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Radical Religion and Laudian Rites: Baptists and the Imposition of Hands in Revolutionary England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2022


This article argues that the radical religious movements emerging during the English Revolution were indebted to a wider range of influences than is commonly assumed. This overarching argument is advanced through a close examination of a specific religious rite practiced by English General Baptists during the 1640s and 1650s: during this period, many General Baptists began to lay hands upon newly baptized converts as an initiatory liturgical rite. While this phenomenon has been widely noted, the full significance of the practice has not been fully appreciated due to both a failure of scholars to adequately locate the rite within a broader historical and theological context and a cluster of interpretive errors that have persisted throughout the literature. Though commonly interpreted as an example of radical puritanism, the Baptist imposition of hands is better understood as a radical reappropriation of confirmation as practiced in the Church of England, and more specifically, a reinterpretation of confirmation as it was pioneered by Laudian divines during the 1630s. By illuminating ways in which the General Baptist practice of laying on of hands echoed a High Church Laudian sacramentalism typically not associated with religious radicalism, this article broadens understanding of the provenance of radical religious ideology during the mid-seventeenth century and further evidences the dizzying theological eclecticism of the period.

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1 Taylor, Jeremy, Theologia Eklektikē: A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying [. . .] (London, 1647), 1Google Scholar.

2 Featley, Daniel, Kātabaptistai kataptüstoi: The Dippers Dipt [. . .] (London, 1645)Google Scholar, sig. Cr. On the collapse of the old social order during the early 1640s, see Cressy, David, England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution, 1640–1642 (Oxford, 2006)Google Scholar.

3 Edward Barber, A Small Treatise of Baptisme, or Dipping [. . .] (London, 1642), sig. A2r. Barber's argument alludes to 1 Corinthians 1:27–28.

4 John Spilsberie, Gods Ordinance, the Saints Priviledge [. . .] (London, 1646), sig. A2r. The image of the market to characterize mid-seventeenth-century religious exchange has been explored in Bernard Capp, “The Religious Marketplace: Public Disputations in Civil War and Interregnum England,” English Historical Review 129, no. 536 (2014): 48–78; Matthew C. Bingham, “English Baptists and the Struggle for Theological Authority, 1642–1646,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 68, no. 3 (2017): 546–69.

5 John Coffey, “Religious Thought,” in The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution, ed. Michael J. Braddick (Oxford, 2015), 447–65, at 456.

6 Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Chicago, 1992), 12–13.

7 David R. Como, “Radical Puritanism, c. 1558–1660,” in The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism, ed. John Coffey and Paul C. H. Lim (Cambridge, 2008), 241–58, at 242–43. See also David R. Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford, 2004), 22.

8 Como, Blown by the Spirit, 255.

9 David R. Como, Radical Parliamentarians and the English Civil War (Oxford, 2018), 181.

10 T. D. Bozeman, “‘The Glory of the Third Time’: John Eaton as Contra-Puritan,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47, no. 4 (1996): 638–54, at 641.

11 Como, “Radical Puritanism,” 252.

12 Como, 248–49.

13 T. L. Underwood, Primitivism, Radicalism, and the Lamb's War: The Baptist-Quaker Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England (New York, 1997), 7.

14 Stephen Brachlow, “Puritan Theology and General Baptist Origins,” Baptist Quarterly 31, no. 4 (1985): 179–94, at 180.

15 Lonnie D. Kliever, “General Baptist Origins: The Question of Anabaptist Influence,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36, no. 4 (1962): 291–321, at 294.

16 See Matthew C. Bingham, Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Revolution (New York, 2019), 62–89.

17 On early modern English Baptists, see Murray Tolmie, The Triumph of the Saints: The Separate Churches of London, 1616–1649 (Cambridge, 1977); J. F. McGregor, “The Baptists: Fount of All Heresy,” in Radical Religion in the English Revolution, ed. J. F. McGregor and B. Reay (Oxford, 1984), 23–63; B. R. White, The English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century (Didcot, 1996); Stephen Wright, The Early English Baptists, 1603–1649 (Woodbridge, 2006); Matthew C. Bingham, “English Radical Religion and the Invention of the General Baptists, 1609–1660,” Seventeenth Century 34, no. 4 (2019): 469–91; David H. Wenkel, “The Doctrine of the Extent of the Atonement among the Early English Particular Baptists,” Harvard Theological Review 112, no. 3 (2019): 358–75.

18 On antiformalism and its relationship to puritan radicalization, see J. C. Davis, “Against Formality: One Aspect of the English Revolution,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, no. 3 (1993): 265–88, at 265; Como, Radical Parliamentarians, 384–408.

