“A Historical Sketch of the Christian Church;
or A Miniature History of the Baptist Denomination”
By Hosea Holcombe, 1840
[I]t is believed that a historical sketch of the Denomination in general, will not be unacceptable to the reader; but will, we trust, be read with pleasure, especially by those who may not have had any opportunity of knowing something of the scenes through which the followers of the Saviour have passed in bygone ages.
The Baptists have been distinguished from all sects, not only in their view of the mode and subjects of baptism, but also in other sentiments peculiar to themselves; which they consider important truths; but which their opponents have branded with the name of dangerous errors and heresies.
The supporters of believers' baptism, have under every form of government been the advocates for liberty; and for this reason, they have never flourished much,
except in those governments where some degree of freedom has been maintained. Arbitrary states have always driven them for refuge to milder regions. "They cannot live in tyrannical states; and free countries are the only places to seek for them." In political changes they have always been friendly to the cause of liberty, and their passion for it has at times led them into acts of indiscretion, and scenes of danger. But with a few exceptions, the Baptists have always adhered to their leading maxim to be subject to the powers that be; and all the favour they, as Christians, have asked of civil government, has been, to give them their Bibles and let them alone. Against the interference of the magistrate in the affairs of conscience, they have always protested. Classical authority and priestly domination, they have ever opposed and abhorred. The equality of Christians as such, and the absolute independency of Churches, they have most scrupulously maintained. The distinction between their ministers and brethren is less than in almost any other denomination of Christians; whatever abilities their ministers possess, they reduce them to the capacity of mere teachers; and consider all not only at liberty, but moreover bound to exercise, under proper regulations, for the edification of their brethren, the gifts which they possess.
It will be seen that argument on the subject of Baptism, forms no part of the design contemplated by the writer. His object is not to prove that baptism means immersion; nor that infants have been improperly introduced to christian institutions, but simply to furnish an abstract of historical facts, connected with the denomination to which he has the happiness to belong.
There are, however, in those facts, collateral evidences which are submitted to the candid attention of those who may be differently minded from the author. It is concluded, from the details here given, that the first Christians were Baptists; that the baptism of infants commenced about the fourth century; that persons professing the peculiarities of the Baptists were found in different
parts of the world; and that throughout all the changes which attended the progress of years, the reign of error, the usurpation of antichrist, and the dominion of English episcopacy, they were marked by each dominant party, in the ancient and later ages, as objects of persecution; their Baptist sentiments forming one of the charges brought against them.
It will be necessary to premise that the term "Baptist Denomination," may apply either to individuals, or churches, though it is usually employed with reference to the latter. In the middle and succeeding ages, there were individuals who possessed Baptist sentiments, mixed with the general body of Christians,* and scattered over a wide surface, to whom we assign the designation by which we are distinguished; yet not as members of a distinct body, nor as maintaining sentiments similar to those now held by Baptist Churches, but as they avowed certain principles, and pursued a certain line of conduct with reference to baptism. In doing this, however, we have the example of the historians from whose records we derive our information, and to whom we can the more confidently refer, as they bear testimony to the existence of a profession which they heartily despised. In later times, this distinctive appellation has been appropriated by Baptists, as existing in separate societies from other Christians; and in their collective form, the term " Baptist Denomination" is their cognomen in the Christian world.
I again request attention to an important fact in this inquiry; -- that liberal and independent principles, with a devoted opposition to every species of usurpation over the conscience and religion of man, whether arising from pope or king, generally characterized the Baptists, and for this they suffered. Such principles were avowed by the Redeemer himself -- they are essentially connected with the history now under consideration, and eminently
* Mosheim, vol. 4, p. 428. [Johann Lorenz Mosheim, author of An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, 1768.]
distinguish the Baptist denomination at the present period. Dr. Mosheim, a Lutheran divine, who wrote a valuable work on Church History, states that the following position was maintained by the ancient Waldenses: "That the kingdom of Christ, or the visible Church he had established upon earth, was an assembly of real saints,' and ought therefore to be inaccessible to the wicked and unrighteous, and also, exempt from all those institutions which human prudence suggests to oppose the progress of iniquity, or to correct and transform transgression.." "This principle," says Mosheim, "is the true source of all the peculiarities that are to be found in the religious doctrine, and discipline of the Baptists in Holland." And I may add, of the Baptists in every part of the world, at this moment. It is the privilege of man to investigate truth for himself; "Judge ye what is truth," said the Saviour? God therefore does not exercise his authority in arbitrary dictation over the judgment and conscience of man, but appeals to the reasoning faculties of his creatures for the truth and justice of his claims. Doctrines and ordinances have to be examined, and the appeal is to the intelligence of accountable beings. On this the Baptists in ancient times rested their arguments, in opposition to legalized and established, opinions. They maintained that a man cannot be bora into a system of faith, nor surrendered in infancy or age to a form of religion, but may assert his right to judge for himself; to examine and decide under the lofty conviction that God has made his mind free. They acknowledged no clerical or secular domination, but scorned with becoming indignation every attempt to subdue reason, by enforcing the dogmas of a party, and held with determined fidelity, the high vantage ground assigned them by their Creator.
