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Baptist Worship in Britain

Summary and Keywords

Baptists stand within the Free Church and Evangelical traditions. They baptize only those who profess personal faith, and they also give a high priority to evangelism. Although there is some variety around the world in this the fifth-largest Christian denomination, the main features of Baptist worship developed in Britain, where the Baptist story began. Emerging from the Radical Reformation at the beginning of the 17th century, British Baptists formed two main groups, each holding Calvinistic or Arminian theology, respectively. Both emphasized an ecclesiology in which the church was perceived to be a fellowship of believers and each rejected the baptism of infants. By the 19th century, most British Baptists held a common, though varied, evangelical theology, and this continues to characterize this denomination. The importance of scriptural preaching, extempore prayer, and the emergence of congregational hymn singing are all continuing features of Baptist worship.

The core aspects of Baptist spirituality can be seen in their worship, including giving due attention to scripture and its relevant application for the life and witness of the church; the importance of the devotional life and an openness to the Holy Spirit, as seen in extempore prayer; emphasis on the church as a fellowship of believers, as expressed in the communal nature of the Eucharist celebrated as the Lord’s Supper; and the importance of personal faith and the mission of the church, embodied in the baptism of believers and evangelistic preaching.

Keywords: Baptist worship, fellowship of believers, baptism of believers, Lord’s Supper, extempore prayer, ordinance, congregational hymn singing, Particular Baptist, General Baptist, evangelism

Baptists stand within the free church and evangelical traditions. They represent a worldwide community of more than 100 million, with a baptized membership of over half that number. Baptists baptize only those who profess personal faith, and they also give a high priority to evangelism. Although there is some variety around the world, the main features of Baptist worship developed in Britain. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the development of Baptist worship had been gradual, so that a distinguished Baptist, Ernest A. Payne, was able to write in 1952, “The general pattern of church services has remained the same from the 17th century to the present day: scripture, prayer and sermon, interspersed with hymns.”1 This generalization can be defended, though it needs considerable qualification with regard to both the evolving shape of services and the shifts of emphasis within them. However, it is important to recognize from the outset that Baptist worship originated in the 17th century as a direct challenge to the liturgical worship of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Suspicious of historical accretions and therefore of the tradition of the church, Baptists attempted to restore Christian worship to what they believed to be the pattern of the New Testament church. In reality, this tended to mean a stripping of worship to the bare essentials, allowing only those practices that were perceived to have either a biblical precedent or be based on some form of biblical command that, alongside other Reformers, they referred to as “ordinances.” Until the 19th century, their places of worship tended to be called “meeting houses,” with more emphasis put on the gathering of the congregation for worship than on a sense of a holy place. Along with other Evangelicals, Baptists have usually located holiness in people rather than things, whether buildings or the media of worship. From the beginning, Baptists have valued spontaneity in prayer, instruction and challenge in preaching, and a devotional commitment on the part of the congregation which eventually contributed to the development of congregational hymn singing.

British Baptists trace their origins as a distinct community to the early part of the 17th century and the emergence of two groups, the General (Arminian) Baptists and the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists. Both developed from the diverse Separatist congregations that refused to remain within the established Church of England. Similar in theology to the Puritans, they argued that the church should comprise only believers and that the state should have no authority over the faith and life of the church.

General Baptist Worship

The first General Baptist congregation in England was in Spitalfields, London. A group of Lincolnshire Separatists under the leadership of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys had, in search of religious freedom, emigrated in 1608 to Amsterdam, where they came into contact with Mennonites. Smyth and some of the group eventually joined the Mennonites, while others, together with Helwys, returned to England and established a London congregation in 1612.

While they were meeting in an Amsterdam bake house, their worship had consisted of several extempore sermons based on a common scripture text. A letter written to a relative at home in 1609 (see Table 1) describes their pattern of worship at this early stage of development. There were two Sunday services, each three or four hours long. The account simply states “we begin with prayer,” which is followed by the reading of scripture, together with its interpretation, and a discussion. After this period of preparation, all books, including scripture, are put aside, and the first speaker “propheseys” on a text, followed by several other speakers on the same text. This period of inspired proclamation was brought to a close by the first speaker, who “concludeth with prayer as he began wth prayer.” After exhorting to give to the poor, and a collection having been taken for that purpose, the same speaker concluded with prayer.

