InvenCaP Blog – Lucy Hutchinson and Baptist Confessions of Faith

By Mark Burden

The Puritan poet and intellectual Lucy Hutchinson’s 62-page manuscript work ‘My Owne Faith and Attainment’ (1667) has received scant critical attention; on the few occasions that it has been discussed, the text has been viewed not (as its title would suggest) as a confession of faith relating to potential church membership, but as an intellectual exercise or treatise without any obvious precedent or function. This approach to the text is doubly puzzling given that it is followed in the holograph manuscript (Nottinghamshire Archives, MS DD/HU3) by a redacted version of only 14 pages, written the following year (1668), with the title ‘A Breifer Summe of What I Believe’. Why would Hutchinson have abridged her own text so dramatically in the same manuscript only a few months later if it had been compiled solely as a private record of her faith? Furthermore, Hutchinson’s twenty-first century readers have been strangely slow to discuss these two texts in relation to the confessions of faith copied into nonconformist church books during the later Stuart period. While the critical desire to emphasise Hutchinson’s originality is perfectly understandable, we need to avoid the risk of a critically convenient double standard. For example, Hutchinson’s theological treatise ‘On the Principles of the Christian Religion’ (Northamptonshire Archives, MS Fitzwilliam misc. 793) has in recent years been viewed as a work in the tradition of the mother’s legacy, despite the fact that it lacks many of the conventions of that genre, and subverts several others; on the other hand, the similarity in content and style between church confessions and Hutchinson’s ‘Faith and Attainment’ has been dismissed on account of assumed (and rarely articulated) differences in function.

Close attention to Hutchinson’s ‘Faith and Attainment’ suggests, however, that its practical implications should not be ignored. In a little-remarked passage from the longer version, Hutchinson describes baptism as ‘an Ordinance of Christ who sent forth his Apostles to baptize all nations’, but proceeds to state that ‘divers other questions concerning the Administrators and the manner of administration I am not fully resolved in’ (DD/HU3, p. 106). Norbrook, Clarke, and Stevenson, in their forthcoming edition of Hutchinson’s religious writings, will note as an analogue the Congregational Savoy Declaration (1658), which permitted both adult and infant baptism; they will also suggest, following G. F. Nuttall, that Hutchinson’s apparent uncertainty is mirrored in a lack of dogmatism about the issue within some predominantly paedobaptist Congregational churches and some predominantly Baptist churches of the seventeenth century. These latter churches in particular are often given the somewhat anachronistic title ‘Open Communion’, by which is meant that a belief in adult baptism was not considered necessary for church membership. However, it is not possible within the apparatus of a scholarly edition to examine Hutchinson’s remarks on baptism in any detail, and Nuttall’s comments on open communion do not really help us to address the question of the influence of Baptist confessions on Hutchinson’s ‘Faith and Attainment’.

Hutchinson’s assertions of a lack of certainty in matters of faith cannot always be taken at face value: they are a literary trope designed to convey feminine modesty and a (strictly circumscribed) tolerance for alternative views, and they do not necessarily signal a lack of clarity in her beliefs. For example, at one point in her ‘Faith and Attainment’, Hutchinson claims that she cannot ‘see . . . clearnesse in the manner of outward calling of ministers’, but also that ‘none are true ministers of Jesus Christ but such are sent by him’ (DD/HU3, pp. 102-3); in other words, although she is ambivalent about the outward forms of ministerial calling, she believes that ministers should be called both by their congregations and by the Holy Spirit. At another point Hutchinson states that she ‘cannot so well dispute the many questions about the Lords day so as to convince others of other minds’, but is nevertheless ‘satisfied . . . of that day wch is now generally sett apart’ (DD/HU3, p. 101); here, while recognising the intellectual and practical power of the seventh-day movement (the Saturday Sabbatarians) she comes down firmly on the side of the Sunday Sabbath.

Similarly, although Hutchinson claims she is ‘not fully resolvd in’ several issues relating to baptism, she immediately follows this admission with a carefully reasoned explanation of what she believes the function of baptism to be (DD/HU3, pp. 106-7). She is ‘satisfied that the outward cerimony although being received in faith and administred according to the institution of the Lord it seales grace yet doth it not conferre grace ex opere operato by the bare doing of the worke without faith and therefore is not to be applied to infants’. Baptism cannot confer grace, which is God’s prerogative; it merely seals grace in those that have faith, and should not be applied to infants but to believers. Hutchinson then links her view that baptism is ‘the cerimony of our entring into Covenant with God’ to her own circumstances: ‘though it was not duely performed to me in my infancy when I was not capable of consenting to it since I grew to age of understanding I have freely given my selfe as my parents then intended to give me to God’. As Norbrook will point out in his edition, this is a rather slippery statement, which should not be taken to imply that Hutchinson’s parents were Baptists; it is Hutchinson herself who believes retrospectively that she was ‘not capable of consenting’ as a child. Nevertheless, having undergone believer’s baptism as an adult, Hutchinson is emphatic that she ‘shall not reiterate the cerimony till I can be convincd of any way now practisd that it is according to Christs institution’. Yet even here, Hutchinson is not saying ‘never again’: rather, that she will only undergo baptism again if she is convinced that the ceremony is both necessary and correctly performed.

