Baptist History Homepage


The Baptist Message in Europe
By Rev. J. H. Shakespeare, M.A.
In Convention Teacher

      All through the Christian centuries there have been Baptists in Europe, though they have not always borne the name. The rite of immersion was steadily and universally maintained, even in Catholic countries, for many centuries, until the Council of Ravenna, in 1311, declared sprinkling to be permissible. Among Greek-speaking people, and in the Orthodox Church, the practice of immersion, is unbroken. It is universal among the hundred millions of the Russian Church. But early in the Christian era the baptism of believers gave place to that of infants; yet the Baptist witness has never died out. There have been little communities here and there who have maintained the apostolic and primitive practice; little groups of believers, despised and hated, always moving westward under the pressure of persecution, following the course of the great rivers - the Danube, the Po and the Rhine - who, in the teeth of opposition and torture, have practiced believers' baptism.

      In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, taking its rise in Switzerland, the great Anabaptist

[p. 46]
movement swept across Europe. It appealed to the common people. For the most part it accepted baptism by affusion, but it rejected the baptism of infants. It was the most striking religious movement in Germany and the low countries, and when the exiled Anabaptists crossed to England, they won converts in London and all through the eastern and southeastern counties. The movement became bound up with social and political extravagances, and was practically stamped out in fire and blood.

      We hear little further of the Baptists in Europe until the year 1834, when the first Baptist church in Hamburg was founded by that apostolic man, Johann Gerhard Oncken. After his conversion he had become a missionary, in Germany, of the Continental Society, but was at once disowned when he became a Baptist. The state and the established church together tried every means to suppress him, but in 1824, after the great fire in Hamburg, Oncken devoted himself to the service of the homeless and the starving, and this hostile attitude was abandoned. The German Union was formed, which has since sent out its agents into Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Roumania, Austria, Hungary, Servia, Bulgaria and Holland. In Germany today there are many strong Baptist churches, with

[p. 47]
about 40,000 members. In Sweden, where the work was begun by a seaman, a convert of Oncken's, in 1847, there are today 50,000 baptized members. Speaking generally, it is true that the modern organized Baptist propaganda, springing and flowing out from Germany, has been most effective in the Lutheran countries and among the German immigrants in Hungary and South Russia. In France, Italy, Spain and Austria we have comparatively failed. Missions have been established and maintained, but among the Latin races and Catholic peoples converts have been few, and the Baptist Church has not left any deep mark or impression.

      But the last seven years have again witnessed a remarkable outburst of Baptist activity. Just before the World Congress of 1905 was held in London, the English Baptists sent out one of the most brilliant and scholarly of their number, Dr. Newton Marshall, as a commissioner to each country in Europe. He was singularly fitted for the task, both because he was well acquainted with the Baptist leaders of Germany, speaking the language with the facility of a native, and also by his passion and enthusiasm for the Conversion of Europe. It is not too much to say that the story which he told on his return to the London committee with all the

[p. 48]
glamour and surprise of a new discovery. We learned that all over Europe were little isolated groups of believers holding our faith and practicing our rites without knowledge of each other. In some cases they did not know that there were any other Baptists in the world; frequently it was found that they had reached their position by a stray copy of the New Testament, or even from a single sheet. Their joy and hopefulness when they learned that they were only part of a great Baptist army throughout the world was pathetic. Then there was the startling discovery that quite apart from the German populations in Hungary and Russia, native Magyars and Russians were using the new toleration to leave the Orthodox Church and to become Baptists.

      This movement has gone on with accelerated force. The revelations made at the European Congress in Berlin, in 1908, led to increased activity. Another commissioner was sent, the Rev. C. T. Byford, who visited almost all the Baptist stations in the Balkan provinces. Reports have been received from journalists, representatives of the secular press, who have told us that in some districts of South Russia the peasantry are turning to the Baptists in tens of thousands. Almost in a flash the vision has risen before us of Russia with its eighty million peasants, as the most Baptist country in the world outside America.

[p. 49]
      It must not be imagined for a moment that this position has been reached without much struggle and even pain. I have personally met and spoken with Baptist leaders in the south-eastern provinces who have been exiled to Siberia again and again, who have been lashed till the blood has poured down their backs, and who have been confined for months, or even years, in horrible dungeons filled with vermin and filth. But we little understand the Slavonic character if we think that persecution could ever stop the Baptist advance. The Russian monk is patient, enduring, uncomplaining, mystical and fatalistic and capable of any sacrifice for his religion. The Russian peasantry are like the locusts, they pour on in their march and cannot be kept back by fire or flood. The story of the sects which have broken away from the Russian Church during the past centuries is one of the most extra-ordinary and heart-rending pages in human records. The Russian when he accepts a faith tends to become a fanatic, an evangelist and a propagandist. He must carry the message to others. He may be torn limb from limb, tortured with red-hot pincers, banished to terrible mines, but nothing can make him part with his convictions.

