Posted by: Jerad File | February 25, 2009

Baptist Coffee Houses: Strategy for Denominational Unity Since 1697

I was working on reading through George M. Ella’s biography of Gill this morning and I found the funniest thing. Chapter 2 is about the context of the world that Gill lived in, and in this chapter there is a section where Ella discusses the phenomenon of Baptist coffee houses. Apparently, these served as a meeting place for pastors to discuss denominational organization and unity. I couldn’t help but think of the modern phenomenon of coffee house style churches, though I’m sure that the ones today bear very little resemblance to the ones in 1697. Ella states:

The difficulties found in adopting a common creed prevented the Particular Baptist churches and their General Baptist brethren from enjoying true fellowship with one another but a number of pastors believed that if they could only persuade their fellow office-bearers from the various Baptist churches to meet in fellowship, eventually some form of church unity could be worked out. The venue chosen for these minisers’ fraternals or clubs, sometimes meeting within the denomination, sometimes together, were not the Baptist chapels but the many coffee-houses springing up at the time in London and other major towns.

These coffee-house fraternals of special approved pastors (club members determined who could join them, not the churches) gradually became the true governing bodies of both the General and Particular Baptists in the years between 1697 and 1720 when Gill succeeded Benjamin Keach’s son-in-law Benjamin Stinton as pastor of Goat Yard. Their unifying aim was made clear right from the start as, when the Hanover Coffee House club was founded by Keach and like-minded brethren, it was done so with the recorded determination to seek union with the General Baptists. Thus by the time of Gill’s ‘preaching with a view’ at Goat Yard, it had become generally recognized by the average church members that the coffee-house brethren were their central body of elders who were to officiate at the ordinations of local deacons and pastors. In effect the coffee-house fraternals had become not churches within churches, but governing church bodies outside of the churches. These ‘elders’ had formerly criticized the House of Bishops for their aloofness from and authority over the Anglican churches but they had, in effect, become a House of Bishops themselves. The only difference was that the Anglican bishops met in Lambeth Palace whereas the Baptist bishops met over a bowl of tobacco provided for the occasion in a London coffee-house of far more humble nature.

It would seem most odd that the London coffee-houses should be so closely associated with the development of Baptist history. Whitely argues that as the armed forces, civil administration and municipal services–he could have added much of the academic world including all of the English universities–were closed to Baptists, they had only farming and commerce left to turn to as a means of livelihood. A number of Baptists, including pastors and the widows of pastors, thus set up coffee-houses in London to rival the taverns and also provide meeting-places for the numerous clubs and societies which were springing up at the time. James Jones of Southwork, a Baptist pastor and contemporary with Keach combined being a tailor and coffee-house keeper with his quite enormous pastoral duties (pp. 35-36).

I find this passage fascinating. Coffee Houses are very popular today, and sometimes associated with the emergent church; however, a look at Baptist history shows that there is a long heritage of Baptist coffee drinking. This passage also highlights the spirit of cooperation existing among the Particular Baptist leaders of the time.

Ella, George M. John Gill and the Cause of God and Truth. Eggleston, England: Go Publications, 1995.


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