On the Baptist Confession of 1689

2LCThe Second London Confession is the most influential Baptist confession of faith ever written. The Second London Confession was drafted in 1677 for the Petty France Church in London, during a time when Baptists and other Dissenters were being persecuted under the Clarendon Code. When William and Mary ascended to the English throne and declared religious toleration in 1688, the door was open for Dissenters to once again meet freely. The Particular Baptists held a general assembly in London in 1689 and publicly adopted the Second London Confession. Since that time, it has often been called the 1689 Confession. This year marks the 325th anniversary of the public adoption of the 1689 Confession, so it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the confession’s history and legacy.

The 1689 Confession was a Baptist revision of the Savoy Declaration (1658), which itself was a Congregationalist revision of the famous Presbyterian standard the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). The 1689 Confession is characterized by a basically Reformed understanding of salvation and worship, a Baptist ecclesiology, a modified version of covenant theology and a “Puritan-ish” understanding of the Lord’s Day as a “Christian Sabbath.” It includes a stronger statement about the universal church than most Baptist confessions and it argues the pope is the antichrist. It is the only major Baptist confession of faith that is neutral on the question of open versus closed communion (a minority of Particular Baptist churches were open communion and even open membership—most famously, the Bedford Church pastored by John Bunyan).

Though most Particular Baptists never meticulously affirmed the document, it serves as an accurate summary of what most pastors in that tradition believed into the time when the Evangelical Awakening began affecting the Baptists in the 1770s. After that time, the influence of “Fullerism” led to a more moderate Calvinism that gradually downplayed covenant theology and allowed for wider latitude on the extent of the atonement. Charles Spurgeon, who was strongly influenced by the Puritans, published a slightly revised version of the 1689 Confession in 1855, though it did not catch on; by that time, British Baptists were focusing on downplaying the differences between Calvinists and Arminians, a trend that ultimately led to the (Calvinist) Baptist Union’s assimilation of the New Connection of General (Arminian) Baptists in 1891.

In America, a slightly revised version of the Second London Confession was published as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742) and the Charleston Confession of Faith (1767). It became the baseline doctrinal standard for the Regular Baptist tradition. When the First Great Awakening birthed the Separate Baptists in the 1750s, they were initially hesitant about any confession of faith. But within a generation, Regulars and Separates were merging into a single movement. Versions of the 1689 Confession remained popular, though a growing number of churches adopted abstracts or summaries of the document. Much like Fullerism among British Baptists, many of the abstracts were neutral on the extent of the atonement while remaining broadly Calvinistic.

After 1830, the New Hampshire Confession became increasingly popular among Baptists in the North. It was an intentional modification of the Philadelphia Confession. In 1845, when the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, every delegate came from a church or association that had adopted the Philadelphia Confession or an abstract of the document. When the Abstract of Principles was drafted in 1858, it was an abstract of the 1689 Confession, though clearly in the same moderate vein as the New Hampshire Confession. It really wasn’t until the Baptist Faith and Message (1925) that you had a major non-Arminian Baptist confession in America that did not have the 1689 Confession in the immediate background; the BF&M was a modification of the New Hampshire Confession.

For the past hundred years, most non-Arminian Baptists in America who emphasize confessionalism have preferred some version of the Baptist Faith and Message or the New Hampshire Confession, though many churches have written their own confessions of faith. The 1689 Confession is appreciated for its historical import, but it is not a “living” confession that regularly influences contemporary doctrinal discussions. This is the case with most Southern Baptists, including many Calvinists in the SBC.

However, since the 1960s, some Baptists in the English-speaking world have overtly owned the theological emphases of the 1689 Confession—often more meticulously than their Particular Baptist forebears. These folks prefer the name “Reformed Baptists” and they see themselves as the theological heirs of the Particular and Regular Baptist traditions. Some Reformed Baptists are independent, some are part of Reformed Baptist associations and some are part of mainstream Baptist denominations. For Reformed Baptists, the 1689 Confession remains a living doctrine that regularly informs contemporary theological discussions.

In this 325th anniversary of the public adoption of the 1689 Confession, I believe that all Baptists can be thankful for the Second London Confession and its legacy—even those who are not Calvinists. Let me give some examples of highlights of the 1689 Confession that have nothing to do with Reformed theology and related topics.

The 1689 Confession has the most robust statement on the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture of any Baptist confession. This is helpful because battles over the Bible are far more pitched today than they were in the seventeenth century. Its sections “Of the Church” and “Of the Communion of Saints” offer an alternative to the sectarian emphasis on Baptist identity and local church independence that have frequently influenced Southern Baptist life. Most of the confession’s sections related to the gospel, especially those addressing justification, adoption, sanctification, saving faith, repentance and good works, would receive a hearty “amen” from any Southern Baptist who wants to counter the cheap grace being proclaimed among so many evangelicals. In an age when all evangelicals, including Baptists, are re-emphasizing the centrality of the Trinity, the 1689 Confession offers a great summary of this most foundational of Christian beliefs.

I hope you will take the time (about 30 minutes) to read through the 1689 Confession. Most of you won’t agree with everything in the confession, but that’s okay—I’m Calvinistic, and I demur on several points. Nevertheless, every Southern Baptist pastor, seminarian, missionary and denominational servant ought to be familiar with the most influential Baptist confession of faith ever written. Chances are, you’ll find much to agree with, no matter what you believe about predestination, the finer points of covenant theology, recreational pursuits on Sunday afternoon or the role of the papacy in the last days.

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  1. Jeff Hutchison   •  

    Dr. Finn,

    I am hoping you will someday write a history of Baptists – maybe not as long as McBeth, but at least half as long. I have read a lot of books and articles on Baptists, but I always learn something every time I read one of your blogs on Baptist history.

  2. Curtis Freeman   •  

    Thanks Nathan. I note the supple language regarding Scripture. Borrowing from their Presbyterian contemporaries in the Westminster Confession, the Baptists declared a commitment to the plain sense understanding of the Scriptures, “that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.” Yet the same article begins with an important qualification that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” Or in southern cornbread language, “We ain’t all gonna’ read the Bible the same way.” Or in language that echoes through the corridors and classrooms we inhabit, “Hermeneutics matters.” Question is, can we walk together as we read together? I hope we’ll do more walking and reading than sitting and shouting. And maybe sometime before Jesus comes we’ll find ourselves closer together than we imagined when we split up.

  3. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Indeed, those tricksy Puritans and Particulars well understood that the sola scriptura of the Reformation is not the solo scriptura of atomized, modern evangelicalism. Around SEBTS, we often talk about how the “Bible battles” of the twentieth century focused on inspiration and authority. While that remains a perennial and crucial discussion, the contemporary Bible battles, even among folks with a shared view of inspiration and authority, are about hermeneutics. So your point is very well taken. Local churches need to read the Bible in community, denominations/conventions/networks need to read the Bible in community, and dialog partners/ecumenists need to read the Bible in community. And we need to trust the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures to lead the church that is his temple to rightly understand that work (a Calvinist idea, if ever there were one). Individual interpretation is a precious thing, but this is a community project. Perhaps, with humility, repentance, soul-searching and course-corrections, it can also increasingly be a unity project.


  4. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    Thanks for the kind words. I am currently co-authoring a Baptist history textbook with Michael Haykin (Southern Seminary) and Tony Chute (California Baptist University). Lord willing, it will be published by B&H Academic summer 2015. We are finishing the book’s manuscript this semester.


  5. Pingback: The Andrew Fuller Center » Historiae ecclesiasticae collecta: a weekly roundup of blogs, articles, books, and more

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