19 Ariel Hessayon, “Gerrard Winstanley, Radical Reformer,” in Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism in Context, ed. Ariel Hessayon and David Finnegan (Aldershot, 2011), 87–112; Ariel Hessayon, “Winstanley and Baptist Thought,” Prose Studies 36, no. 1 (2014): 15–31; Michael Mendle, “Putney's Pronouns: Identity and Indemnity in the Great Debate,” in The Putney Debates of 1647, ed. Michael Mendle (Cambridge, 2001), 125–47; Jason Peacey, “Radicalism Relocated: Royalist Politics and Pamphleteering of the Late 1640s,” in Hessayon and Finnegan, Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism, 51–68.

20 Nicholas McDowell, “The Beauty of Holiness and the Poetics of Antinomianism: Richard Crashaw, John Saltmarsh and the Language of Religious Radicalism in the 1640s,” in Hessayon and Finnegan, Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism, 31–49, at 31.

21 Nicholas McDowell, The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion, and Revolution, 1630–1660 (Oxford, 2003), 5.

22 Nicholas McDowell, “The Ghost in the Marble: Jeremy Taylor's Liberty of Prophesying (1647) and Its Readers,” in Scripture and Scholarship in Early Modern England, ed. Ariel Hessayon and Nicholas Keene (Aldershot, 2006), 176–91, at 177.

23 John Griffith, The Searchers for Schism Search'd (London, 1669), 52–53.

24 For example, see Tolmie, Triumph of the Saints, 78–79; McGregor, “The Baptists,” 43; White, English Baptists, 36–40; Wright, Early English Baptists, 138–41; Clint C. Bass, Thomas Grantham (1633–1692) and General Baptist Theology (Oxford, 2013), 103–36.

25 See James F. Turrell, “‘Until Such Time as He Be Confirmed’: The Laudians and Confirmation in the Seventeenth Century Church of England,” Seventeenth Century, no. 20 (2005): 204–22.

26 Edward Cardwell, A History of Conferences and Other Proceedings Connected with the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1849), 173.

27 Turrell, “Until Such Time,” 212. See also Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 (Cambridge, 1995), 467–68; Philip Tovey, Anglican Confirmation: 1662–1820 (London, 2014), 11, 28–29; Robert Cornwall, “The Rite of Confirmation in Anglican Thought during the Eighteenth Century,” Church History 68 (1999): 359–72, at 365–67.

28 Cornwall, “Rite of Confirmation,” 365. See also S. L. Ollard, who notes that while numerous early modern Protestant writers “commended Confirmation,” “they are all silent about any gift of the Holy Spirit in such a rite.” S. L. Ollard, “Confirmation in the Anglican Communion,” in Confirmation or the Laying on of Hands, 2 vols. (London, 1926–27), 1:60–245, at 136.

29 Turrell, “Until Such Times,” 209.

30 Edward Boughen, as quoted in Turrell, “Until Such Times,” 210.

31 John Cosin, The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, John Cosin [. . .], vol. 5, Notes and Collections on the Books of Common Prayer (Oxford, 1855), 143, 145.

32 Herbert Thorndike, Of the Government of Churches (Cambridge, 1641), 129. See also W. B. Patterson, s.v. “Thorndike, Herbert (bap. 1597?, d. 1672),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (All citations to the dictionary are to the online service).

33 Herbert Thorndike, An Epilogue to the Tragedy of the Church of England [. . .] (London, 1659), 149.

34 Jeremy Taylor, Of the Sacred Order and Offices of Episcopacie [. . .] (London, 1647), 31.

35 “Two Association Meetings in Kent, 1657,” Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society 3, no. 4 (1913), 247–50, at 248.

36 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. Bill J. Leonard, 2nd rev. ed. (Valley Forge, 2011), 210.

37 For example, see Taylor, Of the Sacred Order and Offices of Episcopacie, 32.

38 William Rider, Laying on of Hands Asserted [. . .] (London, 1656), 155. Further examples include Christopher Blackwood, A Soul Searching Catechism, Wherein Is Opened and Explained [. . .] the Six Fundamental Points Set Down Heb. 6.1 [. . .] (London, 1653); Thomas Grantham, St. Paul's Catechism, or a Brief and Plain Explication of the Six Principles of the Christian Religion, as Recorded Heb. 6.1, 2 [. . .] (London, 1687).

39 Turrell, “Until Such Time,” 212.

40 Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 178.

41 Rider, Laying on of Hands, 21.

42 Rider, 55.

43 Thomas Grantham, The Fourth Principle of Christs Doctrine Vindicated [. . .] (London, 1674), 1.

44 Adam Taylor argued, “Imposition of hands on baptized believers, as such, appears to have been unknown to the confessors of 1611.” Adam Taylor, History of the English General Baptists of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1818), 411. For an example of a prominent mid-seventeenth-century baptistic, Arminian independent who stood well outside the sphere of any purported Laudian influence, see Coffey's outstanding intellectual biography of John Goodwin. Goodwin sits far more comfortably within model of Baptist as radical puritan: John Coffey, John Goodwin and the Puritan Revolution: Religion and Intellectual Change in Seventeenth-Century England (Woodbridge, 2006).

