From the first appearance of the English Baptist congregations in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, Baptists were poor, persecuted, despised dissenters who were considered outside the mainstream of English church life. Early on, many of them fled the country, while others met in clandestine conventicles to worship, pray, and teach their beliefs. With intensified persecution in the 1620’s the major leaders and preachers were imprisoned and ridiculed. All of that began to change in the 1630’s. With more converts and even some members with wealth and social standing, Baptists grew bold and published their opinions more widely and engaged in public discussions, sometimes formal debates, to argue their doctrinal positions. Among all of the public activities perhaps none was more significant than the great debate in Southwark which was publicized then and since as a turning point for the struggling sect called Baptists.

The circumstance was this: two prominent English churchmen squared off against each other in what was to become one of the most celebrated religious debates of the seventeenth century. In a large hall (perhaps the famous Guild Hall) in Southwark, the two men presented their respective cases for the nature of the true church: passionately an Anglican denounced the practices of the sly opponent, and boldly the Baptist retorted the premises of logic and tradition. The occasion was a public disputation outside London: the protagonists were Daniel Featley, D.D., and William Kiffin; the date was October 17, 1642.

In an age already characterized by great social and political upheaval (not to speak of the changes wrought in the Church of England), the pot was yet boiling. Earlier in that year Oliver Cromwell had forced the Stuart Dynasty to flee London, and he assumed control of their ecclesiastical machinery. His success was due largely to the cooperation of an army that was predominantly Independent and of Baptistic sentiments in particular. Much to the surprise of the Free Churchmen, however, the Presbyterian hegemony turned about-face and practiced restrictions on the sects and slandered the teachings of Baptists, Seekers, Diggers, Quakers and Fifth Monarchists alike.

The response of these groups was to publish a spate of pamphlets and air their grievances in public debates that would draw wider attention to their presumed legitimacy. It is hard to realize in the twentieth century that very many persons would read the turgid argumentation in the tracts, much less pay attention to public quarrels between religionists. Yet debates were spectacles not unlike the public hangings and military parades common to London Society in the early seventeenth century: they were amusing, entertaining, and, many times, educational. If the great debate at Southwark is a fit example, the sects gained many new converts from the credibility gained in public disputation. The defenders of orthodoxy thus played right into the hands of their opponents by agreeing to debate.

The choice of Southwark is worth noting. The first haven for the persecuted Nonconformists had been the rural countryside in England and Wales. Next when Archbishops Abbot and Laud stepped up persecution, several congregations fled to the Low Countries. That alternative proving to be unpalatable, the dissenters cautiously returned to England and, following the lead of Henry Jacob in 1616, many settled in Southwark, just across the Thames from London proper. The borough was a pocket of lower-class artisans, laborers, and ne’er-do-wells. The area boasted several prisons and theatres; not to be forgotten were the official residences of many leading church officials. (Noteworthy for the colonies, several New England divines hailed from the “Southside,” including John Norton and John Davenport; Lewis du Moulin, son of the French reformer and refugee, preached at a Southwark church.) If there was anywhere in Greater London where outspoken dissenters were relatively secure, it was in Southwark, sheerly because of the numbers of dissenters there.

Speaking in defense of the Establishment was Daniel Featley (1582–1645). Featley was an influential and respected scholastic, sometime pastor and lecturer in the Anglican tradition. While his loyalty to King Charles was never in question, he was able to temper his politics with a strong affirmation of John Calvin, which made him less offensive to the Puritans. He had many friends in Parliament among the Presbyterians, and he was one of the few Anglicans chosen to sit in the Westminster Assembly in 1643. His training at Oxford helped him to earn the reputation of an unmatched controversialist, largely due to his command of the mechanics of logic and biblical languages. From his book, The Dippers Dipt or the Anabaptists Ducked and Plung’d over Head and Ears at a Disputation in Southwark, we gather that Featley was unbending in his theology, relentless in his attacks upon heterodoxy, and, above all else, excessively arrogant. He especially disliked Baptists who “preach and print and practice their impieties openly…they flock in great multitudes to their Jordans…the presses sweat and groan under the load of their blasphemies.” There was perhaps no one more inclined to dispute the “Dippers” than Daniel Featley.

