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The Beginnings of English-Speaking Baptist Churches
By C.E.W. Dobbs, D. D.
      A Paper Prepared at the Request of the Mississippi Baptist Historic Society, and Read Before that Body, at its Annual Meeting, in Jackson, July 18, 1888.*

      THE scope of this question is much larger than appears at first sight. English-speaking Baptist churches, as such, came into corporate being not until the second decade of the seventeenth century. But that there were individuals, holding and defending the fundamental principles underlying our Baptist denomination, among the previous generations of our English ancestors, there can be no doubt. The records of the realm, both civil and religious, bear witness to the faith and heroism of multitudes, who, in the centuries preceding, sealed with their martyr blood their devotion to those principles. The proclamations and edicts of kings and mitred prelates, hurled against the hated "Anabaptists," attest not only the existence of these martyr spirits, but also assure us concerning their teaching for which they suffered the double ban of church and state. [Thomas] Crosby, the English Baptist historian, says that in the time of King Edward the Second, about the year 1315, Walter Lollard, a German preacher, a man of great renown among the Waldenses, came into England; he spread their doctrine very much in these parts, so that they afterwards went by the name of "Lollards." Wicliffe's translation of the New Testament into English, and his numerous writings, together with the evangelistic work accomplished by himself and by those under his powerful influence, gave a great impetus to independence in religious thought and speech during the fourteenth century. The "Lollards," or "Wicliffites," were active and aggressive in their protests against the dominant Roman Catholic teaching, though there is no proof that Wicliffe ever formally renounced his connection with the state church. Among the Lollards and followers of Wicliffe there were numbers who openly rejected infant baptism. There
* "I know of no better medium through which to give the accompanying paper to our people than the REPOSITORY. Therefore I send it to you." C. E. W. DOBBS."

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can be no question as to this statement. So cautions a writer as was the late William E. Williams, D. D., the erudite Baptist pastor in New York for half a century, says: "Among the Lollards, or early English followers of Wicliffe, there were some who followed out the results of Wicliffe's principles, in the study of the vernacular Scriptures, to the conclusion that baptism went with faith, and that infants, not capable of exercising the one, should not receive the other." Indeed it is certain that Wicliffe himself looked upon infant baptism as not scriptural. So Williams: - "One who had personally known Wycliffe and sympathized with early Lollardism in England; but afterwards left that communion, gave as the reason, that among other errors, the Lollard followers of the great Reformer at Lutterworth rejected the baptism of infants." (Lectures on Baptist History, pages 126-7.)

      [Robert] Robinson, the Baptist historian, shows that in 1457 six "heretics" were compelled to abjure their error, and "do penance half naked, with a faggot at their backs and a taper in their hands, in the public market-place of Ely and Cambridge, and in the church-yard of Great Swaffham." They were charged with denying infant baptism and affirming that the pope was antichrist.

      In 1538 King Henry the Eighth issued a proclamation against the Anabaptists and others. In accordance with that proclamation, so the Episcopalian Bishop Burnet testifies, ''there was a commission sent to Cranmer (the Archbishop) to inquire after Anabaptists, to proceed against them, to restore the penitent, to burn their books, and to deliver the obstinate to the secular arm." This shows that at this period these "heretics" were circulating their literature and were numerous enough to disturb his lustful majesty and his obsequious ecclesiastics. And of this time Crosby quotes the Episcopalian historian Fuller as saying: "Dutchmen flocked faster than formerly into England, and soon began to broach their strange opinions, being branded with the general name of Anabaptists. These Anabaptists, for the main, are but Donatists new dipt; and this year their name first appears in our English chronicles. I read," says he, "that four Anabaptists, three men and one woman, all Dutch, bare faggots at Paul's cross; and three days after a man and a woman of their sect were burnt in Smithfield."

