The Baptists in History
By George C Lorimer, 1898
THAT the Baptists are among the oldest of the non-liturgical and non-prelatical branches of Christ's Church, and more than likely are in reality the oldest, is generally conceded and grows more certain with the progress of scholarly investigation. It is, however, to be admitted that their origin is obscure: Mosheim says "it is buried in the depths of antiquity"; and unquestionably antedates the appearance of Huss and of Luther. The beginnings of some of the Post-Reformation denominations are easily determined and are marked by national convulsions and crises; but this is not the case with the Baptists, and it seems to indicate that they belong to the Pre-Reformation period, and are identical with the anti-ecclesiastical thought, feeling and aspiration which steadily flowed through the Middle Ages as the Gulf Stream penetrates and courses through the Atlantic. Hence Philip Dorner writes: "All the different anti-ecclesiastical tendencies which, for the most part, with a dualistic coloring, had secretly pervaded
the life of the people in the Middle Ages, got vent after the reform excitement issued from Wittenberg and found a wider field under the new (Anabaptist) movement." And Dr. Ludwig Keller, of Munster, a man eminently qualified to speak, connects the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century with the mediaeval evangelical congregations, whose heroic defence of the truth entitles them to the veneration and gratitude of mankind. So clear is Heberle on this point that he says: "The supposition is therefore very probable that between these and the re-baptizers of the Reformation there was an external historical connection. The possibility of this as respects Switzerland is all the greater, since just here the traces of these sects, especially of the Waldenses, can be followed down to the end of the fifteenth century." This view was anticipated by Starck, the court preacher of Darmstadt, who, in 1789, held that the Anabaptists, though related to Grebel, Stubner and others, were in reality the descendants of the Waldenses. Undoubtedly the latter were the spiritual forefathers of the former, traces of whose existence and activities we have for three hundred years before Luther, and whose cardinal doctrines, if Dr. Keller is to be credited, correspond almost exactly with those of the modern Baptists. Our people maintain in view of all the facts thus far attainable, that they are the children
of the Anabaptists and the grandchildren of the Waldenses, and, without claiming any succession of Churches or asserting that all the Waldenses preserved inviolate their earlier creeds, they assign the date of their birth to a period "whereof," in the language of common law, "the memory of man runneth not to the contrary." They concede that they may not have let their light shine in one continuous, steady, unbroken stream through all the centuries; but they are sure that it has shed intermittent rays like those that flash from a revolving light over the ocean's vast expanse, now penetrating the darkness, then fading for a moment into the night, only, however, and forever, to return again.
Nor is their lineage unworthy and despicable. It is rather one of which any people might well be proud. I know how common it has been to indulge in unkind flings at the expense of the Anabaptists, to impute to them all kinds of excesses, absurdities and crimes, and to re-echo the railing accusations of their venomous foes. But the more their record is investigated by impartial historians the more manifest does it become that they were while living the victims of vituperation and persecution, and have been ever since the subjects of odium and malicious misrepresentation. Of late, however, writers like Cornelius of Bonn, Egli of
Zurich, Beck of Vienna, Strasser of Grindelwald, and Dr. Keller, already quoted, are rescuing their good name from the merciless talons of their enemies. The day of their complete vindication is near at hand. Already we know that their numbers in the sixteenth century were something extraordinary and alarming to those who dreaded anything like radical reform in Church or State. According to Sebastian Franck, their doctrines spread rapidly through Germany after the Lutheran movement began, and they themselves quickly obtained a great body of adherents and baptized thousands. Untold multitudes of artisans went over from Luther to join them, and many among the upper classes for a season sympathized with their opinions. Dr. Dorner declares that "Anabaptism, ha the third and fourth decades of the sixteenth century, spread like a burning fever through all Germany; from Swabia and Switzerland, along the Rhine to Holland and Friesland, — from Bavaria, Middle Germany, Westphalia and Saxony, as far as Holstein." But if we would form an adequate conception of its progress we need only consult the annals of martyrdom. Buckle says, "By 1546, thirty thousand persons had been put to death for Anabaptism in Holland and Friesland alone." And multitudes were executed for this cause in Gorz and Tyrol, in the Palatinate, and at the Hague. In Bavaria, Duke William went so far in butchery as to give the command, "Whoever recants let him be beheaded; whoever will not recant let him be burned." But we are not to suppose from these references to the Continent, that these devoted people had not penetrated into England; for they seem to have been there from an early day and to have multiplied exceedingly.
The Baptist Handbook of that country names ten Baptist churches claimed to have been founded prior to 1633, and Dr. Clifford considers it probable that the one at Hill Cliffe, Cheshire, was nourishing in 1357. In 1597 John Payne declared that there were many Anabaptists in England at that time, and in 1568 their conventicles were condemned by royal edict as harboring foreign heretics, those doubtless who had escaped from the Duke of Alva, and not a few home born schismatics. Though it is doubtless correct to hold that the modern period of our history in England, the period of more complete organization and of more thorough participation in public affairs, began in 1611 when Thomas Helwys and others organized the first General Baptist Church in London, having returned from Holland where they had been baptized by the Rev. John Smyth, it is certainly not correct to teach that then the denomination had its origin, and that multitudes had not for many
previous decades professed the principles which Mr. Helwys and his associates avowed. All the evidence we can command leads to an entirely contrary conclusion. Witnesses in abundance testify to the prevalence of Baptist sentiments and to the hosts of heroic souls even as far back as the fourteenth century who maintained them at all hazards. And it is this very multiplication of adherents in the face of persecution, this enormous increase of members on both sides of the English Channel, that discredits the accusations of their opponents. For it is not reasonable to suppose that men and women of immoral lives, of flighty imagination and distempered mind, unsound in judgment and untrustworthy in conduct, could have succeeded, as they evidently did, in drawing a considerable portion of the population inhabiting enlightened European states to their way of thinking. In my opinion, their large influence with the masses of the people is in itself a certificate of good character; and I hazard nothing in averring that in modesty, peaceableness, gentleness, disinterestedness and general blamelessness, they compare favorably with their assailants. Try to hide it as we may, the truth still is that their enemies were fierce, intolerant, bloodthirsty, destitute of genuine sympathy with the aspirations of the lowly born, and ruthlessly determined to rule and
govern at any cost; and the presumption is that their victims were offensive to them because their spirit and life were so much nobler than their own. Certainly such men as Mantz, Grebel, Hetzer, Stumpf, Hubmeyer, Reublin, Blaurock, Hofmann and Michael Sattler, the reputed author of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), were the peers of their cruel antagonists in intelligence, and more than their peers in the high virtues of Christian manhood. We know this; we know how meekly they suffered, how readily they sacrificed, and how wonderfully they increased in numbers among the most hopeless and neglected, and we rejoice to be counted their spiritual children. Knowing all this, we honor them alike for the friendships they made among the poor and for the enemies they made among the haughty and tyrannical.
[George C. Lorimer, The Baptists in History, 1898, pp.49-55. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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