Foundations: No.68 Spring 2015

Throwing Away the Guns: Andrew Fuller, William Ward, and the Communion Controversy in the Baptist Missionary Society[1]

Since the Baptists first emerged in seventeenth-century England the question of open vs. closed communion has been strongly debated. The majority of Baptists in history were closed communion, believing that only those who have been baptised by immersion on profession of faith should be admitted to the table. This debate had the potential to ruin the Baptist Missionary Society in the eighteenth century. Were it not for the friendship of men like Andrew Fuller and William Ward, who were on opposing ends of the controversy, and their shared sense of mission, the society may have been derailed. This essay traces the history of the debate in early Baptist history and pays particular attention to the BMS. It concludes with brief thoughts on how differences over important doctrines can be handled in the church today.

Introduction

One of the sad ironies of the Protestant Reformation is that it was divided over a sacrament that was to bring unity. John Calvin (1509-1564), in his reflections on the Eucharist in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote: “Now, since he [Christ] has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. The bread shown in the Sacrament represents this unity”.[2] Yet, much to Calvin’s great disappointment, infighting amongst the various strands of the Reformation over the presence of Christ in the Supper gave way to deep division and almost destroyed the movement.[3] Since the sixteenth century Protestants have remained divided on the Eucharist with Zwinglians and Calvinists huddled together in the Reformed wing of Protestantism, staring warily at their Lutheran brethren.

Baptists – who stand in the Reformed tradition – have experienced protracted intramural debate over the Lord’s Supper, and not just over the presence of Christ in the elements. This essay considers a different Eucharistic dispute that, as at the Reformation, threatened unity; namely that of the first Baptist mission to India in the early nineteenth century. Though its roots stem back to a disagreement in the earliest days of the denomination in England, the effects of the dispute continued throughout the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth and can still be felt today. We will examine this debate along three lines. First, the historical context of the Baptist communion controversy will be considered, looking briefly at key figures involved in the history of the dispute. Second, a more detailed examination of the controversy, as it involved the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), will be given. Our focus will narrow to Andrew Fuller’s (1754-1815) position and his concerns about William Ward (1769-1823). Third, the ongoing effects of the debate in subsequent Baptist history will only briefly be discussed before forming the conclusion that consists of contemporary reflection. Throughout each major section, the acrimonious nature of the historic debate will be highlighted, and how that one element largely passed by the disagreement between Fuller and Ward – strong though it was – and saved the BMS from losing focus on its mission.

Communion in context: debate over strict communion among English Baptists

Since their origins the Baptists have faced various controversies. In the seventeenth century they wrestled through questions such as the place of hymn-singing in worship, the nature of baptism, and the doctrines of grace. As we approach the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the controversies did not abate. The denomination was faced with the stagnation of High Calvinism and its corresponding outgrowth in Antinomianism, as well as Socinianism and Sandemanianism. However, across the generations, the controversy that dogged both the Particular and General Baptists from within was the debate over communion. The question at hand was not, as at the Reformation, about the presence of Christ in the elements. Baptists were generally in line with the Second London Confession of Faith (1689) that states: “Worthy receivers… feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of His death” (30.7). Rather, the point of dispute centred on whether a Christian who had not been baptised by immersion had the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper; this, of course, had infant baptism in mind. The view that argues against allowing non-baptised Christians to the table is often called “close/closed communion”, though in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was often referred to as “strict communion”.[4] Andrew Fuller defines “the principle of the strict Baptists” as “that baptism is an indispensable prerequisite to fellowship at the Lord’s Table”.[5] The opposing view, that allowed non-baptised Christians to the table, was called “open” or “mixed communion”. This controversy was, as David Bebbington writes, “the issue that most troubled nineteenth-century English Baptists”.[6] In this section we consider the historical context of the communion debate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