      In 1560 the Anabaptists were not only numerous in England, but were beginning to "creep into Scotland." The mighty John Knox, the Scotch Reformer, was afraid that they might "insidiously

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instill their poison into the minds of some of his brethren." and he dipped his caustic pen to refute their arguments and to keep them out of the "land o' lakes." In 1553, when Knox was in London, an Anabaptist called upon him and gave him a book written by one of his party which he pressed him to read. (McCrie's Life of Knox, page 137).

      These references and citations have been given to show that "Anabaptist" teaching asserted itself more or less extensively in the century preceding and that in which the Reformation of Luther assumed form in England. It has not been my purpose to prove the existence of " English-speaking Baptist churches" during this period. The desire has been simply to make manifest the working of leaven which led later to the formation of such churches. And it seems the part of candor just here to state a fact to be hereinafter more fully set forth, viz: that the name Anabaptist cannot always be assumed as identifying as Baptists those who more or less worthily wore that appellation. Many were "Anabaptists" who certainly were far from being "Baptists," as we now use the name. My subject called for a consideration of those movements and influences which culminated in the formation of the English Baptist churches in the seventeenth century; hence the foregoing rapid historic survey.

      Rev. John Clifford, D.D., the distinguished Baptist author of England, in a recent article in The Contemporary Review, says:

Baptists sprang into organized existence in Britain as the fifth element in the divine answer given by the Churches of this land to the all-absorbing question of the sixteenth century - namely, What is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of what persons ought it to consist? Protestantism was the bold rejection of the established and orthodox answer supplied by Romanism to this inquiry; Puritanism qualified and cleansed the answer of Protestantism: Separatism went further, and gave increased sharpness to the qualification urged by the Puritans; the "Brownists," or Independents, still on the forward march, eliminated the parochial clement from church membership, and insisted on the possession of spiritual life; then came the Baptists, and added the obligation of developing the spiritual life into avowed consciousness before admission to the Church. And, inasmuch as the only mode of conscientious speech known in those days was that of separation from those with whom they differed, away they went, carrying whatever theology they had inherited to their new ecclesiastical home.

Now, that doctrinal heritage was divisible into two portions, and accordingly the Baptist secession sprang into being at two different centres, both in the limited area of London, and within about twenty years of each other. From thence the two streams of life flowed on, in channels altogether apart, until the year 1832, when they came together in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

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The first organism took shape in this way. As the seventeenth century was dawning, John Smyth, a Cambridge man of eager and restless intellect and a clergyman of fervid devotion, was impelled by the study of the New Testament to become a Baptist. Men had not faith enough in truth and God to say with Milton, "Let truth and error grapple," but sought to dominate belief by pains and penalties and, therefore, John Smyth had to fly to Holland, then attractive as the Paradise of free religion, and the home of James Arminius, the illustrious Professor of Divinity in the University of Leyden. In or about 1611 the pilgrims returned to England, and along with Thomas Helwyss formed in London a church of "General" Baptists - i.e., of Christians who, besides proclaiming the Baptist Idea of the spiritual life, also preached the doctrine of "general redemption." Twenty-two years afterwards, and on the 12th of September, 1633, another Baptist Church of a different type was created at Wapping by secession from the Independent Church, dating back to 1616. The pastor of this church was John Spilsbury; and its theology was fashioned on the model of that marvellous piece of doctrinal literature, the Institutes of John Calvin.
      Concerning the formation of these two "Baptist churches," the history is aggravatingly unsatisfactory. Very few of the details have been preserved. John Smyth is known in current. ecclesiastical history as the "Se-Baptist," it being alleged that he baptized himself. Dr. H. M. Dexter insists upon this as history; but an old church book at Crowle, in England, says he was baptized in 1606, at midnight, in the river Don, by Elder John Morton, a dissenting minister. From a paper by Dr. Clifford, in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, however, it does not appear that Smyth adopted anti-pedobaptist views until he had gone to Amsterdam, where he died in 1611, leaving his co-religionist Helwyss to return and found in London the first General Baptist Church. Of John Spilsbury's church the history is more explicit. According to Crosby he was pastor of an Independent church in London. He became a Baptist in sentiment and led most of his flock with him. Knowing of no regular administrator to whom he could apply for baptism, he was immersed by one of his members, and then he baptized the rest. There were others in those early years of English Baptists who were much perplexed over the question as to the validity of baptisms so irregular. These sent a Richard Blunt over to the Netherlands, that he might receive immersion at the hands of the Dutch Baptists. On his return he baptized others. Says Crosby, "but the greatest number of English Baptists, and the more judicious, looked upon all this as needless trouble, and what proceeded from the old Popish doctrine of right to administer sacraments by an uninterrupted succession, which neither the Church of Rome, nor the Church of England, much
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less the Dissenters, could prove to be with them. They affirmed, therefore, and practiced accordingly, that after a general corruption of baptism, an unbaptized person might warrantably baptize, and so begin a reformation."

