THE EARLY DAYS
WITH the first decade of the seventeenth century we reach solid ground in Baptist history. Before that we must proceed by conjecture from one isolated fact to another, and many of our conclusions are open to doubt; but after i6to we have an unbroken succession of Baptist churches, established by indubitable documentary evidence. The most that we can say of the various Anabaptist groups of the Continent, is that on the whole certain of them seem to have held those views of Scripture teaching that are fundamental in the Baptist faith of to-day. But from about the year 1641, at latest, Baptist doctrine and practice have been the same in all essential features that they are to-day. Subsequent changes have not affected the substance of faith or the chief matters of practice in the denomination as a whole.
The history of English Baptists does not begin on English soil, but in Holland. The leader in the new movement was the Rev. John Smyth. Much obscurity hangs over his early life, and he has by many writers been identified with several other men, bearing a name then as now very common. He was a pupil and friend at Cambridge University of Francis Johnson, later one of the Separatist leaders. As Johnson did not matriculate until 1579, it follows that this cannot have been the John Smyth who matriculated as sizar in 1571. John Smyth took his Master’s degree in 1593, whence we may conclude that he was born not later than 1570, and possibly several years earlier. He is said to have been ordained by Bishop Wickham, of Lincoln, but he was never, as has been frequently stated, vicar of Gainsborough, as the records of that parish show. He was, however, appointed lecturer or preacher in the city of Lincoln, September 27, 1600; and though deposed as “a facetious man” by vote of the Corporation, October 13, 1602, appears to have held the office until 1605.
He tells us himself that he passed through nine months of doubt and study before deciding to leave the Church of England, but by x606 he had reached a decision and joined himself to a company of Separatists in Gainsborough, of whom he became the recognized “teacher”—for they disliked “ ministers “ and all similar terms. Thomas Helwys and John Mutton were the leading members of this group. A few miles distant, in the manor of Scrooby, there was another group of Separatists, in close fellowship with the Gainsborough group. Prominent among the Scrooby group were William Bradford, William Brewster, and John Robinson, the last being the “teacher.” Scattered throughout the surrounding region were a score or more of adherents, who were rapidly increasing in numbers.
This was the time when James I. was vigorously making good his threat regarding sectaries in England: “I will make them conform, or I will harry them out of the land.” Persecution became so violent that these Separatists despaired of maintaining themselves in England, and Thomas Helwys, whose wife had been imprisoned for her schism, induced the Gainsborough group to emigrate to Holland. They established themselves at Amsterdam, where they became the second English church, and their teacher supported himself by practising medicine.
The first English church was composed of Separatists, mostly from London, who had come to Amsterdam at various times from 1593 onward, and had as their pastor Francis Johnson, who had been a tutor of Smyth at Cambridge. Not long after the Gainsborough exodus, the church of Scrooby fled to Holland, going first to Amsterdam and thence to Leyden. Their pastor was John Robinson. It was this congregation, with certain additions, that afterward became the Pilgrims of the Mayflower.
Our concern is, however, with the second church at Amsterdam. Pastor Smvth here became acquainted possibly for the first time, with the theology of Arminius, and here, it is also reasonable to suppose, he learned the Mennonite theory of the nature of the church. If he had had doubts before concerning infant baptism they were now conflrmed into conviction that it is not warranted by the Scriptures, and that a scriptural church should consist of the regenerate only, who have been baptized on a personal confession of faith. He gave utterance to these views in a tract called “The Character of the Beast”(1609). Before this (1608) differences had arisen over a question of comparatively slight importance between the two English churches, and the result had been an interruption of their communion. Now a still more important step was taken: Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and thirty-six others formed the first church composed of Englishmen that is known to have stood for the baptism of believers only.
Smyth is generally called the “Se-Baptist” which means that he baptized himself. There can be no doubt that such was the case, since an acknowledgment of the fact still exists in his own handwriting. In this respect he resembled Roger Williams. He held that the real apostolic succession is a succession not of outward ordinances and visible organizations, but of true faith and practice. He therefore believed that the ancient, true apostolic succession had been lost, and that the only way to recover it was to begin a church anew on the apostolic model. Accordingly, having first baptized himself, he baptized Helwys and the rest, and so constituted the church. They soon after issued a Confession of Faith, in its theology, but distinct in its claims that a church composed only of baptized believers, and that only such should “taste of the Lord’s Supper.”
