The Baptist Church: Its Origin
J.F. Dancer, Jr.
The issue of Guardian of Truth is devoted to a study of the Baptist Church. It is the aim of this article to see when this church came into existence. This is to be done by a study of history. Inspired history (the New Testament) does not mention such a church by name, so we will have to inspect "uninspired" history. In doing this, I am aware that there may be other uninspired histories that will present different dates and views. However, the ones to which I will refer are standard reference books recognized by most religious authorities.
In years past, some folks affirmed that a church was begun by John the Baptist during his personal ministry. However, we find that most have given up that idea. The New Testament does speak of a church but not until after John died. Frank S. Mead said, "It is often heard among them (Baptists, jfd) that they have no founder but Christ and that Baptists have been preaching and practicing from the days of John the Baptist. That is true in a limited sense; there were certainly men and women holding what have come to be considered distinctly Baptist principles all across the years. But as a church, or as organized churches, they began in Holland and England."(1) Most people recognize that "The day of Pentecost is the birthday of the Christian Church. Before they had been individual followers of Jesus; now they became his mystical body, animated by his spirit."(2) Further, "The almost universal opinion among theologians and exegetes is this: that Pentecost marks the founding of the Christian Church as an institution."(3) And yet another reference book says, "When we turn to Acts, the situation changes. The saving work has been fulfilled, and the New Testament form of the church can thus have its birthday at Pentecost. The term is now used regularly to describe local groups of believers."(4)
From these quotations from standard reference books we can see that most scholars agree that the church in the New Testament began with the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. In this instance, the uninspired writers agree with the inspired ones. After John was beheaded (Matt. 14:1-12) Jesus promised to build His church (Matt. 16:13-19). Before Pentecost inspired writers speak of the church as yet to come. After Pentecost they speak of it as being a reality. Historically, there was no church begun during the days of John the Baptist. His work was to introduce the Christ. And although Pentecost marks the "birthday" of a church, we cannot refer to it as the Baptist Church since neither inspired nor uninspired writers use that designation to describe it. Let us pass through history until we find a church called by the name "Baptist Church."
A.H. Newman was selected as the most outstanding Baptist Church historian of his time. He wrote a history of the Baptist Churches which is one of the highest individual Baptist authorities in the world. He said, "Not until we reach the twelfth century do we encounter types of Christian life that we can with any confidence recognize as Baptist."(5) He further said, "The use of the term `Baptist' as a denominational designation is of comparative recent origin, first appearing about the year 1644."(6) In the Religious Encyclopedia edited by Philip Schaff (1891) we read the following: "The Baptist appeared first in Switzerland, about AD 1523, where they were persecuted by Zwingli and the Romanists."(7) These dates differ somewhat but search as I did, I was unable to find any recognized history that gave an earlier date for the appearance of any religious group designated as "Baptists."
The World Book Encyclopedia, in an article on "Baptists" written by Willis H. Porter (Associate General Secretary to the American Baptist Convention at the time) reports, "Baptists believe that since the time of Christ there have been Christians who upheld many of the principles that Baptists stand for today. They believe that Baptist ideas appeared during the Middle Ages in men like Peter of Bruys, who objected to infant baptism, and Arnold of Brescia, who championed spiritual liberty. People who taught that religion should be voluntary and that baptism should be limited to believers appeared in large numbers in the early 1500's in Germany and Switzerland. They were called Anabaptists (rebaptizers) because they rebaptized believers who had been baptized in infancy. They were persecuted and many fled to the Low Countries and later to England. John Smith (or Smyth), an English Separatist preacher, founded a Baptist Church in Amsterdam in 1609. Many consider him the founder of the Baptist Church in modern times. Other churches were established in London beginning in 1611. In 1641 some Baptists became convinced that immersion was the form of baptism used by the Apostles. Soon all Baptists adopted it."(8)
This is substantiated in the works of William H. Whitsitt. Whitsrtt was another great Baptist historian and, at the time he wrote, he was president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. First in an article in Johnson's Universal Cyclopedia in 1893 and later in a book entitled A Question In Baptist History, he presented the view that "Roger Williams was probably baptized by sprinkling rather than by immersion and that immersion of believers among English Baptists was `invented' by Edward Barber in 1641."(9) This caused a great stir among Baptists but they did not successfully refute his statement.