Table 1. The Bromheade Letter From Amsterdam

Around 1609 an English couple, Hughe and Anne Bromheade, wrote a letter from the Netherlands to their cousin in London. Prominent among the reasons the exiles gave for their separation from the Church of England was their desire for worship strictly according to their understanding of the scriptures. Interspersed among their complaints against the liturgy of the Established Church are positive statements concerning their own understanding of worship. Finally, the Bromheades describe the Lord’s day practices of Pastor John Smyth’s English congregation in Amsterdam.

These churches ar ruled by and remayne in subiection und[er] an Antichristian, and ungodly goverment, contrarie to the institution of oure Saviour Christe. [(?)] For the better confirmation of these [four previous charges] we have thought good to add certayne argumentes .1. no Apocrypha must be brought into the publick assemblies, for there [?] only godes word and the lyvely voice of his owne graces must be heard in the publique assemblies. But mens writinges and the reading them over for prayer ar apocrypha, therfore may not be brought into the publique assemblies[.] .2. argument. we must do nothing in the worshippe of god wthowt warrant of his worde. but readd prayers have no warrant in his worde. Therfore readd prayers ar not to be used in the worshippe of god. .3. argument we may not in the worshippe of god receyve any tradition wch bringeth oure libertie into bondage: Therfore readd prayer&c. .4. argument because true prayer must be of faith utterred wth hearte and lyvely voyce, It is presumptuous Ignorance to bring A booke to speake for us unto god &c. .5. Argument to worshippe the true god after an other maner then he hath taught, is Idolatrie. but god commaundeth us to come unto him heavy loaden [?] wth contrite hartes to cry unto him for oure wantes &c Therfore we may not stand reading A dead letter in steade of powring foorth [?] oure petitions. .6. argument we must stryve in prayer wth continuance &c but we cannot stryve in prayer and be importunate wth continuance reading upon A booke, Therfore we must not reade when we should praye. .7. argu- ment we must pray as necessi[tie?] requireth but stinted prayers cannot be as necessitie requireth, Therfore stinted prayer is unlawfull. .8. Argument read prayers were devised by Antichrist and Maynteyne superstition and an Idoll Ministerie. therfore read prayers and such stinted service ar intollerable &c. .9. argument the prayers of such C[hristian?]s and people as stand under a false goverment are not acceptable, not only because they aske [?ami]sse, but because they kepe not his commaundements. The prayers of such ministers and people as be [s]u[bie?]ct to antichrist ar abhominable. Th[o?]s[e?] minis- ters and people wch [?] stand subiect [?] to the [?Bisho]ppes and the Courtes [?] ar subiect to antichrist &c therfore the prayers &c/[?] . . . .

The order of the worshippe and goverment of oure church is .1. we begynne wth A prayer, after reade some one or two chapters of the bible gyve the sence therof, and conferr upon the same, that done we lay aside oure bookes, and after a solemne prayer made by the .1. speaker, he propoundeth some text owt of the Scripture, and prophecieth owt of the same, by the space of one hower, or thre Quarters of an hower. After him standeth up A .2. speaker and prophecieth owt of the said text the like tyme and space some tyme more some tyme lesse. After him the .3. the .4. the .5. &c as the tyme will geve leave, Then the .1. speaker concludeth wth prayer as he began wth prayer, wth an exhortatation to contribution to the poore, wch collection being made is also concluded wth prayer. This Morning exercise begynes at eight of the clock[e?] and continueth unto twelve of the clocke the like course of exercise is observed in the aft[er]n[o]wne from .2. of the clock unto .5. or .6. of the clocke. last of all the execution of the g[over]ment of the church is handled/ . . .

Yours [?] In the lorde at all tymes to use.

Hughe and Anne Bromheade.2

There seems to have been a clear break between what was seen as the preparation for worship, including the initial reading of scripture and its exegesis, and the service itself. Between these sections, we are told that all books, including the Bible, were laid aside. Most of the remaining time was spent by different members of the congregation expounding and applying scripture, quoting it from memory. Underlying this distinction was an assumption that true worship occurs under spontaneous divine inspiration rather than through any written media, even scripture. It is not surprising that half a century later, some of the early Quakers emerged from these General Baptist groups. The developing life of General Baptist congregations flowed from this beginning, although the reading of scripture within worship did soon become firmly established.