It is also certain that the, baptism of Smyth and his followers was an affusion, for in a few months he became dissatisfied with what he had done, confessed that his Anabaptism was an error, and applied with some others for admission into a Mennonite church. A committee of Mennonite ministers was appointed to examine into the doctrine and practice of the applicants, and in their report they said: “We . . . also inquired for the foundation and form1 of their baptism, and we have not found that there was any difference at all, neither in the one nor the other thing.” Several Confessions—at least four in all—were issued by Smyth and this church, in which baptism is defined as “the external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and being made alive,” as washing with water,” as “to be ministered only upon penitent and faithful persons,” and the like; but nothing is said in any of them of immersion as the form of baptism.
Smyth died in 1612, but before that the church he had been instrumental in founding, now reduced to some ten members, had disappeared from Holland. Persecution seems to have been less severe in England, and Thomas Helwys, John Murton, and others returned to London, probably some time in 1611, and founded the first Anabaptist church composed of Englishmen known to have existed on English soil. This church was ultra Arminian in theology, and churches of this type came later to be called General Baptists, because they held to a general atonement for all men, while orthodox Calvinists then then held to a "particular" atonement, for the elect only, By the year 1626 there were five such churches in England, though all were small, and in the aggregate contained about one hundred and fifty members. In 1644 they had increased to forty-seven churches, according to their opponents; possibly there were more. Once they had a fair opportunity to preach New Testament truth among their countrymen, these churches throve rapidly in England.
The fact must not be overlooked, however, that ten Baptist churches in England claim an earlier origin than this whose story has thus been told. Hill Cliff (1522), Eythorne, Coggeshall, Braintree (igso), Farringdon Road (1576), Crowle, Epworth (1599), Bridgewater, Oxford, Wedmore (1600). To substantiate these claims there is little evidence but tradition, of no great antiquity. Thomas Crosby, the earliest of our Baptist historians, who sought with praiseworthy diligence for all accessible facts, and was personally familiar with some of these localities, had either never heard such traditions or did not consider them even worthy of mention. In no case is there the smallest scrap of documentary evidence for such antiquity as is claimed. No title-deeds or records extend back much over two hundred years, few extend so far back. There is some archeological evidence, in one or two cases, to prove that a certain site was used for religious services or as a burial-place, long before the beginning of the seventeenth century. The gap between these slender premises of fact and the conclusion sought to be drawn from them is so wide that only the most robust faith could span it. One who is capable of believing in the great antiquity of English Baptist churches on evidence so slender is quite capable of believing on no evidence at all—which is the quickest and safest way. Let us return, then, to the history.
The Calvinistic or Particular Baptists had a quite different origin. The account of that origin given by Baptist historians generally, including the former editions of this work, rests on the authority of Thomas Crosby, the earliest historian of the Baptists. The documents on which Crosby depended have been made accessible, and show that he did not accurately follow his sources. Assuming the credibility of the documents—the question cannot be discussed here—the essential facts are as follows:
A congregation of Separatists, or Dissenters from the Church of England, was gathered by the Jacob in London in 1616. After some years Jacob went to Virginia and John Lathrop became the pastor. Many were added to them, and discussions rose whether the parish churches could be regarded as true churches. In 1633 there was a peaceable division on this issue, and a new church of seventeen persons was formed. This new church was evidently what we should now call a church of mixed membership; some of its members were certainly of Anabaptist views, for the record adds: “Mr. Eaton, with some others [but not all], receiving a further baptism.” Mr. John Spilsbury soon became pastor of this flock, which in 1638 received another secession of six members from the Jacob church, this composed wholly of Anabaptists. Not long after, this church seems to I have wholly adopted Baptist principles and practices, and is therefore entitled to be called the first Particular Baptist church in England.