      Writing concerning this very matter, Dr. J. B. Jeter once pertinently said: "The cause of the obscurity of the origin of the Baptists, and the lateness of the period at which they were organized into separate churches, is quite clear. Severe penal statutes were enacted against them. Any early attempt at organization would have subjected them to a cruel martyrdom. They were necessitated to conceal their opinions, and to conduct their worship in secret, to escape the fierce and relentless persecutions of their foes. The extreme offensiveness of their principles to the ruling authorities induced the Baptists, for a time, to continue in connection with Pedobaptist Dissenters, whose views were less displeasing to the intolerant rulers."

      A somewhat analogous condition of affairs exists in Sweden, in which country there are probably 30,000 Baptists, who have not formally separated from the State Lutheran Church, and who, nevertheless, are formed into worshipping bodies with pastors. So also might be instanced the "Methodists," who, under Wesley, maintained their connection with the Established Church while regularly meeting in their "classes." But the time came when the English Baptists came out into the freedom of independent organizations. So Crosby:

"In the year 1633, the Baptists, who had hitherto been intermixed among the Protestant Dissenters, without distinction, and consequently shared with the Puritans in all the persecutions of those times, began now to separate themselves and form distinct societies of their own persuasion."
      Somewhat similar were the beginnings of the English speaking Baptist churches of our own country. Roger Williams was a minister of the established church in Massachusetts Colony. Like thousands before him and thousands since, he saw that the Scriptures afforded no support to infant baptism. As an honest man he expressed his opinions and was banished the colony by its civil-ecclesiastical lords. With his sympathizing friends he founded the city of Providence and the colony of Rhode Island. Here he and they were free from persecuting bigotry. They were at liberty to follow their own convictions. Not only did they see the unscripturalness of infant baptism; they also saw that only immersion was baptism. What could they do?
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There was no church - no minister - of like faith and order to whom they could apply. In the love of truth and in the fear of God, they did as their English brethren had done. Williams was baptized by Holliman, and he in turn immersed the rest of the devoted band. Thus began the first Baptist Church of Providence and of America, in 1639, six years after the Spilsbury church was similarly organized in London. I am aware of the fact, that Williams afterwards became somewhat unsettled in mind as to the validity of his baptism; but there is no evidence that he ever sought a rebaptism at the hand of any supposed "regular administrator;" neither did his companions share his doubts. The church was continued under the pastorate of Olney and has a prosperous existence to-day. I am also familiar with the arguments affirming that the First Church of Newport, rather than that in Providence, was the first church in America. It is said that the Newport church was constituted by John Clarke, an English Baptist physician, who, with some associates, came to Rhode Island in 1638. Whether he was an accredited minister before he left England is not stated. His tombstone affirms that shortly after his arrival in Newport he "gathered the church and became its pastor." The date of its constitution is usually given as 1644. Whether the later or earlier date be decided to be the true one, matters little. If Clarke and his church were in the colony, regularly constituted, prior to Williams' action, I cannot understand why the Providence company failed to apply to them for baptism; and if the Newport party were sticklers for "regularity," it is passing strange that no word of protest against Williams and his party was uttered by them. We know that Olney, baptized by Williams, was pastor in Providence and an accepted minister throughout the colony, till his death in 1682 - his baptism and ministry unquestioned.