During the years of the Civil War and the persecution of 1660–1688, the General Baptists tended not to build many meeting houses, preferring to meet in farmhouses, barns, and forest clearings. However, the toleration that followed 1688 led to some church building, and by the end of the century, worship probably looked something like Table 2:

Table 2. Late 17th Century General Baptist Worship

Led by an appointed member of the congregation:

Psalm

Read from the Bible

Prayer

Extempore

Scripture Reading

Led by the minister from the pulpit:

Sermon

Prayer

Psalm

Solo led by member of congregation

These General Baptists were radical in their belief that every worship practice needed scriptural justification. Their concern was for spiritual integrity and, although they permitted spontaneous solo singing, they resisted congregational singing—even the communal singing of psalms. This radical conservatism contrasted with their general theology, which, influenced by the growing intellectual climate of rationalism, became in time increasingly Unitarian. By the end of the 18th century, most General Baptist churches in England had in fact become Unitarian, apart from a largely new group that emerged from the Evangelical revival. The latter group, called General Baptists of the New Connexion, embraced Evangelicalism and the congregational singing that was an important element in that revival.

Particular Baptist Worship

Particular Baptists represented the larger strand within the developing British Baptist community. They began as a distinct community when a group of church members separated themselves in the 1630s from a Separatist congregation that itself eventually become Independent (an early name for the movement which later became known as “Congregationalist”). The disagreement, which produced the first Particular Baptist congregation, resulted from the growing conviction that baptism should be restricted to believers. The separation was reasonably amicable; indeed, Particular Baptists were to remain in close association with Congregationalists and shared a common theology. Particular Baptists were more inclined to build meeting houses or adapt existing buildings, as in the case of the church at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire (see Figure 1).

Baptist Worship in BritainClick to view larger

Figure 1. Tewkesbury Baptist meeting house. The Baptist church in Tewkesbury, Gloucester-shire, was well established by the middle of the 17th century. Its building was adapted from a 15th-century house. Note the central pulpit, the communion table, and the baptistery, which would have normally been covered, as here, except when in use.

Photograph courtesy of Christopher J. Ellis.

We have no contemporary accounts of their early services, though we do have certain clues. We can assume that this early Baptist worship resembled that of the Independents or Congregationalists, and continued to do so right through into the early 20th century. We can reasonably speculate that on Sunday mornings early 18th-century Particular Baptist worship followed this pattern shown in Table 3:

Table 3. Eighteenth Century Particular Baptist Worship

Psalm

Metricated version sung by the congregation

Short prayer

Invocation asking for the Divine presence in all the following parts of worship.

Exposition of Scripture

About half an hour

Prayer

Petition for various blessings, spiritual and temporal, for the whole congregation; confession of sins; thanksgiving for mercies; petitions for the whole world, for the churches of Christ, for the nation, for all rulers and governors, together with any particular cases represented. Requests of the congregation were usually written on pieces of paper and passed to the minister in the pulpit.

Sermon

Delivered from the pulpit.

Psalm or Hymn

This was the usual place for the second item of sung praise though, for local reasons, it was sometimes placed before the sermon. This was either a metricated psalm or, as the century developed, it might have been a hymn—especially one of those written by Isaac Watts which were in wide circulation in the Baptist community.

Short Prayer

Benediction

The rationalist intellectual climate of the 18th century led to a theological shift by which many churches, especially in the London area, became high Calvinist, with a consequent restraint in the conduct of their worship. However, a more open and evangelical Calvinism continued in other parts of the country, and this was inevitably strengthened by the Evangelical Revival with its emphasis on religious experience. The results were evangelistic preaching, continued exhortations to the devotional life, and an increasing place for congregational song. These changes were slow, perhaps reflecting the internal tensions of a community that was both Calvinistic and evangelical. It was probably well into the 19th century before the hymns of Charles Wesley, with their experiential emphasis, were widely sung by Particular Baptists, and by mid-century the number of hymns in a service had only increased to three. Indeed, Baptist worship in Norwich was described by William Brock in 1845 as following this pattern, but still with only two hymns, as can be seen in Table 4.

Table 4. Early Victorian Baptist Worship

Prayer for the Holy Spirit

to guide the day

Song of praise

A hymn of joy or thanksgiving

Scripture reading

Prayer: supplications and intercessions, with thanksgiving

“for all men, especially the household of faith”

Song of praise

Exposition

or “discourse intended to build you up on your most holy faith, and to open the Scriptures to the understanding of the people, that they may become wise unto salvation by faith in Jesus Christ”

Dismissal and Blessing

Baptist Worship in the 20th Century

By the 20th century, the evangelical General Baptists of the New Connexion had formally united with most of the Particular Baptists. Worship in most places had developed into what is often termed “the hymn sandwich” with interspersed hymns, representative of most free churches in the first half of the century, although it had only been from the later 19th century that this pattern included four or more hymns, as can be seen in Table 5. By this time, the whole service was usually led from the pulpit by the same person who also preached.