From those ancients we have descended; for we inherit their principles -- principles, which from the high authority that sanctioned them, and the sacred channels through which they have been transmitted, are commended
to the Christian feeling, and enlightened judgment of all who hear the Christian name; principles which are venerable for their antiquity, and which having- passed through many regions, and survived innumerable perils, come to us associated with all that is pure and triumphant in the history of the Church; with the names of apostles, of confessors, of martyrs; principles which are to travel down to that Millenial day, when truth will sway its sceptre over the millions of the regenerated creation.
In the constitution of a Baptist church, conversion is essential to membership; for no child can be born a Baptist, and no adult can be admitted to communion until the Christian character is formed; membership is then a matter' of choice. The unfettered freedom of judgment and will, exists in the appointment of officers, and in the modes and seasons of public worship. With these things no external power can interfere, no general standard is recognized; so that a wide difference is perceivable between the Baptists, and the Church of Rome and England. The whole apparatus of a systematic priesthood; of catechisms, creeds, and books of prayer; of laws, and formularies, formed for the purpose of controling [sic] individual action, and judgment; together with the acts of uniformity and courts of inquisition, which religious despotism had formed, have always been regarded by Baptists, as an unhallowed innovation on the moral and intellectual property of man. Against such innovation they have always loudly protested. Oil the subject of baptism, the following positions are maintained.
First, That baptism commenced with the- Christian dispensation, and was peculiar to it, being no substitute for any previous institution, such as circumcision, nor in any sense derived from previous enactments, but venerable as a positive law of Christ.
Secondly, That baptism is scriptural, only when administered by immersion of the whole body in water.
Thirdly, That it cannot scripturally be administered to any, but on a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
Fourthly, That as a command of the New Testament, it is obligatory on all who profess faith in Christ, and is intended to form a distinct line of separation, between the Church, and the world.
It is admitted by the scholars of all ages, that the language of the New Testament, respecting baptism, is fairly construed, when we say that it means, as applied to the primitive practice, immersion. It may be sufficient to name Dr. Wall, as an authority upon this point.* He was Vicar of Storeham, Kent, and wrote a book in favour of infant baptism, for which he received the thanks of his University, and a diploma creating him D. D. The following is his language. * "The general and ordinary way of baptizing in ancient times was by immersion. This is so plain and clear from an infinite number of passages that one cannot but pity the weak endeavours of such pedo-baptists as would maintain the negative of it; and wonder that any individuals are to be found, who can treat with ridicule or contempt the English Baptists, merely for their use of dipping, and more especially, when it is considered that it was in all probability the way by which our blessed Saviour, and most certainly the usual and ordinary way by which the ancient Christians did receive their baptism."
The candid concessions of great and learned men will shield us from the charge of bigotry, in laying down this position—that the first Christians were Baptists: for it cannot be denied that, as they practised baptism by immersion, the Apostles would now be called Baptist ministers, and the first churches, Baptist churches. With them therefore our history must begin. The Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, may be regarded as the first book of church history, which contains many passages sufficiently descriptive of the
* History of Infant Baptism, vol. 2, p. 351.
practice of the first Christians. "They baptized," says the Magdeburg Centuriators, "only the adult or aged whether Jews or Gentiles, whereof we have instances in Acts 2, 8, 10,16, and 19 chapters; but as to the baptizing of infants we have no example. As to the manner of baptizing, it was by dipping or plunging into water, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, according to the allusions in Romans 6, and Colossians 2."
In consequence of the persecutions which commenced v in the Apostolic age, most of the early churches were broken up, and their members scattered through different and distant parts of the world. The continuance of those persecutions with but few interruptions, obliges us to trace the history of baptism, rather than that of Baptist Churches, along the course of succeeding centuries. Clemens, Alexandrinus, Ignatius, and Justin Martyr, were connected with the Apostolic age, and they conduct us through the greater part of the second century. Their descriptions of baptism, as observed in their own times, are in strict accordance with our acknowledged principles.*
Here we cannot forbear noticing, some of the Pagan persecutions against the Christians, although it be a digression from the subject. There were ten general persecutions, as is usually said by historians, against the Christians by the Pagan Emperors: the first of which was under Nero, thirty-one years after the ascension of our Lord, when that emperor having set fire to the city of Rome, threw the odium of that execrable deed on the disciples of Jesus. It was music in the ears of the bloodthirsty Nero to hear the shrieks and cries of delicate females, wrapped in combustible garments, the flames of which dispelled the midnight gloom. The second general persecution was in the year 95, under Dametian,
* Magdeburg Centuriators., Cen. I. lib. 2, p. 496. Ignatius Letters to Polycarp, Justin Apology, Clemens, Alexandrinus, Epistle 3.
