Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Baptist Beginnings

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Baptist Beginnings

Article excerpt

Who was the first Baptist, and where was the first Baptist church? When did Baptists begin, and who was their founder?

A lot of people ask these questions. We want to know about our denominational roots. To know our beginnings will help us understand ourselves today.

These sound like simple questions, and one might expect brief and simple answers. The story of Baptist beginnings, however, is surprisingly complicated; and not everyone agrees on the conclusions. Perhaps this is one reason such questions have been so controversial in the past.

Some people try to trace organized Baptist churches back to New Testament times or to John the Baptist. One writer even suggested that Adam was the first Baptist! Certainly we believe that our doctrine and faith root in the New Testament, but we first meet our organized denomination considerably this side of Adam.

Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England. Some of these earnest people read the Bible in their own language, believed it, and sought to live by it. They formed separate congregations which accepted only believers into their membership, and they baptized converts upon their profession of faith. Their opponents nicknamed them "Baptists," and the name stuck. This pamphlet will fill in some of the details of that story.

The English Background

No one knows who first brought Christianity to England or when. An old tradition suggests that Paul the apostle or one of his converts may have preached in Britain. By the seventh century most English people were at least outwardly Roman Catholics. In the following centuries some evangelical groups flourished, and some remnant of these groups may have survived in the sects which later opposed Romanism, such as the followers of John Wyclif (sometimes called Lollards).

By the sixteenth century, multitudes of English Christians were demanding reform in their church. They sensed that the church had become corrupt and selfish, and that it had largely left the simple message of the Bible. Several factors contributed to this clamor for reform: the teachings of such great reformers as Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Geneva; the new translations of the English Bible which allowed the common people once again to read the Word of God; and social and political changes which led people to want more participation in their church.

Several English rulers in the sixteenth century sought to reform the Church of England to some extent. However, none of these reforms went far enough to satisfy those who wanted to return to the simple teachings and practices of the Bible.

One militant group within the Church of England genuinely desired to recover biblical teachings and practices. Deeply influenced by the reforms of John Calvin, they became known as "Puritans," perhaps because they insisted upon more purity of doctrine and practice in the church.

Another group seeking reform was called "Separatists." Most of the Separatists were frustrated Puritans who had given up hope of reforming the church from within. Separatists decided to separate from the Church of England and form their own independent congregations. By 1600, there were already several of these congregations in England, and they mushroomed by 1625.

The Separatists included many groups holding a variety of views. Some of them later helped populate such diverse churches as Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and assorted independents and nonconformists. Some of these Separatists, studying the Bible, adopted believer's baptism and became known as Baptists.

Two Kinds of Baptists

Baptists came into existence as two distinct groups, with somewhat different beliefs and practices, but with believer's baptism in common. …

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