Table 5. Early 20th-Century Baptist Worship with Interspersed Hymns

Invitation to worship

Sometimes omitted, this would might include an informal greeting and the reading of verses of scripture

Hymn

The congregation would usually sing these hymns to organ accompaniment. The hymns texts would be printed in a single hymnbook, usually one published by the Baptist denomination.

Bible reading

This would often be a single passage that was chosen by the preacher and would not usually relate to any calendar or lectionary.

Hymn

Prayer

Sometimes called “the long prayer” this would be a compendium of praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercession and petition.

Notices

Usually undertaken by the Church Secretary, this item, at its best, linked worship to the ongoing life and mission of the congregation.

Offering

This included the collection of people’s money offerings and a dedicatory prayer.

Hymn

Sermon

Hymn

While this hymn might offer a mechanism for response to the sermon, the other hymns would often only link tangentially to the theme of the service.

Benediction

In this pattern we see little logic in the sequence of items except in a movement toward the sermon as a climax. There was often little attempt to provide thematic cohesion among different parts of the service, and the hymns were commonly chosen by the organist rather than the preacher.

The period since 1950 has seen the greatest and most rapid developments in worship. In some Baptist churches, the influence of the Liturgical Movement has produced change in response to its primary emphases. For some, a concern for the overall shape and flow of the service has led to a restructuring of the components in worship and their expansion. An increased emphasis on the church as the people of God and the congregation as active participants in worship has led to the increased use of written material to be spoken by the congregation. In addition, a series of official denominational manuals has been produced for ministers and others leading worship, which have included some ecumenical resources, together with material for communion services, marriages, funerals, and other events.

The Charismatic Renewal Movement has had an even wider impact, though often in different churches from those influenced by ecumenical and liturgical developments. It has led to extended periods of singing and prayer, a concern with engaging the religious affections, and the opportunity for the exercise of “spiritual gifts” by members of the congregation. Table 6 shows what such a pattern of worship might look like.

Table 6. Late 20th Century Charismatic Baptist Worship

Block of worship songs

These may be thematically connected and will sometimes be linked with scripture verses and short prayers. They will usually be led by someone other than the preacher, and each will usually be repeated.

Prayers of petition

Sometimes led by a member of the congregation, this may be placed before the reading or after the sermon.

Offering

Reading

This will usually be read by the preacher and may only include a few verses.

Sermon

Song

Ministry Time

An opportunity for individuals to come forward for prayer or for open worship.

In 1997, a survey of Baptist churches in England and some in Wales indicated that about 10 percent of churches followed this pattern on a weekly basis, while half of all the churches used this pattern at least monthly, or incorporated some elements, such as the block of worship songs, into a pattern that fused them with more traditional material. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this trend to more Charismatic styles of worship has continued in the two decades following the survey.

British Baptists have been open to both ecumenical and Charismatic influences, and both are reflected in the present diversity of their worship. It could be argued that the importance of the sermon has been reduced in both these movements. Although there may be other factors at work, such as the erosion of religious certainty, a liturgical approach to preaching has placed the sermon in some churches as the servant of the read word and subservient to the celebration of the Eucharist.3 In charismatic worship the place of preaching remains, though often as an explanation of, or preparation for, the experience of the Holy Spirit in prayer and “ministry.” There are often complaints about the lack of scripture reading in such worship, which is reminiscent of the Quaker–Baptist disputes of the mid-17th century, circling around issues of experience or objectivity, spiritual freedom, or subservience to the scripture. From this evolving and diverse pattern we may perhaps deduce that if the primary focus of expectation for the encounter with God tends to be placed as the climax of worship, then that climax may be found in sermon, the Lord’s Supper, or ministry time. This diversity of worship reflects a diversity of theology and spirituality.

