ROTHERHAM'S REMINISCENCES - CHAPTER 4
CHAPTER 4. - THE BAPTISTS AND THE DISCIPLES.
Market Harborough and Wem - The Disciples - Mr. Francis Hill - Epistolary Debate with the Shropshire Baptists - Mr. John Davis, of Mollington, near Chester.
Of the year following my immersion, the first few months were spent at Market Harborough. In this important Midland town I was engaged to supply the pulpit, pending the arrival from college of the young minister-elect. While at Harborough - out of respect for the preference of some - I resorted to the practice of reading my sermons: a habit which I should now regard as more honoured by the breach than by the observance, save under exceptional circumstances; although it goes without saying that a genuine written sermon, with a living man behind it, is unspeakably better than hazy, aimless talk.
At the close of our stay in the Midlands - for my dear wife, of course, had joined me - I received a call from a small "Particular" Baptist Church in Wem, Salop. Wem is a small place, but it makes to me large and liberal contributions. It was at Wem that seeds sprang up out of that midnight reading at Hartlepool already described. It came about thus. Convinced by the New Testament rather than by the writings of Alexander Campbell, which so forcibly directed me to it, that Baptism was not only a command, but "a command with a promise," I, in my ordinary teaching and preaching at Wem, began to attach more importance to the ordinance than was customary even with Baptist ministers. This of itself, however, did not attract much attention: it appeared to the ordinary hearer merely as a question of degree. I was known to be a Baptist minister at any rate; and a reference more or less to the distinctive ordinance seemed merely one of those variations of "moods and tenses" for which there was no accounting. But when the progress of thought revealed itself in action, and with new words new men appeared on the scene, the case was materially altered.
How I ascertained that there was a congregation of "Disciples" in Shrewsbury I do not now remember; but certain
it is that I did find out the fact; and, discovering it, visited the county-town, and made acquaintance with some of the men who formed that congregation. These in due course introduced me to a Mr. Francis Hill, of Sunderland, visiting Shrewsbury at the time - a judicious, well-informed "Disciple," rather great with his homeopathic remedies, and just then acting as an evangelist in connection with the "Disciples" in this locality. He arranged with me to come over to Wem, and occupy my pulpit. I am persuaded that there was all that was judicious in Mr. Francis Hill's preaching in the Baptist Chapel, Wem. But, then, who was he? whence had he come? to what denomination did he belong? These were questions which, naturally, had to be answered; and so the fact came out that he was not a regular Baptist at all, but an evangelist preaching for the "Disciples" - a congregation of whom met in Shrewsbury. The attention of Baptist ministers was drawn to these doings; and, without any violent or unnatural pressure being brought to bear on the Wem Church or its young minister, by degrees the occupant of the Wem Baptist pulpit became an object of ministerial attention, inquiry, correspondence, controversy. I was drawn into something like an Epistolary Debate with a ministerial representative of the Baptist Churches in the district, which debate may be found printed in the "Millennial Harbinger" for the year 1854.
NOTE. - The present writer has been favoured with a sight of a copy of Mr. Francis Hill's diary, in which is recorded his daily experiences as an evangelist during the years 1851-1854, and it is interesting to find in this contemporaneous record an entry which rather remarkably corroborates Mr. Rotherham's memory exercise.
Extract from Mr. Hill's Diary.
