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.