The Spirituality of Baptist Worship

Tracing the developing pattern of Baptist worship does not, however, communicate all that needs to be said. Baptist worship is to be seen primarily as representative of the Evangelical Free Church tradition. The most widely accepted modern account of Evangelicalism identifies a number of characteristics:

There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.4

Broadly speaking, Evangelicalism emerged from Puritan devotion and was renewed and established by the 18th-century revival with its concern for conversion. It expanded with the 19th-century enthusiasm for organization and was diversified by various movements in the 20th century. Baptists and their worship reflect all these movements, and this evolving Evangelical identity provides an explanation for, and integration of, various features in the spirituality of Baptist worship.

The spiritual bases of Baptist worship reflect both continuity and divergence in the wider history of Christian practice. The following sections discuss particular features related to the sacraments, employment of scripture, freedom or diversity, community, congregational song, and mission.

Sacraments and Ordinances

Both baptism and the Lord’s supper have a special place in Baptist life and worship. In company with other Reformers, Baptists distinguished between the so-called “dominical sacraments” which they recognized, and the other rites in the sacramental system of the Medieval Catholic Church, which they did not.5 On the whole, however, Baptists have tended to use the word “ordinance” rather than “sacrament,” although both words were in use among them in the 17th century. A reaction to the Oxford Movement in the 19th century led many Baptists to express a “low” theology of baptism and the Lord’s supper, but in the second half of the 20th century, the influence of the liturgical movement and a resurgence of interest in spirituality has led a number of Baptist writers to develop a sacramental theology in dialogue with other parts of the Christian church.

Yet, as with the wider ecumenical notion of “sacramentality,” the word “ordinance” has an expansive field of reference. It implies obedience to a divine command and well into the 19th century not only included the Lord’s supper and baptism but also embraced other aspects of worship. This concern to be “biblical” meant that prayer and preaching have often been regarded as ordinances. For the General Baptists of the 17th century, foot washing was so regarded as well, and, in the debates that surrounded the introduction of congregational hymn singing in the late 17th and 18th centuries, biblical precedent and command were key areas of contested ground in claiming that such singing was an ordinance.

Baptism and the Lord’s supper each expresses and models the Baptist understanding of the church as a “fellowship of believers.” In the early centuries, particularly in rural areas and in places where there were not purpose-built baptisteries in the meeting houses, the congregation convened at a river or suitable place where baptism by immersion might be administered. See Table 7 for an 18th-century description of such a baptism.

Table 7. A Cambridge Baptism

The 18th-century records of the Baptist Church meeting in Cambridge, England, include of number of descriptions of church life as well as a record of decisions made at the meetings of members. The book includes this account of a baptismal service held jointly with a neighboring congregation and at which a prestigious minister from London was the preacher.

This day the two churches of Walden and Cambridge met by mutual consent at Whittlesford to administer the ordinance of baptism. This church sometimes administers baptism in public (as now) in the presence of many hundreds of spectators; so John the Baptist administered it: sometimes in private; so S. Paul administered it to the jailor, though never in the night, because we are not only not persecuted, but we are protected by law. Circumstances must determine when a private, or when a public baptism is proper. Previous to this, twenty-five persons had professed their faith and repentance to the church at Walden; and twenty-one had done the same at Cambridge; and all had desired baptism by immersion. Dr Gifford, at ten o’clock, mounted a moveable pulpit near the river in Mr Hollick’s yard, and, after singing and prayer, preached a suitable sermon on the occasion from Psalm cxix.57. After sermon., the men retired to one room, the women, to two others, and the baptizer, Mr Gwennap, to another, to prepare for the administration. After about half an hour, Mr Gwennap, dressed as usual (except a coat, which was supplied by a black gown made like a bachelor’s) came down to the water-side. He was followed by the men, two and two, dressed as usual, only, instead of a coat, each had on a long white baize gown, tied round the waist with a piece of worstead-binding, and leaded at bottom that they might sink: they had on their heads white linen caps. The women followed, tow by two, dressed as usual, only all had white gowns, Holland or dimity. Their upper-coats were tacked to their stockings, and their gowns leaded, lest their clothes should float. Mr Gwennap sang an hymn at the waterside, spoke about ten minutes on the subject, and then taking the oldest man of the company by the hand, led him to a convenient depth in the river. Then pronouncing the words, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, he immersed the person once in the river. Robinson stood in a boat, and, with other assistants, led the rest in, and, having wiped their faces after their baptism, led them out. Mr Gwennap added a few words more after the administration at the water-side, and concluded with the usual blessing.