The Baptist William Kiffin (1616–1701) was twenty-four years the junior of Featley. A Southwark native (Featley referred to him as “Cufin”), Kiffin was born the same year that Henry Jacob the Separatist transported his church to Kiffin’s neighborhood, a fact that was to hold great sway over Kiffin’s religious sentiments. In contrast to Featley, Kiffin was an artisan, self-taught in the Scriptures, yet very articulate for a person of little or no social stature. In 1633 Kiffin concluded from his own study of the Scriptures that he should join the Separatist congregation in Southwark which Henry Jacob had founded. Further study led him to a Baptist position in 1641 for which he was imprisoned. Apprenticed as a brewer, the Baptist Kiffin learned through practical experience the work ethic of John Calvin. In him, Daniel Featley would find a stalwart opponent.

According to Featley, the purpose of the debate was to confute altogether the “baptists.” The proceedings began with a prayer by the Anglican divine, followed by the opening query from a Baptist “Scotchman”:

Mastor Doctour, we came to dispute with you at this time, not for contention sake, but to receive satisfaction: We hold that the baptism of Infants cannot be proved lawful by the testimony of Scripture, or by Apostolical Tradition; if you can therefore prove the same either way, we shall willingly submit unto you.

The “Scotchman” thus reduced the Baptist identity to a single issue: believer’s baptism. The idea that the church was to be composed only of true believers who had professed repentance and faith in Christ and experienced New Testament baptism had clear roots in the ministry of John Smyth, who in 1609 announced his intention to separate from other Separatists on that basis and build an entirely new doctrine of the church. There were older instances of the position to be sure: Anabaptists in Europe reached similar conclusions in the prior century, and at least one Englishman baptized himself prior to 1600. To most observers in 1642 however, the principle was only about three decades old, and it was not supported by Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, Separatists, or others in the major Christian traditions.

Featley’s response indicated his insensitivity to the situation and his underestimation of his opponents. “Are you anabaptists?” he retorted, using the guilt-by-association principle that had discredited Baptists by connecting them with the Muensterites of the 1540s. He then arrogantly suggested that his purpose was to defend the Communion book (a Presbyterian revision of the Book of Common Prayer) and to illustrate how both the Latin and the Greek churches had dealt with the heresy of anabaptism. He was sharply critical of the Baptist party: “I could have wished also that you had brought scholars with you who knew how to dispute, which I conceive you do not.” He quickly engaged in a condescending lecture about the mechanics of debate.

Thinking to gain the upper hand, Featley queried the Scotchman about the nature of the Trinity as evidenced in the original Greek language texts that Featley believed to be beyond the comprehension of the unlearned Baptists. The Anglican reasoned that since baptism is made in the name of the Holy Trinity, it was an appropriate question. Baptists saw it as a ploy to cause them to err by misdefining the Godhead theologically as not coequal in divinity. At the end of this the first round of the dispute, Featley confidently barked that the Baptists had committed blasphemy, and the Baptist company turned to William Kiffin. The Auditors or official judges of the debate agreed with Featley and requested that he answer his own question regarding the Trinity, which he did quite adroitly. For the moment at least, it appeared that Baptists were ill-qualified to serve as teachers in matters of religion.

Kiffin opened the second round with the classic question, “What is the nature of the visible church?” As Featley defined the church in Reformation terms, Kiffin pressed further, “Is the Church of England such a church?” To which the Anglican replied with a lengthy defense of the biblical bases of the Book of Articles. The crowd must have roared when the brewer’s apprentice quipped, “For the Thirty-Nine Articles I know not what they are, I never saw them that I remember!”

A third unnamed Baptist then picked up the discussions and asserted, “The true church compels none to come to church, or punishes him for his conscience as the Church of England doth.” Featley’s answer indicated his belief from a variety of Old Testament passages that civil magistrates do have the right to compel persons to the true worship of God because the Law of Moses commanded it. While that line of reasoning might have seemed valid to others, it was anathema to the Baptists. From the time of Thomas Helwys, the founder of the first Baptist congregation on English soil in 1612, they had maintained that kings, magistrates, or clergy had no power to dictate to the conscience of anyone and that every human being was entitled to complete liberty of conscience without appearing to be seditious. While Featley had perhaps won the round, he had uncovered another major Baptist tenet, that being liberty of conscience.

Following a lengthy exchange about the nature of children’s baptism, the debate focused upon the nature of ministry. The Baptists put forth the proposition that only those who are designated by a congregation ought to preach, because others may be appointed by ungodly men. The force of this position lay in its linkage with religious liberty since the Baptists reasoned that it was ungodly to persecute anyone for religious beliefs as the Anglican bishops had done. Therefore the bishops were ungodly men, and their appointments were invalid. Featley’s response was to disclaim any knowledge of the persecution of any godly persons.

