This paper describes the origins of the English Baptists and their development from the beginning of the seventeenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. In particular, attention is paid to the development of the different groupings of Baptists, with an attempt to analyse how theological trends affected their respective progression.
1. The First English Baptist Church
At the beginning of the seventeenth century there were numerous Separatist congregations in England trying to rediscover the Biblical pattern for a local church. Among them was a congregation in Gainsborough, led by John Smyth, which was soon driven to Amsterdam by persecution. While some other Separatists had previously come to the view that the Scriptures taught believers’ baptism they did not have the courage of their convictions due to the associations with the radical Anabaptist movement on the continent.»1 John Smyth however had no such qualms and the first English Baptist Church»2 was born on Dutch soil, when, in 1609, he baptised himself and others in Amsterdam.»3
White has suggested three factors which precipitated this radical step.»4 Firstly there was the unease with which Separatists viewed the baptism of what they regarded to be the ‘apostate’ Church of England. Secondly their ongoing study of the Scriptures to discover the true apostolic church lead to an understanding of believers’ baptism being the ordinance which marked out the visible church. Thirdly there was the example of believer’s baptism practised by the Mennonites in Amsterdam which could not but have prompted their thinking on the issue.
There was soon a split within these early Baptists, with Smyth joining the Mennonites and one of his colleagues, Thomas Helwys, leading a splinter group who disagreed with Mennonite doctrine. Helwys led a group back to England in 1612 and established a congregation at Spitalfields in London. Smyth had been one of the first Englishmen to give an unequivocal plea for religious freedom, and this was continued by Helwys once back in England.»5 However such appeals were not heeded by James I and imprisonment of Baptist leaders soon followed including that of Helwys.
Despite such persecution this group grew slowly and by 1626 there were around 150 General Baptist’s in England.»6 These were so named because they took a ‘general’ or universal view of the atonement, as part of their overall Arminian theology. This resulted in their remaining isolated from other independent groups and the Puritan grouping in the Church of England who were virtually all Calvinistic.
2. The First Particular Baptists
This group held the Calvinistic theology of a limited (or particular) atonement. The first Particular Baptist Church grew out of a Separatist congregation in London that had been founded by Henry Jacob. Debates over baptism led to a series of seceding groups. Exactly what each group believed and which formed the first Particular Baptist Church is debated.
The first possible date of inception was in 1633 when a group seceded and received a second baptism; however whether this was due to their belief in believers’ baptism, or their repudiation of Anglican baptism is not clear. Another seceding group in 1638 clearly left due to their holding to believers’ baptism, and they formed a Baptist church under John Spilsbury.»7 The issue of the correct mode of baptism was soon raised, which, after consultation with Dutch Baptists, received the answer of immersion.»8 The earlier General Baptists practised affusion, but soon adopted immersion as well. The Particular Baptists also suffered persecution, with many of its members and leaders being imprisoned, but they too experienced gradual growth.
3. A Period of Growth (1640-1660)
With the outbreak of the Civil War and the start of the Commonwealth a period of religious liberty began. This gave the Baptists much greater freedom, and non-conformity generally grew during this period. The Baptist’s independent theology meant they lined up with the New Model Army against the king. In fact Baptists were prominent in the army and exercised great influence within it, which facilitated the spread of Baptistic thinking.»9 In addition many Baptists accepted preaching positions within the Church of England, and as a few became ‘Triers’, they also influenced the appointment of new ministers.»10 The new religious liberty gave opportunity for expression of Baptist views in pamphlets, which had previously been restricted by censorship of the press. There were also open debates on the subject of baptism which resulted in many being won over to Baptistic theology.
This time of revolution and growth involved many splits and tensions over theological subtleties. This was seen in the Baptist camp itself, for example in the laying on of hands controversy within the General Baptists»11, and also in the relationship between the Baptists and more radical sects of the time. Baptists were very close to the Quakers on a number of points and, for some, the Quaker emphasis on the inner guidance of the Spirit was very attractive. Many congregations lost members to the Quakers resulting in bad feeling between the two groups.»12 The group to most severely affect the Baptists though was the Fifth Monarchy Movement. Many churches were taken over by this radical understanding of Christ’s Kingdom and a number of Baptist leaders joined the Movement.
Despite these problems this was a period of considerable growth. In 1644 there were 54 Baptist congregations in England, but by 1660 this had increased to about 130 Particular Baptist, and 110 General Baptist.»13 This new group had become so established that the persecution to come was unable to uproot them.
4. Renewed Persecution (1660-1689)
The Restoration in 1660 began with promises of liberty of conscience from Charles II, but renewed persecution of Baptists along with other non-conformists soon began. Those who were not willing to take an oath of allegiance to the king were assumed to be seditious. Such a possibility was confirmed in many people’s eyes when the Fifth Monarchy Movement led an uprising in 1661, which was crushed by force. Soon after this Charles prohibited all unlawful gatherings meeting for the purpose of religious worship.
Further persecution came under the Clarendon Code (1661-1665) with its Corporation Act (1661) and Act of Uniformity (1662), and then under the Conventicle Acts (1664, 1670). This resulted in the imprisonment and fining of dissenters, although the possibility of execution was a very real one.»14 The Act of Uniformity resulted in the Great Ejection from the state church, mainly comprising Presbyterians. This had two implications for the Baptists: one was that some of the ejected ministers joined the Baptist camp; the other was that dissent suddenly became both common place and somewhat respectable.»15The Declaration of Indulgence (1672) provided brief respite but this was soon withdrawn and persecution began again.
Graham Beynon is minister of Avenue Community Church – a recent church plant in Leicester.