A little too much coffee and Roberts' Rules.


10 July 2021

Why did deacons take over Baptist churches?

by Jon

The April-June issue of the 9Marks journal is out and the topic is “Deacons.”

I’m grateful for 9Marks’ resuscitation of the elder. The return of a “plurality of elders” among 21st Century Baptists can be chalked up almost entirely to 9Marks, along with a few friends like Founders.

But that leads me to a question seldom asked: where did all the elders go? Why was the “pastor and the deacons” combination nearly universal in Southern Baptist churches for over a century?

In the Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever suggests “inattention to Scripture” and “the pressure of life on the frontier” may have contributed to the decline of elder plurality..

Those are both right, in a sense, but I think we’re still missing the largest force pulling our polity out of line: the laws around church formation.

Questions about the ‘standard’ explanation

Were American Baptists ‘inattentive to scripture’? In some sense, all sin is a failure to heed God’s commands in scripture. But if there’s a “Baptist” trait, it’s persnickitiness about the scripture on churches. Having rejected Popes, cardinals, synods, presbyters, sessions, and state churches, at least some Baptists are always insisting they want church as the Bible commands, no more, and no less. The 19th and 20th centuries had no shortage of literalists and Fundamentalists willing to call out deviations. There were hard-shells and landmarkers, anti-missionary Baptists, anti-missionary society Baptists, anti-Sunday school Baptists. Dever’s introduction to Polity describes the serious 19th Century conflict over indoor baptisms versus outdoor baptisms. The Baptist commitment to following scripture and individual conscience is so high, they appear needlessly schismatic to many outsiders.

So, while any error is connected to inattention to scripture, it’s strange that there wasn’t much of a fight between Baptist “elderists” and “deaconists.” No group called out the encroaching pragmatism and liberalism of the deaconists, and no deaconists claimed the watching world needed their orthopraxy more than sermonizing. If a plurality of elders is biblical and historical, how did the deaconists win without a fight?

Was it furthered by “life on the frontier?” Again, yes, in some sense. The shortage of ministers during the westward expansion in the US meant many churches were irregular. In my home state, Missouri, missionary pastors arrived shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, and would ride circuit. Many Baptist churches held services only once or twice a month. The idea of a “cooperative” mission budget developed in Missouri when a glut of guest-preaching fundraisers threatened to take over most of the preaching in those frontier churches.

But even on the frontier, Baptists longed for regularity. They understood the New Testament goal was to have their own deacons and preacher, and to meet each Sabbath if not more often.

So how did people attentive to scripture, and longing for New Testament polity and health, wind up with a “deacon-led” polity? Like the answer to so many Baptist questions, you’ll need to go back to the Glorious Revolution to find the source.

Persecuted Baptists Find New Freedom in the 17th Century

As you’ll recall, after Henry VIII broke with Rome, the Church of England persecuted dissenters that did not submit themselves to the Royal-led Church. Baptists believed the King lacked authority over religious matters and refused to submit to his church. And so, the Crown persecuted them, along with other groups of “nonconformists.”

In the late 17th Century, Baptists found a friend in King James II, who had converted to Catholicism later in life. James’ conversion was scandalous but tolerated, as long as his heir was his protestant daughter. He used his personal power to blunt persecution of nonconformists, and his “Declaration for Liberty of Conscience” was welcomed by many Baptists. But many Anglicans feared James was paving the way for a return to Catholicism. When James fathered a Catholic son in 1688, it threatened to create a Catholic dynasty, and plunged England into crisis. A few weeks later, seven Protestant nobles begged Prince William of Orange to invade. William, a Dutch Calvinist, had married James’ protestant daughter, Mary. When William landed in England with a small army, James fled.