Returning now to the original church of Jacob and Lathrop, we find that Mr. Lathrop also emigrated to New England, leaving the flock again without a shepherd. The records of the church then go on to say:
1640. 3rd Mo: The Church became two by mutuall consent just half being with Mr. P. Barebone, & ye other halic with Mr. H. Jessey. Mr. Richard Blunt with him being convinced of Baptism yt also it ought to be by dipping in ye Body into ye Water, resembling Burial and riseing again Col. 2. 12, Rom. 6, 4 had sober Conferance about in ye Church, & then wth some of the forenamed who also were so convinced; and after Prayer & Conferance about their so enjoying it, none having then so practiced it in England to professed Believers, & hearing that some in and ye Nether Lands had so practiced, they agreed and sent over Mr. Rich’d Blunt (who understood Dutch) with Letters of Commendation, and who was kindly accepted there, and Returned wth Letters from them Jo: Batten a teacher there, and from that Church to such as sent him.
1641. They proceed on therein, viz Those Persons yt ware perswaded Baptism should be by dipping ye Body had mett in two Companies, and did intend so to meet alter this, all those Agreed to proceed alike togeather: and then manifesting (not by any formal Words) a Covenant (wch Word was Scrupled by some of them) but by mutuall desires and agreement each Testifled: Those two Companyes did set apart one to Baptize the rest: so it was Solemnly performed by them.
Mr. Blunt baptized Mr. Blacklock yt was a Teacher amongst them, and Mr. Blunt being baptized, he and Mr. Blacklock Baptized ye rest of their friends yt ware so minded, and many being added to them they increased much.
Another method of reviving immersion was taken by the Baptists of this period, as their writings bear witness. Thomas Crosby has stated it very accurately in these words:
But the greatest number of the English Baptists, and the more judicious, looked upon all this [Blunt’s mission to Holland] as needless trouble, and what proceeded from the old popish doctrine of right to administer the sacraments by an uninterrupted succession, which neither the Church of Rome nor the Church of England, much less the modern dissenters, could prove to be with them. They affirmed, therefore, and practised accordingly, that after a general corruption of baptism, an unbaptized person might warrantably baptize, and so begin a reformation (I : 103).
This was apparently the method adopted by the Spilsbury church, for its pastor strongly argued against the theory of succession, and upheld the right of a church of Christ by its own act to recover lost ordinances. “Where there is a beginning,” he pithily says, “some must be first.”
In these two ways the practice of immersing believers in Christ was introduced among those churches that a few years later came to be known as Particular Baptists. We have no such definite account of the introduction of immersion among the Arminian churches, but we have no sufficient grounds for supposing that they anticipated their Calvinistic brethren. The only thing that points in that direction is a passage in “Religion’s Peace,” a book written by Leonard Busher in 1614. Busher may have been at one time connected with the Helwys congregation at Amsterdam, and his book bears internal evidence of having been written and published there, but we cannot connect him more closely than this with the Baptists in England. In his book he says: “And such as shall willingly and gladly receive it [the gospel] he hath commanded to be baptized in the water; that is, dipped for dead in the water.” It is not a perfectly safe inference, however, from this teaching that there was a corresponding practice. That sort of logic would prove that both Luther and Calvin were immersionists, and lead us into all sorts of absurdities if it were consistently applied throughout the history of the church. Nothing is commoner than to find lack of correspondence between teaching and practice.
The churches afterwards known as General Baptists ‘‘ had from the first maintained close relations with the Mennonite churches of Holland. Their members, on going to Holland, were received without question into the Mennonite churches. Certain of their church disputes were referred to the Mennonite churches for arbitration. These facts indicate that they were agreed on the practice of baptism, which we know to have been aspersion among the Mennonites. But from the middle of the seventeenth century, or a little before, all traces of this union cease. The only reasonable explanation of the facts is that given by Mennonite writers, namely, the adoption of immersion by the English churches, which thus practically pronounced their Mennonite brethren unbaptized.
For many years we find that the question of baptism was still debated among these English churches. Some, who agreed with their brethren in all other things, had not yet adopted the practice of immersion and were called the Old Men, or Aspersi; while the others were called the New Men, or Immersi, “because they were overwhelmed in their rebaptization.”2 So late as 1653 we find the same difference of opinion still persisting. A Baptist writer of that date complains of what he calls a “mere demi-reformation that is made on this point on a party of men in Lincolnshire and elsewhere (of whom I suppose there are several congregations), who having long since discovered the true way of baptism as to the subjects, namely: That professing believers only, and not any infants, are to be baptized, but remaining ignorant of the true way and form of administering the ordinance, are fallen into the frivolous way of sprinkling believers; which to do is as much no baptism at all, as to dip infants is no baptism of Christ’s ordaining. Which people, for whose sakes, as well as for others, I write this, will be persuaded, I hope, in time, to be as to the outward form, not almost only, but altogether Christians, and rest no longer in that mere midway, mongrel reformation.”3 This is the last known case of the kind, and from about this time it is certain that all the Anabaptist churches of England adopted immersion, and are thenceforth properly called Baptists.