For Hutchinson, such a conviction needed to be rational as well as ‘experimental’ (i.e. experiential). We can see this process at work in her manuscript version of the Centum aphorismi, the ‘One Hundred Aphorisms’ which prefaced a number of Latin and vernacular editions of Calvin’s Institutes from the sixteenth century onwards. Hutchinson faithfully translates the 82nd aphorism, which asserts that the partakers of baptism are ‘Growne men after the confession of their faith Infants alsoe because Baptisme succeeds Circumcision’. Her version of the 83rd aphorism states that ‘The end of Baptisme is twofold That it may confirme our faith . . . that it may serve for a confession to our neighbour’ (DD/HU3, pp. 45-6). However, Hutchinson’s sympathy with the 83rd aphorism does not indicate her full acceptance of the 82nd; at the close of her translation, she notes ‘82. Baptisme of infants is doubtfull’ (DD/HU3, p. 51). The rational basis for this view is further emphasised in Hutchinson’s Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, compiled largely in the 1660s, but covering the 1640s in particular detail. In this text, she recalls the antagonism between the ‘bitter Presbiterian’ minister in Nottingham who received the support of Lady Fairfax, and the Independent ‘Army Chaplaines’ supported by her husband Thomas Fairfax, c.1646-7. When John Hutchinson, then governor of Nottingham, invited the army chaplains to preach at his house, there was ‘a greate concourse of people’ which made the Presbyterians so ‘madd with rage’ that they forced him to break up the meeting and confiscate ‘some notes . . . concerning Pedobaptism’. When these notes fell into the hands of Lucy Hutchinson, she ‘perus’d them and compar’d them with the Scriptures’ and ‘found not what to say against the truths they asserted concerning the misapplication of that Ordinance to infants’. Being, in her words, ‘young and modest’, she initially ‘submitted to the judgement and practise of most churches’ rather than defending ‘a singular opinion’; but she communicated her doubts to her husband, who ‘dilligently searcht the Scriptures alone’ and could find no grounds for infant baptism. According to Lucy, he then ‘bought and read all the eminent treatises on both sides, which came thick from the presses’, and seems to have been particularly influenced by the Baptists John Tombes and Henry Denne. John Hutchinson subsequently ‘propounded his doubt’ to all the paedobaptist ministers of the city after inviting them to dinner, and found that ‘none could defend their practise with any satisfactory reason but the tradition of the church’. The Hutchinson family was then advised by John Foxcraft, a minister at nearby Gotham and member of the Westminster Assembly, that unless they were convinced of the necessity of infant baptism, they sinned in doing it, and on these grounds they did not baptise their next child. As a consequence, they were ‘call’d fanatick and anabaptists’ and were ‘revil’d’ by the local ministers and ‘all their zealous sectaries’ (Memoirs, ed. Sutherland, pp. 168-70).

This episode in the ‘Memoirs’ has rightly been viewed as only one part of the Hutchinson family’s evolving views on church government and infant baptism. The prevailing view that Hutchinson’s intellectual development owed more to the writings of William Perkins, William Ames, and John Owen than to Baptist polemic is surely correct. There is no evidence in the ‘Memoirs’ that Hutchinson joined a Baptist church at this time, and she is swift to assert (albeit rather ambiguously) that she and John ‘forsooke not’ the ‘assemblies’ of the Nottingham ministers, and ‘retracted not their benevolences and civillities from them’. Nevertheless, as the evidence presented above indicates, Hutchinson’s scepticism about infant baptism persisted for at least twenty years after reading the army chaplains’ notes, c.1646.

About Hutchinson’s later views on the matter this is little direct evidence. Whatever the function of the 1668 ‘Briefer Sum~e’ or her beliefs, it contains only one joint reference to ‘Washing of water and breaking of bread’; here she describes them as ‘comfortable ordinances, where they are practisd purely according to Christs institution’, but ‘not so absolutely necessary that they may not upon doubts be suspended so it be without contempt’ (DD/HU3, p. 128). In her treatise on the ‘Principles’ of Christian religion, she cites one of the key texts in the controversies over infant baptism, John 3:5 (‘none can enter into the kingdome of heaven but such as are borne againe of water & of the Spirit’); her own view is expressed fairly unobtrusively through her exhortation that believers should ‘draw neere with a true heart in full assurance of faith having our hearts sprinkled from an euill conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’ (Fitzwilliam misc. 793, p. 87). There is nothing in either text to suggest that Hutchinson renounced her preference for believer’s baptism later in her life.