This “Glorious Revolution” meant the English monarch would remain protestant. But William and Mary also saw no reason to force dissenting protestants into league with dissenting Catholics. They viewed Catholicism (and Catholic countries) as the real political danger, so one of the first acts of the new monarchy was an “Act of Toleration.” The Act allowed nonconforming protestants to have schoolteachers and houses of worship, on certain conditions. 1

Now you’ll understand why there was an explosion of Baptist works in the late 17th Century. Baptists were finally allowed to gather legally and write out their theology at length. Much of the Second London Baptist Confession (dated 1689) responds to the political and legal questions around toleration. 2 So in the few years around the Glorious Revolution, Baptists laid down many patterns that we still follow today.

The Tolerable Acts

Here it is important to understand what the Act of Toleration allowed. While it was a great leap forward for religious liberty, it was nothing like the United States’ First Amendment. The Act of Toleration imposed a long oath to support the King and Queen and required swearing off Catholic doctrines. But even after taking the oath, nonconformists could not hold most public offices.

And to preach, nonconformist ministers still had to affirm most of the Church of England’s thirty-nine articles. “Anabaptists” (and Baptists) could opt out of Article 27’s commitment to pedobaptism. They had to register a place of preaching. But unlike their later, American counterparts, early English Baptists seem to have agreed to take these oaths.3

And congregations also had to register a location. Each “congregation or assembly” had to register a “place of meeting,” with notice to the bishop, local deacons, or the justices of the peace.

Limits to Toleration and Workarounds

Even after jumping through all the hoops, nonconformists faced legal disabilities. There was a legal structure around Anglican churches, ministers, parishioners, and the heirarchy. But the Toleration Act did not provide a neat way to put nonconforming ministers, houses of worship, and congregations under the same umbrella. Dissenters were banned from public office, and corporations were considered a public office from the King. So, law did not recognize a “Baptist Church.” The law recognized individual people. Some individuals could preach. And other individuals could associate to hear a permitted preacher, but only at registered location.

This is an easy enough problem to solve if someone owns a house. After the Toleration Act, many Baptist churches met in houses, cottages, or barns. A sympathetic individual could register his home as a meeting place, and then arrange to have a minister preach. These property owners tended to be wealthier and older patrons.

But what happened if the owner of the church house died? Or left for another denomination? How could property be secured to a particular church if dissenters could not form corporations?

Dissenters had to deal with these problems the best they could.

The common legal workaround was a “trust.” Ancient English law allowed landowners to devote their property to a charitable purpose, including lawful exercise of religion. The land might be “owned” by one or more individuals, but the English courts would force the owners to honor the purpose of the “trust.” One could leave property to a single trustee, but as the entire purpose was to avoid the hassle of a person’s death, trusts typically have more than one trustee. And to avoid ties, there are usually three trustees.

For many churches in England, then, their “trust deed” became their most important governing document. Just as it sounds, the trust deed dedicated the property to religious uses; it was a deed that created a trust. Without the trust deed, the title to the property was impermanent; without permanence, it was difficult to stay properly registered. And the penalities for unregistered ‘conventicles’ (gatherings of dissenters) were severe, at least in theory.

It should come as no surprise, then, that trustees were often the deacons. Deacons are charged with care of the physical ministry of the church. It makes sense that churches combined these legal and spiritual responsibilities. Even where deacons were not technically trustees, they generally were responsible for the use of the property.

But you’ll also see that, as the landowners, it was the trustees that legally allowed the congregation to gather on their land. And it was the land-owning trustees that allowed for any preacher. Because the minister had to register his preaching location, it was impossible to register without the consent of the Trustees. And even if the congregation elected a new pastor, it was the trustee-deacons who would have to provide the trust’s consent to the continuing use of the property. Without the permission of a landlord, it was difficult to stay properly registered.4

In fact, it was often the Trustees that arranged for a preacher for the dissenting congregations in their area. At some points, real estate speculators were building chapels to rent to dissenters, in essence deciding which ministers could draw crowds to the property, rather than any congregation setting aside a minister to special work.

Examples from Spurgeon

You can see this system still at work in Charles Spurgeon’s autobiography, a century and a half after the Act passed.