      Reference has been made to the action of some of the early Baptists of England in sending Blount over to Holland in order to receive "regular baptism" from the Dutch Baptists. This leads to a further phase of my subject, viz: The relation of these Baptists to the Anabaptists of the continent. Whence these Anabaptists?

      Every reading Baptist knows almost by heart the famous paragraph from the Dutch historians, Dr. I. J. Dermont, chaplain of the king of Holland, and Dr. A. Upeij, professor of Theology at the University of Groningen. They published a history at Breda in 1819, in which they say: "We have seen that the

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Baptists, who were formerly called Anabaptists, and in later times Mennonites, were the original Waldenses, and who long, in the history of the church, received the honor of that origin. On this account the Baptists may be considered as the only Christian community which has stood since the days of the Apostles, and as a Christian society which has preserved pure the doctrine of the Gospel through all ages."

      Commenting on this paragraph, Dr. Jeter said: "Let this testimony have its full weight. The witnesses were learned, and, being ministers of the Lutheran Church, were under no temptation to pervert the evidence in favor of Baptist principles. Let us, however, fairly interpret and properly estimate their testimony. What did they mean by Baptists? The Mennonites were not, at the time they wrote, and never had been, Baptists, according to our definition of the term."

      It may be assumed as reasonably certain that in 1633, when Blount was sent to Holland by his English brethren, there were Anabaptists in that country practicing immersion. The Mennonites had divided, some admitting the validity of sprinkling, but all alike rejecting infant baptism - all known as "Anabaptists." Indeed as used by ecclesiastical writers, the "Anabaptists" included a large number of widely different men and sects. It was a sort of general term denoting all who protested against infant baptism. Indeed it is sometimes applied to parties who retained the infant rite, while denying the authority of Rome. These facts prepare us for an intelligent reading of the following extracts from Mosheim. In his history, giving an account of the Dutch Mennonites of the sixteenth century, he says:

"The true origin of that sect which acquired the denomination of Anabaptists by their administering anew the rite of baptism to those who came over to their communion, and derived that of Mennonites from the famous man to whom they owe the greatest part of their present felicity, is hidden in the depths of antiquity. * * * The modern Mennonites not only consider themselves as the descendants of the Waldenses, * * * but pretend to be the purest offspring of these respectable sufferers. * * * Their adversaries, on the contrary, represent them as the descendants of those turbulent Anabaptists who, in the sixteenth century, involved Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and more especially the province of Westphalia, in such scenes of blood, perplexity and distress. * * * After having examined these different accounts of the Anabaptists with the utmost attention and Impartiality, I have found that neither of them can justly be pronounced conformable to strict truth."

"It may be observed that the Mennonites are not entirely in an error when they boast of their descent from the Waldenses, Petrobrussians and other ancient sects, who are usually considered as witnesses of the truth in the times

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of general darkness and superstition. Before the rise of Luther and Calvin there lay concealed In almost all the countries of Europe, particularly In Moravia, Bohemia, Switzerland and Germany, many persons who adhered tenaciously to the following doctrine, which the Waldenses, the Wickliffites and Hussites had maintained, some in a more disguised and others in a more open and public manner, viz: 'That the kingdom of Christ, which he established upon earth, was an assembly of true and real saints, and ought therefore to be inaccessible to the wicked.' * * * This maxim is the true source of all the peculiarities In the doctrine and discipline of the Mennonites."
      Mosheim tells how these persecuted saints of God were revived when they heard of Luther and his work. "Then they spoke with openness and freedom," and were "soon joined by great numbers." "They were not satisfied with the plan of reformation proposed by Luther; they proposed to found a true church, wholly spiritual." In other words, they believed in a regenerate church membership. This was the one distinguishing doctrine of those scattered "Anabaptists." Our historian narrates the wild extravagances of Munzer and others, in 1524, and graciously testifies that the Anabaptists generally were not chargeable with them; and especially clears the Dutch Anabaptists from complicity in the mad episode of Munster, in 1534. These two events and dates must not be confounded.