Mr. Hill says in his diary, under date May 12th, 1854: " Having intimated my wish, a few days previously, to visit Wem, Bro. Hulme wrote to the Baptist minister there, if agreeable to them I would do so. This day he came into town (Shrewsbury), and wished me to accompany him out, to which I readily agreed. Started about 2 p.m., and after a pleasant ride arrived safe at 4.30. We soon became intimate, Mr. Rotherham, the said minister, having preached in Stockton and Hartlepool, and being acquainted with some of my former
friends in those places. He was baptized by Mr. Lyng, of Stockton, and from that time he has been gradually advancing in the knowledge of the truth and the principles of the reformation. I was pleasantly disappointed in him. After tea, we called upon several of the members, and at 7 o'clock held a meeting; a small company. I spoke for a short time, and so closed the day. 13th: The forenoon spent in free conversation and discussion with Mr. R. Called upon a few of the friends. Took dinner at a Mr. Lee's. After dinner walked into the country three miles with Mr. R. to a Bro. Stocks, and spent a most agreeable time in conversation. Found this brother far advanced in the truth. After tea, took our leave for the town, and after conversation, retired to rest in anticipation of the coming day. 14th: Lord's Day. Morning, Mr. R. went to a village about four miles off, and at 10.30 went to chapel. Conducted the whole of the service. Spoke with some freedom; the attendance about 25. Took dinner at Mr. Lee's. At 3 p.m. met to break the loaf; about 22 partook. I spoke for a short time. All appeared to enjoy the time; a few things need to be corrected. After tea, held a short meeting at the Town Hall in connection with Bro. R., but few came near. We both spoke for a short time. At 6.15 met in the chapel; an average company. I spoke with freedom. Afterwards, Bro. R. said a little, urging to discussion and confession, but none so disposed. A few were offended, one rose and left. Still, our brother is determined to act out his convictions, although with some temporal loss to himself. So closed the labours of this day. After prayers, etc., retired to rest thankful for privileges. 15th: After breakfast and conversation with Bro. Rotherham, I started for Shrewsbury, being set four miles by Bro. R., and parted with strong expressions of attachment to each other. I arrived at Shrewsbury at 2 p.m."
NOTE. - The correspondence referred to above began with the following letter, which is of sufficient importance to be here reproduced in abbreviated form:-
LETTER TO THE SHROPSHIRE BAPTIST ASSOCIATION.
Wem, Salop, June 5th, 1854.
To the Ministers and Messengers of the Shropshire Baptist Association, in Annual Meeting assembled, -
Beloved Brethren, - On gathering together at Bridgnorth you will naturally expect me to be with you. As, however, I shall not be present with you, I write to inform you of the reason of my absence. The distance of Wem from Bridgnorth would of itself have created a considerable difficulty in the way of my being with you; but that alone does not detain me at home. It is rather the apprehension that I might destroy harmony otherwise unbroken, and fail to participate in the general enjoyment, which I sincerely hope will result from your meeting, that forbids my joining you. The fact is, I could not be comfortable to sit still and hear esteemed Christian brethren ill-spoken of, and I take the liberty to think misrepresented, as I have done at some of our district meetings. I refer to brethren commonly known as "Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ." The same independent and fearless examination of the Word of God, which induced me to regard believer's immersion as the only scriptural baptism, has also led me to the conclusion that on the design of this ordinance the views of these brethren are far clearer and more scriptural than those commonly entertained by Baptists, whether General or Particular. After a somewhat protracted consideration of this subject, I must confess that I am quite at a loss to discover why we should not, as Christ did, connect "water and the Spirit" in the new birth, and associate baptism with faith, as an antecedent to salvation; why we should not, after the example of Peter, proclaim to convicted sinners "repentance and baptism for (eis, in order to) the remission of sins;" why, in other words, we should not explicitly teach with Paul, the wise master-builder, that in baptism the believing subject comes "into Christ" - that Christ sanctifies and cleanses His Church "with the washing of water by the Word" - and that, though not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy (God) saves us, yet, at the same time, He does this "by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit;" why, in a word, we should hesitate to say with Peter, "The like figure whereunto" - or the antitype of which - "even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer" or rather, as eperoteema clearly signifies, the seeking "of a good conscience towards God) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
I, say, after protracted study and earnest prayer, I am at a total loss to know why we should not earnestly contend for these truths, as a part of the faith once delivered to the saints. To my apprehension, dear brethren, it does appear manifest that it is both our highest interest and solemn duty to teach and to preach these truths as plainly and as fully as did our blessed Lord and His inspired Apostles. I am sure you will admit that the only really safe and wise motto with regard to this subject - as, indeed, any other - is, "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Never, if I may be allowed to form a judgment, will the advocacy of believer's immersion assume its proper form, manifest its inherent strength, or achieve its awaiting triumph, until we go for all that the Lord hath spoken, in its obvious grammatical and contextual sense, without compromise and without fear.