Spurgeon’s invitation to preach at New Park Street came from a “London deacon.” He corresponded with the deacon, and the deacon arranged a boarding house, in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. After the sermon, the presiding deacon immediately offered Spurgeon a six-month engagement, confident that the congregation would back him at the next business meeting. The resolution that passed instructed the deacons to communicate the offer and “make the necessary arrangements” for compensation.5

In another example, at the end of Chapter 32 of his autobiography, Spurgeon said the crowds at his London pastorate were growing, and he wanted a bigger building. But he had to convince his deacons, and he did so in his sermons:

“By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down; and by faith, this wall at the back shall come down, too[,” Spurgeon preached.] An aged and prudent deacon, in somewhat domineering terms, observed to me, at the close of the sermon, “Let us never hear of that again.” “What do you mean?” I inquired; “you will hear no more about it when it is done, and therefore the sooner you set about doing it, the better.”

Spurgeon convinced the church, which asked the Deacons to construct an addition. But then Spurgeon says legal problems caused a delay; the properties involved were on different Trusts, and the “Charities Commission” had to get involved.

Earlier, Spurgeon wrote about his predecessor, Dr. John Rippon’s dealings with his deacons. The deacons had been reluctant to spend money on a new almshouse, despite Rippon’s encouragement; they said the expense would be too great and the money impossible to raise. Rippon went out and raised the funds himself and made sure the Trust Deed to the property allowed the pastor to select beneficiaries “no deacons interfering.” 337.

How the Act deformed New Testament polity

So how did the Act of Toleration deform New Testament polity? At its root, dissenting churches were separated from their property, and elders had to mediate some of their connection to a congregation through the property – and its keepers. This meant the law gave the Trust and the Trustees a direct, legal relationship to doctrine. Instead of turning to the congregation for answers, the Courts turned to the Trusttes, which were often Deacons. This little assumption was reinforced by law and circumstances for generations, until the workaround became an unquestioned tradition.

It might seem like churches would press to end these requirements. But the workaround was healthy enough to let churches be healthy enough.6 In most congregations, elders, deacons, trustees, and congregations aren’t in conflict. If a church wanted a plurality of elders, it could have them. But the minimum was an authorized minister in agreement with keepers of an authorized location.

So, this legal workaround, a holdover of persecution of the dissenters, became the blueprint for roughly 300 years. Even in the United States, after most states had disestablished official churches, it was an open question whether State governments should recognize a ‘church’ as a corporation with its own property. Corporations were usually created by the state legislature, and requiring minority faiths to lobby for their own corporations faced obvious challenges. Only in the early 20th century did “general” corporation statutes become widespread, where legal entities could form on general rules, without a special charter from the legislature.

But while so much of what we think of Baptist and Evangelical life flourished under the Toleration scheme, a church could become only-so-healthy. When disagreement or conflict did arrive, the law mediated many questions through the property, and so it gave a little more weight to the property-keepers.7


For several reasons, I think the English “toleration” structure was a primary reason for apparently “deacon-led” churches. When it was later combined with the “independent contractor” model of ministering after the Great Awakening, pragmatism built on legal workarounds. For nearly 200 years, there was no reason to think the law could be changed, so there was little reason for there to be camps of Baptists with opposing views. The shortcomings were most apparent in conflict between pastors and deacons, and so it would have been easier to attributed the dysfunction to elders or deacons. By the last half of the 19th century, Baptists’ vision of their own “tradition” already accounted for the law and the culture it had created.

Like a massive planet, the gravitational pull of the legal system and the culture slowly worked on our seemingly independent polity decisions.

But an important implication of all this: the deformation wasn’t caused by deacons usurping power. If anything, it was the elder office that was more deformed by Toleration. And it would be an equal error to ‘compensate’ by deforming the New Testament Deacon role into mere “dinner table servants,” and not “counting table servants” to the church. The Apostles didn’t fear food service; they no doubt remembered Jesus’ condemnation of religious leaders who devoured widows’ houses and mites. Mark 12:38, et seq. They feared the counting table work would warp their ministry of the Word. The interaction between Spurgeon and his deacons, and respect of the differing roles mediated through the congregation, may have represented a good example of what the relationship should looks like, even without the strictures of Toleration.

