Some people like to stand on the shore of an ocean and see the magnitude of God’s creation. Some prefer to use the same ocean to travel beyond that which is known to them. Still others like to play in the surf, even swimming against the tide or trusting i

Seventh Day Baptists: a microcosm of Baptist history: some people like to stand on the shore of an ocean and see the magnitude of God’s creation. Some prefer to use the same ocean to travel beyond that which is known to them. Still others like to play in the surf, even swimming against the tide or trusting in its buoyancy to carry their bodies to the safety of the shore

Don Sanford

The Christian church may be viewed in similar fashion, a means to get from place to place, either in the known or the unknown, or as a ace where one may find enjoyment or challenge.

Others with probing minds want to know more about this sea of God’s grace. They want to analyze its content, discover its sources, or observe the process by which the rain falls on the land or springs up from the depths of the earth and makes its way to the shore. Some find great fascination with the effect that these streams have had upon the lives of those influenced by them. Some may use these streams as a source of power or of nourishment.

To observe this process or tap its resources, one does not have to bring the whole ocean into the laboratory of life, or put a complete harbor into the crucible of experience. Individuals can take samples from various parts of the ocean to find much of the information and inspiration that they are seeking. As a part of that stream which has been flowing through history for three and a half centuries, Seventh Day Baptists have provided for the historian a natural sample, or a “microcosm.” Their history can be analyzed and studied to reveal much about the larger body of which it is a part.

Struggle for Identity and Freedom

In 1992, the Southern Baptist Historical Commission produced a series of videotapes entitled “Baptists in America.” (1) The first tape, “Struggle for Identity and Freedom,” covered the years 1650 to 1750. According to the video, there were sixty Baptist churches in America in 1750, including twenty-three General Baptist churches, twenty-three Particular Baptist churches, eight Seventh Day Baptist churches, two German Seventh Day Baptist churches, three Rogerene churches, and one Indian Baptist church. With the exception of the German and Indian Baptist churches, these churches all had their direct roots in the seventeenth-century English Reformation.

Although most Baptists have agreed on certain principles, such as the Bible as the supreme source for doctrinal belief, baptism of believers by immersion, and congregational polity, Baptists have applied these principles in significantly different ways. The videotape, “Struggle for Identity and Freedom,” listed four significant differences: (1) different interpretations of the atonement (General Baptists vs. Particular Baptists); (2) different practices in singing (the singing of hymns vs. the singing of the Psalms); (3) different understanding about the need to practice the laying on of hands; and (4) different views on the proper day on which to worship. In varying degree, the Seventh Day Baptists have dealt with each of these differences over the course of their 350 years of history. The videotape ended with the three tensions that exist among Baptists today: (a) cooperation vs. independence; Co) scripture vs. tradition; and (c) individual conscience vs. group authority.

General vs. Particular Baptists

The Protestant Reformation brought a release from the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church and elevated the Bible as the supreme source of theological thought and practice. Individual interpretation, however, led to many differences in both belief and practice. Someone once said, “We are all literalists in spots; we choose our spots; some are more spotted than others.” The interpretation of scripture was polarized between the selective literalism of Calvinism and the more liberal application found within the teachings of Arminius. The question of baptism or re-baptism was one of the issues debated in the early seventeenth-century Baptist churches in London and contributed to the development of General Baptists and Particular Baptists.

The first Seventh Day Baptist church in England was founded about 1650. Its records carry the name Mill Yard Seventh Day General Baptist Church. Although the first record book is missing, the second book which begins with 1673 is in the archives of the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society and reveals some of the relationships between that General Baptist church and its near contemporaries: Pinners’ Hall and the Bell Lane Seventh Day Baptist Churches, which were Particular in doctrine.

The most prominent seventeenth-century Seventh Day Baptist family was that of the Stennetts, beginning with Edward, and followed by Joseph I, Joseph II, and Samuel. The four volumes of biography, history, and writings of Joseph I located in our archives give insights into the persecution of Edward for his beliefs and his influence on the family and the works of Joseph. Edward did not hold a regular pastorate but preached often wherever he traveled. Some of his correspondence with Seventh Day Baptists in America gave encouragement to them.

