Baptist Origins
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Baptist Origins
by John Briggs

English Baptists, with continuous history from the beginning of the seventeenth century, have the longest history of any Baptist group in the world and because of this their early history is the history of the whole family. Overall, English Baptists find their origins amongst those who were not content with the limited, even though profound, achievements of the mainstream Protestant Reformation: something more was necessary.  Whether this took them into the camp of the Radical Reformation or into the tradition of Puritan Separatism has been hotly contested.

More recently it has been shown that certain early General Baptist congregations derive from the Lollards, the followers of John Wycliffe.  Called General [Arminian] Baptists, they argued that Christ died for all, not just the elect.  Scrutiny of church court records shows that far from dying out before the Reformation, Lollard activities continued well into Tudor England.  More particularly analysis of the surnames of those who signed the [General Baptist] Orthodox Confession of 1679, suggests that these signatories had Lollard family backgrounds.

In 1608, John Smyth, [c1570-1612], sometime Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, went into exile in Amsterdam with fellow puritans from the covenanted congregation which that he had gathered in Lincolnshire, separate from the established church. Whilst in Holland, he, and his lay supporter, Thomas Helwys, [c1550-c1616] together with those they led, broke with the other English exiles, convinced they should be baptized as believers.  In 1609 Smyth first baptized himself and then baptized the others.  Hence his nickname of the ‘Se-Baptist’. 


Doubting the wisdom of this, Smyth later decided that the Waterlander Mennonites, notwithstanding the bad press that haunted Anabaptists, were not as heretical as he first supposed.  With the majority of his group, he, therefore, joined the Waterlander church, thereby identifying with the Radical Reformation. 

Helwys opposed the joining of the Waterlanders, believing this to be a going back on Smyth’s new beginning reflected in his independent baptism, mistakenly now seeking baptism of another Christian church, rather than making the clear breach with the past symbolized by his earlier action. Leading the rump of the Lincolnshire group back to England, Helwys formed the first Baptist Church on English soil in Spitalfields, London, in 1612. 

Smyth and Helwys, it can be argued, notwithstanding later associations formed in Holland, came to Baptist views, independently of Mennonite influence, from a sensitive reading of scripture from a reformed and separatist perspective. It is equally clear that the early Baptists, like the Anabaptists before them, rejected the Constantinian identification of Church and State, embodied in the folk and state churches of the mainstream Reformation, in favor of a Believers’ Church arising from a personal experience of new birth.

The first Particular or Calvinistic Baptists, that is those who believed in Christ’s death as effective for the elect only, emerged from an Independent congregation in London, some of whose members came to believe that believers’ baptism was the right way of Christian initiation. Thus they had even clearer continuity with other Calvinistic separatists. Anxious to secure a biblical pattern of baptism, they sent one of their number, Richard Blunt, to Holland to confer with a group committed to baptism by immersion.  Again, the English deputation chose not to seek baptism of that group, but rather, in January 1642, Blunt baptized himself, this time by immersion, and then baptized 53 others.


Both groups suffered much persecution.  Though, Helwys penned a remarkable plea for toleration and freedom of worship, the first in the English language, entitled The Mistery of Iniquity, in 1612, his life ended in prison some time before 1616.

Very soon these infant Baptist churches were hurled into the fury of the debate about the proper relationship of church and state, as the controversy over royal power and the divine right of kings developed in the latter years of the reign of King Charles I.  This was followed by the turmoil of the protectorate and the commonwealth, with such experiments in politics as government by the saints.  For his part, Oliver Cromwell allowed an established church to continue, staffed with non-royalist Anglicans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, though even such a reformed state church attracted few Baptists.

Towards the end of the commonwealth, other more internal threats to Baptist life emerged.  In these uncertain times, millenarian speculations were rife amongst extreme puritans.  Baptist like others thumbed the pages of Daniel and Revelation seeking for the texts that would help them interpret what was happening in the world around them.  Daniel 2 became the key text and the execution of Charles I in 1649 was identified with the end of the fourth monarchy, which would usher in the fifth monarchy of Christ’s return.

Initially, Cromwell was seen as implementing the prophecy, but when he accepted the title of Lord Protector in 1653 he was seen as obstructing God’s purposes.  Fifth Monarchism was not a sect so much as an attitude, which captured the imagination of a considerable number of Baptists, both General and Particular, who thereby set themselves against the state. 

If they represent ‘the church engaged’, even ‘over-engaged’, the Quakers, who in 1655ff secured the support, not only of individual Baptists, but whole congregations, represented ‘the church withdrawn’.  The appeal

 was not now to outward rules of church membership or even the written word of scripture, but the inner testimony of the Spirit.  Much ground was lost; by 1660 there remained only around 300 churches across the two traditions of Baptist life.

The restoration of the crown in 1660 brought a quarter of a century of intermittent persecution by the state.  Local records, such as The Broadmead Records, for what became the principal Baptist Church in Bristol, give vivid details of what it cost to be a Baptist in these years.  Thus it is recorded that when King Charles II was restored in 1660, ‘then Satan stirred up adversaries against us, and our trouble or persecution began.’  It was not until 1687 that the record was able to look back upon ‘the times of our late troubles’.—John Briggs is senior research fellow in church history at Regent's Park College, Oxford, England, and editor of the Baptist Quarterly.