Another Baptist historian, Henry C. Vedder, states: "The history of Baptist churches cannot be carried, by the scientific method, farther back than the year 1611, when the first Anabaptist church consisting wholly of Englishmen was founded in Amsterdam by John Smyth, the Se-Baptist."(10) He further said "A history of Baptist churches going farther back than the early years of the seventeenth century would, therefore, in the present state of knowledge, be in the highest degree unscientific. The very attempt to write such a history now would be a confession of crass ignorance, either of the facts as known, or of the methods of historical research and the principles of historical criticism, or of both."(11) On the use of the name Baptist, Mr. Vedder says, "The word Baptists, as the descriptive name of a body of Christians, was first used in English literature, so far as is known in the year 1644. The name was not chosen by themselves, but was applied to them by their opponents."(12) Now note this carefully, "For the fact that the name Baptist comes into use at the time and in this way, but one satisfactory explanation has been proposed: it was at this time that English churches first held, practiced, and avowed those principles ever since associated with that name. There had been no such churches before, and hence there was no need of the name."(13)
David Benedict, in his History of the Baptists wrote, "The first regularly organized Baptist church of which we possess any account, is dated from 1607, and was formed in London by a Mr. Smyth, who had been a clergyman in the church of England."(14) In the English Baptist Reformation by George A. Lofton we read: "John Smyth founded a church upon the Baptist model, believers baptism and a regenerate church membership; and, organically speaking, this was the `beginning' of the present denomination of Baptists, though begun with an unscriptural form of baptism. The principle, however, was right and the form was corrected in 1640-41."(15)
There you have it. From the pen of some historians of the Baptist Church. Before the seventeenth century there was no such church! Efforts to prove otherwise cannot be successful from either the scientific or historical viewpoint. Even though dates by historians differ slightly we can see they agree that the Baptist Church did not begin with the work of John the Baptist. It did not begin with the personal ministry of Jesus. And even though a church was started on Pentecost (after Jesus went back to heaven) it was not the Baptist Church. The Baptist Church came upon the scene of history sometime in the early 1600s.
1. Frank S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations In The United States, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tenn., 1965, p. 33.
2. F.N. Peloubet, Peloubet's Bible Dictionary, John C. Winston Company, Philadelphia, Pa., 1947, p. 119.
3. Henry C. Dosker, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1976, Vol. IV, p. 2318.
4. G.W. Bromiley, Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1963, p. 170.
5. Quoted by A.B. Barret, The Shattered Chain, Henderson, Tenn., 1942-43, p. 39.
6. A.H. Newman, New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1977 reprint, Vol. I, p. 456.
7. H. Osgood, A Religious Encyclopedia, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, N.Y., 1891, Vol. I, p. 211.
8. Willis H. Porter, World Book Encyclopedia, Field Enterprises, Chicago, Ill., 1968, Vol. 2, p. 72.
9. William A. Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Broadman Press, Nashville, Tenn., 1959, p. 155.
10. Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, p. 4, quoted by Alan E. Highers in Spiritual Sword, Memphis, Tenn., 1980, Vol. 11, No. 2, p. 9.
11. Ibid., p. 5.
12. Ibid., Introduction, p. iii.
14. David Benedick, History of the Baptists, p. 304. Quoted by Eugene Britnell in Searching the Scriptures, Brooks, Ky. 1981, Vol. XXII, No. 7, p. 456.
15. George A. Lofton, English Baptist Reformation, p. 254. Quoted by Eugene Britnell, Ibid.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 4, pp. 97, 117