“What kind of a you am I?”: the seventeenth century

Geoffrey R. Breed writes, “The matter of strict- versus open-communion had engaged some of the leading apologists from both sides, each party claiming to base its position upon scriptural warrant and, therefore, divine authority.”[7] This is certainly the case in the seventeenth century when strict communion first became a point of conflict, particularly between two key leaders. For the “open communion” view – a rarity amongst Baptists at this period – was John Bunyan (1628-1688), pastor in Bedford and author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Opposing him was the respected Londoner William Kiffin (1616-1701), a signatory of both the First and Second London Confessions of Faith. Arguing alongside Kiffin, among others, was Henry Danvers (1622?-1687), pastor in Houndsditch, London.[8]

Bunyan not only argued for open communion but also, like his friend Henry Jessey (1601-1663), for the concomitant open membership, thus allowing paedobaptists to join his church without the need for being immersed.[9] It was for this reason, as Michael A. G. Haykin and C. Jeffrey Robinson observe, that “although John Bunyan is currently one of the most celebrated Christian authors of the seventeenth century, in his own day he had little influence among his fellow Baptists”.[10] In 1672 Bunyan wrote A Confession of my Faith, and A reason of my Practice where he encouraged his readers to not make baptism a “wall of division” between believers.[11] For Bunyan, who argued for what he called “mixt communion”, baptism was not a prerequisite for church membership or participation at the Lord’s Table. Danvers soon replied with A Treatise of Baptism in 1673 that focused mainly on arguments in favour of believer’s baptism. Bunyan replied in turn with Differences in Judgment About Water-Baptism, No Bar to Communion in 1673 where he argued that his “rigid brethren” needed “to repent of their church rending principles”.[12] As with later open communion arguments, Bunyan’s concerns were largely to do with unity. The sacraments are fundamental to Christianity and the only prerequisites should be faith and holiness. The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance and should be for all Christians, while the question of baptism is up to the individual’s conscience.[13]

Without naming Bunyan, William Kiffin published A Sober Discourse of Right to Church-Communion in 1681, an obvious response to the Bedford pastor.[14] He had earlier penned a preface to Thomas Paul’s short book Some Serious Reflections On that Part of Mr. Bunion’s Confession of Faith (1673). An important part of Kiffin’s argument for closed communion in Sober Discourse was based on the “regulative principle of worship”, that taught that only those elements of worship prescribed in scripture may be enjoined by Christian churches.[15] As baptism and the Lord’s Supper were positive institutions they were thus to be obeyed and in a particular order: belief, baptism, Lord’s Supper. Baptism was for professing Christians and was to be by immersion; it was an ordinance that marked the believer’s entrance into the church. “Baptism is an Ordinance of Christ” Kiffin argued, “yea, the very first, or initiation Ordinance into Church-Fellowship, without which, no man may be regularly admitted to the Supper”.[16] As Haykin and Robinson observe, “To Kiffin’s Sober Discourse… Bunyan made no written response.”[17] Yet, in the closing decades of the seventeenth century a number of churches admitted both Baptists and paedobaptists into membership.[18]

As is often the case with public disputes, feelings were involved. Bunyan was upset because he thought that Kiffin despised him due to “my low descent among men” and stigmatised him “for a person of that rank, that needed not to be heeded or attended to”. Bunyan quotes Kiffin – whom Christopher Hill calls “the very rich Kiffin” – as saying, “I had not meddled with the controversy at all, had I found any of parts that would divert themselves to take notice of you”. Hill says that Bunyan was “justifiably indignant”: “What need you, before you have showed one syllable of a reasonable argument in opposition to what I assert, thus trample on my person, my gifts and graces have I any, so disdainfully under your feet. What kind of a you am I? Why is my rank so mean, that the most gracious and godly among you may not duly and soberly consider of what I have said?”[19] This may reflect more on Bunyan’s sensitivities rather than anything inappropriate Kiffin might have said. Historian B. A. Ramsbottom defends Kiffin, pointing to a number of positive quotes by the London pastor regarding Bunyan’s stature. Yet, as Ramsbottom observes, “Sadly a great deal of bitterness appeared in the controversy, proving that ‘the best of men are only men at best’”.[20]