Church Book, Stone Yard Meeting, Cambridge

10th April 1767.6

The baptism of believers makes clear that those who enter the church do so trusting in the redemption of Christ and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Practical evidence of discipleship is expected prior to baptism because it is the baptism of those who are already believers. This is both an expression of the Baptist view of the church and a means whereby that view is maintained. It centers the church in gospel proclamation and the call to discipleship. Consequently, children are brought for a service of infant presentation in which the parents and the congregation give thanks for the gift of new life, make promises concerning the Christian nurture of the children, and offer a prayer of blessing for the child.

The theology of the baptism of believers and its relationship to gospel and church can be seen in this extract from a contemporary baptismal service:

Baptism is an action instituted by Jesus Christ in which God, the believer and the Christian community are all involved. In baptism new believers confess faith and share what God has already done in their lives. Here, there is also a “letting go” in which new Christians abandon themselves to the grace of God and the resurrection power of the one who overcomes the chaos of death and sets our feet on the new path of life. The waters of baptism are a meeting-place where human trust and the life-giving acts of God come together.

In baptism the Church celebrates the gospel of salvation through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the life-giving, new-world-creating power of the Holy Spirit. The local church is again invited to follow Jesus Christ, and is reminded that life in the Spirit, from which all fellowship and mission flows, is an immersion into the life of the triune God and a patterning after the likeness of Christ.

In baptism, God meets us and calls us to obedience and self-offering, as the forgiveness and grace of God are given tangible form. Here, the believer is incorporated into the Church, the body of Christ. Here, God commissions us for service and witness, and promises us the presence of the Holy Spirit—a promise made explicit in the laying on of hands.7

The patterns of worship outlined earlier demonstrate that Baptist Sunday worship is not usually Eucharistic. The Lord’s supper has normally been celebrated on a monthly basis, and, although significant for the spirituality of the congregation, it does not determine the logic of most Sunday services, which are services of the Word.

At the Lord’s supper, believers gather to sit around a table rather than stand before an altar. The simple service re-enacts the events of the upper room, though the transition from Last Supper to Lord’s Supper is acknowledged. It is an expression of the gathering of the church to remember what God has done in Christ and to meet with the risen Lord. Bread and wine tend to be understood as “symbols,” and the divine activity is believed to center on the relationship of the believers to God and to one another. Here in Table 8 is an 18th century account of a local church celebrating the Lord’s supper.

Table 8. A Cambridge Lord’s Supper

The Cambridge Church Book also includes an account of the monthly service of the Lord’s Supper.

As soon as the afternoon public service was concluded, such as chose to go home went. Such as chose to be spectators went up the galleries. The outer gate was fastened for the avoiding interruption; always hurtful in public worship, particularly so in the Lord’s-supper-time. Mary Norris, the servant of the church, covered the table with a clean linen cloth, and sat thereon bread in a basket, the crust being taken off: two borrowed silver cups: and three pints of red port wine. The pastor took his seat at the upper end of the table. The deacons next him, two on each hand. The elder men-members at the table. The younger men in the pews on the pastor’s right hand.. The women in pews at his left. The pastor began with a short discourse on the occasion, nature, benefits, etc. of this ordinance.

Then he read 1Cor. xi.23 till he came at the words “took bread,” then, taking the bread in his hand, he read “and when he had given thanks” and said, “Let us do likewise,” on which, the congregation rising, he gave thanks. This ended, and the church sat down again, he added, “When he had given thanks , he brake it:” and broke the bread. During which he spoke of the sufferings of Christ, etc. Then, delivering the plates of bread to the deacons, he said, “Take eat; this is my body, which is broke for you: do this in remembrance of me.” The deacons then carried the bread round to the members: during which the pastor and all the church sat silent. The deacons at their return took bread and ate: the pastor last of all because the servant of all. After he had eaten the bread he rose again and added, taking the cup into his hands, “After the same manner also he took the cup.” The congregation rising again he gave thanks again. Then he poured the wine from the bottles into the cups, discoursing as while he broke the bread. The deacons rising at the close, he gave them the cups saying “This cup” and so on the end of the 26th verse. After the deacons returned, and were seated, they drank, and last the pastor: all sitting silent from the delivery of the cup to the deacons. The pastor rising subjoined, “Our Saviour and his disciples ‘sang a hymn and went out,’ let us do likewise.” An hymn or psalm was then sung: after which a collection for the poor was made: the blessing added: and the assembly dismissed. The whole time was about three quarters of an hour.

