Baptists: Their Historical Relation to the Protestant Reformation And the Roman Catholic Church
by Fred G. Zaspel, 1985
PURPOSE OF PAPER
The purpose of this paper is to determine the historical roots of the Baptists, to answer the question concerning any historical association or connection with the Protestant Reformation or the Roman Catholic Church, and to only briefly identify and examine the supposed succession from the Anabaptists and other ancient religious groups. A thorough discussion of all the questions involved with this subject will not be given. A brief outline of the people and events involved is all that is intended.
The study of the history of Baptists is plagued by many difficult questions on the one hand and very bold assertions on the other. This paper, although written from the standpoint of an independent Baptist, is an attempt to challenge the assertion that Baptists have absolutely no historical ties to either the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant Reformation. The great differences which divide Baptists from Romanism and from Protestantism is no doubt the cause for this type of claim, but, as will be shown, the claim is not founded on a knowledge of the facts of history. This in no way is a weakness in Baptist beliefs, for history, tradition, and ancestry are not the standard of truth nor the basis of faith; Scripture alone is the norm. The question of historical origins, however, is one of value, for it does give explanation to many of the beliefs and practices of the group in question. This brief study, then, will seek to trace the background of Baptists, beginning with those in America and working backwards from there.
THE DESCENT OF MODERN BAPTISTS
Baptists In America
Skipping over the great names of Baptists such as Luther Rice, Adoniram Judson, John Leland, Isaac Backus, etc., and looking back to their fathers in Colonial America, the familiar names of men such as Roger Williams, John Clarke, and Henry Dunster shine brightly. Their struggle for freedom to practice according to the dictates of conscience and the Word of God was long and difficult. They bore the persecutions of whipping, imprisonment, excommunication, banishment, ridicule, and starvation–all for believing and practicing principles which Baptists hold dear. The story of Roger Williams (1600-1685), founder of the first Baptist Church organized on American soil, and his banishment from Massachusetts into the wilderness because of his opposition to the Church of England and championing of the principles of individual soul liberty and religious freedom, is well known. From his church in Providence, Rhode Island, came one John Clarke, close associate of Williams and probably the most prestigious Baptist leader of his time. The church he established in Newport, 1641 (Quaker?), became the second Baptist church in America, Clarke being its teaching elder from the beginning. Henry Dunster (1612-1659), first president of Harvard, began to preach against infant baptism and in 1653 refused the rite to his fourth child. For this he was forced to resign and that after twelve years of impressive service to the college. Even after earnest pleading he was refused the use of his home any longer, was cast out into the winter, and died within five weeks.
These are just a couple examples of the struggles for the rise of Baptist convictions in America. The purpose here, however, is to investigate the historical background of these early Baptists.
Roger Williams, a Welshman, began an Anglican, educated at Cambridge and was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England. He became, in turn, a Puritan (Congregationalist, still within the Church of England), a Separatist, a Baptist, and finally a Seeker. There is some evidence that he had also been a follower of George Fox’s Quakerism. By the time he reached America, he was convinced of Separatist views and refused the offer to assume the pastorate of the Boston church because it was unwilling to officially sever all ties with the Church of England. Having been banished from Massechusetts, he founded the settlement of Providence in June of 1636. In 1638 a church was organized, and by 1639 it was practicing believer’s baptism, Williams having been baptized by a church member.
John Clarke fled England’s persecution of Puritans under Archbishop Laud. After arriving in Boston, he saw problems with Congregationalism, and moving south to Newport established a church (1641?) which became Particular Baptist, Clarke being the teaching elder.
John Miles (1621-1683), another Welshman, came to America in 1662, having been ejected from the Established Church. He settled at Swansea, near Providence, and in the following years was responsible for the establishing of two churches.
Through the study of such men and events of Colonial America, it is clear that Baptists did not migrate to America: English Puritans migrated to America, who, in turn, became Baptists. To be sure, from these men came hosts of American-born Baptists, but the evidence seems very clear that American Baptists trace back to Colonial Puritanism. Continental (Dutch and Swiss) Anabaptism did have some migration to the New World (such as Hanserd Knollys who arrived in Boston in 1638), but these “Anabaptists” would not fit the description or theology of what is recognized to be “Baptist.” They did have Baptist-type beliefs but were Anabaptists of another type (Mennonite, etc.). America’s earliest Baptists were originally Puritans within the Church of England: Williams, Clarke, Dunster, Thomas Gould, etc. Much of the same could be said about later American-born Baptists who also were previously Congregationalists (Isaac Backus, Shubael Stearns, etc.). Baptists were by far the greatest beneficiaries of the Great Awakening of staunchly Protestant Edwards and Whitefield. Entire Congretationalist bodies, having been “awakened” under Whitefield’s ministry saw complete separation from the Church of England the necessary next step; hence, the rise of more Baptist churches.