Couched in this discussion was the important issue of the empowerment of all believers. Kiffin took issue with Featley over the latter’s designation of the church membership as “laity.” Baptists held that the distinction was not borne out in Scripture and that, in fact, members of the congregation acting as deacons and other officials of the church could preach and administer the sacraments. While Featley would not allow that deacons were mere laymen, he did concede that some laymen had been instrumental in spreading the gospel. Kiffin, ever the gifted layman par excellence, responded, “This is all we desire to do!” in defense of every Christian’s responsibility to proclaim the gospel and expound the Scriptures.

The final round of the Southwark Disputation centered on the understanding and use of Scripture. Throughout the exchange, Featley had sought to embarrass his opponents by demonstrating their inability to use the Scriptures in the original tongues. In several passages of the Geneva Bible he demonstrated what he called erroneous translations which became the basis of poorly conceived attacks upon the bishops and clergy of the Church. In a legalistic fashion, the Anglican position was that the approved text was, in fact, the essence of Holy Scripture.

In contrast, the Baptists asserted, “The letter of the Word of God is not Scripture, without the revelation of the Spirit of God; the Word revealed by the Spirit is Scripture.” With a logic that presaged a twentieth-century Baptist posture, the Baptist spokesman went on to argue that the Word of God becomes operant in human experience: “Experience is the best Doctour that teacheth us.” For early Baptists, the Bible had come to be a dynamic tool in the making of individual Christian experience and the reordering of the church. Scripture was not a textbook of syllogisms; with the illumination of God’s Spirit, it was a commentary on human affairs to be applied personally and corporately, specifically and with authority. And because God’s Spirit could deal with anyone, every person could participate in the ministry of the Word.

As the debate drew to a weary close, Kiffin thrust a final sword with the suggestion that he, the illiterate artificer, was more lawfully called to preach the Word than his opponent, for, as the Baptist put it, “You are called by bishops who live in known sins.” Featley’s reply: “He who ordained me was a learned, grave and religious Bishop who lived and died without spot or taint and I cannot sufficiently admire your boldness…” Kiffin’s last recorded response placed his focus squarely on the Separatist/Baptist raison d’etre: “Whoever he was, he was but a particular man and Christ gave the power of ordaining to his Church, not to any particular man.”

The fundamental principle illustrated in the Great Debate at Southwark and unleashed in the Baptist reordering of English Protestantism was that the true church of Jesus Christ is a body of regenerate baptized believers, informed by the Word and empowered by the Spirit for all necessary work pertaining to the gospel. No form of ecclesiastical or individual tradition could overrule the authority which Christ had rightly given to his church.

The debate lasted for upwards of five to six hours given the amount of discussion that Featley later reported in written summary fashion. Featley remembered that the “Knights, ladies and gentlemen gave him a great thanks” and that some of the Anabaptists desired a second meeting which never occurred. He had, after all, used “the conquering force of truth to still the vaunting brags of the upstart sectaries.” Kiffin, though his recollections were not recorded, must have been satisfied that his co-religionists had dealt effectively in the marketplace of ideas and, moreover, had acquitted themselves admirably in the face of one of England’s most capable controversialists. The Baptists had come of age during the probing debate in Southwark and had demonstrated that they were biblically articulate, theologically sophisticated, and a socio-economic force to be reckoned with.

Less than two years after the Great Debate, Daniel Featley was accused of collusion with Archbishop Ussher, and it was charged that Featley had been with the royal entourage at Oxford during the military campaigns in 1643. For this he was imprisoned as a spy and died in that condition in 1645. As a final appeal for freedom he compiled his book, The Dippers Dipt, which was published posthumously. William Kiffin helped to organize the first Particular Baptist Church at Devonshire Square and served as its pastor for over sixty years. He was a signer of the First London Confession in 1644, and after entering the woolen trade, he became one of the wealthiest merchants of his day. In fact he gave King Charles II £10,000 to help the royal treasury and was thus able to use his influence many times on behalf of his Baptist interests and friends.

Though Daniel Featley’s book remains his personal statement of achievement, the victory at Southwark in October 1642 rightly belongs to the Baptists. Their emphasis upon the local church as a visible body of believers signified in believer’s baptism by immersion, affirmation of the ministry of all believers, and the authority of Scripture in all matters, had a profound impact upon Baptist development and all of Christendom.

Dr. Brackney is Executive Director of the American Baptist Historical Society.