Early English Baptists

Article excerpt

Upwards of seven hundred Baptist congregations are utilizing the Baptists' 400th Anniversary Celebration free bulletin inserts produced by the Baptist History and Heritage Society and Mercer University's Center for Baptist Studies. I suspect several thousand additional churches are making some effort to observe this year's historic anniversary. Yet, in true Baptist fashion, these congregations do not view Baptist history in a monolithic manner.

While visiting a notable urban, moderate Baptist congregation earlier this year, I was pleased to observe that the church was hosting a two-month-long weekly series about Baptist heritage. Much to my surprise, however, the series introduced Baptist history through the lens of the B. H. Carroll's Trail of Blood, a booklet espousing an unbroken line of "Baptist" immersing congregations dating to Jesus and John the Baptist. Indeed, a church bulletin board revealed that this congregation was not celebrating four hundred years of Baptist history per se, but rather "400 Years of English Baptist History."

Origin narratives provide the foundations of religious belief among faiths and within specific faith groups, establishing identity and legitimacy. The need to trace Baptist roots to New Testament times, prevalent among many nineteenth-century Baptists who wished (among other things) to distance themselves from the perceived evils of the Roman Catholic Church, has not stood up to the rigors of historical study, although some adherents obviously remain even in places unexpected.

Indeed, ongoing insights gleaned from the study of our English Baptist forebears of the early seventeenth century are far more compelling than efforts to retroactively appropriate unwitting small Christian sects of the Middle Ages into a historical marketing campaign to elevate Baptists as the only true believers.

Among the intriguing aspects of the story of early English Baptists is the question of the practice of baptismal immersion. …