when 40,000 were supposed to have suffered martyrdom. The third was violent for several years under Tragan. The fourth was under Antonius. The fifth commenced in the year 127, under Severus, and great cruelties were committed. In this reign the death of Perpetua and Felicitas took place. They were first enclosed in a net, and then exposed to a wild cow. But this struck the spectators with horror, as the former was a delicate woman, and the breasts of the latter were streaming with milk after her delivery. Perpetua was first tossed by the beast; and being thrown down, she had the presence of mind to compose her dress, as she lay on the ground. Then rising and seeing Felicitas much more torn than herself, she gave her her hand, and assisted her to rise; and for some time they both stood together; while Perpetua sent for her brother, and exhorted him to continue firm in the faith, to love his fellow Christians, and not to be discouraged by her sufferings. Being in ;i mangled condition, they were now taken to the place of execution, to be dispatched with a sword. After having given each other the kiss of charity, they quietly resigned themselves to their fate.* The sixth began in the year 235, under the reign of Maximinus. The seventh was the most dreadful ever known, and began in 250, under the reign of Decius. "The most excessive and outrageous barbarities," says Dr. Chandler, in the History of Persecutions, "were made use of upon all who would not blaspheme Christ, and offer incense to the imperial gods. They were publicly whipped, -- drawn by the heels through the streets of cities, -- racked till every bone of their body was disjointed, -- had their teeth beat out, -- their noses, hands, and ears cut off, -- sharp pointed spears run under their nails, -- were tortured with melted lead thrown on their naked bodies, -- had their eyes dug out, -- their limbs cut off, -- were condemned to the mines, -- ground between stones, -- stoned to death, --
* Jones' Church History, p. 145.
burnt alive, -- thrown headlong from the high buildings, -- beheaded, -- smothered in burning lime kilns, -- run through the body with sharp spears, -- destroyed with hunger, thirst, and cold, -- thrown to the wild beasts, -- broiled on gridirons with slow fires, -- cast by heaps into the sea, -- crucified, -- scraped to death with sharp shells, -- torn in pieces by the boughs of trees, and in a word, destroyed by all the various methods that the most diabolical subtlety and malice could devise."* The eighth began in 257, under Valerian. The ninth was under Aurelian in 274. The tenth commenced in 303, under Diocletian, and continued ten years. In this dreadful persecution, it is said, there were 17,090 put to death in one month's time. That houses were filled with Christians and set on fire, and whole droves were tied together with ropes and thrown into the sea; and that during this persecution there were no less than 144,000 who died by the violence of their persecutors. But we must now return from our wandering.
In the third and fourth centuries, numerous errors were prevalent, amongst which we find Infant baptism; for the first mention of it occurs in that period, by Tertullian, Origen, and others; and it seems to have been confined to Africa.+ This error arose from a misapplication of our Lord's discourse with Nicodemus; for on that discourse the strange dogma was constructed, that baptism would remove original sin, and qualify for heaven.# This was soon a favourite and generally received opinion.
Parental fondness eagerly adopted a doctrine which mistaken priests declared would secure salvation for children, and ignorance and superstition thus entailed an error on succeeding ages, which no light of revelation has been able to clear away; for it still remains the relic
* Jones' Church History, p. 150.
+ Appendix to Mosheim.
# Canon of Melev. Coun. Magd. Cen. 5, p. 1228.
of a dark period, and an affecting proof of human prejudice and imperfection. The only change, however, which took place, respected the subject: for the mode of baptism continued for ages. At a much later period sprinkling was substituted, yet only by a part of the Christian world, and that part comprised those who were under the influence of the Popes. The Greek Church, to which the Russians now belong, preserved immersion, and still baptize in that manner. The celebrated Dr. Whitby, a learned divine of the Church of England, bears testimony on the subject before us, in his commentary on Romans vi. 4. He says, "Immersion was religiously observed by all Christians for thirteen centuries, and was changed into sprinkling, without any authority from the Author of this institution. It were to be wished that this custom were again of general use."
Several of the ancient fathers protested against this unscriptural innovation; amongst whom were Tertullian, and subsequently Gregory Nazianzen; but they could not prevent the extension of the evil. * The ancient mode of baptism continued, however, to be extensively practised through all the countries where Christianity had obtained; and that it had not fallen into disrepute at that period, is evident from the fact, that history records the baptism of five Emperors of Rome, viz., Constantine, Gratian, Valentinian II., and Theodosius I.: also, nine great men in the Greek and Latin churches -- Basil. Gregory, Nazianzen, Nectarius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustin, Alyphius, and Adeodatus.+ One of these, Jerome, thus expresses his opinion on the subject; "The Lord commanded his apostles that they should first instinct and teach all nations, and afterwards should baptize those that were instructed in the mysteries of the faith."# He advances this as an argument against
* Robert Robinson, History of Baptism 162.
+ Dr. Wall.
# Jerome on Matt.
those who advocated the new doctrine of infant baptism, and at the same time states this fact -- "In the eastern churches the adults only were baptized." Within the same period the Councils of Carthage, Laodicea, and Neocessaria, ordered that suitable inquiries should be made concerning the candidate for baptism, the latter declared that, "confession and free choice are necessary to baptism."* But it was gradually discontinued, and under the authority of popes and their councils, was finally renounced by what was then called the church.+
Hitherto baptism had been administered in open waters, but now spacious and splendid buildings were erected for Christian worship, having baptistries, something like baths, with pipes for the introduction and removal of water. They had also vestries for dressing and undressing, with male and female apartments. Such is the general arrangement of Baptist chapels at the present day.
It is proper to notice here, that after the introduction of infant baptism, it "frequently happened that those who had been baptized in infancy, were, by their own desire, baptized on a profession of their faith, considering their former baptism unscriptural, and of no avail. From this circumstance arose the word anabaptism, which signifies re-baptizing. It will be seen that opposition was speedily aroused against this adherence to original institutions.
