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The History of Baptists
By William D. Nowlin
Fundamentals of the Faith, 1922
      The following statements by church historians seem to show that a continuity of New Testament churches can be traced back to Christ and the apostles by their doctrines and practices.

      All our church historians tell us that there have existed, from the apostles to the present time, companies, congregations, and sects of Christians dissenting from the established and generally accepted forms. As soon as the prevailing churches fell into errors, because proud, corrupt, and worldly, departing from the simplicity and spirituality of the gospel, then such as continued godly separated themselves, from the multitude, worshiped by themselves, and served God according to their understanding of the Scriptures. They maintained the doctrines and ordinances of Christ as they understood him to have delivered them to his disciples, and sought to be his true and faithful witnesses in the midst of the prevailing degeneracy. These "sects" have been called by various names, and have differed somewhat among themslves, but they have invariably been called "heretics" by the prevailing churches from which they were separated. The grandest heroes and martyrs for truth that the world has known are to be found among these despised and persecuted sects. The reproaches and persecutions which they suffered were all because they sought to maintain the gospel and protested against the errors and crimes that were practiced in the name of religion.

      Of these sects, there were in the second century the Montanists. From the third to the tenth centuries there were the Novatians, Donatists, and Paulicians. All these professed to hold to the New Testament as the only rule of faith and practice, received none but regenerated persons into church membership, rejected infant baptism, and practiced immersion. In the eleventh and following centuries, up to the time of the Reformation, the dissenters took on new names, being called Henricians, Waldenses, Albigenses, and other names, and became very numerous notwithstanding their continued sufferings from persecution. All these ancient sects, though not known by the name of Baptists, held the prevailing opinions which now characterize the Baptist denomination. Some of our historians, however, are inclined to discover in them a greater resemblance to modern Baptists than are others.

      1. Anabaptists. During the period of the Reformation (1520-1555), there sprang up all over Central and Western Europe in great numbers those who are called Anabaptists, that is, those who rebaptized, because they rejected both the baptism of the Romish Church and infant baptism, and insisted that all who came into the fellowship of their churches should be scripturally baptized. This name Anabaptist was a term of contempt and was applied by their enemies indiscriminately to nearly all those sects not in harmony with the leading parties of the Reformation. It was often given to those who had little or nothing in common with the Anabaptists, and with whom the Baptists have no connection.

      As to the origin of the Anabaptists, church historians differ, but it is probable that, in many instances, they were the revival of the remains of the earlier sects or at least of their sentiments, which still lingered in many localities. Undoubtedly it was the quickened life and thought of the Reformation that brought them again into notice and resulted in the vast increase of their numbers. Anabaptists held to the complete separation of Church and State, liberty of the individual conscience, and the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice. They opposed infant baptism; admitted none but regenerated persons to baptism and church-membership; and practiced immersion only for baptism. As a result they were bitterly persecuted and outlawed. Nevertheless, they greatly increased in numbers, and extended over a large part of Europe. They were numerous in Poland, Holland, England, Switzerland, and Germany, but they centered largely in Moravia, where they were sometimes called Huttites, after one Jacob Hutter, a leader of great power among them. They were also numerous in Holland, where they were called Mennonites, after Menno Simons, a great leader in that locality. The persecutions suffered by the Mennonites or Anabaptists of Holland were cruel in the extreme.

      2. Baptists of the Old World. The Baptists of the last three hundred years are the direct descendants of the true Anabaptists of the period of the Reformation; or perhaps, we might more correctly say, the Baptists were then called Anabaptists. So we find Mosheim, whose authority is great as a church historian, saying, "The true origin of that sect which acquired the name of Anabaptist, is hid in the remote depths of antiquity, and is consequently extremely difficult to be ascertained." So also Zwingli the Swiss reformer, and contemporary with Luther, says, "The institution of Anabaptism is no novelty, but for thirteen hundred years has caused great disturbance in the church." Those Christians then who in the time of the Reformation were called Anabaptists, had a history extending back to within two hundred years of Christ, at least according to the confession of Zwingli himself, a man who had very few kindly feelings toward the sect.

      Baptists were called Anabaptists by a historian in Kentucky as late as 1784. John Filson in his History of Kentucky (1784) says on page 301, "The Anabaptists were the first that promoted public worship in Kentucky." This shows that the people whom the historians called Anabaptists were the same people who called themselves Baptists.

      (a) Dutch Baptists. Not many years since Dr. Dermont, chaplain to the king of Holland, and Dr. Ypeij, theological professor at Groningen, received a royal commission to prepare a history of the Reformed Dutch Church. This history, though written in the interests of the State Church of Holland, contains the following generous and trustful statement concerning the Dutch Baptists: "We have now seen that the Baptists, who were formerly called Anabaptists and in later times, Mennonites, were the original Waldenses, and have long in the history of the church received the honor of that origin. On this account the Baptists may be considered the only Christian community which has stood since the apostles, and as a Christian society, which has preserved pure the doctrines of the gospel through all ages."

