Some Important Thoughts About Being a Baptist

Why Be a Baptist?

You probably know of a church that “used to be a Baptist church” but now goes by another name.  Maybe the new name is “Community Fellowship” or “Abundant Life Church,” or something similar.  But the word “Baptist” is no longer in the name.  This is certainly a growing trend.

Some churches have dropped the Baptist name in recent years in order to appeal to a wider range of the general public.  As the world around us offers more and more leisure-time activities churches and pastors find themselves hard-pressed to bring people under their ministries.   The percentage of population that identifies with any church grows smaller with each passing year.

Of course, it is commendable to reach out to one’s community.  Needy souls are everywhere.  Churches need to put forth earnest efforts to reach people for the Lord.  No doubt a part of the motivation of those who drop “Baptist” from their church name is to obey the Lord’s command to evangelize.   Having a denominational name seems, to some at least, counterproductive to their basic purpose.

So, why then does a church like Evangel Baptist [in Taylor, Michigan, where my son of the same name is pastor] continue to use the word “Baptist” in its name and to otherwise clearly identify itself as “Baptist?” Evangel Baptist Church is well known as a place that is concerned for people.  Why does it continue as “Baptist?” Wouldn’t it be better to follow the trend to forget about  some denominational name from  the past and  concentrate on the present?  These are good questions and, to be sure, they are important ones. For proper  answers we need to turn back some pages in history.

Baptist Beginnings

There is a bit of a mystery surrounding the subject of when Baptist churches first appeared in history.  Without being too technical, we can safely divide the opinions of historians three ways.  Let me name them for you.

The first theory of the origin of Baptists has been referred to as the Jerusalem, Jordan, John theory.  I have personally had folk playfully say to me, “I suppose you Baptists go back to John the Baptist.”  Well, now that you mention it, that is precisely what some Baptists believe.  We’ll come back to this, but let me mention the other two principal views of the origin of the Baptists.

A second view is usually called the Anabaptist Spiritual Kinship theory or simply The Spiritual Kinship theory.  Through the earliest centuries of the Christian church’s existence many groups of believers existed that more or less represented the views Baptists hold on major Bible doctrines.  Not Baptist in name but Baptist in sympathy or kinship, is the linkage with the past.

The third view of the origin of Baptists traces their beginning to the early English separatists of the seventeenth century.  Because this is of the relatively recent past, it is much easier to establish an unbroken relationship with these believers to modern Baptists.   This is by far the simplest view but it has its share of objectors.  It is usually referred to as the English Separatist descent theory.

Now let’s take more of an in- depth look at each of the ideas about Baptist beginnings.  After all, what we believe is important.  It is important from the standpoint of how we square with the teachings of Scripture and how we line up with history.

The Jerusalem, Jordan, John Theory

Here is a brief quotation from an American writer as a typical defense of this view:

“THERE is nothing new in this book. Every truth contained therein can be found in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus was very fond of the Baptists. His forerunner was called by His Father “The Baptist.” He himself walked 60 miles to  get Baptist baptism. The only time that the three persons of the Godhead ever manifested their presence on earth at the same time was at a Baptist baptism, when the Son of God was baptized. The most intimate associates of God’s well-beloved Son were all Baptists. In selecting His companions, He chose Baptists to be with Him. The first 12 missionaries sent out by the Son of God were all Baptist preachers. He was not ashamed to call them Brethren. He organized His church out of Baptists. He had these Baptist preachers do all His baptizing. There wasn’t anybody present when He instituted His supper, except these same Baptist preachers.” [Why Be a Baptist by H. Boyce  Taylor Sr. (Second Edition, 1928, p. 7]

To be fair to the vast majority of those who claim to be Christians, to those who truly love Christ who are not of the Baptist persuasion, the contention of Mr. Taylor, quoted above, is quite a stretch.

The wording of Mark 1:4 is the basis for referring to the forerunner of Christ as “John the Baptist.”   It is clear that the argument presented by Taylor hinges upon this title.  However, the Greek text at this point ought more precisely to be rendered “John, the one baptizing.”  The construction is a participle, not a noun.  With this understanding, the thrust of  Mr. Taylor’s paragraph above falls apart.
The connection with Jerusalem refers to the notion that the believers in Jerusalem, prior to Pentecost, were already a church. But there is a problem here. The principal historical view is that the Church did not come into being until the day of Pentecost.   When Christ stated that, upon Peter’s great confession of Him as the Christ of God, “I will build my church…”(Matthew 16:18) He was clearly speaking of a future church.  Most Bible students see the establishment of the Church as happening on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter two, not earlier so as to connect John and Christ’s earlier ministry in and around Jerusalem to an already existing Church.