In summary, Baptists in America, although having certain theological similarities to Continental Anabaptism, have no historical connection with them. Their descent from Colonial Puritanism is obvious and also explains the dominance of Calvinistic theology, not only in those first Baptists in New England but in their children. John Myles, who had previously taken orders from the Anglican Church, may have been the first Baptist to immigrate to the colonies, having embraced Baptist beliefs while in Wales. With Myles, then, Baptists have come out of Puritanism without ties to Anabaptism on the Continent.
Baptists In Britain
Although the honor for the establishing of the first Baptist Church in Wales belongs to John Myles, the real championing of the Baptist cause belongs to one Vavasor Powell (1617-1670), because Myles and most of his congregation moved to New England. Powell was definitely of Puritan persuasion within the Established Church, but by 1655 his church in Wales was baptistic at least, for records reveal that he had been recently rebaptized. Many Baptists came from his efforts, and the succeeding Welsh Baptists (Christmas Evans, 1766-1838, etc.) continued his ardent Calvinistic beliefs, although for a time Arminianism was threatening.
Baptists had no beginning in Scotland until the eighteenth century and that, again, under the leadership of men from Independent and Puritan (within the Church of Scotland) backgrounds. These earliest churches were begun under the leadership of Sir William Sinclair (1750) and Robert Carmichael (1765). The most familiar names of early Baptists in Scotland are the Haldane brothers, Robert (1764-1842) and James (1768-1851), both of whom had been Independents. In 1808 they both became convinced that their practice of infant baptism was unscriptural, and in the fifty years of ministry which followed, nearly forty Baptist churches were founded in Scotland.
Baptists in Ireland have never been many, Irish resistance being too great. The first Baptist church established was under the direction of Thomas Patience in Dublin, probably in the year 1653. The Baptist who perhaps most helped the cause of Baptists in Ireland was the esteemed Alexander Carson (1776-1844). A very learned Scottish Presbyterian, he vigorously opposed some of his church members who began to embrace Baptist convictions. Later, having been persuaded of their truthfulness, he was removed from his church by the synod. His Baptism: Its Mode & Subjects, testifies to his ability to defend believer’s baptism.
The first Baptist Church in England (General Baptist) finds its origin with John Smyth. Although Smyth had definite Puritan beliefs, persecution drove him from England to Holland because of his Separatist convictions. With his church moved to Amsterdam, he came into fellowship with the strong Mennonite (Anabaptist) groups there. Smyth there established a Baptist Church, having baptized himself and his entire congregation (with one pail of water!). He soon applied for membership in the Mennonite church, only to the great disruption of the congregation. Thomas Helwys (c. 1550 – c. 1616), a member of the church, led the congregation to excommunicate Smyth for his Anabaptist heresy. In 1611 they published a declaration of their faith rejecting the teachings of the Anabaptists. Shortly thereafter they moved back to England, thus becoming the first Baptist Church on English soil.
General Baptists who followed (and who eventually gave way almost entirely to Unitarianism) made great efforts to disavow any connection with Anabaptism. Similarities there were, but identity or association with them was consistently denied. Their Declarations of Faith made this abundantly clear; not only did they reject Anabaptism, they often referred to themselves as “Protestants.” In 1678 they published “An Orthodox Creed or Protestant Confession of Faith, Being an Essay to Unite and Confirm all True Protestants.”
The other strain of Baptists in England (Particular Baptists) began in 1638 under the leadership of John Spilsbury, their first pastor. The church began as a break from the Independent Church which was begun by Henry Jacob (the so-called “Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Church,” named after its successive pastors) over the matter of infant Baptism. These Particular Baptists were by far the strongest voice of English Baptists for generations (Gill, Fuller, Spurgeon, Bunyan, etc.). Like the General Baptists these Particulars repeatedly disavowed any association with Anabaptism and continually affirmed their loyalty to the Protestant Reformation, even calling themselves Protestants. Their Second London Confession of faith is an obvious and admitted adaptation of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of 1646 (as is also the Philadelphia Confession, which became the standard statement of faith for Baptists in America). The Second London Confession (1677) states the Particular Baptist agreement “with Protestants in diverse nations and cities . . . in that wholesome Protestant doctrine, which with so clear evidence of Scriptures that they have asserted,” and claims kinship with the great reformers of England who gave their lives in opposition to Rome.
It is abundantly clear that the Baptists of Britain, while consistently rejecting the teachings of the Anabaptists, sought to remain loyal to the Protestant Reformation, their few (but major) differences notwithstanding.
One other point is worthy of note here, and that regards the mode of baptism practiced by these early Baptists. Originally it was almost uniformly by affusion. This is true of the Anabaptists (even down to today’s Anabaptists and their children the Mennonites) as well as the Baptists of Britain. Vedder ( A Short History of the Baptists) a Baptist Historian, says this was the same of the first Baptists of America as well (e.g., Roger Williams). Well into the third quarter of the seventeenth century Baptists were not entirely an immersionist group. The issue with them, which they so diligently fought, was that of the subjects of baptism. In their struggle for complete conformity to the New Testament, immersion did follow.