Joseph I was excluded from such schools as Oxford or Cambridge because of his dissenter ideas, but he mastered French and Italian and became a critic in Hebrew and other Oriental languages. His biographer noted that Joseph was not ashamed of any notion in religion that might be out of fashion, claiming to be the better satisfied with his principles, “because they were formed on a diligent and impartial study of the holy Scriptures themselves.” (2) In 1690, he was ordained as pastor of the Pinners’ Hall Particular Baptist Church and served it for the rest of his life.

His son, Joseph II, was baptized in the Pinners’ Hall Particular Baptist Church, but most of his ministry was among Baptist churches in Exeter and London. An entry from the Mill Yard record book dated March 5, 1720, stated that an invitation was made to Joseph Stennett that “he might be useful for the promotion of the Sabbath to come to preach among the Sabbath keepers.” The record also stated: “agreed by the Church to Invite him in Love; Trusting to his Moderation he knowing our Principles about Generall point.” (3)

The General vs. the Particular division of the seventeenth century was reflected in the twentieth century in the Modernist vs. Fundamentalist approach to the scriptures. Among Seventh Day Baptists, this controversy came to a peak in the 1920s-30s, with lingering effects in succeeding decades. The denominational weekly publication, the Sabbath Recorder, was considered too liberal by some of conservatives or “fundies” as they were sometimes called. These conservatives established the Bible Defense League and published their own paper, the Exponent. In 1938, these conservatives challenged other Seventh Day Baptists: “Let us remember we have been preserved as a denomination through the centuries not simply because we honored God in keeping the Sabbath, but because we honored His Word by believing it.” (4)

The Seventh Day Baptist General Conference at that time might have split were it not for the fact that our numbers were too small to support two denominations. The conference’s family orientation also helped to prevent a split, because a division would undoubtedly have separated relatives. This theological issue between the General and Particular Baptists later factored into the withdrawal from two ecumenical organizations in which the Seventh Day Baptists had been charter members: the National Council of Churches in 1973 and the World Council in 1976. These withdrawals led to closer relationship with other Baptists in such groups as the Baptist World Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the North American Baptist Fellowship, when it was active, and the Baptist History and Heritage Society.

The Use of Hymns in Worship

The Protestant Reformation in England brought a rejection of some of the ritualism of the Roman Catholic Church. Most Protestant groups sought to make the Bible more readily available to the people, and some of those groups believed that scripture alone ought to provide the vehicle for worship. Seventh Day Baptists, however, choose to use hymns, and they were among the first Protestants in England to regularly sing hymns in worship. As early as 1657, Thomas Tillam wrote a hymn for use in a communion service linking the Sabbath and communion. (5) In 1696, Joseph Stennett wrote that “though the Psalms were good for general worship, something peculiarly Christian was needed for the Lord’s Supper.” By 1709, he had compiled and published fifty hymns for communion and another twelve for the sacrament of baptism. (6)

David Music, in “The Newport Collection (1766): The First Baptist Hymnal in America,” stated, “By far the most significant source drawn upon by the compiler of the Newport Collection was the British Seventh Day Baptist hymnist, Joseph Stennett. The entire contents of Stennett’s two collections were reprinted, sixty-two texts in all.” (7) One of Stennett’s techniques in was to make marginal references to passages of scripture in his hymns.

In subsequent years, most Baptist churches have accepted the use of music in public worship. However, uniformity has not always characterized the type of music used. The gospel hymns that ushered in the twentieth century have been replaced in many twenty-first Baptist churches by choruses that are accompanied by string and percussion instruments.

Laying on of Hands

Biblically, the ordinance of laying on of hands, had a variety of meanings. It may have symbolized a passing of a blessing as with Isaac’s bestowing the blessing on Jacob; Jesus’s blessing of the little children; or the transfer of healing power. (8) In the New Testament church, the laying on of hands took on special meaning in the transfer of authority and the ordination of deacons in Acts 6:1-6 and in Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint or ordain elders in every town. This practice was one of the divisive issues that led twenty members of the Six Principle Baptist Church in 1656 to leave John Clarke’s First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island.

