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The Baptist Story

Nov. 24, 2008

By Doug Weaver


When John Smyth organized the first Baptist church in 1609, the underlying motive for leaving Puritan Separatism was the search for a pure church, a true church that embodied the New Testament blueprint. All so-called Christian churches were corrupted, Smyth believed, because they did not follow the model for a true church outlined in the New Testament. Smyth wanted to establish the New Testament church. Of course, scholars remind us that there was no single New Testament church, and that historical factors--including social, cultural, political and other influences--are involved in understanding the origins of any movement. Still, early Baptists were biblicists: they looked to the Bible, especially the New Testament, for answers about faith, even if it meant dissent from the religious and political community around them.

English Baptist Origins

The Christian journey of John Smyth reveals a restless quest. He was first an Anglican minister, then a Puritan within Anglicanism, hoping for reform in the Church of England and a "purification" from all traces of Roman Catholicism. When change came too slowly, Smyth and others "separated" from the church and became Separatist Puritans. While a Separatist, Smyth and his congregation (led by Thomas Helwys) left England for the more religiously tolerant Amsterdam. Around 1609, Smyth became convinced that baptism of believers--people old enough to profess their faith voluntarily--was the New Testament method of unifying and identifying a community of believers. He believed that for the church to be pure, its people must personally profess faith in Christ. According to Smyth, the unbiblical, historical practice of infant baptism must be rejected and infants must be excluded from church membership, because they were incapable of freely expressing faith and repentance, the conditions of obedience in God's spiritual covenant with the church. Having decided that no genuine New Testament church existed, Smyth disbanded his congregation of about 40 persons, baptized himself by pouring water over his head, and then baptized his fellow believers into a new church--which is acknowledged as the first Baptist church in history.

The young congregation continued to struggle as Smyth soon began to question the propriety of his "self-baptism." After becoming acquainted with the Mennonites, he concluded that they were in fact a true "believer's church" formed on the basis of believer's baptism. Smyth determined that if a genuine church existed then baptism should be received from it. Smyth and the majority of his congregation desired to affiliate with the Mennonites, but Helwys strongly opposed Smyth's view, insisting instead that the formation of a New Testament church was dependent only upon faithfulness to biblical instructions. Helwys and a group of about 10 followers split from Smyth to form a new church, and the Baptist story quickly shifts to Helwys.

The new congregation determined it was important to document their foundational beliefs and penned a statement of identity, Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam (1611). In it, Helwys and the congregation affirmed several principles which, for four centuries, have continued to characterize a Baptist identity:

  • church membership based on personal conversion and believer's baptism;
  • independence of each local church;
  • congregational church governance;
  • support for complete religious liberty; and
  • ministers (pastors, deacons) selected by the local congregation.

In 1612, the new congregation returned home and established the first Baptist church on English soil at Spitalsfield outside London. Returning to the oppressive environment of England, the early Baptists were forced to take up the cause for religious freedom with zeal. Helwys' The Mistery of Iniquity (1612) was the first treatise in England to call for complete religious liberty for all people. Helwys radically challenged the role of the state in the affairs of the church, declaring:

    For men's religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Jews, Turks or whatever, it pertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.

For Helwys and early Baptists, individual freedom of conscience was indispensable to a person's relationship to God. Individual believers had to have the right to choose their religious beliefs "seeing they only must stand before the judgment seat of God to answer for themselves."

Baptist Origins in North America

In colonial America, the search for a New Testament church began anew. Colonial Puritans attempted to create a meticulously detailed Bible-based society, a "Holy Commonwealth." In 1635, radical Separatist Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his dissent against the state-established religion and the religious conformity it demanded. He established the colony of Providence for "those distressed of conscience" and achieved recognition for founding Rhode Island on the principles of religious liberty for all and the separation of church and state. Through the ages of the church's history, Williams asserted, churches supported by the state had consistently spilled oceans of blood of dissenters whose nonconformity was based on conscience.

Likely influenced by the ideas of Smyth and Helwys, Roger Williams helped to establish the first Baptist church in America around 1639. He remained a Baptist only a few months--his desire for the pure church led him away from all institutional religion--but his emphasis on freedom became a legacy that other Baptists in America claimed.