Our purpose, at this point, is not a refutation of any of the theories of Baptist origin, but it is fair to say that the view that takes Baptists back to John and the River Jordan is definitely a minority view in our day.

The Anabaptist Spiritual Kinship Theory

His tormenters dragged him from a German prison cell near Vienna.  His appeals to the Emperor for clemency and reason had gone unheeded.  His wife, along with this Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier, were facing death for the “crime” of denying infant baptism, among other differences with the Roman Catholic Church.   These “Anabaptists,” so named for their practice of rebaptizing persons who came to faith as a result of hearing the gospel as adults, were rugged separatists* who opposed the Pope and the established Church and its control over the lives of the common people.

*We should probably stop here and define “separatist or Separatist”, as the term is used by historians. By Separatist, at this point, (and the term has been applied in several ways throughout church history), we mean freedom from government interference in matters of conscience and from the Roman Catholic Church and its many practices and dogmas not supported by Scripture. After the establishment of the Church of England at the time of the Reformation, the term is often used in reference to that body that demanded conformity and branded the Separatists as “heretics” as did the Church of Rome.   At times, even the principal Protestant Reformers held these “Separatists” in disdain as “heretics” and persecuted them, often without mercy.

Virtually everyone in much of Europe and England was “baptized” as a baby in the established Church.  This was a matter of public record.    Up to even our own day, problems of a date of birth have been settled by giving reference to baptismal records from a given church.  It is difficult for we moderns to appreciate the weight this matter carried in church history.

In April, 1525, the well-educated scholar and preacher, Hubmaier, had himself accepted rebaptism.   At the front of his church, on Easter Sunday, he used a milk pail to baptize by affusion (pouring) over three hundred men in his parish.  The homely pail, perched on the baptismal font at the front of his church, represented a strong protest to the practice  of infant baptism that had invaded the Christian church in its earliest centuries.

From that time on, he was recognized as an Anabaptist leader.  He debated the Swiss reformer, Zwingli, in a dispute over infant baptism.  Unfortunately he incurred Zwingli’s wrath by exposing his inconsistencies.  Imprisoned by the reformer and threatened with torture and having fallen ill, Hubmaier recanted.  A public ceremony was called for at which Hubmaier was expected to recant his Anabaptist teachings.  When Hubmaier stood to speak, however, he retracted his recantation and, as historian Robert Torbet states, he “thereby incurr[ed] further imprisonment and worse treatment.”

Assuming the role of leader and reformer Hubmaier saw the conversion of six thousand in a single year.  He published numerous  pamphlets and treatises.  These led ultimately to his arrest and  imprisonment. Now, on March 10, 1528, he was to be executed.

Led  from his prison cell, Hubmaier faced death “with serene courage and pious resignation,” says venerable historian Philip Schaff.  Baptist historian, Torbet, puts it this way:

“As the wood was kindled and he saw the fire, he cried out, ‘O my Heavenly Father, O my gracious God!’  Even while his hair and beard burned, he prayed: ‘O Jesus, Jesus!’  Then overwhelmed with smoke, he died a true martyr.”  His wife was condemned as well and three days later was thrown, bound into the Danube River.

It should be noted that Hubmaier was a quietist, far from the radical Anabaptists better known to history.  Hubmaier’s contributions  to the history of true Separatist believers are nicely summed up by Torbet this way:

“For at least three great principles he should be remembered: (1) the supremacy of the Scriptures, (2) religious liberty, (3) believers’ baptism.  For these he gave his live.”

Many thousands of Separatist Christians who stood against the prevailing teachings of the medieval Church of Rome were put to death as Anabaptist teachings spread.  Protestant leaders like Zwingli and Luther persecuted them as well.  Even the renowned Calvin heartlessly  rejected the digressions of “individual belief” which was the core  of the Separatist movement of Hubmaier and the Anabaptists.

These rejections from the Protestant Reformers form part of the basis of denial by some Baptists that they be regarded as “Protestants.” The vast majority of historians, though, list Baptists with Protestants.  Those holding the third view of Baptist origins would probably agree.