The Milevitan Council, assembled in 402, ordained, "that they be anathematized who deny that children are saved by baptism." The Council of Carthage in 416 children are freed from perdition by baptism." The fourth Lateran Council made a law to banish them for heretics -- and the monarchs joined with the popes and bishops in denouncing and extirpating them.#
* Magdeburg Centuriators p. 417.
+ Twisk Chron. p. 164.
# Canons of those Councils
In the year 413, an edict was published by Theodosius and Honorious, to the effect that, whosoever was baptized should, as well as the administrator, be put to death.* Thus the Baptists became the victims of persecution, and for ages afterwards did they maintain the honourable character of martyrs. We now have to trace their history, as they were scattered over the world, extending through several centuries, followed by persecution, and hunted by the edicts of councils and emperors. Still did they live, and so numerous were they, that an ancient record states, "their preachers could travel through the whole German empire, and lodge every night at the house of one of their friends."+ They were burnt, beheaded, and drowned; but pope Pius II. said, "neither the decrees of popes, nor armies of Christians, could extirpate them# and notwithstanding the bloody persecutions to which they had been exposed, Dr. Mosheim says, that in 1160, there were 800,000 who professed this faith. Thus did things continue till the Reformation dawned, when, encouraged by the dauntless conduct of the Reformers, they started from their hiding places. "This sect," says Mosheim, "started up all of a sudden, in several countries, at the same time, and at the very period when the first contests of the Reformers with the Roman pontiffs drew the attention of the world."**
The Reformation produced beneficial changes in the religious institutions of Europe, and though the Baptists were still exposed to persecution, they felt the changes operating in their favour, and after many struggles, attended with much suffering, they succeeded in forming themselves into distinct societies, and ultimately became a recognized and prominent section of the Christian Church, as they are at this day. It may be necessary
*Sebast. Frank, fol. 136.
+ Twisk Cron. p. 546.
# Irenaeus Syl. cap. 16.
** Vol. 4, p. 427.
to state, that the professing Christians, to whom the term Baptist now applies, are divided into various bodies, according to their particular views of Christian truth. Thus the Particular Baptists are Calvinists, the General Baptists maintain the doctrine of general redemption. The first are by far the most numerous. There are others, unconnected with either; but they are comparatively few, and do not require distinct notice.
These first churches were established in the East, and spread thence to very distant places. In addition to what has been advanced on their history, it is unnecessary to say any more than that the baptism of believers, and the rejection of infant baptism, are strong features in the history of those Christians who dwelt in Africa, and the regions immediately contiguous; and that those features remained prominent for a long period; even after intolerance had patronised error, and had called in the aid of national power. Thus it is recorded—about the year 670, Christ's baptism, after the preaching of faith in a right manner, was practised in Egypt, and in such esteem, that some in other countries did restore the Christian religion according to their example, who thus differed from the Church of Rome, and placed religion upon its original apostolic foundation.*
On that foundation, many of the Christians in those distant parts continued to rest, until darkness covered the whole surface, and subsequently the very name of Christian, was lost amidst superstition and barbarity. Thick darkness still rests on those regions.
It has already been observed, that persecution at an early period, scattered the first churches. Many of those Christian fugitives found an asylum amongst the Waldenses, a people occupying the beautiful valleys of Piedmont, at the foot of the Alps, who, together with the Albigenses, in the south of France, received the Gospel in the early part of the second century, and practiced
* James. Vicecomis, 1. 2. c. 3.
baptism, a practice which they never fully abandoned.* Those valleys continued a refuge for the oppressed through succeeding ages, and not unfrequently were visited by persecutors who destroyed thousands. From these the principles of truth extended, and the doctrine of baptism became a great leading question with persecutors. "In the ninth century, Hinchmarus, Bishop of Laudun, in France, renounced infant baptism, and he, with his diocese, was accused of withholding baptism from children."+ About_ the year 1049, Beringarius, a bold and faithful preacher of the Gospel, was accused of denying baptism to little ones, and hundreds of his adherents were massacred "for opposing infant baptism," and "for being baptized."# In the Bishopric of Tryers, in Flanders and Germany, persecution was carried on with unmitigated severity against the Baptists. It is calculated that 150,000 of them were cruelly put to death. Particulars might be easily given to a considerable length, but it cannot be necessary—yet a few specimens may be admitted as confirmatory of the facts just stated.
In 1022, fourteen persons of eminence were burnt at Orleans, in France, for professing Baptist sentiments; others were martyred on similar grounds in Lower Saxony, under Henry III. the emperor; at Rome in 1147; at Parenga and Parma; in the Bishopric of Toulouse, nineteen were burnt in 1232; at Marseilles under Pope John XXII.; at Crema in Austria, in 1315; at Aubitan in Flanders, 1373; at Montpelier in France, in 1417; at Augsburg in Germany, 1517: at Zurich, in 1527 ; and in the same year Leonard Skooner, a Baptist minister, and seventy of his friends, were put to death at Rottenburgh in Germany; finally, John Wauteriz was burnt at Dort, for being baptized, in 1572.**
* Dr. Naclaine, in Mosheim, vol. 3, p. 118.
+ Bib. Patrum, Tern. 9, part 2, p. 137.