Think not, however, dear brethren, that I lightly esteem your fraternal regard and co-operation, or that I am insensible to your kindness in welcoming me into the county. You will confer a favour upon me if you will give me to know whether you can and will still fraternise with me, notwithstanding the views I hold and the purposes I cherish.
Trusting that you will be much comforted and encouraged by your services and directed from above in all your counsels and decisions, I remain, dear brethren, yours affectionately in the Gospel,
JOSEPH B. ROTHERHAM.
To the care of the Rev. D. Crompton,
Secretary of the Association.
NOTE. - A ministerial brother (Mr. H. Lawrence) took upon himself to reply to the letter addressed to the Shropshire Baptist Association, and in the course of his reply to this communication Mr. Rotherham said: "May I ask whether you have written me officially, as I have not yet received any acknowledgement of or reply to my letter, unless your note be intended as such?" After some delay the Secretary of the Association forwarded the following resolution:-
"That a reply be sent to Brother Rotherham's letter expressing sympathy with him in the exercises of his mind, and requesting that as the sentiments he avows in his letter are contrary to the constitution of the Association, he be requested to withdraw."
The correspondence with Mr. Lawrence occupied many columns in the "Harbinger," and it is evident from these letters that the young Baptist minister of Wem - he was twenty-six at the time - had studied his Greek Testament to purpose, and that he regarded his findings with reference to the design of baptism as matters on which he could not keep silence. It is clear, however, that he hoped that sufficient liberty would have been granted him to enable him still to retain his position as a Baptist minister. In this he was mistaken. The Shropshire Baptist Association had no mind to embark on the suggested Biblical enquiry, nor apparently any desire to "fraternise" any further with their somewhat troublesome young brother at Wem, and the request that he should "withdraw" from the Association practically amounted to his exclusion from the Baptist denomination.
What might have happened had a different course been pursued by the Association it is impossible now to say; the more important question is whether or not, under like circumstances, history would repeat itself to-day.
The conclusions now arrived at by members of the Churches of Christ with reference to the design of baptism are practically identical with the conclusions so forcibly expressed by the Wem Baptist minister more than half a century ago, and there is no reason to think that the views of Baptists have materially changed. Moreover, frankness compels us to add that on some matters, particularly with regard to "mutual teaching" versus a one-man ministry, and still more with reference to the prominence given by Churches of Christ to the weekly "Breaking of Bread" the practice between the two communities varies considerably. At the same time, it will be admitted that half a century ago there was a marked tendency on the part of Christians who had much in common to separate from each other on matters which were either of secondary importance or matters on which, by the exercise of a reasonable amount of Christian courtesy and forbearance, division might easily have been prevented; to-day, in view of the urgent need for Christian union and a united testimony, there is, happily, a strong desire to reduce to what may be called the irreducible minimum the things that divide, and emphasise the fundamental matters on which there is substantial agreement.
In later life Mr. Rotherham lost none of his youthful ardour in maintaining the importance of clear teaching regarding the design of believer's immersion, but he came to see also the need for emphasising other aspects of truth, and in "Christian Ministry" he declares his conviction that the Master's will is that "with," rather than "without," those from whom we differ on some things we should "all advance" in the effort to do our part towards the perfecting of the body of Christ.
