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Whatever happened at Salters’ Hall? (3)

October 2016 | by Stephen Owen

The ‘subscribers’ — those Nonconformist ministers who had voted in favour of a declaration of faith concerning the Trinity — did not take their defeat (57-53 votes) lying down.

They returned to Salters’ Hall on 3 March 1719 and unanimously resolved to adopt the words of the 1st article of the 39 Articles and the answers to the 5th and 6th questions of the catechism of the Westminster Confession, as a form of words ‘on which the Scripture doctrine of the Trinity is professedly expressed’.

They attached this resolution to the advice they sent to the churches in Exeter. By the time this counsel arrived, the erring pastors had already been dismissed. The ministers in the west of England had finally stirred themselves, and at a meeting in Exeter there were 56 subscribers and only 19 non-subscribers (including Peirce and Hallett).

Reactions

Seven local Presbyterian ministers were given the task of interviewing Peirce, and, having done so, prepared a circular letter to the churches that included the following points:

‘That there are some errors in doctrine that are a sufficient foundation for the people to withdraw from the communion of those ministers holding such errors’.

‘That denying the true and proper divinity of the Son of God — that he is one God with the Father — is an error of that nature contrary to the Holy Scriptures and the common faith of the Reformed churches’.

‘That where so dangerous an error is industriously propagated, to the overthrowing of the faith of many, we think it the indispensable duty of ministers (who are set for the faith of the gospel) earnestly to withstand it, and to give reasonable satisfaction to the people of their soundness in the faith. And we likewise judge it to be the duty of the people to hold fast the truth in love, avoiding anger, clamour and evil speaking, and to behave themselves with all charity and meekness, as becometh Christians’.

So Peirce and Hallett were forced out. But Peirce, with his admirers, built a chapel, vehemently denouncing from its pulpit ‘the persecutions of the orthodox’. He quickly established a congregation of up to 300.

Despite this late action of the Exeter churches, the failure of the Salters’ Hall synod to give a clear lead to orthodoxy led to an open season for all sorts of heretical views. Letters and pamphlets were written that declared that every man was, in effect, entitled to become his own pastor and that churches should cater for every conceivable theological view.

Presbyterian Matthew Twogood wrote to a fellow-minister: ‘I am thoroughly persuaded that no Christians of any denomination ought to be trusted with the power of imposing creeds on others, being sensible that all — call them what you will, Trinitarians, Arians, Arminians, Calvinists, etc. — from the inborn propensities of human nature, won’t fail more or less to abuse it. So, by the grace of God, I propose henceforth to call no man Master on earth’.

Twogood was orthodox in his beliefs, but others were quick to take advantage of his generous spirit. In 1735, James Strong of Ilminster published a revision of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly with a strong Arian bent. The following year, Samuel Bourn of Birmingham published An address to Protestant Dissenters, in which he suggested that adherence to the Westminster Catechism was due to ‘bigotry’ rather than ‘reason’ (Here and elsewhere, I am indebted to ‘The demise of English Presbyterianism, 1660-1760’, James Spalding, Church history, March 1959).

Inducements

There seemed to be no leader of the Presbyterians who would take a stand against the decline in doctrinal purity. The reason for this appears to be that their mouths were stuffed with money.

Queen Anne had been a supporter of high churchmanship and was bitterly opposed to Dissenters. However, when George I came to the throne, it was quickly discovered that many high church Anglicans were supporters of James the ‘Old Pretender’, the son of James II who had been deposed in 1688. His Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, though an unbeliever, thought that it would be wise to curry favour with the Nonconformists.

Rather than doing the right thing by repealing the Test Act, which kept Dissenters out of the universities and other parts of public life, Walpole instead sought to gain their support by bribery. From 1723, £500 a year was secretly paid out of the Treasury for the support of widows of dissenting ministers.

A little later, a further £500 was paid ‘each half-year for assisting either ministers or their widows that wanted help, or to be applied to any such uses as the distributors thought to be most for their interest’. Edward Calamy, one of the leaders of the Presbyterians who had been vocal in his call for the repeal of the Test Act, became, according to J. Waddington, ‘dumb for a season’ (Congregational history); he had become one of the trustees of the Regium Donum (‘King’s bounty’).

There is no evidence that a condition of this bounty was silence on doctrinal matters, but it is likely that Walpole requested the recipients to avoid contentious religious statements at such a delicate time.

The General (or Arminian) Baptists did no better than the Presbyterians. Although there had been a General Baptist statement of faith issued in 1678, it seems not to have had a great following among the churches. Many of their churches followed Mathew Caffyn, their leading spokesman, into Unitarianism.

Dan Taylor, a later leader of the General Baptists, wrote of his predecessors, ‘They degraded Jesus Christ and he degraded them’. The progress of Unitarianism was opposed, however, by the London Congregationalist, Thomas Bradbury (1677-1759). Indeed, so vociferous was his opposition that he came to be nicknamed by his contemporaries as ‘Make-a-noise Tom’.

