Regenerate Church Membership and Religious Liberty

Seventeenth-century English Baptists commitment to religious liberty was closely related to their understanding of the definition of the church as a body of baptized believers. As Baptist historian Thomas J. Nettles has observed, this commitment to religious liberty flowed from their prior commitment to a regenerate church, as opposed to a national one. “The doctrine of believers’ baptism coincident with the doctrine of regenerate church membership necessitates a doctrine of religious liberty with its attendant truths.”[1] It is no coincidence, then, that the seventeenth-century English Baptist pastor Hercules Collins’ clearest call for religious liberty is found in Some Reasons for Separation From the Communion of the Church of England, the work in which he most strongly argued for regenerate church membership.

Baptists’ defense of religious liberty has historically been linked to their concept of a regenerate church membership, since this necessitates a separation of church and state. In the early seventeenth century, men such as John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, John Murton, and Roger Williams had been advocates for religious liberty. While Collins distanced himself from any view of successionism which would have connected the Particular Baptists of his day with Smyth’s se-baptism, he was not afraid to identify himself with their pleas for religious liberty. In the imaginary dialogue between a conformist and nonconformist in Some Reasons for Separation, Collins places himself clearly in the Smyth–Helwys–Murton–Williams continuum by citing some of the same sources first used in 1621 by John Murton in A Most Humble Supplication of Many the Kings Majesties Loyall Subjects.[2] These quotes were later repeated by Roger Williams in his defense of Murton against the New England Puritan John Cotton in the classic 1644 work on religious liberty, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.[3] Collins quotes several of the same testimonies from history, including King James before Parliament in 1609 and in his Apology to the Oath of Allegiance, Hilary against Auxentius, and Tertullian Ad Scapulam.[4] The use of these references found in Murton and Williams likely indicates a familiarity by Collins with two of the most important early Baptist works on religious liberty. Collins, however, offered his own concise summary of the issue at stake by asserting, “That none should be compelled to worship God by a temporal Sword, but such as come willingly, and none can worship God to acceptance but such.”[5] Collins believed that, although dissenting churches may not have been in submission to the law of England, they were to the law of Christ, and this is what mattered for it was more important to obey God than man.

Christ hath given full power to his Church, as such to Preach the Gospel publickly, administer Ordinances, and to officiate in other Matters, relating to their Meeting in God’s Worship; which, if we should decline at the Command of Men, this would be to regard men more than Christ, which we dare not do. Is it better to obey God or man, judg ye? Were the sayings of two Worthy of old, Act. 5.[6]

If ordering one’s churches according to the law of Christ be considered “conceit and obstinacy,” Collins declared in Luther-esque manner, “I shall so remain, unless you convince me of the contrary from Gods Word.”[7] Collins believed that confidence in the promise of Christ in Matthew 5:10-12 to reward those persecuted for righteousness would enable him and his fellow Baptists patiently to endure without resistance when persecuted.

If you do persecute us for our Conscience, I hope God will give us that Grace which may inable us patiently to suffer for Christ’s sake; for he that seeks to defend or preserve himself from Persecution, by taking up a temporal Sword; He is either one that believes there is no such Reward as is mentioned in Matth. 5. to those that patiently suffer, or unwise to Reject the opportunity of getting it.[8]

For the principle of religious liberty, which preserved the ability of freedom to worship God as conscientiously convinced by Scripture, Baptists like Hercules Collins were willing to risk their freedom, and even their lives.


[1]Thomas J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity, vol. 2, Beginnings in America (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 19.

[2]John Murton, A Most Humble Supplication of Many the Kings Majesties Loyall Subjects, Ready to Testifie all civill obedience, by the oath, as the Law of this Realme requireth, and that of conscience; Who are Persecuted, onely for differing in Religion, contrary to divine and humane testimonies as followeth (1621).

[3]Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, discussed, in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace (London, 1644).

[4]Cf. Murton, A Most Humble Supplication of Many, 26-30; Williams, The Bloudy Tenent, 2-3; and Hercules Collins, Some Reasons for Separation From the Communion of the Church of England, and the Unreasonableness of Persecution Upon that Account (London: John How, 1682), 18-20. The quotation from Tertullian, though reproduced in its entirety, is attributed merely to “one of the Ancients” in Collins. Cf. Murton, A Most Humble Supplication of Many, 27; Williams, The Bloudy Tenent, 4; and Collins, Some Reasons for Separation, 19.

[5]Collins, Some Reasons for Separation, 20.

[6]Collins, Some Reasons for Separation, 17.

[7]Collins, Some Reasons for Separation, 17.

[8]Collins, Some Reasons for Separation, 20.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks for this research. It is a blessing to see the how these issues interact rather than see them as separated.
    Dwight Fisher
    Former Beech Haven BC Athens GA
    Now FBC Durham NC

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