In the 17th century, a small group of Baptists began to form churches in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. They were known as Six Principle Baptists.
What set them apart from other Baptists, besides their dedication to Arminian theology, was their commitment to the six principles listed in Hebrew 6:1-2, which read, “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”
And thus you have the Six Principles:
5. Resurrection of the dead
6. Final judgment
Of special importance in this list was No. 4–the practice of “laying-on-of-hands” following the baptism of a new believer. This practice was a symbolic reminder for the church and for the new members that they had received the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Yet this practice of “laying on of hands” became one of the most frequent causes for Baptist churches splitting during this period and in this region of the country.
One such split occurred when James Manning, president of Rhode Island College in Providence, led a meeting in which he allowed both those for and those against this practice of “laying on of hands” to take part in communion.
In true Baptist fashion, those in disagreement with Manning set up discussion groups, held multiple meetings, and finally consulted with the Swansey association. Eventually, 87 Six Principle Baptists left and formed a new church.
One interesting note is that the association refused to settle this issue. Leaders of the association said that members of the church must resolve this problem for themselves. These people were, after all, Baptists who held up the ideal of the autonomy of the local church.
Conflict also existed within individual Six Principle Baptist congregations, and much of that conflict centered on pastors. Six Principle Baptists experienced a high turnover rate among their pastors, and perhaps this fact may be partially attributed to the fact that they recruited their pastors in unlikely places.
One church had former Methodist circuit preacher J. B. Gibson serving as its pastor. The church in Swanzey depended on a Free Will Baptist pastor, Elder Taylor, to lead the church when its pastor was ill.
While this could be taken as a sign of ecumenism, it is more likely a sign that the Six Principle Baptists had few outlets in which to find pastors, and thus, willingness and availability became more important than commitment to Baptist doctrines.
The drawback to this arrangement was that ministers like Elder Taylor often did more than just lead a few services and pray a few prayers. Taylor eventually left the Six Principle church he was assisting and took many of the members with him and formed his own church.
The most successful method Six Principle Baptists used in finding pastors was to look within established Baptist churches. It was in those churches that pastors such as Elder Burroughs were called out. Burroughs was said to have “sprung” from his Newport church. Many of the more successful pastors seem to have been “home grown.”
Another issue involved in this search for pastors was the need to train them. Many Six Principle churches were led by co-pastors, and many of these teams consisted of an older pastor who was training a younger pastor. One example of this is David Sprague of North Kingstown Church who trained under an older pastor, Elder Samuel Fiske.
Baptists today can learn much from these early Six Principle Baptists. They teach us that diversity and variety have long been part of the Baptist tradition, and they teach us that conflict and tension also have forever been in existence among Baptists.
But one of the most insightful lessons we can learn from Six Principle Baptists is that we must be serious about identifying, encouraging and training young men and women for the ministry.
Baptists, like many other denominations, are having difficulty in filling pulpits, and the problem is projected to grow much worse in the years to come. We need to find positive ways in which to sensitize young people to the ministry needs and opportunities in our world.
A second lesson to be learned from these Six Principle Baptists is that the mentoring process can be an excellent resource in the training of young ministers. The idea of a young minister serving as co-pastor with an older, more experienced minister has much appeal and could be implemented in many Baptist churches.
While Six Principle Baptists did not become the most well known or most successful of the Baptist groups, they certainly have much to teach 21st century Baptists.
Pam Durso is associate director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.