- January 8, 2009
Some Christians before 1609 held what many refer to as distinctively Baptist beliefs. Baptists in 1609 practiced believer’s baptism, but they didn’t immerse. Even so, most church historians agree Baptists emerged as a distinct movement 400 years ago.
From their beginning, Baptists have been characterized by a restless pursuit of God’s truth, Bill Leonard said.
“Historically, the Baptist movement began in a time of great political and religious turmoil when individuals and churches were searching for the ultimate revelation. Many were willing to relinquish once-cherished beliefs and practices when convinced that a greater and more biblical truth had been discovered,” Leonard, dean at Wake Forest University Divinity School, wrote in Baptist Ways: A History.
“Such theological inquisitiveness led Baptist founder John Smyth to move from Anglicanism to Puritan Separatism in his quest for the true church. He then elected to administer believer’s baptism to himself—an act that marked the beginning of the Baptist movement.”
Some Baptists claim John the Baptist as their founder—an idea that gained popularity among the Landmark Baptist movement of the 19th century but was not limited to it. But most historians highlight Smyth’s role in 1608/1609.
Smyth—a former Anglican priest—served as pastor of a Puritan Separatist congregation in Gainesborough, England. To escape persecution during the reign of King James, Smyth and his congregation fled to Amsterdam in 1608, where they worshipped in a bake house owned by Mennonites, a Dutch Anabaptist group.
Baptism for believers only, not infants
After a year or so, Smyth became convinced the New Testament taught baptism for believers only, not infants. He baptized himself, disbanded the congregation and reconstituted the church as a gathered church of baptized believers—generally considered the first Baptist church.
Church historians disagree about how closely Baptists can link their heritage to the earlier Anabaptists.
“Whether Anabaptists were direct forebears of Baptists remains a subject of debate,” historical theologian William Brackney wrote in A Genetic History of Baptist Thought. “Historical scholarship in the past half century indicates that influences went both ways between Anabaptists and English Puritan Separatists, at least geographically.”
However, Brackney concluded, the exact degree of influence Anabaptist ideas had on what became the Baptist movement in England remains uncertain.
Leonard points to three distinct positions regarding the relationship between Baptists and Anabaptists.
“Successionists link Anabaptists and Baptists in direct lineage with little or no distinction between the two traditions. Others point to certain shared ideals joining the two groups in a ‘spiritual affinity,’” Leonard wrote, noting advocates of the spiritual kinship position point to commonly held beliefs and practices shared by Dutch Mennonites and early English Baptists. “Still others have denied substantial Anabaptist impact on Baptist origins.”
Degrees of separation
Church historian Alan Lefever, director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection, insists: “It’s a question of degrees of separation. Of course, there was some Anabaptist influence. After all, the church was formed in a Dutch Anabaptist bakery. But the fact remains, what emerged from that bakery in 1609 was unlike anything Anabaptists were before or after.”
William Estep, who taught church history more than four decades at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, stressed the influence of Dutch Mennonites on the English Baptists. He noted the sharp break Smyth made with his Puritan past.
“Smyth … forsook the Calvinism characteristic of the Puritans and Separatists for a view of the crucifixion that emphasized that Christ died for all in order that those who would trust him for salvation would be saved,” Estep wrote in Why Baptists? A Study of Baptist Faith and Heritage.
Smyth “adopted other Mennonite teachings as well,” such as the separation of church and state and commitment to absolute religious liberty, Estep added. Ultimately, Smyth led his church to unite with the Waterlander Mennonite Church in Amsterdam.
But that move toward formal union with the Mennonites led Thomas Helwys to part company with Smyth. Helwys returned to England with some other members of the Amsterdam church, and he established the first Baptist church in England, in Spitalfields, near London, in 1611—another key date in Baptist history.
“In clear contrast to the Mennonites, Helwys believed that a Christian could be a magistrate, take oaths and support ‘just war’ rather than pacifism,” Doug Weaver of Baylor University’s religion department wrote in his new book, In Search of the New Testament Church: The Baptist Story.
Two distinct Baptist groups emerged
By the mid-1600s, two distinct Baptist groups emerged in England. General Baptists, who could trace their origin to the Helwys congregation, believed Christ died for all. Particular Baptists, true to their Calvinist Puritan roots, believed Christ died only for the elect.
“However, these two groups did not ‘divide,’” Leon McBeth wrote in The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Rather, McBeth insisted, “they had quite different origins, at different times and places, and with different leaders.”
Traditionally, many historians have credited the Particular Baptists with reinstituting the ancient practice of baptism by immersion around 1641. But like many aspects of Baptist history, some scholars dispute that assertion, pointing to evidence suggesting General Baptists immersed earlier than that date.
And to further complicate matters, some prominent Baptist scholars claim a direct Anabaptist influence on Particular Baptists.
Ethicist Glenn Stassen has pointed to striking similarities between the Particular Baptist First London Confession of 1644 and Menno Simons’ work, The Foundation of Christian Doctrine.
Even so, one common characteristic of both Particular Baptists and General Baptists in the 1600s was their insistence they were Baptist, not Anabaptist.
The First London Confession begins by identifying it as the generally held beliefs of the churches “commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists.”
“Early Baptists claimed over and over again that they were not Anabaptists,” Weaver noted. “Mennonite distinctives—pacifism and the denial of church membership to a civil magistrate—never found a home in the fledgling Baptist movement.
“Some Anabaptist-Baptist influence was apparent, but a direct connection between English Separatism and the first Baptists—both General and Particular Baptists—seems the best way to explain the historical evidence.”