Review by Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin
In his day, Abraham Booth (1734-1806) was one of the leading pastors of the English Calvinistic Baptist denomination. Once described by Andrew Fuller as “the first counsellor of our denomination,” he was always referred to by his contemporaries with deep respect. His chief claim to literary fame is probably his The Reign of Grace (1768). This essay, which has also been reprinted a number of times, was written some twenty years later, and is a valuable exploration of the ramifications of our Lord’s confession before Pontius Pilate: “my kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36]. Booth argues that by this statement Christ depicts himself as a spiritual monarch, ruling over the realm of the human conscience and the heart [p.6-7]. Moreover, since “the empire of Christ. .. extends to every creature” [p.5], his kingdom cannot be regarded as coterminous with any earthly state. Building on these assertions, Booth queries “whether any national religious establishment can be a part of his kingdom” [p.21]. Booth hastens to add that he has no doubt that many in the Church of England of his day, the “national religious establishment” in view here, were genuine members of Christ’s kingdom. He is rightly calling into question, though, a marriage between Church and State, common in his day and regarded with nostalgia by some evangelicals in ours. Moreover, due to the fact that Christ’s kingdom is a one, its establishment is by means consonant with its nature: “evangelical truth and spiritual gifts, laborious and ardent prayer, fortitude, patience, and a holy example” [p.29].
A highly instructive section on church architecture occurs in the last third of the essay. Arguing that “the kingdom of Christ is not like the empires of this world, in regard to external splendour” [p.45], Booth critiques the idea that one honours Christ by “erecting pompous places of worship, (and) by consecrating those places” [p.45]. For a place of worship, simplicity and a convenient location are all that are needed [p.46]. The erection of splendid and expensive edifices for Christian worship has, in Booth’s estimation, its origin in “a perverse imitation of Pagans,” and was introduced into Christian circles by Constantine [p.56-57]. Booth can thus assert that “a congregation of day-labourers with an illiterate minister in the meanest habit, convened in a barn, may be a spiritual temple, enjoy the Divine presence, and perform the christian worship in all its glory” [p.50]. This argument in favour of what is essentially a plain, functional building designed for worship that is truly corporate and for the meeting of God’s people around the ministry of the Word basically went unchallenged in Baptist circles till the mid-1800s. At that time Baptist church buildings began to be consciously modelled on Anglican Gothic structures, in order to express the growing Baptist conviction that in every measure they were equal to their Anglican neighbours. A similar conviction of “having arrived” seems to grip modem Canadian evangelical Baptists; is it not reflected in some of our newest church buildings and renovated “sanctuaries”? Booth’s words are thus still very timely ones and bear much pondering.
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