And it’s also important to understand that most of the early Baptists were trying to do their best under the culture and law available to them. But at some point, the pragmatism became the tradition, and developed its own inertia.

We probably has similar traditions; what subtle deformations of the offices of elder, deacon, and member are present in today’s church? Do the laws that elevate “directors” or popular corporate leadership models inform our polity more than the New Testament? Even among people dedicated to the Word, in seemingly-healthy churches we would like to reproduce, it is important to think about why we do what we do.

  1. Why did William & Mary offer toleration? The question of nonconformists had split English political interests for a generation. James remained on the run, and a threat for several more months. To solidify protestant power and alliances, William and Mary needed to retain moderate and radical nonconformists. For more, see Scott Sowerby’s remarkable reexamination of James II’s legacy, Making Toleration: the Repealers and the Glorious Revolution

  2. Compare the Act’s prohibition on disturbing Anglican services (at paragraph XV) (, with the 2LBC’s Chapter 26, Paragraph 13, prohibiting the interruption of any church-order (which is like the Savoy Declaration on this point.) 

  3. See, e.g., 1696 Oath Rolls for Baptist Ministers in London. While taken from earlier confessions, by the time of Toleration, Chapter 23 of the 2LBC allowing for oaths imposed by authority, in matters “ending all strife.” So why did Americans chafe at essentially the same rules? According to one author, the system was unworkable in Virginia, especially for the itinerant evangelists the sprang up in the Great Awakening. The Court that granted licenses was in Williamsburg, met twice a year, and required a new license (and fee) for each location.

  4. Joseph Ivimey writes of an unfortunate incident at Prescot-street Baptist Chapel in 1752. James Fall, the son of a Baptist pastor in Watford, was invited by the deacons to be pastor for six months. At the end, most of the congregation voted to extend a call to Fall, but the deacon-trustees were opposed. The deacons told the majority that could take and keep Fall, but not at the chapel. And so began a new church at Little Alie Street. Ivimey, Joseph. A History of the English Baptists: Comprising the main events of the history of Protestant dissenters, from the revolution 1668 till 1760; and of the London Baptist Churches, during that period. United Kingdom: Ivimey, 1823. pp. 555-561. 

  5. All facts come from Spurgeon’s Autobiography. Circa p. 370. 

  6. It is, again, interesting that the English Baptists didn’t seem to take exception the Act of Toleration, while later American Baptists did. A dissenting minister could not teach until they had signed the required loyalty oaths and signed a “Declaration of Approbation and Subscription” of most of the Anglican Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles. This involved going to chancery court, and formally signing a declaration, as well as paying a fee of not more than six pence. It seems this led to some scrip that could be later checked by authorities.

    There was some debate about whether the Act applied in the colonies, but Presbyterian Samuel Davies obtained an opinion from the English Attorney General concluding that the Act did apply. So, the legal system for dissenters was similar in both places.

    It seems the Americans especially chaffed against the practical implications, and the Anglican establishment was particularly vexing. In Virginia, the Anglicans interpreted the only place of licensure to be in Williamsburg, twice a year. Preaching before the long trip to Williamsburg was reason for denying future licenses. Ragosta at 18. The Virginia Courts apparently imposed a higher burden of proof, requiring examination by local Anglican clergy. And the Virginia establishment decided a minister could be licensed only to one meetinghouse. This may not have been a problem in dense London, but it caused conflict with itinerant Presbyterians and Baptists on the Virginia frontier.

    In the years preceding the Revolution, and then through the Articles of Confederation, Separate Baptists were persecuted for refusing to license their meetings or their preaching. 

  7. There are many cases involving seemingly incredible doctrinal transitions in dissenting chapels – for example, Presbyterian churches hiring Baptist ministers, or slowly accepting Unitarians. How did this happen? Well, English Courts generally decided that the actions of the Trustees were good evidence about the intention of the Trust, regardless of the actual faith of the congregation. See, for example, Attorney Gen. v. Bunce, 37 LJ Ch. 697. So, once again, the position of the Trustee ended up legally elevated.