      Concerning the time when the Anabaptists of Holland and elsewhere assumed the name of Baptists, we cannot tell. It is probable that from the first they disowned the name of Anabaptists asserting that they did not re-baptize but simply baptised; for otherwise they would acknowledge infant baptism as scriptural baptism. It is probable that as enmity began to wear away, their own name Baptist was gradually accepted by other bodies of Christians. It was not until 1626, and after more than a century of persecution, that the Baptists of Holland received anything like freedom or toleration. In later years the government has sought to make amends by offering them special favors, but they steadfastly declined any alliance with the State, as their doctrine of separation of Church and State requires.

      (b) English Baptists. Early in the sixteenth century, Christians holding Baptist sentiments fled from the continent into England for refuge from their persecutors. Some say they were found there much earlier. We know that as early as 1550, Baptists, or Anabaptists, were burned in England, thus showing that they had existed previous to this early date long enough to have acquired considerable importance and to be feared and outlawed. During all the period of religious persecution in England, they were objects of special hatred, and suffered more perhaps than any other sect. But though outlawed and persecuted, they have always had a strong hold upon the religious thought of the nation, and represent today a long line of noble and illustrious names. There are Baptist churches still existing in England that claim to have a history, as distinct organizations, reaching back over a period of more than three hundred years.

      (c) Welsh Baptists. The Welsh Baptists have a peculiar history. They do not claim to have had any particular connection with the Anabaptists of Europe, but to have originated from the apostles direct. It is impossible in such a summary as this to set forth the reasons that are given to maintain this position; it must suffice to say, therefore, that the claim made by Welsh Baptists has never been successfully disproved. When Augustine or Austin, the Roman monk, visited Wales about the close of the sixth century, he found a community of more than two thousand Christians living quietly in the mountains, who rejected the authority of the Roman Church, and so far as can be discovered, held essentially the same doctrines the Baptists now hold. From that day to this, though often persecuted and compelled to hide in their mountain fastnesses, they have preserved an unbroken and well authenticated history.

      3. Baptists of America. There were Mennonites, or Holland Baptists, among the first settlers of New Amsterdam (New York) in 1626, but they had no influence so far as known. There were Baptists also among the first settlers of New England, though they were not permitted to form any churches of their own. The first Baptist church of America, it is believed, which succeeded and perpetuated itself was founded at Newport, in Rhode Island, in 1638.* It was formed under the leadership of Dr. John Clarke, a Baptist minister from London, England, who was driven out of the Massachusetts Colony with many other Baptists recently arrived from England. Other churches were speedily formed in Rhode Island, in various parts of New England, on Long Island, in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. From one cause and another, as the Baptist denomination increased, small bodies from time to time went off from it, viz., the "Seventh Day," "Six-Principle," "Free Will," "Anti-Mission Baptist," and others. Regular Baptists far outnumber all the others combined, and now extend over the whole of the United States; their growth and progress having been remarkable. In 1740 there were fewer than three thousand Baptists in the country. Fifty years from that time there were about sixty-five thousand. From this time on, religious liberty being accorded them, their progress was rapid and constantly accelerated. Recent statistics show that the number is about nine million. The past few years show an increase in membership of more than one hundred thousand per year.

      Cardinal Hosius (Catholic), president Council of Trent, says, "Were it not that the Baptists have been grievously tormented and cut off with the knife during the past twelve hundred years, they would swarm in greater numbers than all the Reformers."

      Sir Isaac Newton: "The Baptists are the only body of Christians which have not symbolized with the Church of Rome."

      [Johann] Mosheim (Lutheran): "Before the rise of Luther and Calvin, there lay secreted in almost all the countries of Europe persons who adhered tenaciously to the principles of the modern Dutch Baptists."

      Edinburgh Cyclopedia: "It must have already occurred to our readers that the Baptists are the same sect of Christians that were formerly described under the appellation of Anabaptists. Indeed, this seems to have been their leading principle from the time of Tertullian to the present time." Tertullian was born just fifty years after the death of John the Apostle.

      Prof. Wm. Cecil Duncan, professor of Latin and Greek, University of Louisiana: "Baptists do not, as do most Protestant denominations, date their origin from the Reformation of 1520. By means of that great religious movement, indeed they were brought forth from comparative obscurity, into prominent notice, and through it a new and powerful impulse was given to their principles and practices in all of those countries which had renounced allegiance to the Pope of Rome. They did not, however, originate with the Reformation, for long before Luther lived, nay, long before the Roman Catholic Church herself was known, Baptists and Baptist churches existed and flourished in Europe, in Asia, and in Africa."

      Do you think Christ has made good his promise that "the gates of Hades," or powers of darkness and death, "should not prevail" against his Church?


* See "First Baptist Church in America" - Graves & Adlam, page 13 ff.


[From Fundamentals of the Faith, published by SSB of SBC, 1922, pp. 246-254. The title was changed slightly. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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