Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Influence of Calvinism on Colonial Baptists: An Ongoing Argument Emerging in the Past Decades of Baptist Life Revolves around the Theological Origins of Early Baptists Generally, Specifically in America, and the Role That Calvinist Theology Played in Baptist Development

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Influence of Calvinism on Colonial Baptists: An Ongoing Argument Emerging in the Past Decades of Baptist Life Revolves around the Theological Origins of Early Baptists Generally, Specifically in America, and the Role That Calvinist Theology Played in Baptist Development

Article excerpt

This article surveys the origins of the first Baptist churches in colonial America and the multiple traditions and diverse contexts that aided the development of early Baptists in America. The assumption is that colonial Baptist life began in the 1630s with Roger williams and John Clarke and continued through the American Revolution until the formation of the new nation with the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, a period of time encompassing 150 years. While important figures such as Isaac Backus, John Gano, Morgan Edwards, and John Leland overlapped the colonial period and the early days of the republic, post-1790 developments should be more appropriately classified as the early national period.

The English Baptist Background

The first identifiable English Baptists emerged from a strain of Puritanism and Separatism. As their theology continued to develop and shift, these Baptists under the leadership of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys moved away from their Puritan roots toward a belief in believer's baptism and the concept of general atonement. While it may be incorrect to assume that these first English Baptists were full-fledged Arminians, Smyth, Helwys, and their followers certainly held to ideas consistent with Arminian theology. For example, these General Baptists rejected the Augustinian-Calvinistic sense of original sin, abandoned double predestination, and defended the concept that believers could fall from grace--all of which placed them in conflict with Calvinism. Most directly, the General Baptists adopted the idea of general atonement, hence their name "General" as opposed to the later developing Calvinistic Baptists labeled "Particular" due to their emphasis upon particular atonement. General Baptists originated in the Netherlands about 1609, and a portion of this first English Baptist church returned to England in 1612 to form the first Baptist church on English soil. Helwys's successor, John Murton, certainly adopted a primarily Arminian theology. Until the 1630s, the General Baptists remained the only form of Baptist church in England and were heavily persecuted by both the Anglican establishment and the Puritans. In the later 1630s and early 1640s, a new type of Baptists, Calvinistic in their theology, emerged out of the Separatist movement. Ultimately, these Particular Baptists became the more numerous and dominant form of Baptists in England. (1)

Early Colonial Baptists

The first Baptists in America originated in Rhode Island in late 1638 or early 1639 under the leadership:of New England maverick Roger Williams. Williams, who was technically a Baptist only a few months. Some have suggested that Williams had also already been "infected" with Baptist views due to exposure to General Baptist ideas in England. Certainly, Williams already held Separatist views and quickly ran afoul of New England's Puritan authorities. Historians debate whether Williams came to his Baptist ideas independently, whether others who migrated into his Rhode Island colony after its formation influenced him, or whether he had adopted them from his earlier observation of English Baptists. If it was this last source, then Williams was certainly influenced by General Baptists.

While Williams has been generally regarded an orthodox Calvinist, at least one scholar, William Estep, determined that Williams utilized hermeneutics closer to sixteenth-century European Anabaptists and the English General Baptists, indicating that he was much closer to General Baptists than to any other group of his time. Estep also insisted that the Calvinism of Williams was not that of the Synod of Dort or a Genevan Calvinism. On the other hand, James Tull identified Williams as "an orthodox Calvinist" who "agreed with nine-tenths of the doctrines" held by his Calvinist Puritan contemporaries, including the doctrine of reprobation. Perry Miller wrote that "Williams was as good as Calvinist as any Puritan," including Thomas Hooker and John Cotton. …

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