A great mass of pamphlets and books relating to baptism began to pour from the presses of England from 1640 onward. This revival of the practice of immersion by the Baptist churches is the only and also the sufficient explanation of this phenomenon. The controversy thus precipitated also accounts for the importance thenceforth assumed by the question of baptism in Baptist Confessions and in polemical writings by the Baptists of this period. Others had before this practised immersion, being convinced that it is taught by the Scriptures, without teaching that immersion is essential to valid baptism. The opposition of the other English sects to the novel practice of immersion developed the Baptist doctrine rapidly. The other Separatists of the period with one accord attacked immersion as new-fangled, unnecessary, immodest, dangerous to life, and the like. Baptists retorted by asserting that nothing else than immersion could be accepted as baptism. When the Continental Anabaptists practised immersion, no special opposition was made to their practice, and they were therefore never impelled to lay any special emphasis upon its necessity in this one difference of circumstance is the full explanation of the difference of doctrine obtaining between the immersing Anabaptists and the modem Baptists.
By the year 1644 the number of Particular Baptist churches had increased to seven. In that year these seven churches united in issuing a Confession of Faith composed of fifty articles, which is one of the chief landmarks of Baptist history.
The Confession, besides giving a brief exposition of gospel truth according to the Calvinistic theology, pronounces baptism “an ordinance of the New Testament given by Christ, to be dispensed upon persons professing faith, or that are made disciples; who, upon profession of faith, ought to be baptized, and afterward to partake of the Lord’s Supper.” It then specifies:
That the way and manner of the dispensing this ordinance is dipping or plunging the body under water; it being a sign, must answer the thing signified, which is, that interest the saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ: and that as certainly as the body is buried under water and risen again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ in the day of the resurrection, to reign with Christ.
And a note to this section adds: “The word baptizo signifies to dip or plunge (yet so as convenient garments be upon both the administrator and subject, with all modesty).” English Baptists were accused by their opponents of baptizing converts in a state of nakedness, and doing other scandalous things, hence the statement in parentheses was necessary, and the 1651 edition of the Confession adds these words: “Which is also our practice, as many eye-witnesses can testify.”
The Confessions issued before this time are not so explicit in defining baptism as immersion, but they are equally plain in placing baptism before participation in the Lord s Supper. One of the fourfold Confessions issued by the Smyth-Helwys church in Holland says: “The Holy Supper, according to the institution of Christ, is to be administered to the baptized.” Indeed, in the whole history of Baptists not a Confession can be produced that advocates the invitation or admission to the Lord’s table of the unbaptized. Nevertheless, some English Baptist churches, being formed of Separatist elements, did from the first claim and exercise liberty in respect to this ordinance.
The Confession of 1644 is outspoken also in the advocacy of religious liberty as the right, and of good citizenship as the duty, of every Christian man. The following article is worth quoting in full, as the first publication of the doctrine of freedom of conscience, in an official document representing a body of associated churches:
XLVIII. A civil magistracy is an ordinance of God, set up by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well; and that in all lawful things, commanded by them, subjection ought to be given by us in the Lord, not only for the wrath, but for conscience’ sake; and that we are to make supplications and prayers for kings, and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
The supreme magistracy of this kingdom we acknowledge to be King and Parliament. . . And concerning the worship of God, there is but one lawgiver. . . which is Jesus Christ. So it is the magistrate’s duty to tender the liberty of men s consciences (Eccl. 8: 8), (which is the tenderest thing unto all conscientious men, and most dear unto them, and without which all other liberties will not be worth the naming, much less the enjoying), and to protect all under them from all wrong, injury, oppression, and molestation. . . And as we cannot do anything contrary to our understandings and consciences, so neither can we forbear the doing of that which our understandings and consciences bind us to do: And if the magistrates should require us to do otherwise, we are to yield our persons in a passive way to their power, as the saints of old have done (James 3: 4).