# Mag. Cen. 11, p. 540.
** Henry Danvers, A Treatise of Baptism, 1674
In the twelfth century the Baptists put forth a confession of faith, asserting, "In the beginning of Christianity there was no baptizing of children; our forefathers practised no such thing. We do from our hearts acknowledge that baptism is a washing which is performed with water, and doth hold out the washing of the soul from sin."* Peter Bruis, who was a pastor among the Waldenses, publicly vindicated baptism, and multitudes attached themselves to him, who were called Petrobrussians. He was burnt to death in 1130.+ Menno Simon, from whom the Dutch Baptists are called Mennonites, flourished about 1530.#
The Christian fortitude of a Baptist by the name of Snyder, who was beheaded at Lewarden, led Menno to examine the doctrine of baptism, and finally to adopt it. Several persecuted Baptists soon rallied around him whom he formed into a church; and being a man of great genius and commanding eloquence, he succeeded in spreading his peculiar views through Holland, Guelderland, Brabant, Westphalia; through the German provinces that skirt the Baltic, and on to Livonia. He was hunted by his enemies, a large reward having been at one period offered for his life; but he survived all his dangers and died peaceably, after a course of great usefulness, A. D. 1561. ++ To this we may add the state ment of Mosheim, that, "Persons of similar sentiments lay concealed in almost all the countries of Europe, especially in Bohemia, Moravia, Switzerland, and Germany."## Holland is at present the chief seat of the Baptists, but they are not very flourishing.
England undoubtedly received the gospel in the day of the apostles, and its ecclesiastical history plainly
* Merning Hist. p. 738.
+ Mosheim, vol. 2. pp. 315, 316.
# Mosheim, vol. 3, p. 330.
** Mosheim, vol. 3.
++ Vol. 3, p. 320.
proves that thousands were baptised according to the primitive model.* About the same time, or soon after, Wales was visited by Christian teachers; and when Austin visited this country, about the year 600, he found a society of Christians at Bangor, consisting of 2,100 persons, who were afterwards destroyed, because they refused to baptize infants at the-command of the pope.+
Austin was sent to England by Pope- Gregory the Great, for the purpose of promoting the subjection of the British to the Papal See. He advanced the leading doctrines of the Romish Church, amongst which he ranks infant baptism, and exhorted the people implicitly to receive his dogmas. Some yielded to the influence which he exercised, but a goodly number resisted; amongst whom, the Christians at Bangor are numbered. Austin, therefore, has the credit of introducing infant baptism into England, for before that time it was unknown; it came as an appendage of popery, and from that period dark superstition ruled over Britain. Little is known of the succeeding centuries down to the reformation, except what respects the most abject mental and moral vassalage on the one hand, and the most ironhanded intolerance on the other. During the reign of William the Conqueror, a considerable number of Baptists came over from France, Germany, and Holland; and so greatly did they prevail, that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a book against them; for not only the poor, but some of the noble families adopted their sentiments. Their spirit, however, was too liberal, and their principles too pure, for the times; and as monarchy was leagued with popery, we cannot be surprised that so few traces are found of their subsequent career. In after ages Baptists were found in Herefordshire, and South Wales. After passing through similar vicissitudes to other countries, Britain felt the influence
* Fuller's Ecclesiastical History.
+ Dupin's Ecclesiastical History, vol. 5, p. 90.
of the reformation, and the Baptists came to light again. The reformation took place under Henry VIII., and was productive of mighty results in the political and religious establishments of the world.
Two circumstances connected with that period are prominent in the history of the Baptists—the publicity into which they emerged, and the hostility evinced against them; both are exhibited in the extraordinary movements of the parties then in power.* In 1536, the national clergy met in convocation, declared the sentiments of the Baptists to be, "detestable heresies, utterly to be condemned." In 1538 a commission was given to Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and others to proceed against Baptists, and burn their books; and on the 16th of November, in the same year, a royal proclamation was issued against them, and instructions sent to the justices throughout England, directing them to see that the laws against the Baptists were duly executed. Several were burned in Smithfield, and of those who fled to foreign parts, it is recorded that some were martyred. Brandt writes thus in his History of the Reformation: "In the year 1539, thirty-one Baptists, that fled from England, were put to death at Delft, in Holland; the men were beheaded, and the women drowned."
One conclusion is fairly deducible from these narrations; that the Baptists at that period were not few nor insignificant. Bishop Latimer, in a sermon which he preached before King Edward the Vlth,  referring to the events of Henry's reign, observed, "Baptists were burned in different parts of the kingdom and went to death with good integrity."+ The reformation begun under Henry and was carried on under Edward; but tq the oppressed Baptists of those times, no mercy was
* Burnet's History of the Reformation; Joseph Ivimey's History of English Baptists.
