William Kiffin and the Bradford Minister’s Fraternal

Church history is a bit lost on some folk, but it never ceases to amaze me when you think about what it might have been like to grow up at a different time. How did people try to work out their Christianity under such different circumstances?

Today, Robert Oliver at the minister’s fraternal at Bradford introduced us to the life of William Kiffin who I had never heard of. His dates are 1616-1701, and one is bound to think, what’s that to me?

What I came to think however, was just how much this man had shaped my, and probably your life. It appears that he, along with a wider group of similar minded people, were instrumental in re-establishing the approach to Baptism which we practice here, and is practiced probably by the majority of Christians today. To do so was costly, and involved prison, controversy, persecution, and tireless labour at a restless period of history.

On a personal level, he knew a great deal of hardship, orphaned at nine, his parents victims of the plague, then impoverished due to the imprudence of his guardians. This lead to a working life as a youngster that was arduous, and sufficiently unkind as to prompt him to try to escape his master. He would have to go on to work his way up, learning new skills as he went, and in a Dick Whittington style story, eventually made his way into the World of the wool trade where his fortune finally came. He became one of London’s merchant princes, a lender of money even to the Crown. His hardships did not end there however, he would lose his first, and beloved wife Hannah too young, two sons also died, one possibly murdered, and two of his grand sons were executed. His second wife proved a little too liable to scandal. Added as I say to spells in prison, and long periods where his name remained on government lists of  dangerous and unwanted persons, his 85 years were no breeze.

The turning point of his life came after hearing a sermon preached at a Church service when just a tearaway youngster. It would change his life and propel him in a search a for living and lifelong relationship with God through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He made passionate Christian friends, including his future wife Hannah, at this time when there was some great preaching to be found in London, despite the increasing pressure from those who preferred a religion of ritual. These tensions increased and Kiffin and his friends faced hard choices, many left England for Holland, or America to pursue religious tolerance, but Kiffin stayed. To do so he ended up joining the illegal underground Church meetings held in warehouses, and it was during this time that he concluded that the State Church’s practice of Baptising infants had no basis in Scripture. Taking passages like Acts 2:41-42 which I will preaching from this Sunday at our Baptism service, he concluded that people should be Baptised after, not before they believed. This is the whole basis on which the Baptist movement was built, and is now widely accepted by many subsequent denominations, and groups.

Soon after his own Baptism and joining together with friends into a Baptist Church in 1642, a law designed at pushing back ritualism, and re-instating gospel centred ministry in the Church of England was passed by Cromwell’s Parliament which banned the office of Bishop. The result? Civil War broke out.

What followed in those dark days was a great opportunity for people like Kiffin who were dedicated to breaking away from the established Church, and it’s traditionalism, and getting back to New Testament evangelism, and Church life. Though it meant facing accusations from some of being fanatical, or heretical,  or of being unwilling to go far enough by others, Kiffin, and the others soldiered on keeping the movement on track. Sometimes this meant travelling the length and breadth of the country to settle disputes, and encourage others. In fact it involved him coming down here, to settle a theological debate held at Southwick Baptist Church in 1674, a visit that became known as the Southwick Inquisition. By this time Kiffin was the unpaid Baptist Pastor of Devonshire Square, Particular Baptist Church, with a growing wool business, he was also voted MP for Middlesex, having held a commission in the New Model Army, although this is not so well documented.

In 1685 however, after the death of Cromwell, and the end of the Republic, England veered back towards Roman Catholicism, and Baptists and others like Kiffin were persecuted, imprisoned, and found little toleration until in 1689 when William of Orange came to the throne and ushered in the Glorious Revolution. Kiffin died a few years later. 

We here at North Bradley were established as a Particular Baptist Church in 1775, and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, which Kiffin was a signatory to, was our confessional document. I have no doubt that people like Kiffin, and others with him at that time, played crucial parts in making sure that was possible, not just for us, but for Christians all over the World who now take their right to Baptise believers for granted.