Church History

Soul Competency or Regenerate Church Membership?

Baptists have long asked the question, “what does it mean to be a Baptist?” E. Y. Mullins was the president of The Southern Baptist Seminary and argued that soul competency was Baptists’ “mother principle.”[1] Other ideas about religious liberty and oppositions to confessions of faith spring from the Mullins’ teachings on soul competency. However, the father of the Irish Baptist movement would disagree with Mullins’ conclusions. Thomas Patient planted the first Baptist churches in Ireland and did so for different reasons than soul competency. The doctrine that led to Patient establishing those first Irish Baptist churches helps Baptists understand what it really means to be a Baptist.


Lessons from Patient’s Relationship to Government

Baptist have long advocated for religious liberty. However, Patient had a relationship with governments that call into question our assumption that all Baptists have always advocated for religious liberty. Thomas and Sarah Patient came to the American colonies in the 1630’s. They held to the New England faith which was marked semi-separatism and congregationalism. But, while in New England they wrestled with a debate over believer’s baptism versus infant baptism. Patient became convinced of believer’s baptism and a warrant was issued for his arrest.[2] Even though he experienced religious persecution for his baptistic doctrine, there is no record of him using the experience to advocate for religious liberty.

Patient has a second note-worthy experience with the government in 1650. John Owen preached a sermon before parliament on February 28, 1650 titled “Steadfastness of Promises, and the Sinfulness of Staggering.” Owen explained, “there was, for the present, one gospel preacher for every walled town in the English possession of Ireland.”[3] In the sermon he requested funds in order to send pastors to Ireland to preach the gospel. Thomas Patient was one of the men who went to Ireland as an army chaplain. Therefore, this is an example of the British government funding a Baptist pastor to go to another country to serve as both an army chaplain and to plant baptistic churches! This is not our contemporary understanding of a separation of church and state. This Baptist pastor was willing to take government funds in order to plant Baptist churches.

Charles Fleetwood was installed as the Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1651. He was an Independent, but he welcomed Baptists into leadership. Brown explains that by 1655 “at least twelve governors of towns and cities, ten colonels, three or four lieutenant-colonels, ten majors, nineteen or twenty captains, two salaried preachers, and twenty-three officers on the civil list”[4] were of the Baptist faith. They had risen to political prominence, but their goals seemed less about religious tolerance and more about nudging the balance of power in their favor. In fact, these realities led to other groups becoming suspicious of the Baptists, which was a factor in Fleetwood losing his position to Henry Cromwell in 1655. Patient appears to have been part of a push for a Baptist religious settlement rather than being an advocate for religious liberty. This is another example from his ministry of the early Baptists not advocating for religious liberty even though they were in positions of political power.

Lessons from Patient’s Organizing Principles

Even though Thomas Patient did not hold to our contemporary understanding of religious liberty, he did plant the first Baptist churches in Ireland. If soul competency and religious liberty were not hallmarks of his ministry, what did he organize those churches around? A letter sent in 1651 from his church to another congregation helps answer the question. Patient and eleven men from his Baptist church sent a letter to another congregation rebuking them for joining together in “fellowship with such as do fundamentally differ in judgement and practice; to witsuch as agree not with you about the true state of a visible Church, nor the fundamental Ordinances thereof.”[5] Patient organized his church around the doctrine of believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership. Further, he and his church rebuked another congregation that did not likewise organize their church according to the same doctrines.

Patient received criticism for his positions on baptism and how to organize a church. As a result, he wrote a full-length book on the doctrine of believer’s baptism titled On the Doctrine of Baptism, And the Distinction of the Covenants.[6] In his book he made the case that “it is the duty of every man that believes and repents, to be baptized.”[7] In his book, Patient makes no mention of religious liberty. Further, he did not write a book on religious liberty as the organizing principle of Baptist churches. Rather, he advocated believer’s baptism by immersion as the doctrine by which Baptist church should organize. According to Thomas Patient, being a Baptist meant holding to believer’s baptism by immersion.

Conclusions for Baptist Identity

This historical evidence should add to the conversion over Baptist identity. The history is clear that Baptist (particularly American Baptists) have long advocated for religious liberty. This history is to be understood and celebrated. As Baptists, we should continue our ministry of advocating for religious liberty. Our efforts are right and good. Our efforts are also part of our history. However, soul competency and religious liberty are not our “mother principle.”[8] Our identity is linked to our conviction the Bible teaches that genuine converts are to publicly profess their faith in Christ by being immersed. Those who are baptized by immersion as believers are the ones who should make up the visible church. Therefore, believer’s baptism by immersion and regenerate church membership are the Baptist distinctions.

[1] E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, Library of Baptist Classics 5 (Nashville: B & H, 1997), 79.

[2] Records and Files of the Quarterly Court of Essex County Massachusetts, vol. 1. 1636-1656, (Essex Institute: Salem, Massachusetts, 1911) 52.

[3] Thomas Russell (ed.), The Works of John Owen, D.D. vol. 1 (London: Richard Baynes, 1826), 91.

[4] Louise Fargo Brown, The Political Activities of the Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men in England During the Interregnum. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912) 136-137.

[5] John Rogers, Ohel: A Tabernacle for the Sun: or Irenicum Evangelicum, An Idea of Church-Discipline. (London, 1653) 302.

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

[7] Patient, On Baptism, 5.

[8] Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, 79.


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