But to return to "Reminiscences" the chronicler says:-
The less surprise will be felt at my impending departure from the immediate fellowship of these worthy Particular Baptists when it is remembered that the name "Baptist" was not with me, and never had been, a name to conjure with, my early training having been among Wesleyans, whom it was unlikely that any other religious body could equal, save in a point or two; that I was young and ardent, and ready to heed the advice once given to me by a worthy Baptist brother in Stockton, "to change till I was right." Doubtless also I had been greatly fascinated by the theological essays of Alexander Campbell, of America. They were so fresh and unconventional; so broad and breezy in their general outlook; so elevated and cogent in their appeal to the understandings of their readers; were so well defined in their replies to obvious objections; and, moreover, so hopeful and enthusiastic in their proposals for re-union among all professing Christians, that the wonder need not be great that the young Baptist minister of Wem was decidedly influenced by them.
The incidents already narrated - though by no means so exigent in their demand for a further ecclesiastical "change" as those connected with Hartlepool and Stockton - were nevertheless sufficiently urgent to cause me to seek once more to adjust my position to my convictions, and induce me to accept gladly an invitation, mediated by Mr. Francis Hill, to pay an extended visit to the hospitable home, called "The Willows," of Mr. John Davis, of Mollington, near Chester. Suffice it to say here in a word that, led on by the successive modifications of belief and practice already described, in the summer of 1854 I finally cast in my lot with "the Disciples," with whom I have remained in fellowship ever since.
NOTE. - In his Reminiscences Mr. Rotherham has a chapter entitled "Biographical Notes of Prominent Disciples." These notes are arranged in alphabetical order. It is, however, deemed better to include some of these sketches at the different parts of the story to which they properly belong, and just here may be inserted the note regarding
MR. JOHN DAVIS, OF MOLLINGTON, NEAR CHESTER.
"This brother was the first of the m ore prominent Disciples to whom, on my transition from the Baptists in 1854, I was introduced. He was a man of intellectual ability, education, and good business standing; a humble and devoted Christian; and a competent and impressive teacher and preacher of Christian truth. Of his competence in these capacities I can judge without presumption, having enjoyed with him many and long interesting and instructive conversations. He could write as well as speak, as may be seen from his 'Scripture Difficulties' printed in The Christian Messenger, edited by Mr. James Wallis. He was a devoted friend of that editor, an entertainer and confidant of Alexander Campbell of America, who stayed at his house somewhere near 1847. He had in his service the sedate Peter Stephen, of Saughall, and the lively Timothy Miller, whom I had previously known at Shrewsbury. His beloved wife, Mary Davis, was one with him in acts of devotion and piety.
"It was John Davis who tried to dissuade me from being re-immersed to satisfy a scruple as to whether my immersion at Stockton was valid owing to my want of apprehension of the scriptural 'design' of Christian Baptism; and who, having gone with me through all my difficulties point by point, at last gave up the attempt, and said decisively: 'Very well, then: it will be better to make surety sure; and Peter Stephen shall go down with you to the river Dee and administer the ordinance to your satisfaction.' This accordingly was done, to my entire contentment; the only subsequent doubt being the very harmless one that, possibly, after all, such a scruple was needless. But I have never reproached myself for the course I took; nor do I think it possible for anyone to say that I could have better resolved my doubt.
"It was John Davis who expressed a wish that I would write an article on 'The Holy Spirit' for Mr. Wallis's 'Millennial Harbinger,' and who canvassed with me every branch of the subject so far as it was then to be treated of by me; the result being given to the brethren in the above periodical during the year 1855.
"The method of study adopted by Mr. Davis with a view to his public discourses was, I think, as good as it was simple. It consisted of first provisionally making up his own mind as to the meaning of any Scripture text or fact on which he was inclined to speak, with a Bible open before him, and wholly regardless of the opinions of others; then, though not before, consulting such authors as his well-stocked library embraced and as he considered likely to render aid; and finally revising, changing, or re-affirming the judgment at which he had already arrived.
"As to the presentation of his thoughts to others, he once told me that he considered it to be a manifest duty which we owe to our hearers to set our ideas before them in consecutive order, that they may be able to carry away and remember what they have heard."
JOSEPH BRYANT ROTHERHAM INDEX