Because Baptists hold to the “priesthood of all believers,” some interpreted believer’s baptism as an entrance into that universal priesthood of believers. The laying on of hands at baptism thus confirmed baptism as ordination into that priesthood. Most Baptists, however, understand the rite of laying on of hands as a recognition of deacon or pastoral leadership, with only those who had been ordained participating in the actual laying on of hands. The early minutes of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, which was founded in 1802, show that ministers were ordained by the conference upon recommendation of a council called a presbytery, composed of elders and deacons at that session of the conference. In 1889, the conference recommended that ordination be conducted by the local church, with representatives invited from sister churches.

Day of Worship

The most distinctive difference between most Baptist groups and the Seventh Day Baptists is the day of worship. Early Seventh Day Baptists raised the question: “Should we worship on Sunday or on the Sabbath which of course we know biblically is Friday night and Saturday.” In the Seventh Day Baptist archives is a copy of the 1695 Nicolas Bownde book, The Doctrine of the Sabbath. Early in the book, he wrote, “it was as needful for the Lord to tell us which was the day, as to tell us that there ought to be a day.” He ended this argument by stating, “The Sabbath must needs be still upon the seventh day as it alwais hath been.” Then, he completely reversed himself and departed from the scripture as he attempted to prove that “all men must keepe holy this seventh day, and none other, which was unto them not the seventh day, but the first day of the weeke as it is so called many times in the New Testament, and so it still standeth in force, that we are bound unto the seventh day, though not that very seventh.” (9) His book was influential in the early seventeenth-century Puritanism, influencing anti-Jewish sentiment in England and the Blue Laws in New England.

The availability of the scriptures brought to many the conviction that worshipping on the seventh day was valid. Theophilus Brabourne, a priest within the Church of England, was imprisoned for his “Defence of the Most Ancient and Sacred Ordinance of God’s Sabbath Day.” (10) Brabourne attempted to work within the Church of England, believing that if he could convince the king and the archbishop to worship on the Sabbath, then the Church of England would adopt this practice. Henry Jessey, the third pastor of the famous Baptist church in England, known as the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church, began worshipping on the Sabbath in 1653. His biographer wrote that for about two years “he kept his opinion much to himself and observed the day in his own chamber with four or five others, but on the first day he preached as before.” (11) Jessey did not attempt to force his doctrine upon his church, but he did publish a calendar that used the name “Sabbath” for the seventh day of the week. John Milton, in A Treatise on Christian Doctrine Compiled from the Holy Scripture Alone, stated that “by the prescription of the decalogue, it will surely be safer to observe the seventh day, according to the express commandment of God, than on the authority of mere human conjecture to adopt the first.” (12)

Seventh Day Baptists in America paralleled their English brethren. They were Baptists first in belief and practice; then through their reliance on scripture, they became Sabbath observers. The transcript of Samuel Hubbards’ journal gives his account of his family’s 1647 separation from the established church of Massachusetts:

God having enlightened both, but mostly my wife, into his holy

ordinance of baptizing only of visible believers, and being very

zealous for it, she was mostly struck at and answered two times

publicly, where I was said to be almost as bad as she, and [we] are

threatened imprisonment to Hartford jail, if not to renounce it or

to remove; that scripture came into our minds, if they persecute you

in one place flee to another; and so we did. (13)

The following year the Hubbards moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where they were baptized by John Clarke and united with the First Baptist Church of Newport, the second Baptist church in America. Almost from the beginning, Hubbard, John Crandall, and William Hiscox were accepted as leaders among the Baptists in Rhode Island.

In 1666, following a study of the scriptures, the Hubbards came to the conviction that worship should take place on the seventh day. In his journal, Hubbard wrote, “My wife took up the keeping of the Lord’s holy 7th day Sabbath the 10 day March 1665. I took it up 1 day April 1665. Our daughter Ruth 25 Oct. 1666. Rachel–January 15 day 1666. Bethiah–Feb. 1888. Our son Joseph Clarke 23 Feb. 1666.” (14) For about five years, the family continued in covenant relationship with First Baptist Church. Eventually, two couples who had joined the Hubbands in the Sabbath observance broke ties with the church, which led the five remaining Sabbath keepers in the church to decide that they could no longer continue in covenant relationship with the “apostates.” In 1671, this group established the first Seventh Day Baptist Church in America. Their covenant contained the following statement:

Entered into Covenant with the Lord and one another, and gave

ourselves to God and to each other, to Walk together in all God’s

Holy Commandments and the Ordinances according to What the Lord had

Discovered & Should Discover to us, to be his Mind for us to be

obedient unto, With Sence upon our Hearts of great need to be

watchful over one another, Did promise so to do, and in Building and

Edifying each other in our Most Holy Faith. (15)

About thirty years later, a second beginning of Seventh Day Baptists in America stemmed from the Quaker migration into Pennsylvania. Its guarantee of freedom drew non-conformists from both England and the Continent. Yet, a guarantee of freedom often is limited to those who agree with the majority of the dissidents. Thus, some of the most stringent so-called Blue Laws were found in Pennsylvania. The Frame of Government of the Province of Pennsylvania, printed in 1682, contained the provision: “all persons who believe in God and live peaceably “shall in no way be molested or prejudiced for their Religious Persuasion or Practice in matters of Faith and Worship, nor shall they be compelled at any time to frequent or maintain any Religious Worship or, Place or Ministry whatsoever.” Yet, the very next article affirmed: “that according to the good example of the Primitive Christians, and for the sake of Creation, every First Day of the week called the Lord’s Day, People shall abstain from their common labor, that they may the better dispose themselves to Worship God according to their Understanding.” (16)

Many of the early Sabbath keepers migrated into new territory in Western Virginia, and some moved into South Carolina and Georgia. Morgan Edwards in his history of Georgia Baptists noted that the first Baptist communion in Georgia was held among the Seventh Day Baptist church. (17) This group shared the doctrine of the Sabbath with German immigrants who had established a semi-monastic colony during the mid-eighteenth century at Ephrata, in Lancaster County. The Seventh Day Baptists in Ephrata, however, did not survive. In addition to their minority status as Sabbath-keepers, three other factors contributed to their demise. Although they had a noncombatant role in the Revolutionary War, they cared for the wounded following the Battle at Brandywine, which resulted in the caregivers developing dysentery. A second factor had to do with their major source of income: printing. The army confiscated their printed and non-printed paper to use for musket wadding, thus depriving them of money. The third factor was that their encouragement of celibacy limited biological growth. Today, the restored Ephrata community buildings and the collection of artifacts housed there by the state of Pennsylvania offers valuable insights into colonial life to the thousands of people who visit there.

A third beginning of the Seventh Day Baptists in America stems from a migration of persecuted Baptists from Massachusetts who settled first on the banks of the Piscataqua River, the river that separated Maine and New Hampshire. The long arm of Puritan persecution continued to harass those who embraced dissenting views causing a Baptist migration to New Jersey. Thomas Griffiths, in A History of Baptists in New Jersey, suggested that the Baptists call their home Piscataway, “linking the memories of persecution and of escape from bondage and that of freedom…. Puritan intolerance could as well reach them in their hiding in the wilds as in nearer dwellings.” (18)

On his way to church one Sunday in 1705, Edmund Dunham, a Baptist deacon, chided his neighbor for doing “servile” work on Sunday. When challenged to prove that it was scripturally wrong to work on Sunday, Dunham took the question to his Sunday School class. When they failed to find biblical support for Sunday worship, the seventeen members of the church withdrew and founded the third Seventh Day Baptist church in America. This church sent their pastor, Edmund Dunham, to be ordained by the Hopkinton Seventh Day Baptist Church in Rhode Island.

Continuing Tension among Baptists

The 1992 videotape ended with three areas of tensions that have existed within Baptist tradition: (a) Cooperation vs. Independence; (b) Scripture vs. Tradition, and (c) Individual vs. Group Authority. Each of these tensions has been experienced by Seventh Day Baptists in their relationships within the larger Christian community.

In spite of the differences that have set Seventh Day Baptists apart from their Baptist brothers and sisters, a remarkable spirit of ecumenicity has kept them part of the Baptist family. In England, the sharing of pulpits was common as with Henry Jessey and the Stennetts. In 1694, the First Baptist Church of Newport was without a pastor and voted to place themselves for a time “under the ministry of the Rev. Mr. William Hiscox of the 7th day Church.” (19) Such arrangements have continued to be put into place throughout the history of this church, and many of their pastors have served as interim pastors in Baptist, Congregationalist, and Methodist churches.