     Of the Dutch Anabaptists of the seventeenth century - the Anabaptists to whom Blount was sent - Mosheim testifies:

"The religious opinions which still distinguish the Mennonites from all other Chrlstian communities flow directly from the ancient doctrine of the Anabaptists concerning the nature of the church. It is in consequence of this doctrine that they admit none to baptism but persons who are come to the full use of their reason, because infants are incapable of binding themselves by a solemn vow to a holy life." "The sectaries in England, who reject the custom of baptizing infants, are not distinguished by the title of Anabaptists, but by that of Baptists. It is, however, probable that they derive their origin from the German and Dutch Mennonites."
      Thus have I sought to trace English-speaking Baptist churches to their beginnings. My pen has been guided by no theory, neither has it been swerved by prejudice. I have earnestly sought the impartial verdict of history. If that verdict pronounces untenable, certain opinions maintained by honored brethren, as to the uninterrupted succession of our churches, through all the centuries, from the Apostles, wisdom dictates, not the shutting of the eye, or the stopping of the ear, to the testimony, but a candid inquiry into the correctness of those opinions. The facts in our early history prove that our English Baptist fathers had little confidence in such succession. As
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Crosby says, the "greatest number of them, and the more judicious," regarded the effort to secure baptism from the Dutch Baptists as proceeding "from the old Popish doctrine of right to administer sacraments by an uninterrupted succession." To them the solemn immersion in water of a believer in Christ was valid baptism, even though the administrator were himself unbaptized.

      Again: Unquestionably history shows a connection of some of the early English Baptist churches with the Dutch Baptists, and through them with the historic Anabaptists, whose origin, Mosheim says, "is hidden in antiquity." Granting this, it is simply impossible to prove that our baptisms and churches have regularly descended from that portion of the English Baptists. And even if incontestably established, we are face to face with the fact that the Anabaptists were not always Baptists. Dr. Howard Osgood, Dr. Barnas Sears and others have clearly shown that most of the Anabaptists of the continent were indifferent as to the mode of baptism. The one great question they discussed was the spirituality of the churches, involving the rejection of infant baptism. Many of the very men, through whom our succession brethren trace their ecclesiastic connection with the apostolic era, certainly practiced pouring or sprinkling. Indeed Dr. Osgood says that even "the earlier English Baptist churches of England were indifferent in their mode of baptism, and it was not until after 1630 that immersion became the exclusive practice there."

      If, then, we are compelled to surrender the visible "apostolic succession," does it follow that our Baptist plea for New Testament doctrine and order must be abandoned? No, indeed, Baptists are in the true succession. Our churches, says Dr. Jeter "are organized on apostolic principles, and are conformed to the scriptural models. In their membership officers, ordinances, worship and discipline, they correspond with the New Testament churches. Without this agreement no succession would profit them; and with this agreement, the lack of succession will not damage them. Assured that they are built after the inspired models, we need have no concern about succession passing through a long line of churches, all of which were more or less imperfect, and subject to error. In conformity to the apostolic churches, Baptist churches have a sure standing. Here is firm footing; here is solid rock. When they place their confidence in an unbroken apostolic succession, they trust to yielding sand. They cannot prove its existence; and if they could,

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it would avail them nothing in the absence of knowledge, holiness, and good works. Let our churches seek to rival the primitive churches in their self-denial, purity, devotion, liberality, and zeal for the salvation of sinners and the glory of Christ, and they will furnish stronger evidence that they are in the true succession than could be furnished by all the libraries and monuments of the world, in default of these moral and vital qualities."

[From Samuel H. Ford, Christian Repository & Home Circle, November, 1888, pp. 338-347. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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