English Separatist Descent Theory

E. T. Hiscox, in my well-worn copy of his New Directory for Baptist Churches, says: “At what time the Baptists appeared in England in definite denominational form, it is impossible to say.”

Respected historian Lars P. Qualben (pronounced: gual-BANE), a Lutheran scholar, dismisses the subject with a single sentence: “The Baptist church originated in England near the beginning of the seventeenth century.”

More specifically, on the other hand, Henry C. Vedder, church historian of Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania through the first quarter of the twentieth century, says: “… after 1610 we have an unbroken succession of Baptist churches, established by indubitable documentary evidence” and “from about 1641… Baptist doctrine and practice have been the same in all essential features that they are today.”   Torbet, supports this view.

Hostility to Separatist views of denial of infant baptism and espousal of freedom of worship, among other differences, drove some of these early Baptists from England to Holland.  Persecution in England of early Baptists is a sad fact of history.   The extent of this persecution with death at the stake, drownings and merciless whippings, often to those whose only crime was a burning desire to worship Christ freely, makes for most unpleasant reading.

It is probable that the first Baptist church in England was established in 1610 or 1611 under a former Congregational leader named John Smyth.  He was influenced by the Mennonites who, in turn, can be traced back to the earlier Anabaptists.

Smyth was originally a clergyman in the Church of England.  He adopted Separatist Congregational principles and began to gather together first one and later a second congregation in England.  When persecution broke out against dissenters in England he and his congregation sought refuge in Amsterdam, Holland.  It was a portion of his church that  returned to London where they established a Baptist church.  Under this view, Baptists trace their beginnings to this particular point.

While by no means universal, this third view, tracing Baptist beginnings to seventeenth century England, is the most generally held today.

Baptist Expansion and Development

The Anabaptist tradition turns, at this point, to Menno Simons whom the Mennonites see as their founder.  Non-involvement with government, refusal to bear arms and strong Arminian views drew a major distinction that most Baptists did not share though some held general Arminian views.

B. K. Kuiper comments that in the Netherlands the Baptists “had been influenced by Arminianism which rejected the doctrine of election.”  These received the name “General Baptists.”  In both Holland and England these Baptists sought to maintain some meaningful relationship with the Mennonites but it seems this ended about 1626 over the issues of “administration of the sacraments, oath-taking and the holding of government positions.” (Torbet)

A Separatist or independent congregation was organized by Henry Jacob, a Congregational pastor and leader in London who had emerged from Puritanism about 1616.  This movement has a very involved history.  Some of its leaders were persecuted and imprisoned.  Jacob moved to New England, dying in 1624.  But in 1638 of a Baptist church was organized that was sympathetic with the Calvinists.  At this point we are referring to predestination and limited atonement.   This church espoused believers’ baptism and advocated religious liberty.  These believers came to be known as “Particular Baptists,” or later as “Regular Baptists.”  Gradually baptism by immersion was taken up that had been discontinued by the Church of England

Baptists have traditionally rejected creeds and any binding authority they imply though they have adopted “articles of faith.”  In London in 1644 seven Particular Baptist churches adopted a “London Confession” which included a definition of baptism by immersion among its fifty articles.  An expression of Calvinistic theology and advocacy of religious liberty “took Baptists another step away from their Anabaptist forebears” (Torbet).

As late as 1612 the Church of England condemned a Baptist to death for non-conformity.  Persecution of dissenters, you will remember, was a primary motivator for the establishment of the American colonies by those fleeing.   Even here, only Rhode Island, under Baptist clergyman, Roger Williams, was free from religious persecution.  In other parts of New England Baptists were banished, fined and imprisoned.

The uniqueness of the founding of Rhode Island under Roger Williams, great Separatist leader banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, has been pretty well lost upon freedom-loving people today. To miss this is to misunderstand Baptist history.

The prince of Baptist historians, Thomas Armitage in his monumental work History of the Baptists, credits Roger Williams and the colony of Rhode Island with a charter fully implementing religious freedom.  Note this provision cited by Armitage:

“No person within said colony at any time hereafter shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion…” that they may “freely and fully have and enjoy their own judgements and consciences in matters of religious concernments.”

