Church History

The Irish and Baptist Identity

The Irish Baptists inform our understanding of what it means to be Baptists because they have an undisputed beginning. I recently wrote a biography of Thomas Patient who planted for the first Irish Baptist churches (HERE). One of the challenges for Baptists is to pinpoint our beginning. Baptist historians have struggled to identify when and where the movement actually began. Some have tried to link a trail throughout church history from the time of Christ into the English Reformation. Others have claimed it began on the European continent with close links to the Anabaptist tradition. Still others argue the Baptist movement comes directly out of the English Reformation. Beginnings are significant because they inform identity. For example, if our beginnings are closely linked to the Anabaptist tradition then Anabaptist doctrines should help us understand what it means to be a Baptist today. However, the Irish Baptist movement is uniquely helpful because their beginning is undisputed. Their undisputed beginning informs their identity which then informs the broader Baptist identity.


The War Spreads to Ireland

The British Civil War of the 1640’s and 1650’s was largely a political dispute over the powers of the Monarch and Parliament as well as a religious dispute over what is the most biblical form of church government. The Protestants largely sided with the Parliamentarians. Out of the religious dispute arose many of the modern Protestant denominations including the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Each of these camps argue for a particular form of church government. As the conflict progressed Oliver Cromwell rose to power overseeing the Parliamentary forces. He defeated the Royalist forces and took charge of England. However, in 1649 he invaded Ireland. Included in his effort was an attempt to spread the Protestant gospel to the Catholic Irish. Parliament funded a number of ministers to serve as army chaplains to preach the Protestant gospel of faith alone to the Irish. Thomas Patient was serving as a pastor with William Kiffin in one of London’s reformed Baptist churches and chose to accept the call to bring the gospel to Ireland.

Thomas Patient’s Irish Ministry

Even though Thomas Patient is a little-known figure from church history, he lived an interesting life and was a faithful example for contemporary Baptists. He traveled to New England as part of the Pilgrim migration to the new world. However, while in the American colonies he became convinced through reading Scripture and listening to debates that the biblical mode of baptism was by immersion and it should be reserved only for believers. His new-found conviction for believer’s baptism by immersion went against the colony’s doctrine and a warrant was issued for his arrest so he fled back to England. While in London he began pastoring with William Kiffen and they together signed the First London Confession of 1644. That statement of faith defined their church’s doctrine as Protestant, reformed, and baptistic. These are the doctrines he took with him to Ireland.

While in Ireland he began preaching with other ministers at a prominent cathedral in Dublin. He also travelled the southeastern portion of the country preaching the gospel. During these early months of his ministry he founded a church in Waterford utilizing the doctrine of believer’s baptism by immersion. This congregation was so committed to the doctrine that they wrote a letter to the people attending services at the cathedral in Dublin urging them to separate over the issue. A group did indeed separate and formed a church in Dublin based on their convictions about believer’s baptism by immersion. Both congregations, therefore, held to the doctrine of regenerate church members. They taught only those genuinely converted should be baptized and thus become members of their churches.

Many became critical of Patient’s teaching so he wrote On Baptism in order to advocate believer’s baptism by immersion and regenerate church membership. His book is one of the earliest known full-length treatments of the Baptist doctrine. Citing the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, he explained that Christians should obediently follow all of Jesus’ teachings including being baptized. Patient noted the term “baptism” “doth in proper English signify to Dip.”[1] He also explained that the one being baptized is to be a “taught and repentant person.”[2] Related, he wrote “Faith and Repentance go before baptism.”[3] Tenderly, Patient calls on his readers to “obey the word of God’s command”[4] and be baptized by immersion professing their faith in Christ.

Clear Baptist Distinctives

The Irish Baptists teach all Baptists some helpful lessons. First, our key organizing doctrine is believer’s baptism by immersion and the related doctrine of regenerate church membership. Baptist identity is about adhering to those doctrines. Baptists are people who believe in believer’s baptism by immersion and regenerate church membership. If someone does not hold those doctrines then they are not a Baptist. Baptist brethren, your key doctrine is believer’s baptism by immersion.

Second, our distinct doctrine is not soul competency or religious liberty. Patient would not have identified with E. Y. Mullins teaching about soul competency because he rebuked people for not holding to a biblical view of baptism. In fact, he urged them to leave a church and start a new church around the doctrine. Further, even though Baptists have long held and rightly held ideas about religious liberty, Patient would also not have identified with all those ideas. He went to Ireland funded by the English Parliament in order to start Baptist churches. Further, while in Ireland he sought to bring about a government that mandated a Baptist view of church government. The organizing principle of the initial Irish Baptist churches was not soul competency or religious liberty but rather believer’s baptism by immersion and regenerate church membership. Baptist brethren, you should hold to a number of other doctrines but you must also hold to regenerate church membership.

Third, Patient came to his convictions about baptism by interpreting the Bible which was the same way he came to his convictions about other doctrines. Patient, therefore, was first a Protestant then an Evangelical and only then a Baptist. If someone holds to Baptist doctrine it would contradictory to also hold to Catholic doctrine or liberal doctrine. Baptist brethren, you must first be a Protestant and an Evangelical before you can be a Baptist. Thomas Patient and the Irish Baptists teach contemporary Baptists fundamental lessons about our identity.

[1] Thomas Patient, On the Doctrine of Baptism, And the Distinction of the Covenants. (Henry Hills: London, 1654), 8.

[2] Patient, On Baptism, 17.

[3] Patient, On Baptism, 17.

[4] Patient, On Baptism, 179.


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