+ Latimer's Sermons.
extended. Such was the furious bigotry with which they were pursued, that when King Edward passed an act to pardon Papists and others, the Baptists were excepted! and in the following year, 1547, a fresh commission was issued to the Archbishop "to search for all Baptists;" and under that commission the celebrated Joan of Kent, who was a Baptist, was burnt on the 2nd of May, 1549. Several others shared the same fate.*
That such proceedings should have been pursued by the very men who were, at the same time, bursting through the trammels of religious despotism, seems almost incredible. But who were they? Henry arose to that emancipation under the influence of licentiousness; and the same tyrannical disposition that led him to murder his wives, prompted him to wrest the power from the pope, and to proclaim himself the "Head of the Church." Edward was a mere stripling; the tool of the bigoted prelates who surrounded him. They had but half emerged from the darkness and intolerance of popish superstition; they protested against many errors of the Romish church, but their protest was uttered with the spirit of inquisitors -- a dark feature in the character of the reformers generally; it was the spirit of the times, of which those otherwise eminent men could not wholly divest themselves.+
The reign of Mary is well known to have been cruel, even to ferocity -- one circumstance in Baptist history accords with the spirit of that execrable reign. A man named David George, a Dutchman, was disinterred in St. Lawrence's church, three years after his death, and his body was burnt, because it was discovered he had
* History of the Reformation, vol. 2; Neal, vol. I.
+ Melanchton smiled when Servitus was put to death by Calvin. When the magistrates of Zurich consulted Zuinglias on the fate of some poor Baptists, " Drown the dippers," said the Reformer.
been a Baptist.* The relentless cruelty against the Baptists continued even under Queen Elizabeth.. A royal proclamation was issued in which it was ordered that all Baptists, and other heretics should leave the land; but they seemed to gather fortitude, for some formed themselves into separate societies ; and, in 1575, the seventeenth year of Elizabeth's reign, a congregation of them was found without Aldgate, London; of whom some were banished, twenty-seven were imprisoned, and two were burnt to death in Smithfield. It was a peculiarly interesting characteristic of primitive Christians, that notwithstanding the overwhelming power of potentates and priests against which they had to contend, opposition seemed but to augment their strength and to accelerate their progress; so it was with the persecuted Baptists. Two years after the event just referred to, Dr. Same, a churchman of great note in the reign of Elizabeth, wrote a book against the Puritans, in which he inveighs against the Baptists; stating in the language of complaint that they had "several conventicles in London and other places; and that some of their ministers had been educated at the universities, and that they held heretical opinions.”+ Under the following reign, James the 1st, we find them acting with more boldness than they had hitherto done, though they were not free from persecution. They published a treatise, justifying their dissent; petitioned the king for relief from persecutions, and in 1618 published a book translated from the Dutch, on baptism, the first that was published on that subject in the English language. From that time they spread with great rapidity throughout all parts of the empire, sharing largely in the privations which attended the puritans during the troublesome scenes of succeeding years.# The first regularly organized Baptist church of
* Crosby's History of the English Baptists, vol. 1, p. 63.
+ Ivimey, History of the English Baptists, vol. 1, p. 108.
# Ivimey, Crosby, and Danvers supply copious information on these subjects.
which we possess any account, after these persecutions, is dated from 1607, and was formed in London by a Mr. Smyth, who had been a clergyman in the Church of England. It was formed on the principles of the general Baptists. In the year 1633, the first particular Baptist church was formed in London, under Mr. Spilsbury. During the reign of Charles First, the Baptists gained so much celebrity that a public dispute was held between some of their ministers and a learned divine of the church, Dr. Featly. Their prosperity excited bitter hostility, and the infatuated monarch was induced to publish edicts against them; but his untimely fate prevented the accomplishment of the object contemplated.
In the year 1650, the Baptist churches began to form themselves into associations, and three years afterwards, an epistolary correspondence was opened, including the English, Scotch, Irish, and Welch churches. During the Commonwealth, they were distinguished in various ways; some of their ministers, possessing university honours, preached in parish churches, and some of their members, as Sir Henry Vane, and General Harrison, occupied high posts under the government. The name of Milton, too, is connected with that period.* Amidst the changes which followed, much suffering was endured, but great glory resulted from the exhibition of Christian principles. Amongst the conspicuous objects of the times under consideration, we have to notice the character and sufferings of Thomas De Laune, Benjamin Keach, and John Bunyan+ immortal names -- illustrious men of the Baptist denomination.
* Neal's History of the Puritans; Taylor's and Ivimey's works.
+ Mr. Bunyan was in jail when he received the minced pie, -- what are now denominated minced pies, were formerly called Christmas pics. When John Bunyan was in Shrewsbury jail for preaching and praying, a gentleman who knew he disliked any
In the year 1689, the English Particular Baptists, availing themselves of the liberty recently secured by the glorious revolution," convoked a general assembly, which was held in London. It consisted of the representatives of one hundred congregations, who decided in putting forth a " Confession of Faith," containing all the leading peculiarities of doctrine and discipline, by which they were distinguished. This most valuable document, which consisted of thirty-two articles, with a preface, and general epistle, is deserving of perusal, as it still remains the most complete representation of' faith and order ever published. It ought to be widely circulated amongst the Baptists. Thus as we have seen, the Baptists acquired strength in the seventeenth century; they consolidated their energies; their churches greatly multiplied through the British empire, and from that time forward, they maintained their ground, and advanced to their present prosperous condition. It may not be unworthy of notice, that the last martyr who was burnt in England, was Edward Wightman, a Baptist, of Burton-upon-Trent. He was condemned by the Bishop of Litchfield and Coventry, and was burnt at Litchfield, April 11th, 1612.
