devoted purely to religious activities. McBeth writes,
In the early days, few Baptist churches had their own buildings, though this became more common after 1700. They met in private homes, sometimes in public halls, and quite often out of doors in good weather. The Baptist Heritage, pg. 92
It is a fascinating conclusion when you examine history, dating back to the first century, that church owned property was not the norm for believers, let alone owning property in the name of a church (business). I suppose if a group of believers wanted to each own a share of a building, that might be a more reasonable practice, however in Acts 4, we get the opposite sense that excess was sold off so that money could be given to the needy, not to the church building program
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:32-37
Second, and related to the order of worship which we discussed earlier, McBeth comments on the necessity of spontaneity in Baptist gatherings, a thought that would be unheard of today. He writes
Baptists required complete spontaneity in worship, so that individuals could respond to God as the Spirit might lead them at any moment. This made Baptist worship somewhat unpredictable (Amen!), for at any moment a worshiper might be given a doctrine, an exhortation, or a psalm to share with the group. Baptist resistance to set forms of worship in the Prayer Book helps explain their freewheeling style. From John Smyth onward, Baptists insisted that they could not pray out of a book but that prayer and praise must come directly “from the hart [sic].” Modern worship practices of Baptists, with hymns, printed orders of worship, Scripture readings, and choral responses all determined in advance, would have been unthinkable to early Baptists. The Baptist Heritage, pg. 92 (bold, underlines, and the Amen! are my own)
This spontaneity seems much more inline with the passage from 1 Corinthians 14 quoted above and reminds me of a sermon from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones where he balances the spontaneity, i.e. lack of ordered liturgy, what he sees as quenching not the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19), with the fact that everything must be decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40). The former must not preclude the latter, but neither should the latter preclude the former. In every church that I’ve ever been a member of and most that I’ve visited there is a program which describes the order of liturgy or what comes next, some have had times, but every single one has the time for prayer, the songs selected, the scripture readings laid out, and the title of the sermon – which is definitely restricted to select verses. I ask, along with my Baptist forefathers, how is this not a hindrance of the Holy Spirit? How could this possibly allow for spontaneity, response to the Spirit, or simply the exercise of the spiritual gifts of all those in attendance?

Finally, as if the above were not provocative enough, we arrive at what would be considered a non-negotiable in today’s worship gatherings, singing. Again we turn to McBeth for his research and commentary on the matter from a historical perspective. Several of his quotes are included below to paint the overall scene with regard to singing in the gatherings of believers in the early 17th century
By far, the most important Baptist contribution to worship in the seventeenth century involved the singing of hymns. At that time practically all English churches opposed hymn singing, though some would allow the chanting or even solo singing of biblical texts. At first, the Baptists, like others in England, stoutly opposed singing and developed intricate arguments against this “carnal exercise.” However, in later years Baptists adopted and help popularize singing, some of them writing hymns and publishing hymnals. Some of the early objection to singing may have grown out of reluctance to call undue attention to Baptist meeting places. Such “conventicles” were illegal, and group singing might alert passerby or the authorities that an unlawful worship meeting was taking place. The early General Baptists rejected group singing and held adamantly to that restriction for over a century. To the General Baptists, group singing of “manmade” hymns carried a number of dangers. “Set songs” were as bad as “set prayers,” or even “set sermons,” and might lead to them. A singing congregation might include some non-Christians, and their participation would pollute the worship. For all to sing the same words and same musical notes would be an obvious denial of spontaneity in worship. What if one person should be led by the Spirit to sing another word, or another note, at that time? The General Baptist Assembly of 1689 pronounced singing “foreign to evangelical worship.” Though not as adamant, Particular Baptists also opposed hymn singing and instrumental music in worship. Their early arguments against the practice were about the same as General Baptists, though less intense. However, by mid-century some Particular Baptists regarding singing with new interests. Benjamin Keach is often credited with introducing hymn singing to English Baptists and, indeed, to all the English churches. At the 1689 assembly, the Particular Baptists gave cautious approval to singing or at least to the concept of each congregation deciding its own practices without censure from others. With even that much approval, singing quickly caught on. By the next century, General Baptists had also adopted the practice…. The Baptist Heritage, pgs. 93-95
What is the point of this historical review? The point, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones often discusses, is that we are all guilty of defending our inherited position. Meaning, that what we know – whether that’s the church we grew up in, the one that we first visited or were invited to, or one that we’ve seen in pictures or videos, is typically all we know and what we defend going so far as to interpret Scripture through the lens of this inherited position. In other words, there’s one man preaching – we must find a passage to support that, there’s singing – ok Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 have that, and we must have a building for us all to gather in, the synagogue provides us the support we need. This review isn’t meant to condemn modern practices or those who are simply desiring to honor God in gathering together with believers. But what it should do, hopefully, is cause us to lay down our traditions and pick up the Scriptures, then, and this order is important, view history to see if and where believers have upheld what the Scriptures say.

If ever we are in need of a clear return to what the Scriptures say regarding the gathering of believers together, it is now. Soli Deo Gloria!

*I should add that my conclusions are strictly my own and in no way assert that Dr. Waldron or CBTS share my ecclesiastical convictions.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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