Sunday, March 14, 2010

Those Baptists

John Smyth
Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

The Lutherans have Luther. The Presbyterians have Calvin. The Methodists have Wesley. So where did Baptists come from? There are several ideas, some better than others. Successionists believe Baptists can be traced back to Jesus, the Apostles, and John the Baptist in apostolic succession. Some believe that there has always been a remnant of true believers from the early church on, and they were Baptists.

Baptists, rather, are like a river with many tributaries. They arose in the fluid environment of the Reformation. In Zurich, Switzerland, Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) was affected by the Swiss Reformation. He was a real Bible teacher and believed Scripture was the source of all understanding. He preached against things that the Bible did not have in it like the monastic life, prayers to saints, purgatory, mandatory tithes, fasting during Lent, marriage of priests, memorial view of Supper. The town council tried to poison him. The Bishop of Constance and the Pope tried to buy him off with a cardinal or archbishop seat or money. Zwingli stood his ground, and war broke out, and some Catholics ran him through with a sword on the battlefield. But not before he had discipled some young radicals with whom he later broke his relationship over infant baptism. They were called Anabaptists.


The Swiss Brethren said they were the only true church. At a prayer meeting at the home of Felix Manz, George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him in January in Switzerland by pouring water over his head. Grebel baptized the whole group, and Anabaptists came into being. The term Anabaptist was a derogatory term meaning (baptized again). The Anabaptists would say, “no, we are just baptizing you correctly this time.” They believed that their mentor, Zwingli was not going far enough. He held on to infant baptism and tried to work too much with the state. Zwingli hated them and actually drowned his disciple Felix Manz. The Bible should decide everything, and it should be done now. There is no time to wait, they said. Jesus may return soon. These men went throughout Europe preaching, baptizing believers, being imprisoned, and dying. Many of these men died by age thirty.

Unfortunately, many could not tell the difference between the Anabaptists and the Radicals who left the teaching of Scripture and fell into errors involving the end times and the Holy Spirit, so they were lumped together with the Radicals and persecuted. Menno Simons (1496-1561) (Mennonites) eventually became the chief proponent of the Anabaptist tradition. By February of 1527, the Anabaptists had drawn up a statement of faith called the Schleitheim Confession.

Schleitheim Confession (1527)

  1. Believers Baptism on profession of faith.
  2. Regenerate Church Membership: rejected infant baptism.
  3. Lord’s Supper for baptized believers only in obedience to Christ.
  4. Freedom of conscience: no one can coerce another’s belief.
  5. Excommunication:  a Matthew 18 approach to church discipline. They would ban members from communion for sinful lifestyles. This group under horrible persecution was concerned with kicking folks out! They were concerned with the health of the church and a regenerate church membership.
  6. Intentional evangelism: If people must be believers, then someone must tell the message (Romans 10:14-15). This had a strong effect in the first Baptists, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.
  7. Pastors were to be literate, copy Scripture, have the ability to teach, warn, and punish church members. They could be supported financially if necessary.
  8. Separation of Church and State: Government’s purpose was only to punish evil and protect good.
  9. Oaths:  No oath can ever be taken by a believer. Say yes or no and mean it. That is sufficient.
  10. No Christians in government: No church member should ever serve in government office of any kind. Be ye separate. Because they were by definition lawbreakers they would not put themselves in a compromising position.
  11. Pacifism: Separation from the world, including papists (Catholics) and neo-papists (magisterial reformers). Turn the other cheek.

The first Baptists: John Smyth and Thomas Helwys

John Smyth is a Baptist tap root, but he was only a Baptist for 2-3 months. He grew up in poverty in England as an Anglican, went to Cambridge University in England on a need-based scholarship, earned a master’s degree (1593) in theology and was ordained an Anglican priest (1594), later Preacher for Life to the Corporation of the City of Lincoln. He lost his nice job three months later for preaching too radically, criticizing church-state union and Anglican ritual. Smyth soon became a Separatist from the Church of England and in the Mystery of Iniquity called the Anglican Church the Anti-Christ.

In 1608, John Smyth led a group of English Separatists to relocate safety in Amsterdam, Netherlands, to join the Ancient Church under the leadership of Francis Johnson, his former tutor at Cambridge. Holland was awash at that time in the great theological debates of the ideas of Jacobus Arminius. He died there in 1609, and in 1619 the Synod of Dordt established the five points of Calvinism.  Once they arrived, Smyth refused to join Johnson’s church. 

Johnson’s church used hymnals. Smyth said they should be singing out of the Bible. Johnson believed in preaching and ruling elders. Smyth only believed in one kind of elder. Smyth thought only church members should give in the offering. Johnson said money is money.
Smyth’s congregation that he had talked into coming to Holland was confused. They accused Smyth of being inconsistent and too changeable. He had been an Anglican, then a Puritan, then a Separatist, and now he will not join his own tutor. But Smyth said he must be true to his convictions, and while he had been changeable, he insisted he always changed for the better. 

Smyth then went to talk to the Mennonites. Being Anabaptist, the Mennonites taught adult baptism and believed in guarding the church’s purity. The Mennonites refused to baptize him because they feared his trouble-making reputation and loud mouth. After his encounter with them, John Smyth decided to adhere to believer’s baptism, and he decided to baptize himself to restart the apostolic succession from Christ and the Apostles. His congregation said he had gone too far, but they accepted Smyth’s conviction that he did it as an act of obedience to the Word. Most of his congregation stayed with him, but about thirty joined the Mennonites. Another 25-30 of Smyth’s congregation decided join the congregation of English Puritan Separatists led by William Brewster, William Bradford, and John Robinson. In 1620, they would sail to America to establish Plimouth Plantation.

John Smyth’s congregation was down to ten people. One of them named Thomas Helwys, who disagreed with Smyth, decided to lead what was left of the group back to England. Thomas Helwys was orthodox in his beliefs, but Smyth had begun to deny the doctrine of original sin. Smyth had accepted the Anabaptist doctrine that Christians should not hold public office, and Smyth had begun to believe that justification was partly the work of Jesus and partly the Holy Spirit. Smyth was confusing justification and sanctification. Helwys rightly believed Jesus was totally responsible for a believer’s righteousness. Have you noticed that no one has mentioned anything about immersion as the proper method of baptism?

Thomas Helwys in 1610/1611 took the little Baptist congregation back to England and settled them at Spittalfields. They came to be called General Baptists. This congregation believed in
  • Baptism only on profession of faith. Mode of baptism was by pouring water.
  • General atonement – that Christ died for all (as opposed to Calvinists: limited atonement)
  • Categorical predestination – you are either redeemed or you are not because you are predestined that way.
  • Falling from grace – no eternal security
  • Two officers: Pastor-teachers and deacons
  • Strong autonomy of the local church
Thomas Helwys in 1612 wrote A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. In it, he demands freedom of conscience and attacks the divine right of kings, declaring that no one should interfere with what individuals choose to believe. It was the first book in the English language to contend for full religious liberty for all people. The British government arrested him, and he died in prison in 1616. The General Baptists would come to be known as Free-Will Baptists, and Paul Palmer would establish their first church in America in 1727 in Chowan County, North Carolina, called Meherrin Baptist Church, the second oldest Baptist congregation in North Carolina.