“Latitudinarian Baptists”: the eighteenth century

Peter Naylor has shown that the communion controversy in the eighteenth century made for strange theological bedfellows.[21] John Collett Ryland (1723-1792), pastor of the College Lane church in Northampton since 1759, was a “moderately High Calvinist”.[22] It is strange, therefore, to find him side with Daniel Turner (1710-1798) of Abingdon whose orthodoxy was suspect. Though the details of his theological problems are unknown, what is clear is that he did not believe in the doctrine of particular redemption, a teaching that Ryland held dear.[23]

For Ryland, the issue of open communion was connected with his desire for unity. During his early pastorate in Warwick, Ryland had befriended a number of paedobaptist leaders like Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) and Augustus Toplady (1740-1778). His appreciation for such men with whom he differed on baptism “helps to explain his impatience with the practice of closed communion”.[24] Turner’s reasons are likely slightly different. A strong advocate of political and religious freedom, and an early sympathiser with the French Revolution, Turner encouraged more love for liberty among Dissenters.

In June 1772, Ryland, under the pseudonym “Pacificus” wrote a tract entitled A Modest plea for Free Communion at the Lord’s Table: between True Believers of all Denominations: In a Letter to a Friend. At the same time Turner, under the pseudonym “Candidus”, published a similarly titled work, A Modest Plea for Free Communion at the Lord’s Table; Particularly between the Baptists and the Paedobaptists. In a Letter to a Friend.[25] Like the titles, the tracts are virtually identical, and Robert Oliver has helpfully established the identity of the two authors of the so-called “Candidus-Pacificus Tract” as Ryland and Turner.[26] While not a major writing in the ensuing controversy, it is important for its role in re-opening the earlier debate between Bunyan and Kiffin. Their basic argument was that, since Christ accepts paedobaptists as genuine believers at the table, holding to strict communion is “a setting of our faces against the LORD JESUS CHRIST”.[27] Strict communion was opposed to the spirit of unity and was a contributing cause of infidelity![28]

Although the General Baptist Daniel Taylor (1738-1816) offered a short reply with Candidus Examined with Candour under the pseudonym Philalethes, the first substantial reply came from Abraham Booth (1734-1806), pastor of Prescott Street Church in London. His Apology for the Baptists (1778) became the standard defence of closed communion throughout remaining controversies.[29] This could be due to the fact that he not only replied to Ryland and Turner, but took into account the debate between Bunyan and Kiffin. In the preface Booth explains to readers that he did not write because of “a fondness for controversy”, but “to vindicate the honour of Christ” and his positive institution, as well as to “exculpate” the Baptists from “odious” charges, particularly “bigotry”.[30] Written in an irenic tone, and with admiration for paedobaptists, Booth nonetheless argued that unbaptised Christians – as he believed those only baptised as infants to be[31] – could not be received at the table. Like Kiffin, Booth appealed to prescriptions laid out in scripture and that a “gospel church has no more power to fix the terms of communion… than to make a rule of faith”.[32] Also like Kiffin, he argued that scripture, namely the Great Commission, set forth a distinct order with baptism coming first followed by attendance at the table.[33]

As irenic as Booth was towards paedobaptists, his language was strong against open communion Baptists. For example, he called them “Latitudinarian Baptists” who held to the doctrine of baptism with a “loose hand” – Latitudinarian being an epithet fraught with negative historical weight.[34] The Baptist historian Joseph Ivimey (1773-1830) notes that Booth received no response “and at that time put an end to the controversy”.[35] Though Robert Robinson (1735-1790) of Cambridge, author of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, wrote The General Doctrine of Toleration, applied to the particular Case of Free Communion (1781), it was not of the scale of Booth’s Apology, which did not receive a substantive reply until early in the nineteenth century.

