The Origin of Baptists
What is the origin of the Baptist church?
The term Baptist does not occur within all stages or eras of church history, but we do see the evolution of a people who eventually became known as the Baptists. Today, that church designation is broken into a number of Baptist organizations who would seemingly share a similar heritage going back hundreds of years. There are a number of approaches to this issue. Since not all of them can be right, let us take a look first at the errant approaches and then present what we feel to be the most plausible solution to our question.
One possible solution is that Baptists date back to the time of the Anabaptists and were heavily influenced by their thinking. This view holds that the General Baptists followed many traditions of the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites – views such as believer’s baptism, religious liberty, separation of church and state, Arminian views of salvation, predestination, and origin of sin. Early Baptist documents do not seem to be in total agreement with all of these doctrines at all times. In 1624, the five Baptist churches in London issued a document condemning the Anabaptists. There may have been a brief harmony between these groups, but they do not appear to realistically have a common origin. William Estep is a modern writer who favors this approach. History, however, is not kind to his views. In this line of thinking, Baptists would not share as close an affinity to the Reformation since the Anabaptists and the Protestants were often at odds with one another.
The next view is called the perpetuity view. Proponents of this view hold that Baptists have always been separate from the Roman Catholic Church. They contend that Baptists existed prior to the Reformation and Protestantism. In some ways, this is an attractive view. It would be pleasant to think that there had always been an ecclesiastical organization that had not bowed to the false teachings and tyranny of the Roman system. This would present Baptists as a kind of apostolic succession. On the positive, it would build our sense of biblical identity, but on the negative, it might result in a kind of spiritual superiority. Supporters who have suffered for advocating this view include J. M. Carrol (who published The Trail of Blood in 1931) as well as John Christian and Thomas Crosby. Charles Spurgeon is rumored to have also held to this view, but evidence to support this conclusion is lacking. Certainly, Baptists have a long and admirable heritage, but not quite as long as some would like to believe.
The final possibility is the view that we feel has the most historical evidence: English separatism. Baptists find their heritage most clearly exhibited through the Reformation in England. With the Reformation, we find the deposing of the Catholic Church at times in England with the rival body being Anglicanism or the Church of England. While the Church of England did not pursue reform quite to the extent that some groups of people thought that it should, a number of influences explain that. The establishment of a state church which many saw as a conflict of interests is not the least of these. That aside, the Church of England looked too much like the Catholic Church to many people. Dissenters from the recognized church held that its structure was too hierarchal and its worship far too formal and rigid. They desired a simple church – simplicity in structure and simplicity of worship – as their worship still resembled the Catholic mass in too many ways. What do we do when we have a deep problem with a church? Well, many of us would work toward reform from within the church; we see problems and want to be part of the solution. Sometimes that is feasible and a real option; other times, we are naïve in believing that change is coming. The Puritans were those who stayed with the Church of England and worked to make things better. The Separatists, on the other hand, felt that the Anglican system was just too far gone; they did not see any way for these changes to occur. Today, we can debate which side was more rational or logically consistent, but these were the viewpoints of that day. The Separatists deeply believed that Christianity could never be lived out according to their convictions by remaining within the Church of England. The issues were so crucial, important, and vital to their faith that a definite action was required. This is the heritage of Baptists. John Smyth was a fellow at Christ’s College Cambridge. He broke with the Church of England and joined the Separatist movement. In the early 1600’s, he began meeting with about 60-70 English Separatists. While a lengthy discussion of the history is not practical here, suffice it to say that between Smyth and another layman named Thomas Helwys, the ground was laid for the first Baptist church. In this manner, we can clearly state that this tied the first Baptist church to the Reformation and its ensuing Protestantism.
The precursor of today’s Baptist churches was preaching by Martin Luther and John Calvin. It is clear that the emergence of Baptist Christianity had some definite periodic developments, but its roots go back to the Reformation. The other views struggle to find historical roots and evidence. There is little to support the ideas of either an Anabaptist or Perpetuity view of the original of Baptist Christianity. Some argue that Baptists are not Protestants; this would only be true if one supported either of these errant views of Baptist history. In fact, the Reformation provided several streams of religious outgrown and Baptists Protestants are indeed one of them. Soli Deo Gloria.
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