In 1669 the State Church and the recently restored Stuart monarchy did not tolerate the congregation of religious dissenters; these congregations were declared illegal and referred to as “conventicles”. In order to keep an eye on the situation in Norwich the Bishop of Norwich, Edward Reynolds, was commissioned with the task of compiling a “database” of illegal fellowships. This database was returned in 1669 and a reproduction of it can be seen above. It tabulates the type, size and leadership of non-conformist fellowships in the City. If you look closely you will see one group called “Anabaptists” who are numbered at around 30 and headed up by Daniel Bradford and Henry Austin. It was this group from which Norwich Central Baptist Church has a long descent. It is this database that has given NCBC its “birth” date of 1669, although in actual fact the Baptist fellowship that was to become NCBC would have existed some years prior to that date. As the database suggests the sectarian situation was complex and not a simple case of State Church vs. Non-Conformists. The table itemizes under the heading of “Sects” a variety fellowships; Viz: “Independents”*1, “Presbyterians”, “Quakers” as well as the so-called “Anabaptists” all of whom were vying for affiliates. Although these groups faced a common persecutor the disagreements between some of them were sharp and irreconcilable. Protestantism has always had a streak of headstrong factiousness about it.
My grasp of Norwich Central Baptist Church history owes much to Charles Boardman Jewson (1909-1981) one time member of NCBC (or St Mary’s Baptist Church as it was then called). Jewson wrote a history of the Baptists who have been worshiping at the current site on St Mary’s plane since 1744. This history, which was published in the Baptist Quarterly in 1941, could not have been compiled without a search of original (and often difficult to read) hand written documents and Jewson must have spent many painstaking hours doing this research. However, in spite of that, history always comes with an implicit caveat: Even though Jewson looks as though he did a very thorough job one must exercise reserve in the light of the possibility that a reappraisal of the known documents and/or the appearance of new evidence could conceivably lead to different conclusions. So, it is with this reservation in mind I express below my reading of Jewson’s early history of Norwich’s Baptists up until 1689, a date when non conformists were granted freedom of congregation and fellowship.
Firstly a note about Jewson himself. On the first page of his history he remarks on the main Christian fault line which existed in England at the start of the 17th century. This fault line was, of course, the division between the High Church of the State establishment and the dissenting Puritans. Quoting Jewson:
Neither the High Church party who wished to retain much of the medieval ceremony and teaching, nor the Puritans were content. Each side desired to force its faith upon the other. (p3)*4
That kind of observation is evidence of the partisan business that Christianity has always been! (See also 1 Corinthians 3). In making this observation without any appearance of partisan prejudice Jewson displays an intellectual detachment from the squabbles of the time even though he himself was a very committed Baptist. This ability to detach may have something to do with the fact that at the time of writing Jewson and his Norwich Baptist brethren were successful people; amongst them were civic leaders and respected business men with little left to prove and no axe to grind; they had, in fact, started to identify with establishment as evidenced by the kind of church architecture they had begun to prefer. As a rich and respected church community they contrasted with that frequent phenomenon one sees of the small elitist spiritual sect who respond to their well-earned marginalization and alienation by consolidating their identity as fanatical, noisy confrontational fundamentalists. The well-to-do background of the Baptist fellowship of that time perhaps puts a little perspective on Jewson’s calm and collected approach in his writings. It may also explain why a conciliatory man such as Jewson sometimes seems a little embarrassed about early Baptist sectarianism and does what he can to put it in the best possible light (p23).
At the start of the seventeenth century dissenters from the established church moved their pastorates to Rotterdam where interference by the English State was much less likely. It is interesting to note however that many of these dissenters were actually clergy from the State Church who took up chaplaincy roles in Rotterdam. In fact according to Jewson the concept of a church separated from the state was not initially part of their mindset:
Revolutionary spirits began to separate from the established church, but few had yet conceived the idea of a church free from state control and patronage (p3)
Perhaps this is not too surprising: Western Christians had lived for more than a millennium in societies where state and church were inextricably bound together. Moreover, the early reform movements which revolved round Luther, Zwingli and Calvin made no clear annunciation of the political separation of church and state.
Jewson says that the dissenters who eventually returned to England from Holland after the 1642 civil war probably brought back from the continent ideas of adult baptism after contact with Mennonites (p19). For a while the Congregationalist non-conformists who still baptized infants remained in fellowship with those who believed in “re-baptising”*2 adults. (p20). But in time a more sectarian ethos started to emerge. Some of the Fifth Monarchists who were in effect the vehement “fundamentalists” of the day even regarded the puritanical Cromwellians as standing in the way of the imminent return of Christ. These Fifth Monarchists seemed to have the effect of helping to crystallize the concept of baptism amongst non-conformists and a polarization set in (p21). As this exclusive Baptist movement gained momentum the old Congregationalists who still practiced child baptism felt rejected. In 1657 they complained:
“Those who had not only forsaken the Churches for want of the Ordinance of Baptism as they say, but also judged all the Churches no Churches that were not of their mind, or came not up to their practice” (p21)
Jewson goes on to say (p22) that sometime before 1667 the Norwich Baptists who ultimately were the forebears of NCBC had separated themselves from the Congregationalist communion. Jewson points out the irony of this situation; this separation happened at a time when the whole non-conformist sub-culture was facing state sponsored persecution. (p23)
It may be true, however, that marginalization and opposition actually favours factiousness: Some Christian fellowships react to the existential crisis that may be induced by alienation with increasingly extreme posturing. The Quakers of the 1670s seem a case in point: They questioned the witness of Presbyterians and Independents (=Congregationalists?) and also suggested that the Baptist’s water baptism was neither that of John the Baptist nor that of Christ’s Baptism of the Holy Spirit; in fact in the Quaker's opinion this Baptism was of little spiritual significance altogether! (p25). In their attempt to “return to a primitive Christianity without parish church, priest, sacrament or liturgy”*3 the early Quakers not only wrote-off Baptists and other non-conformists, they also became very confrontational, interrupting church services they didn't like and being disrespectful to magistrates (Ibid: See McCutcheon). It is no surprise therefore that they brought down on themselves opposition and persecution. As Jewson said, Each side desired to force its faith upon the other and the early Quakers did what was within their power to impose their opinions on other Christians.
The State persecution ended with the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the act of Toleration of 1689. Thence on the differing dissenting splinters could establish themselves as legal, moderate and in some cases successful facets of English society. It is ironic that today the Quakers are probably among the most liberal and tolerant of those Christian fellowships!
*1 Presumably, the “Independents” were Congregationalists.
*2 “Anabaptist” means “re-baptise”
*3 This quote comes from page 78 of “Norwich Through the Ages” by Elsie McCutcheon (Alastair Press). This harking back to a fancied pure primitive Christianity is always the claim of Christian sect start-ups. See here: http://norwichcentralbaptistchurch.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/sectarian-bondage.html
*4 Page numbers are from Jewson’s history.