“Not men, but things”: The BMS, communion, and Andrew Fuller

“The Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen”, later the Baptist Missionary Society, was founded in the home of Martha Wallis on 2 October, 1792.[36] While there were fourteen in attendance at this famed gathering, a committee of five was set up to oversee the work, and a resultant inner-circle became its foundation, namely Fuller, John Sutcliff (1752-1814), John Ryland Jr. (1753-1825) and William Carey (1761-1834).[37] Carey, of course, became the BMS’s famous missionary to Serampore, India, and while he had the support of his friends in England, he was joined by other missionaries over time, in particular Ward and Joshua Marshman (1768-1837), who, with Carey, have become known as the “Serampore Trio”.[38]

Though the members of the BMS and the Serampore Mission were friends, such friendship did not inoculate them from theological disagreement. From its earliest days the issue of strict communion dogged the Society in England and India. While Booth’s Apology had done much to quell any possible open communion sentiment in its time, by the 1810s many Baptists were starting to adopt it, including members of the BMS, most notably Ryland at home as well as Marshman and Ward overseas. The three of them were influential in the life of the mission from their respective home-stations. On the other hand, Fuller, who was the secretary of the Society, held strongly to strict communion as did Carey, though the latter had a period where he joined the open communion side. In this section we will consider in more detail the communion controversy as it touched on the BMS, first by looking at historical events pertaining to the BMS and the practice of open communion in India, then Fuller’s theology of strict communion, and his response to Ward.

“This is exclusion”: communion and the mission to India

Though Ryland, pastor of Broadmead Baptist Church in Bristol and principal of the Baptist Academy in the same city, had long shrugged off the High Calvinism of his father, he maintained the senior Ryland’s theology of open communion. In 1814 he wrote A Candid Statement of the Reasons which induce Baptists to differ in Opinion and Practice from so many of their Christian Brethren where he expressed his views: “I say, ‘It is the Lord’s Table, and not mine; therefore I dare not refuse those whom he has accepted… unless he had commanded me.’”[39] Ryland had a good reputation in the broader evangelical community and was known to have a catholic spirit when it came to non-Baptist evangelicals, especially Anglicans: “Very few of my own denomination have ever had more of my affection and esteem, than several of the Ministers of the Establishment.”[40] His father had been close with leaders in the Established church, like the hymn-writer John Newton (1725-1807), who was a mentor-of-sorts to the younger Ryland.[41] As principal of the Baptist Academy, he also stood in a line of open communion principals such as Hugh (1712-1781) and Caleb Evans (1737-1791).[42]

Ward, somewhat like Turner before him, had a politically radical streak, particularly in his early years. A. Christopher Smith sees “evidence of inspiration from the writings of Tom Paine [and] John Locke” on Ward, especially during his time with the “Derby Society for Political Information”.[43] As a political activist he had been the printer for a number of radical periodicals, a trade that he carried with him to India as the mission’s printer. He also maintained his desire of personal liberty, though tempered, which, with a love for unity, would have motivated his views of open communion.[44] Ward’s early biographer, Samuel Stennet (1727-1795), tells of Ward seeking concord with others of like faith but who did not share his Baptist convictions: “[H]e could freely walk with all those christians who conscientiously differed from him in that particular [baptism], and much regretted, that differences on this, and other comparatively minor points, should have so divided the church.”[45]

Ward’s principle of unity meant that Christians of all theological stripes should be able to share in communion, provided that they were living upright lives. Something of Ward’s perspective can be seen in a letter dated 3 March, 1810 where he wrote, “I think you cannot abstain from communion with any real Christian, whose moral conduct substantiates the truth of his faith in Christ, without a positive crime. The first law of Christ is LOVE, and the first law of the infernal regions is disunion.”[46] The impetus for this unity of Christians is love, because God is love.

