To Walk in All His Ways
Baptism is accepted and practiced, and always has been, by just about every group in whatever place that has called itself Christian. Thus, it is somewhat ironic that a specific Christian group would emerge that would come to be identified as "Baptists." The issue of baptism—who should be baptized and by what method—would become important enough to them that they would endure persecution, social ostracization, even death, if necessary, to maintain their convictions.
Where did the Baptists come from? Why did their movement arise? The traceable historical roots of the Baptists as we know them today are to be found in the English church of the early 17th Century.
During the tumultuous 70-year period from the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and King Henry VIII's separation from Roman Catholicism, to the Hampton Court Conference in England in 1604 when the hopes of the Puritans were thwarted by King James I, the English church was inescapably intertwined with the shifting affairs of the state and monarchy. Intense and often violent struggles ensued as the reform movement progressed. Fundamental questions related to the nature of the church, its doctrine, polity, practice and relationship to the state were tested and debated in the crucible of a rapidly changing society.
It was the English Baptists and the European Anabaptists that would put the church and its whole self understanding to the a more severe test than any other group as they embraced a collection of doctrines and principles that shattered the old world synthesis.
The Baptists originated among the Separatist movement. The Separatists themselves had come from the Puritans. The Puritans were loyal members of the established church and sought to advance the reform movement and "purify" the church from within.
The "Separatists" became impatient with the possibility of the established church ever being purified and called for a "separation" from the state church to form congregations that would pattern themselves after New Testament teaching and practice.
From the Separatists during the reign of James I would emerge the Pilgrim fathers who went to America, and the first Baptists. The two figures who can be identified as among the earliest Baptists are John Smyth (1570–1612) and Thomas Helwys (?–1616).
Smyth was an ordained Anglican priest who progressed through Puritan and Separatist stages. He studied at Christ's College, Cambridge from 1586 and among his tutors was a later Separatist leader in Holland, Francis Johnson. In 1594 he was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and was elected a Fellow at Christ's College.
He became the leader of a group at Gainsborough, on the borders of Nottinghamshire in the English Midlands. Gainsborough had become a gathering place for a number of ministers who had been in trouble with the authorities for their Puritan beliefs.
This Gainsborough group, according to William Bradford (who would later come to America on the Mayflower), formed a covenanted church and "as the Lord's free people joined themselves … in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all his ways, made known or to be made known unto them (according to their best endeavors) whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them."
Most Puritans had high hopes for change when James VI of Scotland came to the English throne in 1603. But following the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, Puritan hopes were thwarted by the approval of a new set of canons and disciplines for the government of the church. The Puritans had hoped to persuade the Anglican bishops to reform the church. However, James himself presided over the conference and threatened to "make the Puritans conform or else harry them out of the land." This strengthening of Anglicanism was felt at Gainsborough. After a year of meeting with great difficulty in 1607, the leadership decided that they should leave for Holland, as quickly as possible. The emigration took place in small parties, with Thomas Helwys playing a leading part in making arrangements for the momentous journey for Smyth's congregation.
Little is known about the early life of Thomas Helwys except that he hailed from Nottinghamshire on an estate which had been in the family for several generations. Helwys received a good education at Gray's Inn and after some years in London, he returned to his country home, Broxtowe Hall. From Puritan references it is known that Helwys' home was a haven for early dissenters and Helwys himself probably aided their cause financially. At some point Helwys was introduced to John Smyth and with Mrs. Helwys joined the Separatist congregation at Gainsborough prior to 1607.
The relationship between Helwys and Smyth was very deep. Helwys reflected: "Have we not neglected ourselves, our wives, our children and all we had and respected him? And we confess we had good cause to do so in respect of those most excellent gifts and graces of God that did abound in him." Even later, when Helwys and Smyth had parted, Helwys could write: "All our love was too little for him and not worthy of him."
The voyage to Holland took place in 1608. When they arrived in Amsterdam, a welcome haven for 17th Century prisoners of conscience, they were given hospitality by the Mennonites and housed in the great bakehouse of Jan Munter. Here they were free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience as guided by the New Testament and also free, as one historian observed, to experience "all the evils of overcrowding, from exacerbated tempers to the plague."
The congregation in exile energetically examined basic conceptions regarding the true nature of the church as set forth in the New Testament. Smyth came to the view that baptism should be administered only to believers. This led Smyth to baptize himself and then the rest of the group beginning with Helwys.
By this move, the group had removed themselves from the state church on the grounds that they had not been validly baptized as infants. It also marked a separation from their fellow Separatists. Indeed it would not be many years hence when William Bradford and his companions would decide in 1620 to emigrate to America where they would establish Plymouth Plantation on strict Separatist principles.
About February 1610 Smyth and about 31 others came to the conclusion that they had been in error baptizing themselves and sought fellowship with the Mennonites in Holland.
