An Early General Baptist on the Washing of the Saints’ Feet

 

by Matthew Pinson

Sometime ago in my research, I came across an interesting quotation regarding feet washing from a seventeenth-century English General Baptist book that has been out of print for almost 350 years. George Hammon, the author, was a pastor of a General Baptist church he described as “the Church of Christ, meeting in Biddenden, in Kent.” He was a signatory of the 1660 Standard Confession of the English General Baptists.

This is significant for Free Will Baptists, who believe that the washing of the saints’ feet is a rite that should be practiced by Christian churches. The earliest Free Will Baptists in America were simply English General Baptists who had moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies. These early General Baptists were the sort who believed, like Hammon, William Jeffrey, and other General Baptists, that the washing of the saints’ feet was a Christian ordinance that should be perpetuated in the churches.

The context of the following excerpt is Hammon’s interaction with advocates infant baptism and their arguments.

And again, whereas you say, “Peter was for a kind of plunging (John 13) till better catechized by our Saviour.” To which I answer and say, from thence it is evident, that it was the only practice in baptism to wash or plunge the whole man in water, because Peter was ignorant of washing in part,* and crieth out, “Not only my feet but my hands and my head”; but however that was not an ordinance of baptism (as aforesaid) that Christ taught his disciples, but it was an ordinance which Christ instituted to wash the feet of those that were baptized (as aforesaid). Therefore, this maketh much against you, and will plainly teach you that it was a total washing or plunging that was Christ’s and his disciples’ practice in baptism. But Peter wanted instruction about the ordinance of washing the disciples’ feet. . . . And that the washing of disciples’ feet is an ordinance of Christ, read John 13. 14. in the room of much more that might be said. The Text readeth thus: “If I then your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet, for I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done unto you.” From whence we may see, this is an ordinance of Christ, and therefore I shall not deny it before men, for I am not ashamed of the meanest of the ways and ordinances of the gospel, because I know it is the power and wisdom of God, and that “God hath chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise, and the despised things to bring to naught that which seemeth to be mighty, (in wisdom) that no flesh should glory in his presence.”

From George Hammon, Syons Redemption, and Original Sin Vindicated (London: G. Dawson, 1658), 9-10.

 _________

*Marginal note in original: “Peter’s words spoken in John 13 maketh much for total washing in baptism, and no wise against it.”

4 thoughts on “An Early General Baptist on the Washing of the Saints’ Feet”

  1. Dr. Pinson,
    Thanks for this wonderful historical nugget. We must reclaim a strong emphasis on the practice of feet washing. Hammon also clears up something that I have mulled over from time to time while coming to the basin: who is welcome to this practice? According to Hammon, and I think he’s right, it’s only for the baptized. Thanks again for this.

    1. Phillip,

      Thanks for your comment. I have mixed feelings about saying that rites such as the Lord’s supper and the washing of the saints’ feet are for only the baptized. Many if not most General Baptists on the other side of the Atlantic in the seventeenth century were closed communionists, believing that only properly baptized people (i.e., immersed believers) could commune in gospel rites such as the Lord’s supper and the washing of feet. On this side of the Atlantic, the General-Free Will Baptist tradition has almost universally been open communionist (indeed the National Association of Free Will Baptists is confessionally committed to this practice).
      However, open communionists have differed in how “open” they are. One practice holds that baptism has no bearing on whether one is admitted to communion in any sense (i.e., if someone who attends the church and has been converted but has never been baptized wants to commune, he is allowed to). The other, older position is that one does not have to have been baptized, that is, by immersion or as a believer, to be admitted to communion, but he does have to be a member in good standing of an orthodox Christian church (thus, he believes he has been “baptized” even though he really has not, because his baptism was either not by immersion or as an infant). So, the emphasis in this latter position is on admitting to communion those who hold a different belief on the mode or recipients of baptism, not to allow people to commune who have simply decided not to be baptized. (This is the approach to open communion I have tended toward.)

      This is something we need to think carefully about, especially in a day when other Baptists are renewing their commitment to the intentional practice of closed communion. I’d love to get some discussion going on this.

      1. I’ve wrestled with this subject a bit as well. In my Creeds & Confessions doctoral seminar at Concordia, my Lutheran classmates marveled to know that I believed in open communion, as they do not. However, I think they understood the logic of it given our view of baptism compared to their own. I tend toward the more nuanced “open view” that MP has mentioned. When I’m fencing the table before Communion, I always say that people must be believers in good standing with our church or another like-faith church. Of course, one starts to wonder why a person is present on a particular Sunday (aside from strictly visiting with maybe a friend or family member from out of town) if they are in fact in good standing with their own church!

        To Philip’s point about feet washing, to me the theological question of people’s admission is interesting, but as a matter of practice, it seems that if we struggle many times getting our own FWB people to stay for that part of the ordinances then it is mostly unlikely we will have a believer from another church visiting (who likely has never practiced FW before) all of a sudden want to join in on that particular day.

        Very interesting topic!

        1. Thanks gentlemen. I think that better clarifies the my thoughts on the matter. I am accustomed to hearing warnings about partaking of the Lord’s Supper, but not about feet washing. However, it makes sense that only those who would qualify for the one should engage in the other. Thanks again for a good article and discussion.

Leave a Reply