On the other hand, it is known that, during the 1670s if not before, Hutchinson attended sermons delivered by the magisterial Congregationalist John Owen, and probably by several other nonconformist preachers in London and Nottinghamshire. This practice of ‘sermon tasting’ was particularly attractive during a period when dissenting conventicles formed and dissolved in swift succession, and congregations met at irregular intervals, without necessarily adhering to strict forms of church government. In such a context, it makes little sense to describe Hutchinson herself as either dogmatically ‘Baptist’ or ‘Congregational’ in her beliefs; it is more likely that she heard preachers who identified with both sets of ideas on church government, which (particularly for open communion congregations) could in any case overlap. What seems to have mattered more to Hutchinson was adherence to Calvinist doctrines of sin and predestination, a position which she shared with particular Baptists. It is this shared belief which helps to explain her respectful rejection of seventh-day Sabbatarians, who tended to associate with particular rather than general Baptist congregations, and with whom Hutchinson could have conversed at some of the meetings she attended in Nottinghamshire and London from the 1650s onwards.

It is with these complexities and caveats in mind that we can start to compare Hutchinson’s ‘Faith and Attainment’ with confessions of faith written into seventeenth-century Baptist church books. It is not easy to ascertain whether Hutchinson compiled her confession with a particular congregation in mind. It mighht be tempting to suggest that she was engaging in the fairly common practice among the gentry of applying for church membership through a written rather than an oral confession; we could then speculate that the sheer length of the original 50-page statement was so inappropriate that she produced a brief summary a few months later so as not to test the patience of her readers. The problem with such speculation, of course, is that there is absolutely no evidence as to how the text was used, aside from the sole surviving manuscript; there is also the counter evidence that the text itself displays a degree of scepticism about rebaptism, a point which could be perceived as less than diplomatic when applying for membership of a Baptist church. Is this a reason why she cut the section on baptism from the ‘Shorter Sum~e’ of her beliefs? Again, this would be pure speculation. The functions of Hutchinson’s confessions remain tantalisingly undecipherable.

Nevertheless, some general comparisons between Hutchinson’s statements of belief and extant Baptist confessions can be made. The closest comparisons can be made with the Tottlebank church confession, which was ‘read in the Church and consented unto’ on 11 November 1669, only one year after Hutchinson finished her shorter confession (Regent’s Park College Oxford, Tottlebank Church Book, pp. 7-21). The Tottlebank church book explains the need for a confession in a period when ‘amonge the multitude the wayes of god . . . are under scandell and reproach and ye people yt in those wayes doe soe worship him, as if they weare Erronious and mistaken in the way, and held very dangerous things’; the confession will serve to exhibit ‘what we hold that soe on any occation, all the saints and people of god, or otheres, may see and understand, the groundworke that wee or rather the lord hath builded this fabrick and house of his upon’. At a stylistic level, Hutchinson’s anaphoric ‘I believe’ and ‘I do believe’ is mirrored in the Tottlebank confession’s ‘Wee doe verily beleeve’ and ‘we doe beleeve’. Also common to both texts is the tendency to demonstrate points with reference to scriptural history, thereby claiming that the beliefs represented are the natural successors to the primitive church. As well as providing some indication of preferred methods of church government, both texts adopt scripture evidences to articulate their belief in God’s nature and persons. Both texts refer to the offices of Christ as king, priest, and prophet; both discuss Christ’s righteousness and obedience. Another shared feature is the emphasis upon the Bible as a rule of faith and life, and as the means to settle controversies. Both texts seek to explain ‘gods Etternall decree’ as it relates to foreknowledge, creation, and power; both examine in some detail the replacement of the covenant of works with the covenant of grace, and explain that Christian liberty consists of the ability to serve God. Both texts urge the importance of prayer accompanied by the reading of scriptures, and both urge the importance of a ‘com~union of saints’ for holy fellowship and worship which will extend across congregations to form what Hutchinson calls ‘the Catholique Church which consists of all the believers in the world’. Both texts describe the civil magistrate as an ‘ordinance of God’, requiring obedience for as long as is consistent with God’s glory; but both proceed to acknowledge Christ as the supreme governor.

Of course, an important reason for the verbal similarities between these two texts is that they are both manifestations of an inherited Puritan language and aesthetic which was by no means genre-specific. It would thus be rash to assume a similarity of purpose between Baptist church confessions and Hutchinson’s statements of faith without further analysis. There are important differences, not least in terms of length: the Tottlebank church confession (one of the longest surviving documents of its type) is a mere fifteen pages, and confessions from other churches are even shorter, such as those for the Tir Dunkin congregation (four pages, in English and Welsh: National Library of Wales, MS 369A) and the Smarden Baptists (two pages: Regent’s Park College Oxford, Smarden Church Book). As might be expected, the Tottlebank confession spends more time than Hutchinson does (both in relative and absolute terms) outlining the principles of the church’s government, and is less equivocal in its presentation of them. Furthermore, the intellectual sophistication of Hutchinson’s self-examination, and its carefully weighted consideration of alternative points of view, could have no place in a church document designed to present a digestible summary of collective beliefs. Nevertheless, Hutchinson’s religious writings display a keen awareness of the operation of gathered churches, and an ability to recast texts from a wide range of genres. These factors combined with a considerable number of thematic and verbal parallels suggest that Hutchinson’s knowledge of church confessions, whether oral or written, helped her to structure and compose her own statements of belief.

Cite this blog post
mburden (2015, December 30). InvenCaP Blog – Lucy Hutchinson and Baptist Confessions of Faith. Dissenting Experience. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

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