What is a Baptist understanding of miracles in the church?

While Calvinistic Baptists have been associated with cessationism—the belief that the miraculous events such as those found in the book of Acts ceased after the first century—the tradition’s past holds a few surprises.

Baptists emerged as a distinct group in the early seventeenth-century, a tumultuous period in English history with various revolutionary religious and political changes, many of which are closely connected to Puritanism, a spiritual renewal movement that began in the Church of England, but soon extended beyond it. In addition to Baptists, Congregationalists, English Presbyterians, and even Quakers—whose views were considered especially radical at the time—came out of Puritanism.

One such Puritan-turned-Baptist was Hanserd Knolls (1599–1691).[1] Educated at Oxford, Knolls broke with the Church of England as a student, after which he moved to America and embraced Congregationalism. Later convinced that believer’s baptism was the most scriptural model, Knolls became a Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist. While these shifts may suggest instability, they were not an uncommon experience among Puritans. Knolls would remain a Baptist, acting as a capable apologist and theologian for the remainder of his life.

Knolls… argued that Particular Baptists did in fact believe that a preacher must be filled with spirit, and that the ability to rightly preach the gospel was nothing less than supernatural.

During the 1640’s Knolls engaged in disputes with a religious sect called the Seekers. In some ways, the Seekers resembled contemporary charismatic groups. They believed that any church whose members did not demonstrate the full array of Apostolic gifts, including healing and raising of the dead, were false and spiritless churches. Knolls’ published response to the Seekers, titled The Shining of a Flaming Fire in Zion, argued that Particular Baptists did in fact believe that a preacher must be filled with spirit, and that the ability to rightly preach the gospel was nothing less than supernatural. And of course, conversion was the Spirit’s most powerful manifestation

The gifts of the Spirit (recorded in 1 Corinthians 12:1–11; Ephesians 4:11–12; 1 Peter 4:10–11 and Romans 12:6–8), and their precise nature, has been the source of great interest in the global church today. Church history is helpful, even encouraging, for receptivity to the Spirit’s work. And this is what makes Knolls’ life and ministry especially fascinating.

When Knolls was 91 years old, his friend Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) was dying. Upon coming to his bedside, Knolls earnestly prayed that God would “spare him, and add unto his days, the time he granted to his servant Hezekiah” (In 2 Kings 20, King Hezekiah entreated God to add 15 more years to his life, a prayer which YHWH answered). Knolls then boldly prophesied that he would die before Keach. Keach did recover, and lived exactly 15 years.

This little-known historical event is instructive for several reasons.

First, it demonstrates that miraculous healings were not limited to the first century church, or to contemporary Pentecostalism. Some evangelicals, Baptists included, maintain a skeptical distance from any claim or pursuit of faith healings. But this is exactly what Hanserd Knolls did. He boldly (albeit humbly) prayed to God that his friend would not die. Even more, he spoke with prophetic confidence that what he asked would be done. We are not told what prompted Knolls to act as he did. From his interaction with the Seekers, we know he wasn’t cavalier about the occurrence of miracles or the believer’s prerogative to pronounce healing. Knolls was, however, led by the Spirit and possessed strong faith in a mighty God.

Second, Knolls perceived the excesses of sects like the Seekers, engaging in scriptural debate and warning against unqualified claims to the Spirit’s gifts. It seems that the Seekers’ error stemmed from their teaching that any church failing to demonstrate all the gifts of the Holy Spirit was spiritless. The healing of Benjamin Keach proved otherwise.

In our own century, with its increasing openness to spirituality—even if in pagan and New Age expressions—powerful, even dramatic demonstrations of the Spirit’s power will bear witness to the truth of the gospel. Figures such as Hanserd Knolls show us that, when rightly understood and interpreted, the words of scripture and the works of the Holy Spirit are in complete harmony. It is in the Gospels after all, that Jesus says, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this, mountain, ‘move from here to there’ it will be moved, and nothing will be impossible for you,” (Matthew 17:20).

[1] See Michael A. G. Haykin, Kiffen, Knollys, and Keach: Rediscovering out English Baptist Heritage (H&E Publishing, 2019).