Although this paper is rejecting any historical identification or association of modern Baptists with Anabaptism, the assertion of some Baptists today claiming succession from them, their similarities to present-day Baptists, and their differences, make them worthy of note here.
The similarities are several and well known: separation of church and state, believer’s baptism, sole authority of Scripture, the Lord’s Table as a memorial only, and individual soul liberty. These seem to have been held by most of the Anabaptists although by no means all. A very distressing problem in discussing the theology of the Anabaptists is that there is no one theological system held by all of them: the movement was extremely diverse, so when someone asserts that his church finds roots in the Anabaptists, the only thing one can wonder is, “which one?”
This claim of modern Baptists is made in effort to remain apart from any historical connection with the Roman Catholic Church, even if that connection is via the Protestant Reformers. But even that effort is futile, for virtually all of the early Anabaptist leaders themselves came either from Protestantism or from Romanism itself. A brief list of names will suffice to establish this point: Balthasar Hubmaier, a converted Roman Catholic Priest; Hans Denck, Lutheran headmaster of the renowned St. Sebald School in Nuremberg; Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic Priest in Friesland; Thomas Munster, a Roman Catholic? Lutheran? Communist? –scholars debate; Melchior Hoffman, a Lutheran missionary; Wilhelm Reublin, a Roman Catholic Priest; Johannes Brottli, Roman Catholic Priest; George Blaurock, a Roman Catholic Monk; Simon Stumf, Roman Catholic Priest; Conrad Grebel, Zwingli’s protege in Zurich; Felix Manz, Roman Catholic (illegitimate son of a Roman Catholic Priest) and later associate of Zwingli; etc. The list could go on, but the point is clear: Anabaptists do not represent a pure line of believers outside the Roman Church.
It has been shown that Baptists in America find their origins in Colonial and some English Puritanism. English Baptists continually avowed allegiance to the Protestant Reformation, their early leaders all being Puritans. The Anabaptism of the Continent, although holding some clear Baptistic principles, were not the fathers of modern Baptists (neither in America directly nor via Britain); nor were they without roots in Roman Catholicism themselves.
Since many religious groups found within the pages of church history are being purported to be Baptists or Baptist types (cf. J. M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood), this section will seek to briefly identify these groups and their beliefs.
The Montanists were a fanatical religious sect of Phrygia (western Asia Minor), the followers of Montanus and his two prophetesses (Prisca and Maximilla). A former Priest of Cybele worship, after converting to Christianity, he attempted a reform of the formalism which had set into the Church, the rise in authority of the one bishop in the local church, and the lack of dependence upon the supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit in this age. His prophetesses spoke for him; he spoke for God and this often in the first person. He established Spirit-led communities at Pepuza and Tymion in Phrygia (naming them “Jerusalem”) and predicted that Christ would return to establish His earthly kingdom at Pepuza; then inspiration and prophecy would cease. The Montanists’ most illustrious adherent was the great church father, Tertullian. They practiced a rigid church discipline, banned remarriage even after the mate had died, approved of desertion of one’s mate for the sake of chastity–all in an effort to holiness. Serious sins after baptism could not be forgiven. Montanism (begun in the mid second century) survived only into the fifth century in northern Africa and into the sixth century in Phrygia.
Novatian (mid third century) was a priest of the church of Rome who broke away from the church because of its laxity in discipline especially in regard to those who had given way under persecution. Basically orthodox in theology his followers set up a rival church with a bishop at Carthage. During the 250’s they grew rapidly, requiring a rebaptism (pouring) of all who joined, not for a belief in believer’s baptism but only because, in their view, they were the only true church. No major sins after baptism could be forgiven. Novatianism was reabsorbed into the Roman Catholic Church by the seventh century.
Donatus was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Carthage from 313 to about 355. Like Novatian, he was concerned over the lack of strictness in discipline of these who had given way under the persecution of Diocletian. In 312 the bishop to be elected (Caecilian) was rejected by Donatus and his followers because he (Caecilian) had been ordained by Felix of Apthungi who had betrayed a copy of the Scriptures to his persecutors. This, Donatus argued, rendered his performing of the sacrament of ordination invalid, because he had committed the unpardonable sin. Donatism survived, becoming continually closer to the mother church of Rome, until the fifth century.