Thomas Helwys and about a dozen others disagreed, rejecting totally the idea of any necessary succession in the Church of Christ. It was "contrary to the liberty of the Gospel, which is free for all men at all times and in all places: yea, so our Savior Christ doth testify—wheresoever, whosoever, and whensoever two or three are gathered in his name, there is he in the midst of them."
Helwys and his small band became convinced that they had been wrong to leave England. Though parting with Smyth caused him great personal pain, Helwys believed that the "days of great tribulation spoken of by Christ" had now arrived. He must get back to England and appeal to James I to stop persecuting the faithful.
The small group led by Helwys returned to England in late 1612 and established themselves at Spitalfields near London. Helwys wrote a moving appeal to King James in his own hand titled The Mistery of Iniquity in which he boldly called upon the monarch not to impose laws upon the consciences of his subjects. "The King," he said "is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them."
For such fearless courage Helwys was thrown in prison, and had died in Newgate by 1616. Helwys gave to religious toleration the finest and fullest defense it had known till then. He believed that persecution of even the most serious spiritual error was itself iniquitous. He gave the magistrate fullest authority in civil affairs, but in the church the magistrate had no greater power than any other layman.
The Helwys congregation has been called the first General Baptist Church. These Baptists, who believed that no person was destined by a divine decree to damnation but that all people might repent and believe the Gospel, drew the inference that to destroy a person for mistaken beliefs might defeat the purpose of God. The small group grew in numbers and by 1626 the London congregation was associated with others at Lincoln, Coventry, Salisbury and Tiverton. It could not have been easy: for Calvinism was orthodoxy in England, Arminianism a heresy. Certainly they were distinct from those Calvinists who came to be known as Particular Baptists, a distinction which lasted in England until 1891.
When seven London Particular Baptist churches published a Confession in 1644, the second stream of Baptist life was clearly visible. Its source was in the family of congregations that had originated in the work of the Independent minister, Henry Jacob. Jacob had founded in 1616, near Southwark at London, a congregation based on the gathered church principle, and following his departure to Virginia, the original group evolved even further. Under John Spilsbury, one of the offshoots adopted believer's baptism while another branch differed as to who should administer baptism. By 1640 both of these churches concluded that immersion was the only mode of Scriptural baptism. Thus by 1644 when they issued the London Confession, seven congregations could be clearly identified as Baptists holding the particular or limited view of Christ's atonement.
The Calvinist Confession of the Particular Baptists had several distinctive emphases. Baptism was the 'door' into church fellowship and should only be administered to persons professing faith in Christ. The ministry was placed firmly in the immediate control of members of the covenanted Christian community. In political matters the 'king and parliament freely chosen by the kingdom' had legitimate powers, but there should be no state interference in church matters. The mutual cooperation of all churches was stressed, particularly as this related to church planting, financial assistance and resolution of controversial matters within a local church.
It was in 1649 that John Myles and Thomas Proud were dispatched by the London Baptists to spread the Gospel in Wales. Myles was the son of a prosperous farmer, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and he founded the first Particular Baptist Church in Wales at Ilston, near Swansea in 1650. Twelve years later he and a number of members emigrated to America, settling at a place they designated Swansea, even taking their church book with them.
During the Civil Wars and Interregnum (1630–1660) Baptists grew numerically, as many who served in the Parliamentary Army planted small churches as they moved from place to place. It was a generation in which many Baptists experienced the reality of political power. Parliament took power from the King; Parliament was replaced by the Army; and finally there was Cromwell's military dictatorship. But it must be said that in a time when the Anglican Church lost all its state power, Baptists were especially concerned with religious freedom.
After Cromwell died, the monarchy was restored to Charles II in 1660 by a Parliament which was strongly royalist and high church. King Charles had offered "liberty to tender conscience" declaring that none would be "called into question for differences in matters of religion which do not disturb the general peace of the kingdom." Parliament, when it met, comprising royalists who were Archbishop Laud's successors, had no such scruples. They were convinced that one church in one state was the only answer to the troubled society left by Cromwell. Church and state were wedded in such a way that loyalty to the crown was expressed by loyalty to the revived Anglican Church.
From 1660 to 1689 those who refused to conform to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer were increasingly persecuted by a number of laws, the so-called 'Clarendon Code' after Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon and chief adviser to Charles II. Baptists, along with other nonconformists, experienced extreme harrassment, restraint of goods, and fines. This reached a climax when nonconformist supporters of the ill-fated uprising in support of the Duke of Monmouth in 1684 were dealt with by the infamous Judge Jeffries. In the West of England he sentenced 300 to be hung and deported nearly a thousand to Barbados.