As much as he was driven by unity and love, Ward could express his views in strong language: “I think shutting out from communion such a man as Doddridge, or [Richard] Baxter, because he was a paedobaptist, arises from the same spirit as that, which burnt men alive: this is exclusion; that was exclusion from life.”[47] Yet, as Stennett says, “though firm in his sentiments, and holding no truth with a loose hand, he was never dogmatical.”[48] Ward and Marshman held to open communion before they left for India, though this was not the policy of the BMS for the first years of its mission.[49] As they sailed on The Criterion, the missionaries would share in communion with the ship’s captain, Benjamin Wickes, who was a Presbyterian from Philadelphia. But, when the missionaries finally made it to Bengal, they acquiesced to the principles of the Society and did not observe communion with Wickes when he later visited them. Carey jokingly criticised the would-be missionaries and their “mixt communion business on board ship”.[50] Though he submitted, Ward was nonplussed at the decision. As John C. Marshman explains, “Mr. Ward more particularly deplored this rigid, and, as he thought, unlovely proceeding, though he considered it his duty not to disturb the harmony of the church and Mission.”[51]

He remained an active influence on the mission and helped it finally adopt an open communion policy in 1805. This happened after David Brown (1762-1812), Provost of the College of Fort William, moved near Serampore and impressed convincing open communion arguments upon them. Carey was a hold-out for the strict view, but after lengthy remonstrance by Marshman, acquiesced and changed his mind. With Carey finally on board, the missionaries wrote a letter to the secretary informing him of their decision saying, “[N]o one has a right to debar a true Christian from the Lord’s table, nor refuse to communicate with a real Christian in commemorating the death of their common Lord, without being guilty of a breach of the Law of Love.” As with Ryland Sr. before them, their admiration for paedobaptists was a motivation: “We cannot doubt whether a [Isaac] Watts, an [Jonathan] Edwards, a [David] Brainerd, a Doddridge, a [George] Whitefield, did right in partaking of the Lord’s Supper, though really unbaptized, or whether they had the presence of God at the Lord’s Table?”[52]

John Marshman writes that “the alteration was not effected by [Ward’s] arguments, though he should have thought it an honour if it had been so”. Ward did, however, write on May 31 that, “I rejoice that the first Baptist church in Bengal has shaken off that apparent moroseness of temper which so long made us appear unlovely in the sight of the Christian world.”[53] The decision by the mission moved Fuller into action. For fear of offending strict communion Baptists in England, he did not publish the change in the mission’s policy in the Periodical Accounts, the Society’s magazine, and on 1 November 1806 he wrote a letter to Carey criticising this new course of action. Over time Fuller convinced Carey to return to his previous position, and together, the two of them reasoned with Marshman to adopt strict communion. By 31 August 1811 Marshman wrote to Fuller “that the Church of Christ as Serampore has restored its primitive and scripture puriety [sic] in point of communion, and I think is not very likely soon to lose it again”.[54]

“A regard to the revealed will of Christ”: Andrew Fuller on strict communion

In 1814 he wrote a letter to William Newman (1773-1835) Principal of Stepney College (now Regent’s Park College, Oxford), outlining his closed communion principles.[55] Fuller asked Newman to keep the letter private, though “if any thing be written on the other side [open communion], it may, if thought proper, be printed, but not else”.[56] After Fuller’s death in 1815, Robert Hall Jr. (1764-1831) reopened the communion debate and Newman felt compelled to publish Fuller’s letter. It appears as “The Admission of Unbaptized Persons to the Lord’s Supper Inconsistent with the New Testament” in the third volume of Fuller’s Works and was recently edited and introduced by Michael Haykin in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.[57]