The Stone Yard Meeting House, Cambridge

June 28th 1761.8

Until the mid-20th century, the supper was celebrated in a separate service for church members, usually immediately following the main service, whereas in contemporary Baptist worship, it would now normally make up part of that main service.

Scripture

Born out of the “radical reformation” in which the Bible was placed in the hands of all Christians, Baptist spirituality needs to be understood within the polarity of scripture and experience. The reading of scripture has been the source of Baptist worship practices but is also central to the content of worship. In particular, preaching has tended to dominate the other elements of worship, and even the most famous Baptist preacher, C. H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), urged his students not to demote the rest of the service in favor of the sermon. This dominance displays both a desire for instruction in the faith and a concern to proclaim the gospel challenge so that new people may come to faith. Preaching can provide an integration of the Christian faith and the daily experience of the congregation and should be seen as an event in which the Holy Spirit is at work in both preacher and hearer. Although Baptists do not usually gather for a weekly Eucharistic celebration, there is a sense in which evangelistic preaching has a similar function in rehearsing the story of salvation and applying it to the lives of the congregation. Some will find it helpful to see here a sacramental understanding of preaching, with the Spirit working through the personality of the preacher and the exposition of scripture.

Personal Faith and Devotion

In Baptist writings about worship, the primary concern has been not so much about the ordering of worship as about a concern for the integrity of the worshipers. From the celebration of faith and discipleship in the baptism of believers to the prizing of extempore prayer, Baptists are concerned more about sincerity and the “spiritual” aspect of worship than about the way in which certain activities in worship might be undertaken. While what they call “simple” worship is often “abstract,” with a focus on intellect and interior feelings, recognition of the importance of the devotional dimension is essential to understanding Baptist worship. John 4.24 has been regarded as a crucial text: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

Freedom

Since Thomas Helwys in the early 17th century, Baptists have been champions of religious liberty. Their worship also displays this concern: each congregation is free under God to design its own worship services. The closing decades of the 20th century saw some increased use of written prayer material, but most prayer is still offered by someone speaking spontaneously on behalf of the congregation. This is regarded both as an expression of that person’s devotion, and therefore sincere, and as a dependence on the Holy Spirit and therefore Spirit filled.

Most Baptist worship is, then, relatively informal and flexible. There is a lack of distinction between public worship and personal devotion at a number of levels, and gathering with others is very important. Worship is a social event, in the sense that the community gathers, as well as an opportunity for personal devotion. Indeed, the notion of “fellowship” combines these elements so that communion is understood both horizontally (among the congregants) and vertically (between the congregation and God).

Community

Although they have always held the office of minister in high regard, Baptists believe strongly in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The ministerial role is relatively well defined, though there is, in practice, nothing a minister does that cannot in certain circumstances be undertaken by a layperson. For example, a minister normally presides at the Lord’s supper, but a church without a minister may well invite whoever is leading worship on a particular day, whether ordained or not, to lead the communion service. Increasingly, the leadership of services in Baptist churches is shared between ministers and other members of the congregation.

Congregational Singing

Perhaps the best expression of community in worship and congregational devotion is to be found in the singing of hymns and songs. Particular Baptists were the first congregations in England regularly to sing hymns, as distinct from psalms. In the later decades of the 17th century, Benjamin Keach introduced a congregational hymn at the monthly Lord’s supper and eventually after the sermon each week. The practice grew, though not without controversy, and the hymns of Isaac Watts were widely sung by Particular Baptists, as well as Independents, until they were supplemented by the Bristol Collection of Ash and Evans (1769) and especially the various editions of John Rippon’s Selection (1791). The 19th and 20th centuries were the age of the denominational hymnbook, which provided a cohesive element of common worship among congregations as well as allowing a congregation to sing together. The widespread use of books saw the demise of “lining out,” in which each line was sung twice, first by a precentor and then by the congregation. More intricate tunes and more stirring singing became possible as hymns increasingly provided an opportunity for corporate devotional expression.

As has been seen, the number of hymns in each service has increased, though the “hymn sandwich” with at least four hymns is probably not much more than a century old. This trend toward increased congregational singing has accelerated with the spread of a Charismatic culture, with its blocks of songs. Given also a modest use of responsive readings and prayers, the proportion of the service in which the congregation actively participates has increased considerably. There are clearly contemporary cultural reasons for this greater involvement, but, arguably, participation on the part of the congregation is a more appropriate expression of Baptist ecclesiology than worship in which most words are uttered by one person.