When the Philadelphia Baptist Association established a college to educate its ministers, Rhode Island was selected as the college’s location because it had a Baptist governor and the majority of legislators were Baptists. That governor, Samuel Ward, was a Seventh Day Baptist, and seven members of that denomination served on the governing bodies in the founding of Rhode Island College (now Brown University).

In 1938, A. J. C. Bond, dean of the Seventh Day Baptist Seminary, was one of two Baptists from the United States at the Utrecht, Holland, conference to draft a constitution for the Word Council of Churches. In a similar ecumenical conference, one delegate asked how many people he represented. The presiding officer replied, “Seventh Day Baptists weigh more than they count.”

Winthrop Hudson spoke of Seventh Day Baptists as being “separate in organization and practice but ecumenical in spirit.” As one of their most notable features he said, “It is one of the wonders of history that Seventh Day Baptists have been able to survive at all. Small groups usually do not have a long history. They either grow or die. This is especially true of nonsectarian groups like the Seventh Day Baptists who are unwilling to deny the name Christian to those who do not agree with them in all things. Reasonable people appealing to reasonable people do not usually have the stamina to maintain their witness and their existence in the midst of a larger society whose members they are not ready to condemn out of hand.” (20)

(1.) “Struggle for Identity and Freedom,” tape 1, Baptists in America (Nashville, TN: Southern Baptist Historical Commission, 1992).

(2.) Joseph Stennett, The Works of the Late Reverend Mr Joseph Stennett, 4 vols. (London, 1732), 8.

(3.) Mill Yard, London, Eng. Seventh Day Baptist Church Records, 1573-1945, ms. CRR 1932.1, Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society Library, 234.

(4.) “Report of Christian Social Action Committee,” Conference Minutes, Seventh Day Baptist Yearbook (1938), 106.

(5.) Thomas Tillam, “The Seventh Day Sabbath. Sought out and Celebrated,” microfilm in Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society Library.

(6.) Works of the Late Reverend and Learned Mr Joseph Stennett, vol. 4 (London: n.p., 1732), 49ff.

(7.) David Music, “The Newport Collection,” Baptist History and Heritage 37, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 87.

(8.) Genesis 27:21ff; Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 5:23.

(9.) Nicholas Bounde, The Doctrine of the Sabbath (London: n.p., 1595), 32-35.

(10.) Theophilus Brabourne, A Defence of Sabbath, 2nd ed (London: n.p., 1632), title page.

(11.) Edward Whiston, The Life and Death of Mr Henry Jessey (n.p., 1671), 87.

(12.) John Milton, Treatise on Christian Doctrine Compiled from the Holy Scripture Alone (Boston: Cummings, Hillard & Co. 1825), 2:32-41.

(13.) Samuel Hubbard, “Register of Mr. Samuel Hubbard of Newport: 1610-1689,” transcriptions of excerpts with notes from Isaac Backus (Providence, RI: Rhode Island Historical Society Library, ca. 1775), microfilm B 136 I, 7-8.

(14.) Ibid. 9-10. Son Joseph Clarke was Bethiah’s husband and the nephew of John Clarke.

(15.) Isaac Backus Papers, Mass 1984-1 Box 6 (available at Seventh Day Baptist Historical Library).

(16.) The Frame of Government First Provincial Council and General Assembly (n.p., 1682), 11.

(17.) Morgan Edwards, Materials Toward a History of the Baptists, ed. Weeks & Warren (Danielsville, GA: Heritage Papers, 1984).

(18.) Thomas Griffiths, A History of Baptists in New Jersey (Hightstown, N J: Barr, 1904), 1:252.

(19.) Edwin Gaustad, Baptist Piety: The Last Will and Testimony of Obadiah Holmes (Grand Rapids MI: Christian UP, 1978), 106.

(20.) Winthrop Hudson, “Willis Russell Lecture,” Alfred University, 14 Feb, 1977; reprinted in the Sabbath Recorder April 1977, 28.

Don Sanford is historian emeritus for the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society, Janesville, Wisconsin.

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