Dissension

In cooperation with other orthodox ministers, Bradbury gave no fewer than 60 lectures on the divinity of Christ at the Pinner’s Hall, in which he declaimed against his opponents and called true Christians to the battle. He earned for his efforts nothing but abuse from the Unitarians.

Lord Barrington wrote to him: ‘Your loose rhapsodies about a Redeemer and the divinity of Jesus Christ bespeaks more of a frenzy than a zeal from knowledge and rational conviction. That trifling talent which heretofore made you an object of ridicule and laughter, has now taken into it such a turn of the madman as reduces you to an object of compassion’.

Bradbury remained undaunted. He had previously campaigned for freedom of worship for Dissenters, but he regarded this new battle as infinitely more important. ‘I have borne a testimony to the glory of a Redeemer in the liberties of his people, but I am now called to defend the dignity of his person. Whiggism, the principles of Dissenters, the rights of my country, the privileges of human nature, I can say are dear to me; but these are little to the divinity of a Saviour. I rejoice therefore, that I am counted worthy to suffer shame for the name of Jesus’.

In this struggle Bradbury looked for support to his colleague Isaac Watts, the famous hymn-writer. Watts, a more peaceable man than Bradbury, tried to make an accommodation with the Unitarians by suggesting that the human nature of Christ might have been eternal, as well as his divine nature.

Far from satisfying or convincing the Arians, they promptly claimed Watts as one of their own, much to his chagrin. Bradbury was so incensed that he directed his literary fire onto poor Watts. Indeed, Watts has been criticised for his efforts ever since and his orthodoxy questioned. But no one could seriously imagine that Watts was anything other than a staunch Trinitarian. His hymns alone refute any other opinion:

‘Almighty God, to Thee

Be endless honours done,

The undivided Three,

And the mysterious One.

Where reason fails, with all her powers,

There faith prevails, and love adores.’

Watts would have been well advised to follow his own counsel and refrain from speculation. His published works, however, included many exhortations to his fellow-ministers to preach and stand up for the truth.

Particular Baptists

When we come to the Particular Baptists and their response to the events at Salters’ Hall, it seems that God raised up two champions among them at exactly the right time.

The first was John Gill, who commenced his ministry at Horsleydown, London, in 1720. At an early stage in his ministry Gill preached a series on the Song of Solomon, much to the disgust of William Whiston, who had written that the Song should not be part of the Bible. Gill believed that the Song was among the most important books of the Bible for the exaltation of Christ.

In 1728, as well as publishing An exposition of the book of Solomon’s Song based on his sermons, Gill also took on the Deists, such as Anthony Collins, in his Prophecies of the Old Testament respecting the Messiah.

The following year, he emulated Thomas Bradbury by setting up a regular series of lectures at Great Eastcheap meeting house. This series, which continued for almost 30 years, included defences of the doctrines of the Trinity and of justification, which were later published as books.

Along with his exposition of the whole Bible, perhaps Gill’s greatest contribution to the Unitarian debate is his massive four-volume work, The cause of God and truth, which, although primarily a defence of the five points of Calvinism, also defends doctrinal Christianity against Unitarianism and Latitudinarianism.

Gill believed it was essential for a church to have a firm statement of faith. However, although the 1689 Baptist Confession was still far from ancient, he clearly felt himself under no obligation to use it. Instead, he wrote one especially for his church in 1729, which has come down to us as the Goat Yard Declaration of Faith. It is much shorter than the 1689 Confession, but is strongly Trinitarian and professes a high Calvinism.

Gill’s firm stand on doctrine gained him influence among several young evangelicals within the Church of England, including Augustus Toplady and James Hervey, and thus he may be said to have influenced the great Evangelical Awakening that began around 1738.

Bristol Baptist Academy

The other Particular Baptist champion following the Salters’ Hall affair was Bernard Foskett. He is much less well known than Gill, because he has left no published works, but at the time his labours may have been, under God, even more important than those of Gill.

Foskett became minister of Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol in 1720 and principal of the Bristol Baptist Academy, then the only training establishment for Baptists in the world.

He did not start the academy, but set it on a firm doctrinal path by adopting the 1689 Confession. At the same time, he reorganised the Western Association of Particular Baptists, making the 1689 Confession the mandatory standard. By the middle of the eighteenth century, almost half the ministers in the Western Association had been trained at the Bristol Academy.

Although some of his students, such as John Collett Ryland, were critical of his teaching, another, Benjamin Beddome, so admired him that he saddled one of his children with the name Foskett! Foskett’s teaching cannot have been too bad, since both these men were greatly used by God in their respective churches.

John Rippon’s assessment of him may be accurate: ‘If it be conceded that Foskett’s method of education was limited rather than liberal, severe rather than enchanting, employing the memory rather than the genius, the reason more than the softer powers of the mind … it is a debt of honour to acknowledge that some good scholars and several of our greatest ministers were educated by him’. (There is a helpful article on Foskett by Robert Oliver in Reformed Baptist Theological Review,Vol. III.2).

Stephen Owen is a deacon at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth, and author of the Martin Marprelate blog (www.marprelate.wordpress.com).

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