During this period of persecution, the experiences of the Broadmead Baptist congregation in Bristol were recorded in the Church Book by one of their elders, Edward Terrill, who by his will left money to found what is the oldest Baptist College in the world (1679). One of the pastors, Thomas Hardcastle, wrote regular letters to be read to the congregation instead of sermons while he was imprisoned. Many of them are concerned with the meaning of faith in an age of persecution. Hardcastle believed persecutions were "a precious season of grace" whereby Christian hearts are purified and given deep and lasting joy. Faith is a shield for the Christian pilgrim as he overcomes the world on his journey. Another Baptist pastor also reflected on this theme in another prison. John Bunyan in Bedford jail produced the spiritual epic, Pilgrim's Progress, which would fuel the fires of faith for Christians in generations yet to come.
When James II fled the throne and the Protestant William of Orange became King, not only did active persecution cease, but those who dissented from the Church of England were given a recognized place in English society. The Act of Toleration, as it came to be known, allowed for toleration to trinitarian Protestants, whose ministers subscribed to all but three of the Thirty Nine Articles, so long as tithes and church rates were paid to the Established Church. Meeting houses could be licensed on condition that oaths of supremacy and allegiance to the Crown were taken. But all public offices in society were closed to any who would not take the Lord's Supper in the local Anglican church.
The situation for Dissenters after 1689 could be epitomized in the experiences of Bunyan's pilgrim. Vanity Fair was now passed, Christian was traveling "the delicate plain called Ease," toward the silver mine in the hill Lucre, and beyond that, "Doubting Castle." The 18th Century opened uncertainly for Dissenters who were concerned to build chapels and license places for worship. After the death of Queen Ann in 1714, Baptists and others felt more secure under the protection of the ruling House of Hanover. Baptists constituted at least 1% of English population, mainly living in towns. The Particulars numbered 40,520 in 206 chapels, and the Generals were 18,800 members in 122 chapels. Baptists were found mostly in the Midlands and the South, especially in London and Bristol.
The General Baptists went into a serious decline in the 18th Century. They became very inward in perspective, denying membership to any who married outside the General Baptist community, and obsessed with such differences as the rightness of hymnsinging in their churches. They also lacked an educated and trained ministry, which left them open to anti-trinitarian views. Many General Baptist churches became unorthodox in their view of the person of Christ, and by the end of the century had become Unitarian.
The 18th Century opened for Particular Baptists with the threat of doctrinal deviation also. Particular Baptist Associations were reformed on the basis of the 1689 Confession of Faith, subscribed by over a hundred congregations at a meeting in London. In the west country, Bristol Baptist Academy, from 1720 onwards, produced a steady stream of able and evangelical ministers to serve the churches in England, Wales, Ireland and American Colonies. Bernard Foskett and his successors at the Academy kept alive an evangelical Calvinism when many Baptists were succumbing to the "high" Calvinism propounded by London Baptist minister, Dr. John Gill (1697–1771). His interpretation reduced the need for evangelical efforts since it assured the elect of salvation.
Apart from the theological differences between the more radical General Baptists and the Particular Baptists, who were closer to the mainstream of the Puritan movement, other issues divided early Baptists. Some were Seventh Day Baptists, worshipping on the Old Testament Sabbath or Saturday. More troublesome was the issue of mixed communion: should they practice 'strict' or 'closed' communion, confining membership to those baptized as believers, or have open membership for all believers, leaving the issue of baptism to the individual conscience? Most Particular Baptists practiced strict communion, but there were some important exceptions, like Henry Jessey's church in London, John Bunyan's at Bedford, and Broadmead, Bristol.
If the church was to be a community of believers, it demanded godly lives of its members. They had to set themselves apart from the world; they must themselves be beyond reproach. This discipline of church members who "walked unruly" was a matter of communal concern, and the records of church meetings show sad examples of those punished for immorality, drunkenness and debt.
Although Baptists stressed the independence of the local church, they were ready to work together for the common good. In 1644 seven London Particular Baptist churches issued a joint Confession of Faith, and in 1651 thirty General Baptist churches in the Midlands produced their first Confession. By the 1650's Particular Baptists were active in regional associations in several parts of England, South Wales and Ireland. After the Toleration Act of 1689 Particular Baptists from England and Wales began to hold an Assembly in London, although their involvement in the regional associations remained more important to them. General Baptists also grouped in district associations; from 1654 their General Assembly became important, with increasing authority over the member churches.
By the end of their first century, Baptists had developed a definite identity and yet a variety about themselves. Through good times and bad, one small congregation had evolved into three main streams and Baptists were recognized as part of official Nonconformity. Their churches stretched from London to Wales to Yorkshire—and to America. Their ranks had swelled with artisans, commonfolk, military officers, and men and women of property. Their preachers were well known for their gifts of elocution and some of their learned spokesmen were considered among the most widely read authors of the century. Truly the seed of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys had borne fruit in what Baptist historians would consider as the logical conclusion of the Reformation in England.
Roger Hayden, M.A., B.D., is a Baptist pastor in Reading, England and Secretary of the British Baptist Historical Society.
Copyright © 1985 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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