45 Henry Danvers, A Treatise of Laying on of Hands [. . .] (London, 1674), 59.

46 Danvers, Treatise of Laying on of Hands, 59.

47 Danvers, 14.

48 Danvers, 4–6.

49 Danvers, 42.

50 Danvers, 57.

51 Grantham, The Fourth Principle, 8–9.

52 Danvers, Treatise of Laying on of Hands, 53.

53 R. L. Greaves, s.v. “Cornwell (or Cornewell, Cornhill), Francis (fl. 1618–1646),” in Biographical Dictionary of British Radicals in the Seventeenth Century, ed. R. L. Greaves and Robert Zaller, 3 vols. (Brighton, 1984), 1:178; Greaves, s.v. “Blackwood, Christopher (1607/8–1670),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Stefano Villani, s.v. “Fisher, Samuel (Bap. 1604, D. 1665),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

54 Thomas F. Healy, Richard Crashaw (Leiden, 1986), 43.

55 As Bass has observed, “There are some exceptions to the correlation between political radicalism and opposition to the laying on of hands . . . Nevertheless, there seems to be a trend. Few General Baptists who published in favour of the laying on of hands took part in the parliamentary forces. Moreover, few of their kind were sympathetic to the Fifth Monarchy men, even before Venner's uprising.” Bass, Thomas Grantham, 122, 62.

56 Giles Firmin, Scripture-Warrant Sufficient Proof for Infant-Baptism [. . .] (London, 1688), sig. A2v.

57 Thomas Crosby, The History of the English Baptists: From The Reformation to the Beginning of the Reign of King George I, 4 vols. (London, 1738–1740), 3:86.

58 Thomas Grantham, “The Author to the Reader,” in The Baptist against the Papist [. . .] (London, 1663), n.p.

59 Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus [. . . .] (London, 1678), book 2:31.

60 Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, book 2:31.

61 Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Book 2:36, 39, 46–47.

62 Tovey, Anglican Confirmation, 28.

63 McDowell, “Ghost in the Marble,” 178.

64 McDowell, “Beauty of Holiness,” 49; McDowell, “Ghost in the Marble,” 177.

65 Bass, Thomas Grantham, 130.

66 Bass, 104.

67 Andrew Willet, Synopsis Papismi [. . .] (London, 1634), 813. For the significance of Willet's work, see Milton, Catholic and Reformed, 13.

68 Ambrose Fisher, A Defence of the Liturgie of the Church of England [. . .] (London, 1630), 154–55.

69 Jeremy Taylor, Chrisis Teleiōtikē, A Discourse of Confirmation [. . .] (Dublin, 1663), 3.

70 Cosin, Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, 5:526, 528.

71 Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford, 2011), 425.

72 For example, see Bryan D. Spinks, Sacraments, Ceremonies, and the Stuart Divines: Sacramental Theology and Liturgy in England and Scotland, 1603–1662 (Aldershot, 2002); Bryan D. Spinks, Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From Luther to Contemporary Practices (Aldershot, 2006); Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013).

73 David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997).

74 For example, see John Spurr, The Post-Reformation: Religion, Politics, and Society in Britain, 1603–1714 (Harlow, 2007); Coffey, “Religious Thought,” 447–65; Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism, c. 1590–1640 (Oxford, 1990); Christopher Durston and Judith D. Maltby, eds., Religion in Revolutionary England (Manchester, 2006). For work touching briefly on confirmation, see Ian Green, The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England, c.1530–1740 (Oxford, 1996), 33–35, 125–28; Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559–1625 (Oxford, 1982), 51–52; Milton, Catholic and Reformed, 467–68.

75 Joseph Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists, 4 vols. (London, 1811), 1:163.

76 Adam Taylor, The History of the English General Baptists, 2 vols. (London, 1818), 1:409–11.

77 For example, see Crosby, History of the English Baptists, 3:3; Ivimey, History of the English Baptists, 1:163; Tolmie, Triumph of the Saints, 79; White, English Baptists, 30; Bass, Thomas Grantham, 104–5; P. R. S. Baker, s.v. “Barber, Edward (d. 1663),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

78 A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists (London, 1947), 86.

79 A term often deployed in this context, meaning “belonging to or characteristic of the lower part of the social scale or the lower classes; vulgar, coarse”: s.v. “mechanic,” Oxford English Dictionary Online.

