by Leon McBeth
Who was the first Baptist, and where was the first Baptist church? When did Baptists begin, and who was their founder?
A lot of people ask these questions. We want to know about our denominational roots. To know our beginnings will help us understand ourselves today.
These sound like simple questions, and one might expect brief and simple answers. The story of Baptist beginnings, however, is surprisingly complicated; and not everyone agrees on the conclusions. Perhaps this is one reason such questions have been so controversial in the past.
Some people try to trace organized Baptist churches back to New Testament times or to John the Baptist. One writer even suggested that Adam was the first Baptist! Certainly we believe that our doctrine and faith root in the New Testament, but we first meet our organized denomination considerably this side of Adam.
Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England. Some of these earnest people read the Bible in their own language, believed it, and sought to live by it. They formed separate congregations which accepted only believers into their membership, and they baptized converts upon their profession of faith. Their opponents nicknamed them “Baptists,” and the name stuck. This pamphlet will fill in some of the details of that story.
The English Background
No one knows who first brought Christianity to England or when. An old tradition suggests that Paul the apostle or one of his converts may have preached in Britain. By the seventh century most English people were at least outwardly Roman Catholics. In the following centuries some evangelical groups flourished, and some remnant of these groups may have survived in the sects which later opposed Romanism, such as the followers of John Wyclif (sometimes called Lollards).
By the sixteenth century, multitudes of English Christians were demanding reform in their church. They sensed that the church had become corrupt and selfish, and that it had largely left the simple message of the Bible. Several factors contributed to this clamor for reform: the teachings of such great reformers as Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Geneva; the new translations of the English Bible which allowed the common people once again to read the Word of God; and social and political changes which led people to want more participation in their church.
Several English rulers in the sixteenth century sought to reform the Church of England to some extent. However, none of these reforms went far enough to satisfy those who wanted to return to the simple teachings and practices of the Bible.
One militant group within the Church of England genuinely desired to recover biblical teachings and practices. Deeply influenced by the reforms of John Calvin, they became known as “Puritans,” perhaps because they insisted upon more purity of doctrine and practice in the church.
Another group seeking reform was called “Separatists.” Most of the Separatists were frustrated Puritans who had given up hope of reforming the church from within. Separatists decided to separate from the Church of England and form their own independent congregations. By 1600, there were already several of these congregations in England, and they mushroomed by 1625.
The Separatists included many groups holding a variety of views. Some of them later helped populate such diverse churches as Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and assorted independents and nonconformists. Some of these Separatists, studying the Bible, adopted believer’s baptism and became known as Baptists.
Two Kinds of Baptists
Baptists came into existence as two distinct groups, with somewhat different beliefs and practices, but with believer’s baptism in common. The two main strands were known as General Baptists and Particular Baptists. There were also a few Sabbatarian or Seventh-day Baptists in the late seventeenth century, but they were never numerous.
General Baptists.–The General Baptists got their name because they believed in a general atonement. They believed Christ died for all people generally, and that whoever would believe in Christ could be saved. The first General Baptist church, led by John Smyth, was founded in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1608/09. Its members were English refugees who had fled England to escape religious persecution.
John Smyth was a minister in the Church of England. As a student and later as a pastor and teacher, he developed Puritan and Separatist views and sought to bring biblical reform to the church. When this failed, he joined a small Separatist congregation in Gainsborough, near London. As these Separatists grew so that it became dangerous for them to meet openly, they divided into two groups for convenience. One group moved to Scrooby Manor, where they were led by John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford. Later, this little band became the nucleus of the “Pilgrim Fathers” who sailed to America on the Mayflower.
The Gainsborough remnant, led by John Smyth, was in daily danger. English law prohibited such independent or dissenting churches, and King James I had vowed to deal harshly with any who refused to attend the Church of England. By 1607, the Gainsborough group had decided to migrate across the English Channel to Amsterdam, a city that provided religious liberty.
When these English exiles, led by John Smyth and a layman named Thomas Helwys, left England, they were not yet Baptists. In Amsterdam, they came into contact with Dutch Mennonites, a branch of the Anabaptist family that taught religious liberty and baptism of believers only. Historians have debated the extent of Mennonite influence upon later developments among the English exiles. The Smyth-Helwys congregation continued to study the Bible and sought to follow the way of the Lord more completely.
By 1608/09, Smyth was convinced his Separatist church was not valid. Most of the members had only infant baptism, and the church was formed on the basis of a “covenant,” rather than a confession of faith in Christ. Smyth therefore led the church to disband in 1608/09 and re-form on a new basis–a personal confession of faith in Christ, followed by believer’s baptism. Since none of the members had been baptized as believers, Smyth had to make a new beginning. He baptized himself and then baptized the others. His baptism was by sprinkling or pouring, but it was for believers only.
In 1611, Thomas Helwys led a portion of this church back to London, where they set up the first Baptist church on English soil. By 1650, there were at least forty-seven General Baptist churches in and around London. They believed in a general atonement, baptism of believers only, religious liberty, and other doctrines still associated with Baptists. The General Baptists also believed that it was possible for one to fall from grace or lose his salvation.
