When Did the Baptist Church Begin?

The following post is adapted from Alton Gansky’s new book 30 Events That Shaped the Church (Baker Books).

There are basically three views on the beginning of the Baptist church. The first is Landmarkism. According to this view “there exists an unbroken link to the days of the apostles.” The view was first suggested in the mid-1800s in the American South. “When the Southern Baptist Convention passed several resolutions against the idea, adherents split from the SBC to form their own conventions and churches.” (p. 141)

The second view traces Baptists back to the Anabaptists of the early sixteenth century.

The third view, and the most popular, is the English Separatist view. “This approach has the best historical evidence.” (p. 141)

John Smyth (c. 1570-1612) was ordained an Anglican priest on September 27, 1600 only to be dismissed from the position on October 13, 1600. His criticisms of the Anglican Church were not appreciated. He struggled to find a place to call home doctrinally. In 1602 a Congregationalist church had a split. “Richard Clyton led one group. This congregation would become the Pilgrims who eventually crossed the Atlantic to the New World. The second group remained in town [Gainsborough on Trent], and Smyth became its spiritual leader.” (p. 142) In 1607 Smyth, along with Thomas Helwys, led his group to Amsterdam to avoid pressure from the government. His group remained separate from the Congregationalists. In 1608 he wrote a book which advocated “that no minister should preach from a manuscript or notes, believing that it could hamper the Holy Spirit. It was not a view shared my many, including other Separatists.” (p. 143) He was a firm believer in if you can’t find a practice in the Bible then you shouldn’t do it. This naturally led him to reject infant Baptism since he could find not instances of it in the New Testament. “This created a problem for Smyth: he had been baptized in the Church of England as an infant. . . . He decided to baptize himself, and forty or so of his flock followed.” (p. 143) Interestingly, the mode of baptism he used was not immersion but rather affusion. Thus, it was in 1609 that Baptists were born. He eventually came to rethink this re-baptism and thought it was wrong. He tried to join the Mennonites. This questioning of the re-baptism was too much for Helwys who would later “separate from Smyth, excommunicate him, and send a letter to the Mennonites explaining the situation.” (p. 144)

In 1612 Helwys and a few others returned to London. This “became the first Baptist church on English soil.” (p. 144) His writings offended the King (King James I) which led to Helwys’ “arrest and imprisonment in Newgate prison, where he died at the age of forty.” (p. 145)

The first Baptist churches were generally divided into General and Particular Baptists. The former, founded by Smyth and Helwys, advocated an “Arminian approach to salvation” whereas the latter “stood on the opposite side of the predestination fence, choosing the Calvinist view of predestination.” (p. 145)

“The move from pouring to immersion was a quick and natural progression for Baptists. With the Baptist emphasis on following the New Testament pattern of doctrine, it was only a matter of time before immersion became one of the foundational doctrines for the group. The practice of adult immersion, according to Baptists historian Robert Torbet, was first championed by Leonard Busher, a member of Helwys’ church. He did this several decades before it became the practice in Calvinistic Baptist churches.” (pp. 145-46)

I’ve found discrepancies wtih this account regarding Smyth’s year of birth, the year of his ordination (some suggest 1594) and whether he baptized himself or was baptized by another (e.g., Helwys) among other things. Gansky’s account reads a little too assured and doesn’t alert the reader to some of the debated elements of the historical details. Though the book is intended for a popular market and is not a scholarly treatise some additional well-placed footnotes would have been appreciated.

[In other reading I found it interesting that Smyth was open to the Mennonite view that the human nature of Christ did not come from Mary but was a new kind of flesh created from heaven. This is sometimes referred to as the “Celestial Flesh” Christology. Smyth also “forsook the doctrine of justification by faith as understood by the Reformers and replaced it with the Roman Catholic synthesis between justification and sanctification.” (By His Grace and For His Glory by Thomas J. Nettles, Baker Book House, 1986, p. 55) These views may have partly caused the division between him and Helwys. (Ibid., p. 15)]

30 Events that Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky is a paperback with 272 pages and sells for $17.99.

Alton Gansky is the author of twenty-four novels and eight nonfiction books. He is a Carol Award winner and an Angel Award winner, and has been a Christy Award finalist. He holds a BA and an MA in biblical studies and has been awarded a Doctor of Literature degree. Director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, Gansky also serves as an editor and collaborative writer for top tier authors.

30 Events


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to When Did the Baptist Church Begin?

  1. Charles says:

    Thanks for your post. This English Separatist view is also the conclusion reached in H. Leon McBeth’s comprehensive work The Baptist Heritage.


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