The first Baptist church in Scotland, is said to have been formed by Mr. M'Lean, in 1765. But this must be a mistake, as there is mention of a church formed there, out of the soldiers of Cromwell's army, and in 1653, letters passed between the Irish and English churches, in which there is reference to the churches in England, Scotland, and Wales. Mr. M'Lean, however,
thing popish, and wished to play upon his peculiarity, on Christmas-day, sent his servant to the old Baptist, and desired his acceptance of a large Christmas Pie. John took little time to consider; but seizing the pie, desired the messenger to thank his master, and "tell him," added he, "I have lived long enough, and I am now hungry enough to know the difference between Christmas and Pie."
is the acknowledged founder of "the Scotch Baptists" -- a designation which is understood to specify a distinct and peculiar section of the Baptist denomination. The first of these churches was formed by Mr. M'Lean, in the year before mentioned, at Edinburgh; others were formed in different parts of Scotland, and a few in England. Their leading peculiarities, in the earlier part of their existence, were a plurality of elders or pastors in each church, and weekly communions; to which numerous other forms of worship, and articles of faith have been added. A considerable number of Baptist churches exist in Scotland, some of which are large and respectable -- that are constituted on the same principles as the English Baptist churches. The churches in Ireland are also constructed on the same general form.
There are many important and interesting facts connected with the history of the Baptists in America. On the 1st of December, 1630, the Rev. Roger Williams, who had been a clergyman of the Church of England, embarked at Bristol, for America, to escape the persecutions which then raged in England. The great principles of civil and religious liberty were not then understood in the western world, and as Mr. Williams was a man of intrepid firmness in advocating those principles, we are not surprised at the excitement and opposition which his doctrines awakened. He settled first in Boston, New England, the magistracy of which condemned his opinions, and subsequently sentenced him to banishment. Under that cruel act of legislation he was driven from his family, in the midst of winter, to seek for refuge amongst the wild Indians. After great suffering, having conciliated the Indians, he commenced the foundation of a colony, to which he gave the name of Providence, situated in the State of Rhode Island, the name which it still bears.
Thus he became the founder of a new order of things. Several of his friends afterwards joined him, and in that infant settlement he sustained the two-fold character of minister and lawgiver. He formed a constitution on the broad principle of civil and religious liberty, and thus became the first ruler that recognized equal rights. Nearly a century and a half after that, when the Americans achieved their independence, thirteen of the states united in forming a government for themselves, and adopted that principle; thus America became, what the little colony of Providence had been before, a refuge for the persecuted for conscience sake. It has been well observed that the millions in both hemispheres, who are now rejoicing in the triumph of liberal principles, should unite in erecting a monument to perpetuate the memory of Roger Williams, the first governor who held liberty of conscience to be the birthright of man.
In the year 1639, Mr. Williams formed the first Baptist church in America, at Providence. The second was formed by Dr. John Clark, in 1644, at Newport, Rhode Island. The third was also at Newport, in 1656; the fourth church was at Swansea, begun by John Miles, in 1663; and the fifth was at Boston, founded first in Charlestown, in 1665, by Thomas Gould. In forty years from the founding of the last mentioned church, there arose eleven more in the following order: Seventh-day, Newport, 1671; Tiverton, Rhode Island, 1685; Middleton, New Jersey, 1688; Pennepack, now called Lower Dublin, Pennsylvania, 1689; Piscataway, New Jersey, the same year; Charleston, South Carolina, 1690; Cohansey, New Jersey, 1691; 2nd Swansea, 1693; Welch-Tract, Delaware, 1701; Grotan, Connecticut, 1705; Seventh-day, Piscataway, New Jersey, 1707. The first Church in Philadelphia was, in reality, formed in 1698, although it has generally been dated in 1746, when it was re-organized.
Thus in almost a hundred years after the first settlement of America, only seventeen Baptist
churches had been organized, and nine of them were in New England. Four of those seventeen churches, that is, three in Massachusetts, and one in Connecticut, were harrassed [sic] on account of their religious principles; and of these four, the one at Boston, felt most of the hard hand of civil coercion.*
The first law passed against the Baptists in Massachusetts, was done on the 13th of November, 1644: the charges exhibited against them were, principally, the two following, viz., that the Baptists denied infant baptism, and the ordinance of magistracy; or, as a Baptist would express it, the use of secular force in religious affairs; Mr. Backus asserts, that he had diligently searched all the books, records, and papers, which he could find, and could not discover one instance then (1777) of any real Baptist in Massachusetts being convicted of, or suffering for, any crime, except the denying of infant baptism, and the use of secular force in religious affairs. We shall here give the principal part of the offensive and oppressive enactments, viz., "Forasmuch as experience hath plentifully and often proved, that since the first rising of the Anabaptists, about one hundred years since, they have been the incendiaries of commonwealths, and the infectors of persons in main matters of religion, and the troubles of churches in all places where they have been, and that they who have held the baptizing of infants to be unlawful, have usually held other errors or heresies therewith." -- "It is ordered and agreed, that if any person or persons, within this jurisdiction, shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or go about secretly to seduce others from the approbation or use thereof, or shall purposely depart the congregation at the administration of the ordinance, or shall deny the ordinance of magistracy, or their lawful right and authority to make war, or to punish the outward breaches of the first table, and shall
* Benedict's History, vol. 1, p. 273.
appear to the court wilfully and obstinately to continue therein, after due time and means of conviction, every such person or persons shall be sentenced to banishment."