This is a great landmark, not only of Baptists, but of the progress of enlightened Christianity. Those who published to the world this teaching, then deemed revolutionary and dangerous, held, in all but a few points of small importance, precisely those views of Christian truth that are held by Baptists to-day. For substance of doctrine, any of us might subscribe to it without a moment’s hesitation. On the strength of this one fact, Baptists might fairly claim that, whatever might have been said by isolated individuals before, they were the pioneer body among modem Christian denominations to advocate the right of all men to worship God, each according to the dictates of his own conscience, without let or hindrance from any earthly power.
Among the names signed to this Confession are two of special significance in this early period of Baptist progress in England—William Kiffen and Hanserd Knollys. Kiffen was born in London, in 1625. His family was of Welsh extraction. He lost his parents by the plague that scourged London in 1625, and was taken care of by relatives, whom he charged with misappropriating his patrimony. They apprenticed him to “a very mean calling” (brewer), and in his fifteenth year he ran away from his master. While wandering aimlessly about town, he saw people going into church and went in with them. The sermon on the fifth commandment, and the duties of servants to masters, caused him to return to his master, and also provoked in him a desire to hear other Puritan ministers. Soon he was convicted of sin, and after an experience not unlike that which Bunyan relates in his “Grace Abounding,” he found peace in believing. He joined himself to an independent congregation (probably that church of Henry Jacob, of which so much has already been said), and some time afterwards left this to join the Baptist church of which John Spilsbury had become pastor. Not long thereafter be became pastor of a newly constituted Baptist church in London. This was certainly prior to 1644 but how long we do not know.
About the same time that he became a Baptist preacher, Kiffen also became a merchant. His first venture was in a trading voyage to I-Iolland, in 1643, and two years later he engaged in business in that country with a young man of his congregation, and he adds: “It pleased God so to bless our endeavors, as from scores of pounds to bring it to many hundreds and thousands of pounds.” This is his modest way of saying that he became one of the wealthiest and most influential merchants of London. He himself valued his success mainly because it enabled him to preach the gospel with less hindrance, and he used his large means generously to propagate the truth as he understood it. To his shrewd liberality the Baptists of England owed much of their progress during the seventeenth century.
Kiffen’s wealth exposed him to many persecutions, but also, it is likely, obtained for him many favors from those in power. He was the friend of kings and high officials, and though he doubtless valued such favor, he not infrequently found it costly. It is related that on one occasion Charles II. requested of this rich subject a “loan” of forty thousand pounds. Kiffen’s ready wit did not fail him in this emergency. He answered, with all respect, that he could not possibly lend so large a sum, but he hoped his Majesty would honor him by accepting a gift of ten thousand pounds. His Majesty was ever ready to bestow that particular form of honor on anybody, and graciously accepted the offer. Kiffen used to relate the story with glee in after years, and declared that by his timely liberality he had saved thirty thousand pounds. Full of years and labors and honors, Kiffen died in 1701.
Hanserd Knollys, one of the most godly, learned, and laborious among the English Baptists of this time, was born at Chalkwell, Lincolnshire. His parents were religious people, as well as possessed of some wealth. He was prepared by a private tutor and then sent to the University of Cambridge, where he took his degree in due course. Having had a religious training from boyhood, he was in a condition of mind and heart to be impressed by sermons that he heard while a student, and he was converted. his piety while at the university was marked, and in his after years this early promise was quite fulfilled.
After graduation, he was master of a school at Gainsborough for a while; but in June, 1629, he was ordained
by the bishop of Peterborough, first deacon, then presbyter, of the Church of England. Not long after, the bishop of Lincoln presented him to the living of Humberstone, where he engaged most zealously in the work of a parish minister. He ordinarily preached four times on Sunday, and besides preached on every holiday. Both his training and natural inclinations inclined him toward the Puritan party in the church, and after some three years of service, his conscientious scruples regarding the wearing of the surplice, the sign of the cross in baptism, admitting to the Lord’s Supper persons of notoriously wicked lives, and the like, made his position untenable. He had only to stifle his convictions, to compound with his conscience, to retain his place of honor and comfort in the church, with fair prospects of promotion. But he could not do this, and he manfully resigned his living to his bishop, frankly stating his reasons; and so much was he respected for his honesty, that the bishop connived at his continuing to preach in the diocese, without wearing the surplice or reading the service, though such procedure was strictly forbidden by law.