Fuller begins his letter by acknowledging his friendships with open communion Baptists and assuring readers that his purpose was not to indulge in sectarian squabbles, nor to witlessly attack Paedobaptists, whom he also held in high regard. The issue was not about whom he esteemed, but the authority of Scripture: “I have been used to think that our conduct on such questions should not be governed by affection any more than by disaffection, but by a regard to the revealed will of Christ.”[58] Was there an instituted connection between baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament? If there was, they were not to be divided. This was not about liking or disliking paedobaptists like John Owen, Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge or Jonathan Edwards. Fuller says, “If it were a question of feeling, their names would doubtless have weight.” But when compared with the revealed will of Christ, “they weigh nothing”. For Fuller, “The question respects not men, but things.”[59]

After distinguishing between paedobaptist and open communion Baptist concerns about strict communion, Fuller “calmly examines” what he sees as the dual foci of the debate. The first concerns the connection between baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, and the second is whether a candidate’s opinion about their own baptism should suffice for their being treated as a baptised person, even if theirs was an infant baptism. We will consider these two, and leave aside, due to our limitations, the short section where Fuller answers objections.[60]

Of the first of the two foci, Fuller argues that there is a connection between baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament. He admits that if this were not the case, then “Mr. Bunyan’s position” is tenable. Yet why, he asks, would it take so long for the Christian church to discover that the two sacraments are actually severed? Such a notion, he observes, was never advanced until the time of Bunyan and his friends. Quoting Doddridge – a name often emotively brought up by proponents of open communion – he says, “no unbaptized person received the Lord’s Supper” in the ancient church.[61]

To prove his point about this connection, Fuller highlights a number of New Testament texts. He reasons in John 4:2 that the disciples at the Lord’s Table were necessarily baptised, because they would not have been able to baptise others if they were not. In Acts 2:38-42 all who heard Peter’s sermon were told to “repent and be baptised” and then came together to break bread. Paul, in Acts 19:3, takes for granted that the Ephesians had been baptised, thus proving that there were no Christians at this time who had not been.[62] According to Fuller, the New Testament clearly pointed to baptism as an initiatory ordinance not merely for a particular church, but ­– as seen in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) ­– into the body of professing Christians. Baptism in this sense functions as a badge of Christianity: “To admit a person into a Christian church without it were equal to admitting one into a regiment who scrupled to wear the soldier’s uniform, or to take the oath of allegiance.”[63]

Though Paul does not speak specifically about water baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, the allusion is that those who were baptised into Moses also ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink, which has a parallel with baptism and communion. Fuller says, “The manner in which these allusions are introduced clearly shows the connexion between the two ordinances in the practice of the primitive churches.”[64] 1 Corinthians 12:13 also has a similar Eucharistic allusion: that we are all “baptised into one body” and “all made to drink into one spirit”.[65] These passages from the New Testament suffice to prove the point, for Fuller, that the two ordinances are connected.

The second of Fuller’s two foci looks at whether a candidate for communion should be treated as baptised by a church irrespective of the mode of their baptism, due to the principle of “Christian forbearance”. Fuller readily subscribes to the general principle of forbearance, and cites instances in the New Testament, particularly Romans 14, where this is appropriate. But, he argues, this does not apply in cases of direct command, as with strict communion. Few would argue that the forbearance principle should be applied without discrimination. For Fuller, it is a misapplication to relate it to communion: “[A]s we are not to apply this forbearance principle in matters of doctrine as to raze the foundations of divine truth, neither shall we be justified in applying it to the dispensing with any of the commandments of Christ.”[66] To answer the question, if to be baptised is basic for communion, it is “absurd” to assume that it belongs to the candidate to judge of it. “It is contrary to the first principles of all society”, Fuller says, “for a candidate to be the judge of his own qualifications”.[67]

On 21 September 1800, five years before the mission adopted, for a time, open communion, Fuller wrote a letter to Ward answering a question the missionary had put to him. This question well-reflects Ward’s view: “Do not the bounds of Scriptural communion extend to all who are real Christians, except their practice is immoral, or they have embraced dangerous heresies?”[68] Fuller responds first to what he sees as the “three different grounds” on which open communion is defended. The first, that baptism is not essential to church communion; the second, that believer’s baptism by immersion is not essential to baptism; the third, that the judgment of what constitutes baptism lies in the individual, not the church. He sees Ward’s question as based on the first of these and thus keeps his answer to it.