80 For example, see Thomas Edwards, Gangraena, or, a Catalogue and Discovery of Many of the Errours, Heresies, Blasphemies and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of This Time [. . .] (London, 1646); Robert Baillie, A Dissuasive from the Errours of the Time (London, 1646). On heresiography as an English cultural phenomenon, see Ann Hughes, Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution (Oxford, 2004); Ann Hughes, “Thomas Edwards’ Gangraena and Heresiological Traditions,” in Heresy, Literature, and Politics in Early Modern English Culture, ed. David Loewenstein and John Marshall (Cambridge, 2006), 137–59.

81 Mark R. Bell, Apocalypse How? Baptist Movements during the English Revolution (Macon, 2000), 47.

82 Edwards, Gangraena, 104–5.

83 Crosby, History of the English Baptists, 3:3; Tolmie, Triumph of the Saints, 78–79; White, English Baptists, 30; Wright, Early English Baptists, 100.

84 Those concluding Edwards to be generally reliable include Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (New York, 1972); Tolmie, Triumph of the Saints; McGregor and Reay, Radical Religion. More skeptical views have been advanced by J. C. Davis, Fear, Myth, and History: The Ranters and the Historians (Cambridge, 1986); Mark A. Kishlansky, The Rise of the New Model Army (Cambridge, 1979). For a survey of these debates, see Hughes, Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution, 5–11.

85 Edwards, Gangraena, 104–5

86 Danvers, Treatise of Laying on of Hands.

87 Danvers, 58.

88 Compare the conclusion reached by Bass: “As Edwards reported that the practice of laying hands on baptized converts was already observed among Baptists in 1645, Danvers was mistaken about the custom having originated in 1646.” Bass, Thomas Grantham, 105.

89 Hughes, Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution, 2. As Hughes also notes, this intense but short-lived popularity contrasts markedly with Ian Green's description of early modern of “steady sellers”; see Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2000), viii–ix.

90 Edwards, Gangraena, 104.

91 I refer here to authors cited in the immediately preceding paragraphs who have previously dealt with Barber: Crosby, Ivimey, Tolmie, White, and Bass.

92 Edwards, Gangraena, 104–5.

93 Edwards's term, as in Gangraena's first subtitle: Or, a Catalogue and Discovery of Many of the Errours, Heresies, Blasphemies and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of This Time.

94 Edward Barber, To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty, and the Honourable Court of Parliament [. . .] (London, 1641); Barber, A Small Treatise of Baptisme, or Dipping; [Edward Barber and Thomas Nutt], The Humble Request of Certaine Christians Reproachfully Called Anabaptists[. . .] (London, 1643); Edward Barber, A True Discovery of the Ministry of the Gospell [. . .] (London, 1645); Edward Barber, A Declaration and Vindication of the Carriage of Edward Barber [. . .] (London, 1648); Edward Barber, An Answer to the Eight Queries Propounded by the House of Commons [. . .] (London, 1648); Edward Barber, An Answer to the Essex Watchmens Watchword [. . .] (London, 1649); Edward Barber, The Storming and Totall Routing of Tythes [. . .] (London, 1651).

95 Barber, True Discovery of the Ministry of the Gospell, 4.

96 Barber, 4.

97 For example, see Samuel Rutherford, The Due Right of Presbyteries [. . .] (London, 1644), 493.

98 Barber, True Discovery of the Ministry of the Gospell, 4.

99 Peter Marshall, “The Naming of Protestant England,” Past and Present, no. 214, (2012): 87–128, at 89.

100 Marshall, “The Naming of Protestant England,” 90.

101 Hill, World Turned Upside Down; Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford, 1978), 77–220; McGregor and Reay, eds., Radical Religion. See also Philip F. Gura, A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620–1660 (Middletown, 1984); Davis, Fear, Myth and History; Nigel Smith, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion, 1640–1660 (Oxford, 1989); J. F. McGregor et al., “Fear, Myth and Furore: Reappraising the ‘Ranters,’” Past and Present, no. 140 (1993): 155–94; Andrew Bradstock, Radical Religion in Cromwell's England: A Concise History from the English Civil War to the End of the Commonwealth (London, 2011).

102 For example, see Condren, Conal, The Language of Politics in Seventeenth Century England (New York, 1994), 151–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scott, Jonathan, England's Troubles: Seventeenth-Century English Political Instability in European Context (Cambridge, 2000), 229–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Burgess, Glenn, “Radicalism and the English Revolution,” in English Radicalism, 1550–1850, ed. Burgess, Glenn and Festenstein, Matthew (Cambridge, 2007), 6286CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 66–7.

103 Hessayon and Finnegan characterize such an approach as one in which individuals and groups are considered radical insofar as they “challenged the fundamental political, religious, or social axioms of their day.” See Ariel Hessayon and David Finnegan, “Introduction: Reappraising Early Modern Radicals and Radicalisms,” in Hessayon and Finnegan, Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism, 1–30, at 25.