      It is not difficult to see why the Baptist faith appeals so strongly to the Slavonic people,

[p. 50]
or why it at once finds itself in violent opposition to governments and hierarchies. Take a service in a Greek or Roman Catholic church - there is little to choose between them. There are priests in magnificent robes, the Bible scarcely read and not understood, much bowing and genuflexion, idols or eikons everywhere, superstition and ceremony, but there is no gospel, and Christ has to be reached through a crowd of hindrances. But Baptist worship is simple, devout, free from superstition; it is the presentation of the gospel; it gives free play to the worshiper for praise and prayer. It realizes by its simple and common fellowship that dream of liberty and brotherhood which lies deep down in the heart of the poorest and most illiterate. The great need in the Slavonic countries today, if the Baptist propaganda is to be maintained and justified, is a trained and better equipped ministry. As I have hinted, every convert tends to become a preacher, but it is simple fact that the pastors of Southeastern Europe are uneducated. They know but little of Christian doctrine; they understand but little of the organization and life of a church; they gather round them a number of peasants like themselves; they sing and pray and talk hour after hour, but when they are confronted with the village pope they are soon worsted in argument, and the crowd which
[p. 51]
listens to the debate hisses the discomfited Baptist pastor off the stage. It is absolutely essential that a great central European Baptist University should be established without loss of time, where evangelists and preachers can be trained for every country in Europe. Even Christianity does not obliterate the race sentiment, and for a work which is to embrace Russia and Hungary, France and Spain and Italy, the Baptist College at Hamburg, fine as its service is, and has been, would be totally inadequate. To supply this trained ministry is the work to which the Baptists of England and America are called today. At the Berlin Congress, in 1908, a resolution was passed that a Baptist University should be established at some central point on the continent of Europe to train native pastors and evangelists from all parts of the continent. The Continental Committee of the Baptist World Alliance has already taken the first step toward the realization of this project in the appointment of the Rev. A. J. Vining, a well-known Canadian minister, as its commissioner in the United States. He is at present visiting all the chief Baptist centers in Europe in company with his fellow commissioner, Rev. C. T. Byford, in order to study at first hand the needs, the difficulties and the opportunities of the Baptist churches in the various countries. On
[p. 52]
the conclusion of this tour he will return to America in order to visit the Baptists churches in the United States with the object of enlisting their sympathy and securing their practical help toward the foundation of this University.

      In spite of what I have said, I should be sorry to convey the idea that we have no message as Baptists for the Catholic countries, or that our propaganda there must fail. As a matter of fact, at the very moment when the door is opening in the East, an extraordinary opportunity is presenting itself in the west of Europe. In Spain, where we have scarcely a foothold at all, toleration for the Protestant churches is being granted. The wails and denunciations and agitations of the Vatican are being openly defied by Spanish statesmen. The next step will be to develop Baptist work in the most Catholic country of Europe. Or take France and Italy. In both countries there are great numbers of young men longing for Baptist training and service who would joyfully offer themselves to the work if we would use them. It is absolutely certain that the policy of seeking to convert the people of European lands by English or American agents alone must be a hopeless failure. The only people who can adequately reach the Italians are the Italians themselves;

[p. 53]
or the French Frenchmen themselves. We may train and assist, but we cannot do the work. Never in the history of France was such an opportunity presented to the Baptists as there is today. The church has been disestablished. The state has discontinued its salaries and endowments to the priests, with the result that numberless towns and villages in Brittany alone have been left wholly without religious care. Brittany is the most Catholic province in France. It is almost the last refuge of the old religious spirit and faith. It is pathetic that, forsaken by their spiritual pastors, the peasants of Brittany should still be ringing the bells at the hour of worship, meeting without ministers, and seeking to satisfy their spiritual craving with poor and maimed rites. A distinguished French politician, who is himself an unbeliever, said recently that if the Baptists would take up the task of evangelizing Brittany they would sweep the country.

      In the face of such a call from every part of the great continent, what shall we say? Shall we calmly, as we have in the past, accept the dominance of the Roman and the Orthodox churches of Europe? Shall we not seize the present opportunity - England and America together - and by sacrifice, labor and prayer change the religious map of Europe in the next generation?
          London, England.


[From S. H. Ford, Editor, The Baptist Message, SSB/SBC, 1911, Chapter 9, pp. 45-53. This book was provided by Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

More of The Baptist Message
Baptist History Homepage