Like Fuller, Ward does not observe communion indiscriminately with all Christians, but limits it, in his case to those who walk uprightly with the Lord and hold to orthodox doctrine. The difference between Fuller and Ward, then, was over Ward’s failure to add “essential corruption of instituted worship” as a limiting factor. This, Fuller argues, is necessary to any dissent from the Established church, or even Roman Catholicism. For Fuller, “To treat a person as a member of Christ’s visible kingdom, and as being in a state of salvation, who lives in the neglect of what Christ has commanded to all his followers, and this, it may be, knowingly, is to put asunder what Christ has joined together.”[69]

“I throw away the guns”: The BMS, the Mission and Friendship

Though the differences between Fuller and Ward were at times strongly worded, the historically hostile debate over communion does not touch the BMS. This was so for two reasons: the mission was too important to allow an intramural dispute to disrupt it; and the men involved in the Society were all very close friends. Both mission and friendship acted as preservatives against acrimony.

In his biography of Fuller the open communion John Ryland Jr. explained: “Most of our common acquaintance are well aware, that I am his oldest and most intimate friend.”[70] The two had been friends since their first meeting in 1778 while Fuller was still in Soham and Ryland was ministering with his father in Northampton. Together, with Sutcliff and others, they would leave High Calvinism, in large part due to Fuller’s influence as he wrote Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.[71] Ryland’s closeness with Fuller allowed him to speak frankly about their differences on communion: “I repeatedly expressed myself more freely and strongly to him, than I did to any man in England; yet without giving him offence.”[72]

Ward too, from early on, held Fuller as a friend and when he embarked for what Kipling called that “place beyond all others”,[73] was “deeply affected at having to say goodbye to Sutcliff and Fuller”. Ward saw these men, and Ryland, as “a three-fold cord binding him to his native land”.[74] When the Serampore Mission re-adopted closed communion, Ward was again forced to acquiesce. Writing about this in a letter to Ryland some years later Ward said that he “lament[ed] that my Brethren are mistaken in this point, and that they should not perceive that such a practice is a violation of the law of love: but I throw away the guns to preserve the ship.”[75] Were it not for this deferential perspective, the Serampore Mission might have been shipwrecked and the work that God had called Ward to would have been sinfully derailed. Ward’s self-sacrifice helped keep the mission on course. Sadly, this was not the perspective of later Baptists when the public debate over communion again disrupted church life in England.

The Hall-Kinghorn Conflict

In one sense, Booth’s Apology had closed the debate. The discussion between Fuller and Ward came not long after, but theirs was not a public dispute and does not directly answer the issues brought up by Ryland, Turner or Booth. That, instead, came from the pen of Robert Hall Jr., and his interlocutor, Joseph Kinghorn (1766-1832). Of the debates over communion to this point, the Hall-Kingorn conflict was by far the most drawn out and rancorous.

Hall, who was known as a powerful and eloquent preacher, and pastor in Leicester, restarted the controversy by writing On Terms of Communion in 1815, the year of Fuller’s death ­– as we saw, this is what prompted the posthumous publication of Fuller’s letter to Newman. Hall wrote that the principle of closed communion injured the testimony of the Baptists and kept them in a state of “separation and seclusion” from other Christians.[76] Due in large part to the successful joint efforts at missions between the BMS and other societies such as the multi-denominational London Missionary Society, Hall wanted to see greater unity between various church bodies, including the Established Church. To bar non-Baptists from the communion table would result in “a series of animosities and divisions”.[77]