The Paulicians emerged in the mid seventh century in the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire, rejecting the formalism of the church. Their founder, Constantine (who changed his name to Silvanus, or Silas) based his teachings on the written Word of God alone, but that written Word of God was to be found only in the gospels and the epistles of Paul. (They were great lovers of the apostle Paul, the successive leaders of the sect taking to themselves the names of the people closely associated with Paul–Titus, Timothy, Tychicus, etc.; hence, the designation Paulicians.) The other portions of Scripture (New and Old Testaments) were written by an evil deity, the same evil deity who created the world. Obviously, they were dualistic, matter being evil and spirit alone being good. In order to save human spirits from this evil physical world, God (the good deity) sent an angel who appeared as the man Jesus. Some groups of Paulicians existed in Armenia into the nineteenth century.
Having read the Scriptures for himself, Peter Waldo, or Valdes, was so impressed by the claims of Christ that he sold all he owned in order to live a life of poverty. He translated the New Testament from the Latin and began to preach the gospel in the common tongue. He and his followers were very orthodox in theology and began as a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church. Gathering men of like thinking around him, the movement spread rapidly during the twelfth century. In 1184 they were excommunicated by Pope Lucius III, and as a result, they began to spread even more rapidly. They rejected the authority of high-ranking ecclesiastics, re-interpreted or rejected the sacraments of the church except confession, absolution, the eucharist, and baptism. The Waldensians made a noble attempt at reform and remain today in northern Italy, about thirty-five thousand strong.
The Albigenses (so-called because they were most numerous near Albi, in Southern France), or Cathari (from the Greek word, katharoi, meaning pure ones), although claiming New Testament authority for their beliefs, were a heretical sect formed in the Roman Catholic Church during the twelfth century and resembling the Gnostics and Paulicians. Dualism was at the heart of their teachings–two gods, one evil and one good, matter being the essence of evil, etc. The evil god was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. With matter being evil, they, of course, rejected the incarnation of Christ; Christ, they taught, had no real body; it only appeared so. Since matter is evil, they rejected all the sacraments of the church; the one sacrament which they held to was the consolamentum–the giving of the Spirit by the laying of hands and the Gospel of John on the head. They were extremely ascetic, avoiding marriage with its fleshly and therefore evil pleasures, oaths, war, milk, meat, cheese, and eggs.(!) The use of anything material in worship was forbidden.
The Anabaptists arose in the sixteenth century in Holland and in Zurich, Switzerland. As stated earlier they (generally) held to many beliefs in common with today’s Baptists, but the differences are at least as obvious. Their beliefs and practices ranged from extreme pacifism to extreme revolutionism; they sometimes rejected the taking of oaths, association with the world in any way, and some would require communal living with no allowance for ownership of private property; while they practiced believer’s baptism, very few, if any, immersed; some practiced the strictest church discipline, while others were more tolerant; some believed in the strict separation of church from state, while others sought to rule the state; some were even Unitarian, such as Servetus who was burned in Calvin’s Geneva. One great difference of Anabaptism from modern-day Baptists is that regarding their beliefs in soteriology, and on this point they were all agreed. Far from the Calvinism of the early Baptists, the Anabaptists were semi-pelagian, declaring that not only was man’s will free, but it remained unfallen, his spirit remaining “utterly upright and intact before, during, and after the fall” (Hubmaier). He went on to say that “God created you without your aid, but he will not save you without your aid” (his treatise entitled Von der Freiheit des Willens, “Concerning the Freedom of the Will”). Sadly, many Baptists today have gone this direction in their soteriology, but none who would even resemble anything evangelical would agree with these extremes!
For all their differences, the Anabaptists were, as a whole, very morally upstanding people; even their persecutors admitted this. But to claim identification with them as modern Baptists is neither in keeping with the facts of history nor the great differences of belief and practice.
SUMMARY & CONCLUSION
It has been shown that Baptists in America and Britain find their origins in Protestant Puritanism, and their connection with the Anabaptists is only imaginary. Similarities there are, but the vast differences must be honestly admitted as well. Historical ties to the Anabaptists were continually disavowed by early Baptists, while at the same time they all claimed the closest of ties with the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptist, on the other hand, for the most part, came from Roman Catholic stock. It has also been shown that while few similarities exist between today’s Baptists and some ancient religious sects, none of them were actually what today’s Baptists are. They too came from out the established church of Rome, and were generally sacramentalists and sometimes even pagan.
Let it be reemphasized, as was stated at the outset, that this is no threat to Baptists. While Baptists have no clear, uncluttered genealogy of historical identity, it is no insult but rather a testimony to their strict belief that the Scripture alone is our basis of faith. While Baptists have historical roots which grow back to the Reformation, their only concern need be whether their theological roots grow out of the pages of the New Testament. Baptists do not need (nor does anyone else) a continual, unbroken line back to the apostles, only agreement with them. This is the question of ultimate importance, and if Baptists really believe that, a constructing of history in their favor is not at all necessary. Let them look to their history honestly, gleaning what they can from their predecessors with some differing views and fearing only any deviation from their sole authoritative Statement of Faith, Holy Scripture.