In 1644, John Clarke founded America's second Baptist church in Newport, R.I. The Newport church adopted the baptismal mode of immersion, first documented in the English church in 1641. The church also followed congregational church governance and practiced an early form of "priesthood of the believers," in which laity could offer their own interpretations of the Scriptures during services. Clarke spent much of his time working for religious liberty and helped Rhode Island obtain its English charter. He helped procure for the colony a provision of complete religious liberty--its first legal sanction in America--and a democratic government. In an oft-repeated emphasis of colonial Baptists, Clarke argued for "freedom of the individual conscience," derived from the belief that each person, without the aid of others, will appear before the sovereign God at the Day of Judgment and "give account of himself."

Early Baptists in England and colonial America were diverse, reflecting the opportunities for freedom and dissent. Smyth and Helwys are identified with the "General Baptist" (Arminian) tradition, while other early English Baptists, also coming from Puritan Separatism in the late 1630s, were Calvinists. It was this later group, the Particular Baptists, who adopted believer's baptism by immersion (1641), which subsequently defined Baptist baptismal practice.

Other practices varied from church to church; some congregations believed strongly in the laying on of hands after baptism, while others emphasized the importance of footwashing. A branch known as the Seventh Day Baptists insisted biblical worship should be conducted on the Sabbath (Saturday) rather than on Sunday. Each of the differences stemmed from the inherently Baptist desire to re-create the New Testament church.

Institutional Growth

The Baptist struggle in the midst of suppressive state churches was rewarded as their stance on religious liberty and a fervent patriotism during the American Revolution began to break down barriers of acceptance in society. In the post-revolutionary era, the voluntary democratic-styled faith of the Baptists flourished in the young republic. The revivalism and westward expansion of the 19th century added new congregations and members to the Baptist fold. Amid a growing national identity, Baptists formed their first national body (1814), a society in support of foreign missions called the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination of the United States (later known as the Triennial Convention because it met every three years).

Soon thereafter, like other denominations, Baptists split over slavery, and in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed and developed a centralized "convention" model of support for foreign and domestic missions as well as education. Today Southern Baptists are recognized as the largest Protestant body in America with a reported membership around 16 million.

The first permanent national body of African-American Baptists, the National Baptist Convention, Inc., was formed 30 years after the conclusion of the Civil War. During the 20th century, the NBC focused on issues in African-American social and political life. In 1961, a new body formed, known as the Progressive National Baptist Convention. These "progressives" supported the civil rights methods of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while the NBC leadership advocated working through the legal system. King and many other African-American Baptists considered the Civil Rights Movement to be a spiritual movement of liberation and an embodiment of the "social gospel." During the Montgomery bus boycott (1955), members of King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church were assured that their dissent for freedom was a demonstration of New Testament faith. Besides King, many other African-American leaders involved in the Civil Rights Movement--men such as Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and Fred Shuttlesworth--were Baptist.

After the split with Southern Baptists in 1845, Baptists in the north continued support of several single-issue societies until the Northern Baptist Convention was organized in 1907. These American Baptists (named American Baptist Churches USA, 1972) consider themselves the most racially inclusive Protestant body in the United States. Other Baptists today reflect a larger trend in American religion by leading in the community church movement and preferring non-denominational labels; one prominent example is Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Cal., led by pastor Rick Warren.

In the 1900s, Baptists began to develop more diverse relationships. American Baptist Churches USA became involved in the "ecumenical movement," providing leadership in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. In 1905, Baptists worldwide formed the Baptist World Alliance. The BWA now counts 214 Baptist conventions and unions worldwide with 36 million members. The BWA's goals include caring for the needy, leading in world evangelism and defending human rights and religious freedom.

A Reason to Celebrate

Baptists always have been diverse, theologically, socially and politically. But within that diversity there remains a rich heritage and commitment to principles--particularly the focus on religious liberty for all, freedom for the individual under the Lordship of Christ, the commitment to community (believer's church), and love of the Bible--that Baptists everywhere can celebrate during this 400th anniversary of Baptist origins.

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