The Norwich pastor Joseph Kinghorn, known for his scholarly sobriety, replied the following year with Baptism a Term of Communion at the Lord’s Supper arguing that the New Testament describes a Christian church as consisting of those who “were baptized in his name… baptism was intended to be a visible evidence of connexion with the Christian church”.[78] A long series of replies bounced between the two of them that descended into bitter words and hurt feelings. Hall wrote A Reply to the Rev. Joseph Kinghorn in 1817 that deeply cut its recipient. Speaking of Hall’s tone and “impetuous character”, Kinghorn’s biographer Martin Wilkin (1832-1904) writes, “We cannot but feel that the manner in which it was conducted is indeed deeply to be lamented.”[79] In a letter to Joseph Jarrom (1774-1842), a General Baptist, written in 1818, Kinghorn wrote that Hall treated him with “downright violence”.[80]

Hall and Kinghorn did not settle the dispute. In 1813 the Particular Baptists formed the Baptist Union; by 1891 they admitted the New Connexion General Baptists into the fold. The Baptist Union continues today as the largest Baptist denomination in Britain, and allows for open communion and open membership churches. A separate association, the Strict Baptists, emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, led by men like William Gadsby (1771-1844) and J. C. Philpott (1802-1869). As their name indicates, they held strongly to closed communion, and many, like Gadsby, were also High Calvinists.[81] They are a small denomination who continue today, and are largely marked by the controversy of the previous century.

Conclusion: The Ongoing Debate

As the controversy raged in Britain and open communion gained ground, North American Baptists were largely closed communion in their practice. In Canada the “Regular Baptists” followed this as a rule, as did the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States.[82] Yet as time progressed, closed communion has become less popular, especially in our day. An example of this is John Piper, the recently retired pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who publicly stated that he would adopt Bunyan’s model of open communion and open membership if his church’s constitution allowed.[83] This brought criticism,[84] and though there was little in the way of controversy ­– Piper’s church did not agree with his sentiments ­– it did spark a discussion that is good to have.[85]

From this writer’s perspective, the arguments in favour of closed communion are compelling. While the catholic sentiments of the open communion position are understandable and laudable, they do not have the same scriptural and theological weight. As the arguments put forth by Kiffin, Fuller and Kinghorn have shown, there is deeper biblical support for the closed view. Those put forward by the open communion side are more rooted in the desire for catholicity than they are exegetical arguments. Yet the scriptures seem to point to the view that baptism is an entrance rite into the church while the Supper is for those already in. Bobby Jamieson explains this well in his recent book on church membership: “Baptism is the front door into the house, and the Lord’s Supper is the family meal.”[86] In his words, the Supper’s “ecclesial shape” is given by its roots in the Passover, its communal participation in Christ’s death, its role as part of covenant renewal, and the responsibility the church has to administer it as a sacrament. All of this presupposes membership in the people of God and thus baptism. The Christian who has not been properly baptised (or baptised at all) does not bear the mark of entrance into that community and should refrain from the community’s meal until that mark is taken up.

This does not mean that the closed communion position should not appreciate charity or catholicity. For instance, issues of liberty of conscience are important to consider. A paedobaptist is convinced on exegetical and theological grounds that they have been biblically baptised. In this light, how closed communion is practiced in a local church should consider liberty of conscience for one-off visitors. All of this is not said to put forth a fully articulated argument for closed communion, but is merely to observe that the closed communion position articulated in Baptist history has a more thorough grounding. That said, while scripture is ultimately determinative, the historic debate also needs to inform any discussion about the practice of communion in Baptist churches, especially the example of the men involved in the Baptist Missionary Society. Yet there is a larger lesson to learn as well: that of charity. While other debates were hostile, the men of the BMS did not let their disagreements shipwreck their friendships or the mission. As E. Daniel Potts wrote in 1967: “[T]his quarrel was kept on a friendly plane and, basic though it was, was not allowed to mar their extraordinary labours in unitedly promoting the cause of the Christianization of India.”[87]