This was a position impossible to maintain long; a man who did this was neither one thing nor another. Accordingly, about 1636, Knollys joined himself to the Separatists, as those Puritans were called who had been compelled by conscience to come out of the Church of England. This exposed him to active persecution, and he determined to emigrate to New England, where he understood that the Separatists had liberty. He landed in Boston, in 1638, after a voyage of much hardship. It is related of him, as showing how low his fortunes had ebbed, that by the time he had embarked on shipboard he had but six brass farthings left; but his wife produced five pounds that she had saved in happier days, and they were enabled to reach the new land.
Soon after his arrival he had an opportunity to go to the new settlement of Piscataway (afterward called Dover), in New Hampshire, which needed a pastor. We have testimony to show that while here he opposed the baptism of infants, and probably for this reason Cotton Mather classes him among the Anabaptists. Mather, however, bears testimony to the excellent character of Knollys.
In 1641, Knollys was summoned home to England by his aged father, and he was so little of a Baptist as yet that he became a member of the Separatist congregation, of which at that time Henry Jessey was pastor. The records of that church inform us that in 1643 Knollys was unwilling to have his infant child baptized, which led to conferences on the subject and finally to a division, sixteen members withdrawing and forming a Baptist church. Whether it was this church or another that he gathered is uncertain, but in 1645 he was formally ordained pastor of a Baptist church in London. and from that time was known as one of the efficient leaders of this people.
The Episcopal hierarchy had been abolished, and "liberty of prophesying” was now supposed to be enjoyed by all godly ministers. But the Presbyterians were determined on the ruins of the Church of England to erect an establishment of their own, and to silence all who did not agree with them. For a time Knollys preached in the parish churches, but was summoned to give account of himself before a committee of divines at Westminster. They forbade him to preach, but he only ceased to preach in the parish churches, gathering a congregation in a house of his own at Great St. Helen’s, London. This was a sample of the “liberty” experienced by our Baptist forefathers under the dominion of the Presbyterians and the Long Parliament.
After the Restoration, Knollys suffered long-continued hardships for the sake of the gospel. His popularity as a preacher was so great, and his influence so generally acknowledged by Nonconformists, that to silence him was a special object of the upholders of the Church of England and the Act of Uniformity. He was imprisoned many times; even in his eighty-fourth year he was in jail for six months, an act of revenge on the part of James II. because Knollys refused to use his influence with Baptists and other Dissenters to gain their approval for the illegal dispensations issued by that monarch. To escape these persecutions, Knollys and his family were obliged to change their residence often, and once he left England and spent some time in Holland and Germany.
After a short illness, Knollys died in his ninety-third year, having given an example of constancy to his convictions that is worthy of all admiration. A Puritan to the core, somewhat narrow and stern according to our notions to-day, he was yet a very lovable man, and compelled the respect of even those who most widely differed from him in matters of faith and practice.
Both William Kiffen and Hanserd Knollys are known to have been buried in Bunhill Fields, London, where also the mortal remains of John Bunyan rest. Bunyan’s tomb is still pointed out to the curious visitor, but all trace of the others has disappeared. A stone once marked the grave of Kiffen, and its inscription has been preserved by a diligent local historian, and that is now his sole memorial.
1 Some have been inclined (so Newman, “History of Antipedobaptism,” p. 387) to understand “form of their baptism” not to refer “to the mode of applying the water,” but “rather to the words spoken in connection with the administration of the ordinance.” But this is directly contravened by the authority of John Smyth himself. In his “ Character of the Beast” (p. ~) be clearly makes the distinction between the matter of baptism, a believing subject, and the form of baptism, a washing with water.
2 Rynes. ‘Mercurt*. Rudicut.” London, 1646, p. ax.
3 ” Baby Baptism mere Babvlon.” by S. Fisher. London, !633, p. 464.
Title Page - Index
Chapter 15 - Baptist Churches - The Struggle for Liberty