Particular Baptists.–The Particular Baptists came into existence a generation later than General Baptists. Named for their view of particular atonement, they believed that Christ died only for a particular group, the elect. They were deeply influenced by the teachings of John Calvin.
Particular Baptists emerged out of an Independent congregation. While Separatists, as the name implies, separated totally from the Church of England, the Independents sought to maintain autonomous congregations without a radical break with the state church. Ultimately, most of the Independents were driven to more complete separation. As early as 1616, Henry Jacob was leader of a small Independent congregation in London. The next two pastors were John Lathrop and Henry Jessey. This church is often called the “JLJ Church” from the initials of these three early pastors.
Members of this Separatist JLJ congregation were in constant conversation about the meaning of baptism. By 1630, one member withdrew, possibly in opposition to infant baptism. In 1633, a number of members withdrew from the JLJ church to form another congregation, and perhaps some of them were rebaptized as believers at that time. In 1638, several others withdrew from the JLJ church to join the 1633 group, and old church records state clearly that in 1638 they received baptism as believers. Historians have therefore concluded that the first Particular Baptist church dates at least from 1638, and possibly even from 1633. Though their baptism was for believers only, at first it was administered by sprinkling or pouring.
By 1650, there were a number of Particular Baptist churches in and around London. In 1644, seven of them had drafted a confession of faith which showed some of their distinctive views. In addition to particular atonement, they taught believer’s baptism by immersion and insisted that a person who is once saved is always saved.
Believer’s Baptism by Immersion
English Baptists recovered the practice of believer’s baptism in two steps. By 1608/09, the General Baptists insisted that baptism was for believers only, and by 1638 the Particular Baptists reached the same conclusion. At first, English Baptists baptized by sprinkling or pouring. Immersion came a few years later. Some of the General Baptists may have immersed as early as 1614, but if so it was not yet customary. Many historians do not recognize them as Baptists before immersion.
By 1640, there were at least two Particular Baptist churches, and both became convinced that baptism should be by immersion. Old church records state: 1640. 3rd Mo: The Church became two by mutuall consent just half being with Mr. P. Barebone, & ye other halfe with Mr. H. Jessey. Mr. Richd Blunt with him being convinced of Baptism yt also it ought to be by dipping in ye Body into Ye Water, resembling Burial and riseing again.
Apparently, members of the Barebone congregation reached this conclusion from a study of the New Testament. Immersion was a new practice, for their old records speak of “none having then so practiced it in England to professed Believers.” These two congregations reinstituted immersion in different ways. One church sent Richard Blunt to Holland to confer with a group of Mennonites, who practiced immersion. Possibly, he received immersion from them and returned to immerse others of the congregation. The other church simply began to immerse without alluding to historical precedent. “Where there is a beginning,” the pastor said, “some must be first.” The First London Confession of Particular Baptists, adopted in 1644, says of baptism, “The way and manner of the dispensing of this Ordinance the Scripture holds out to be dipping or plunging the whole body under the water.” The General Baptists were probably practicing immersion by 1650, but their first confession specifically calling for baptism by immersion only appeared in 1660.
Baptist styles of worship have changed considerably since 1609. The early Baptist services were quite long, sometimes with several sermons, and in the early days there was no music or singing. The oldest record of a Baptist worship service is from 1609, in a letter from Hughe and Anne Bromhead, who said:
The order of the worshippe and government of oure church is . 1. we begynne wth A prayer, after reade some one or tow chapters of the Bible gyve the sence thereof, and conferr vpon the same, that done we lay aside oure bookes, and after a solemne prayer made by the .1. speaker, he propoundeth some text owt of the Scripture, and prophecieth owt of the same, by the space of one hower, or thre Quarters of an hower.
“This Morning exercise,” the Bromhead letter concludes, “begynes at eight of the clocke and continueth vnto twelve of the clocke the like course of exercise is observed in the afternowne from .2. of the clock vnto .5. or .6. of the Clocke.”
The earliest Baptist worship was lengthy and dealt primarily with Bible exposition. There was no singing, and Baptists put great value upon spontaneity and audience participation.
By the 1670s, some Baptist churches were singing both the Psalms and “man-made” songs. This was quite controversial, and many churches split over the “singing controversy.” Benjamin Keach, a London pastor, led his church to sing a hymn after the Lord’s Supper, and within a few years they were also singing during regular worship services. In 1691, Keach published the first Baptist hymnal, Spiritual Melody, a collection of over three hundred hymns.
The Baptist Name
Many people assume that Baptists got their name from John the Baptist. This is not the case. Like most religious groups, Baptists were named by their opponents. The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion.
The first known reference to these believers in England as “Baptists” was in 1644. They did not like the name and did not use it of themselves until years later. The early Baptists preferred to be called “Brethren” or “Brethren of the Baptized Way.” Sometimes they called themselves the “Baptized Churches.” Early opponents of the Baptists often called them Anabaptists or other less complimentary names.
Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist, not wishing to be confused with or identified with the people who bore that name. (In fact, the true Anabaptists were not fond of that name either, because it had unfavorable overtones from early church history.) Even as late as the eighteenth century, many Baptists referred to themselves as “the Christians commonly (tho’ falsely) called Anabaptists.”
Perhaps the most startling practice of early English Baptists was their total immersion for baptism after 1640. Crowds would often gather to witness a Baptist immersion service. Some ridiculed, as did Daniel Featley, describing the Baptists as people who “plung’d over head and eares.” The nickname “Baptist” was given to describe the people who practiced this strange form of baptism.
Baptists Organized for Witness
An observer today may find it hard to imagine Baptists before they were organized! However, the Baptist structure or denomination evolved gradually over a period of years to meet needs as they arose.
The Association.–The oldest form of organization, beyond the local church, was the association, and it remains a vital part of Baptist denominational structure today.
From the first, Baptists entered into fellowship and common cause with other believers who shared their faith. As early as 1624 and again in 1630, several General Baptist churches in London acted together in discussing doctrine and in corresponding with other believers. Though they had no formal association, they showed a sense of cooperation and common identity.
By 1650, the Baptist association was well established. The name and geographical concept probably were adaptations of a civil unit in England, much like a county. During the English Civil War (1642-45), much of the country was divided into “associations” for political purposes. After the war Baptists continued to use this concept and name for their regional fellowship of churches.
The associations were extremely important to early Baptists. They provided Christian fellowship, a forum for discussion of Baptist concerns, a means to propagate Baptist teachings, and an effective way to monitor and maintain correct Baptist doctrine among the churches. Associations also participated together in common causes, such as issuing confessions of faith and working for religious liberty.
The General Assembly.–Each branch of English Baptists called its national organization the General Assembly. Composed of representatives from the various churches and associations, these General Assemblies usually met in London. General Baptists were first to develop this national organization, with evidence of such a body by 1653. This would correspond roughly to a national convention today.
Function.-What was the purpose of these organizations, and what did they do? They provided fellowship, counsel, and comfort to Baptists who lived during difficult days of persecution. General and Particular Baptists developed sharply different concepts of the function and authority of the denominational meetings. In a 1678 confession, General Baptists said,
General councils, or assemblies, consisting of Bishops, Elders, and Brethren, of the several churches of Christ . . . make but one church. . . . And to such a meeting, or assembly, appeals ought to be made, in case any injustice be done, or heresy, and schism countenanced, in any particular congregation of Christ.
These Baptists considered a meeting of the General Assembly to be a meeting of “The General Baptist Church,” with full authority to do “churchly” acts. They also gave the denomination a certain amount of jurisdiction or control over local congregations. Particular Baptists, on the other hand, never allowed an association or their General Assembly to become “The Church” or to do churchly acts. They leaned over backwards to protect the freedom of the local church and prevent the denomination from interfering in their affairs. In their Second London Confession (1677), Particular Baptists dealt with the question of how to handle problems that arose in local churches. The confession stated:
In cases of difficulties or differences, . . . it is according to the mind of Christ, that many Churches holding communion together, do by their messengers meet to consider, and give their advice in, or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the Churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not entrusted with any Church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the Churches themselves . . . or to impose their determination on the Churches, or Officers.
This clearly protected the autonomy of the local church and refused to allow the denomination or its leaders any control.
Baptists New and Old
The story of Baptist beginnings forms a paradox. On one hand, Baptists are deeply convinced that theirs is a Bible faith, rooted in the message of Jesus Christ and the apostles. To that extent, Baptists can be called a New Testament church.
On the other hand, the historical evidence clearly states that Baptists originated, as a distinct denomination, in the early seventeenth century. How does one harmonize the sense of continuity from Bible times with the factual reality of more recent beginnings?
Some have so emphasized the sense of continuity from Bible times that they find it difficult to face up to historical facts about Baptist origins. Some have even erected elaborate schemes, or “Trails of Blood,” seeking to trace Baptists through all the centuries from Christ to the present. These theories are based upon assumptions, unreliable or nonexistent historical data, or faulty interpretation of Jesus’ promise that the gates of death should never prevail against his church. A Baptist today can have a real sense of identification with the teachings of Christ without trying to prove historical succession.
Other Baptists, however, may so emphasize the recent origin of Baptists that they lose the sense of continuity in faith and practice from Jesus himself. The earliest Baptists recovered and proclaimed anew the old faith that has come down the centuries from the Lord and his apostles. The Baptist denomination dates from the seventeenth century; the Baptist faith, we believe, dates from the first century.
Baptists originated in England in a time of intense religious reform. They sought to recover and proclaim the faith of the New Testament as first given by Jesus and his apostles. Since then they have spread their teachings and churches in many lands and many cultures. They have never wavered from that original desire to hold and proclaim the simple faith of the New Testament church.
H. Leon McBeth is retired professor of church history, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.
© Copyright 1979. All rights reserved.