Many of the Baptists, suffered exceedingly in those times; their property was distrained and sold, and their bodies lacerated with three-corded whips, and confined in loathsome dungeons; Mr. Obadiah Holmes received thirty strokes at one time with a three-corded whip; "What can be more shocking to any being, who has human feelings, than to see a humble and devout Christian, who renders to Caesar what is his due, merely for not believing some things which his brethren believe, arrested in his peaceful and pious course, sentenced to be tied to a public whipping-post like a malefactor, and there to have his body barbarously scourged, to chastise and cure the conscientious scruples of his mind; and all this by his countrymen, his neighbours; yea, by his fellow-christians, who profess to worship the same God, and trust for salvation in the same Redeemer! Who can contemplate such a scene of barbarity, without being sickened at the thought, and regarding it with disgust and horror! To say nothing of hanging, burning, and torturing to death, with all the murderous engines which ingenuity can invent; the circumstance merely of one Christian beating another thirty strokes with a three-corded whip, for conscience sake, is a scene on which heaven must frown, the earth on which it is perpetrated must groan, while we must be ashamed, astonished, and confounded, at the folly and absurdity of men. *
Notwithstanding all the opposition and persecutions, Baptist churches increased and multiplied exceedingly, until they have assumed a leading attitude amongst the religious communities in America. In 1790, John Asplund published his first Register of the Baptist Denomination in America. In about eighteen months he travelled near
* Benedict's History, vol. 1, p. 378.
seven thousand miles, chiefly on foot, to collect materials for his register. It was the first attempt of the kind in this country, and as correct as could be expected. By this it appears,
that in the United States and Territories, there were 868 Baptist churches, 710 ordained ministers, 422 licentiates, and 64,975 members. This was one hundred and fifty-one years after the constitution of the first church at Providence. From 1790, until 1813, when the Rev. David Benedict, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, published his general History of the Baptists; which was twenty-three years after Mr. Asplund published his first Register, we find the Baptists had increased rapidly; their whole number of churches, &c., being as follows, viz : 2,633 churches, 2,142 ministers, including those who were not ordained, and 204,185 members. And again, twenty-three years after the last mentioned period, we find in the Bap tist Annual Register, published by the Baptist General Tract Society, and edited by the Rev. Ira M. Allen, their number to be in 1836, as follows; in the United States, and British Possessions in America, 372 associations, 7,299 churches, 4075 ministers, 966 licentiates, 33,108 baptized in the year, and the whole number of members 517,523. The extroardinary revivals with which they have been frequently favoured, invest them with a moral strength and glory which we cannot contemplate but with astonishment and admiration.
In closing this sketch we notice one inquiry which forces itself on our attention. Why were the Baptists so cruelly treated in every age and by every power? It was not, that at any period they were, in a political sense, of such importance as that their existence .might be deemed dangerous, and their extinction necessary to the safety of a state; but there was, as when Christian truth commenced its march, a mysterious power that acted on the fear of rulers, and they were alarmed, they knew not why. Let it be observed that the elements of freedom are identified with the doctrine of adult baptism, for on
the free exercise of judgment and choice it has its foundation. A Baptist, therefore, cannot coerce the will of another; and on the same principle, if placed under civil or religious despotism, he will be found panting and struggling for liberty; his profession of baptism is a public avowal of the rights of man to live unfettered, and consequently a public condemnation of oppression. Here, then, we find the source of the wrongs which they endured. "What has the emperor to do with our religion? What have the bishops to do at court?" were inquiries urged by some of the ancients, and such sentiments have at all times been uttered by the Baptists. Wherever they are found, whether on the page of history, or mixed up with existing events, they will appear the champions of freedom -- the freedom of truth and humanity -- haled by tyrants, but admired by the enlightened and the free. With the progress of liberty in England, they have steadily advanced. In America only, have they found a soil fully congenial, and here their triumphs have been glorious. Their cause is thus, identified with Christianity, which secures, wherever it has dominion, liberty of conscience and of action; and which, though often "cast down, could not be destroyed."
We have seen that along the stream of eighteen centuries, amidst the barbarous superstition and cruel persecutions of dark and iron ages, the apostolic doctrine of baptism was preserved, like the element of Christian truth, an imperishable principle, derived from God, and sustained by him in all ages, and through all dangers. The people who were the depositaries of that doctrine, were natives of different regions, dissimilar in their habits, and incapable, from, their scattered and persecuted condition, of forming any alliance, or recognizing any common standard of Christian doctrine; but, in maintaining the principles of primitive baptism already laid down, they preserved the essence of the gospel, and may be regarded, in the Apocalyptic sense of the term, as
witnesses for the truth through the reign of superstition. We contemplate our present position with an emotion of Christian joy, accompanied with an earnest desire for greater prosperity; and encouraged by the prophetic announcements of the sacred volume, anticipate an era of redemption for mankind, and of triumph for the church of God; when Christianity, dignified with age, shall resume its primitive peculiarities, and, in the extent of its influence, as in the richness of its manifestations, shall infinitely surpass its primitive glory.
[From Hosea Holcombe, History of the Baptists in Alabama, 1840, Chapter 1, pp. 13-40. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More Baptist History
Baptist History Homepage