Other than Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, all the colonies persecuted non-conformists such as Baptists.  Each colony  (state) had a state church.  The people were taxed for its upkeep.  Baptists led the way in seeking religious freedom for America.  Civil and religious liberty has been a fundamental principle among Baptists from earliest times.  Today we would call it our “five-star conviction!”

Upon entering Congress, James Madison, who was called “friend of the Baptists, offered and secured the adoption…” (P.E. Burroughs) of the First Amendment to the Constitution which, as we know, prohibits Congress from establishing any religion or prohibiting the free exercise of such.  Free exercise of one’s faith, a tiny light nearly extinguished from the world through ages of time,  was thus vindicated as the heart of biblical and Baptist faith.  Baptists understood this from earliest times and paid a dear price for daring to exercise it.

Baptists organized a “Triennial Convention in 1814.  Almost immediately those known as “Primitive Baptists” objected to missionary efforts, educational ministries or forms of benevolence.  They held a position opposite to that of missionary Baptists.  By 1840 a complete separation of these groups was finalized.  By 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention formed as a result of differences over the slavery issue.  In 1907 the Northern Baptist Convention was formed in the North which continues today as “American Baptists.”

The first Sunday Schools can be traced to the year 1791 and thereafter Baptists were active in establishing them in both North and South as important Bible-teaching tools.    Various boards were organized to provide for literature for the schools and numerous agencies sprang up which carried out Sunday School work in publications and expansion in the various states, North and South working independently.

In both England and America Baptists were involved very early in answering the challenge of world missions.   William Carey, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice were three early missionaries who adopted Baptist views and furnished proof of the need for boards of missions to work in foreign lands.  The burden  missions, organized around scriptural principles, was the very thing that  led to the establishment of independent Baptist groups like the General Association of Regular Baptists in the first third of the twentieth century.  It was the issue of theological modernism that finally forced the establishment of this group independent of the Northern Baptist Convention.

Conclusion

So, why be a Baptist?  We have tried to show, and I hope fairly, something of Baptist beginnings.  As one studying this brief sketch of who they are and where they came from, I hope you will continue to inquire of them in areas of your own concern.  You can answer the question yourself.

Then, the question: “Does it really matter that we identify with Baptists of the past?” I believe it does, especially if they were right on their teachings of Scripture.  Baptists of the past have paid with their lives to confess a faith in Christ free from government interference, papal dictation and departure from Scripture.   Whether we can trace our heritage in an unbroken succession back to the time of Christ is debatable.  Whether we hold the faith of Christ is essential.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of God’s children who identify themselves as conservative, God-fearing, Christ- loving, Bible-believing people who are not ashamed to be called Baptist.  Down through the centuries they have stood without apology for individual faith and the freedom to worship  a mighty Christ. They have loved and learned their Bibles.  Without apology they  have risked  their lives and fortunes to spread a message of freedom in Christ to all the world.  Probably many, by their name, will still be alive to greet Him when He comes.  Maybe you will be one of them.

Our Savior said: “… when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)   He meant that body of truth that when faithfully lived and preached brings men to His salvation. Our Baptist forefathers understood this. What a privilege it is to stand shoulder to shoulder with humble, gentle God-fearing men and women of the past.  They were often misunderstood and reviled, yet they pressed on in Christ.  We are inviting you to become one of them.  But, remember, freedom of faith is our hallmark, so we say, “You will have to decide that for yourself.”

End Note

Without doubt, Thomas Armitage has written the preeminent work on Baptist history ever (The History of the Bapists, James and Klock Christian Publishing Co., 2527 Girard Ave. North, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55411).  If you are particularly interested in the early history and establishment of Baptists, I highly recommend this excellent two-volume work.  I conclude with this pregnant citation regarding supposed apostolic succession of Baptist churches:

Is an unbroken, visible, and historical succession of independent Gospel Churches down from the apostles, essential to the valid existence of Baptist Churches today, as apostolic in every sense of the word?  This question suggests another, namely, Of what value could any lineal succession be, as compared with present adherence to apostolic truth… the New Testament alone?”  (p. 1, Vol. 1).

Rev. Kenneth F. Pierpont, M.Div., M.Ed, D.Min.

Any or all portions of this paper may be reproduced for study or distribution provided acknowledgment of authorship is clearly given.  All other rights are reserved.  Kenneth F. Pierpont, 2009

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