Baptist History part 3: English Reformers/Separatists

Baptist History part 3: English Reformers/Separatists

Where did the Baptists really come from?

I have discussed in previous blog posts 3 of the 4 commonly understood theories of the origin of the Baptist Church.  Now we come to the 4th and final possibility.  Many believe Baptists came directly from the English Reformation movement.  To be sure the actual beginnings are unclear for there is no record of a person or group of people deciding to start their own denomination called “Baptist”.  Like most of the origins of denominations the specific groups were labeled by outsiders with the name for which they would later to be known.

A product of the Protestant Reformation in England

This origin theory traces Baptist thinking and practice back to just after the Protestant Reformation movement.  As reformation thinking and ideas spread throughout Europe, major religious changes were on the horizon.  The Reformation impacted most European countries, such as: Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Spain, and England.  There was growing dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church in England.  King Henry VIII of England got into some trouble with the Catholic Church due to various marital difficulties so in order to solve his problem the best solution was to break from the Roman Catholic Church and start his own church.  This move would give him the freedom to do what he wanted (even if the pope refused his request) because the new ‘church leader’ would be greatly influenced by the king.  So Henry established what is now called the Church of England or the Anglican Church.

Henry VIII contribution to Baptist history

During these times of unrest and reform in England many of those following the ideas of Martin Luther and John Calvin were hoping Henry’s break with Rome would give them the reform and freedom they desired.  This was not to be.  Many English protesters agreed with Luther and Calvin that salvation comes by grace through faith and not through a decision by a local representative of God (the local bishop).  But these same people disagreed with the Reformers about certain other issues.  Some of these issues of disagreement were: church governance (who made the decisions for the local assembly?); the Eucharist (how were Jesus’ body and blood represented in the communion elements?); and baptism (are infants to be baptized into the covenant community or was it strictly for confessing believers?).  These issues, coupled with the need they felt to ‘purify’ English Christianity, were specifically what caused a group of English reformers (called Puritans due to their stress on purifying Christendom) to emphasize believers baptism and therefore be unique in the ever changing landscape of growing denominations.

English Puritans leave for Amsterdam

This purification process failed under Henry and many followers of Jesus were persecuted because of their ‘other’ beliefs, so some fled to a different country in order to escape the abuse coming from either the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Church.  A group of people led by a man named John Smyth escaped the English persecutions and fled to Amsterdam.  He was the pastor of a group of believers who taught and preached these new ideas, noting the idea of believer’s baptism.  Some of the documents from that time mention this man John Smyth and call him a Baptist, this may be where the term ‘baptist’ was first used to describe a different group of Jesus followers. Smyth had originally set up an Anglican Congregation but in 1609 he and a fellow separatist, Thomas Helwys, being so convinced of the need for baptism to be by confessing believers they baptized each other and the rest of their congregation.  They were shortly after called Baptists.

Life after John Smyth

John Smyth not long after this left his ‘Baptist’ congregation and attempted to join the Mennonites partially because he had changed his thinking about infant baptism and apologized for baptizing himself (which he admitted was the wrong way to go about his altering of interpretation on that issue).  Without Smyth, Helwys and his congregation drafted the first Baptist confession of faith in 1611.  Following Smyth’s departure the ‘baptists’ grew in numbers in Amsterdam.  Some of this newly formed denomination decided to move to the new world (America) and when they did the Baptist church grew eventually to become one of the largest denominations in America.  Thomas Helwys returned to England as the pastor of the 1st Baptist church in England, this was in 1612.

In the Americas

One prominent name that comes up when discussing the history of Baptists in Americas is Roger Williams.  He was a baptist for a short time and founded a Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island in 1638.  He held to many Baptist beliefs, but later left the Baptist church not affiliating himself with any specific denomination.  His church in Providence, however, was the first Baptist church in the new world.  The Baptists grew in number and prominence becoming very well known in America’s history.  Baptists eventually started a wide variety of subgroups within the denomination.  Because of the controversy of owning slaves the Baptist churches split into a northern larger group and a southern larger group.  There are a myriad of subgroups but they mostly come from either the Northern Baptists or the Southern Baptist Convention.

What is my opinion of the history of Baptists?

It is probably pretty obvious, but I find this particular origin story of Baptists to be the legitimate one.  It makes sense that some English Reformers looked at specific doctrines written about by the Reformers and made up their own minds what the Bible said concerning them (which went against almost all other Christians).

Let me know what you thought of this series on the History of Baptists.

If you are member of a specific denomination or would like me to write a short history of that denomination let me know.

I value all comments.

Good night and God bless.