Mission

The commitment to a “believer church” ecclesiology, which is embodied in their restricting baptism to believers, has given Baptists a theological focus that nurtures both the devotional warmth referred to above and a concern for mission. Especially since the 18th century, evangelism has become a significant priority, and the influence of revivalism has ensured that much Baptist worship includes evangelistic preaching and an invitation to congregants to respond to the proclamation of the gospel. This mission concern will also sometimes express itself in an attempt to make the worship event accessible to outsiders and be “seeker sensitive.”

Future Developments

Baptists in worship display a clear resemblance to other evangelical groups. In other parts of the world, inculturation is beginning to challenge the dominant North American revivalist culture, in favor of being responsive to local cultures. At the same time, British Baptist worship continues to be modified by Charismatic and ecumenical influences, as well as seeking to be missionally relevant. Yet an awareness of Baptist spirituality, with its concern for devotional warmth, relevant preaching, and freedom in community, will need to offer a critique of future developments as Baptists continue to prize relevance in worship as a priority for missionary congregations.

Further Reading

Baptist Union of Great Britain. Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship. Oxford: Oxford University Press and Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1991.Find this resource:

    Cross, Anthony R. Baptism and the Baptists: Theology and Practice in Twentieth Century Britain. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000.Find this resource:

      Cross, Anthony R., and Philip Thompson. Baptist Sacramentalism. Studies in Baptist History and Thought 5. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003.Find this resource:

        Cross, Anthony R., and Philip Thompson Baptist Sacramentalism 2. Studies in Baptist History and Thought 25. Bletchley, UK: Paternoster Press, 2008.Find this resource:

          Dare, Helen., and Simon Woodman. The “Plainly Revealed” Word of God: Baptist Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

            Ellis, Christopher J. “Duty and Delight: Baptist Worship and Identity.” Review and Expositor 100, no. 3 (2003): 337.Find this resource:

              Ellis, Christopher J. Gathering: Spirituality and Theology in Free Church Worship. London: SCM, 2004.Find this resource:

                Ellis, Christopher J., Approaching God: A Guide for Worship Leaders and Worshippers. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2009.Find this resource:

                  Ellis, Christopher J., and Myra Blyth Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press and the Baptist Union of Great Britain, 2005.Find this resource:

                    Fiddes, Paul S., ed. Reflections on the Water: Understanding God and the World through the Baptism of Believers. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1996.Find this resource:

                      Fiddes, Paul S., ed. Under the Rule of Christ: Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008.Find this resource:

                        McKibben, Thomas R. “Our Baptist Heritage in Worship.” Review and Expositor 80 (1983): 53–69.Find this resource:

                          Payne, Ernest A. The Fellowship of Believers: Baptist Thought and Practice Yesterday and Today. London: Carey Kingsgate Press, 1952.Find this resource:

                            Skoglund, John. “Free Prayer.” Studia Liturgica 4 (1974): 151–166.Find this resource:

                              Walker, Michael J., Baptists at the Table. Didcot, UK: Baptist Historical Society, 1992.Find this resource:

                                Notes:

                                (1.) Ernest A. Payne, The Fellowship of Believers: Baptist Thought and Practice Yesterday and Today (London: Carey Kingsgate, 1952), 96.

                                (2.) Champlin Burrage, The Early Dissenters in the Light of Recent Research (1550–1641) (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1912), vol. 2, 172–177.

                                (3.) This sweeping statement would need to be examined and debated. Although the concept of “liturgical preaching” and the increased centrality of the Eucharist certainly support it, the extent to which either of these concepts has been significant in Baptist churches may be another matter.

                                (4.) David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2–3. Bebbington argues that evangelicalism was a new phenomenon of the 18th century, though he concedes “there was much continuity with earlier Protestant traditions.”

                                (5.) “Dominical sacrament” is understood to mean one that has been instituted by Christ. For most Protestant reformers this meant baptism (Matt. 28.19) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11.23–25).

                                (6.) L. E. Addicott and L. G. Champion, eds., Church Book: St. Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge 1720–1832 English Baptist Records (Didcot, UK: Baptist Historical Society, 1991), 41f.

                                (7.) Christopher J. Ellis and Myra Blyth, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press and Baptist Union of Great Britain, 2005), 64.

                                (8.) Addicott and Champion, Church Book, 27.