The Beginnings of the Baptists

The Beginnings of the Baptists

The primary and most essential distinctive of Baptists is their commitment to Scripture. They maintain that Scripture is the very word of God. As such, it is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. It is God’s revealed truth.

Yet it also pleased God to reveal His works in time. He has used thousands of years, with billions of people to shape the world in which we live. This too is God’s revealed truth. As the Bible records historical events, we can be assured that they are true and give God’s authoritative instruction. As men recorded historical events, apart from supernatural inspiration, we can enjoy what we learn, but must be ever careful that we do not elevate those facts to the same authority of God’s spoken Word.

Therefore, history has the mark of man on it. Facts are obscured by opinion and lack of resources. This course on Baptist history suffers from the same tendencies. As we study the following events we need to be ever mindful that we seek the right resources with the right motives. In the end, we will profit from its study.

The Profit of History

Exactly how does one profit from history? Why is it necessary that every Baptist a study his heritage? Phillip Schaff, a church historian, identifies at least two benefits for the study of history.

First, he states, “The present is the fruit of the past, and the germ of the future.1” One can look back and see how biblical truth has impacted the way of life for the Baptists. Where they have properly identified and obeyed truth, we must do likewise. On the other hand, where mistakes have been made, time has a way of revealing them. May it never be said of us “What experience and history teach is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.2” Or more simply stated, “The failure of many is that they fail to learn from history.”

The second benefit is that the Christian will find history to be “. . . a storehouse of warning and encouragement, of consolation and counsel.3” As the believer views history through the lenses of Scripture, he will see that God has been faithful to His people throughout all ages. Therefore, as a believer you should be motivated to obedience and encouraged by the many blessings others have received because of their obedience.

The Duty of the Historian

History is a scientific endeavor. It is based on facts, documents, and objects. Probably the highest duty of the historian is to acquaint himself with as many factual sources as possible and correlate those facts into a readable and living record.

When it comes to Baptist origins, we need to understand that these Christians are not immune from the effects of human depravity. Errors have crept into our Baptist History books – a few intentionally, many unwittingly. While the subject of Baptist origins is not a major issue, some clarification needs to be made.

There are Different Views of Baptist origins

Essentially, one could “boil” down the various views into two categories – the “Successionist” and “English Separatist” views.

Successionist views

Landmark theory. Also known as the JJJ (Jesus-Jordan-John) view, this theory states that we can trace the Baptists back to these three. Although the name “Baptist” did not appear throughout the centuries, they claim that Baptists did exist. As J.M. Carroll illustrated in his chart, Baptists were known by various nicknames – Montanists, Cathari, Donatists, Waldenses, Anabaptists, etc. (See illustration.) His chart illustrates the view that Baptists have existed in parallel succession to the Roman Catholic Church.

Spiritual kinship theory. Some are careful to distinguish themselves from the above strict Landmark view. They do recognize that it is impossible to prove that the Baptist denomination existed. However, they still strongly emphasize a succession of Baptist beliefs among these believers. They call this a “spiritual” connection. Often, they present this historical connection with a dogmatism that sometimes confuses them with the Landmarkists. They are especially intrigued by the Anabaptists and maintain that Baptists have direct successionist roots from them.

The problems with the successionist views. These views have gained popularity among Baptists since the early 1900s. Why have these views been adopted by many? The following statement is commonly used to support the above views.

“Since Christ promised that He would establish His church in every age, and Baptists are the true Church, they must be found in every age.”

Successionists buttress this claim by the following verses. They believe that Christ taught that Baptists (or those who are Baptistic) are the true church, and He promises that they will continue to survive.

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Mt 16.18)

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. (Mt 28.19–20)

Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. (Eph 3.21)

Successionists claim that these verses speak only of “local churches.” They deny that a universal body of Christ exists. Therefore, they believe that a succession of local churches is essential because of Christ’s promises. This interpretation violates at least one principle of biblical interpretation. This principle is that interpretations must be consistent with the whole of Scripture. Those who deny that the universal church exists do so because they assume the Bible never teaches that.

Consider the word “church” in the following passage:

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1.22–23)

The word “church” in this passage can only mean the sum total of all believers, the “universal church.” The “successionist” cannot legitimately interpret this as a “local congregation.” If this referred to a local church, the verse “which is his [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” would pose serious theological difficulties.

Anyone familiar with local churches will readily admit that unsaved people are often a part of the membership. Furthermore, there are Christians who are not members of a local church.

A “universal” church does exist. Other passages teach the same (Heb 12.23; Col 1.18). Since the Scriptural evidence is clear that a “universal” church does exist, one should not try to force Matthew 16.18; 28.19–20; and Ephesians 3.21 to speak of a local church. To deny the “universal” church and press these passages to refer to the local church is to deny the whole teaching of Scripture and foist an alien meaning upon these passages.

Another principle of interpretation violated by the successionist is that a verse cannot mean what it never meant. The “John 3.16” of the successionist position is Christ’s promise in Matthew 16.18. It is usually the starting point for the successionist’s argument that Jesus Christ promised that the gates of hell should not prevail against the local church? When Jesus spoke of the church in this passage, did the apostles understand it as a local church? This passage is the first use of the word “church” in the NT. The word “church” means a “called out assembly.” Not until the book of Acts does the word “church” take on the more technical definition of “local assembly.” When Jesus Christ spoke of the “church” He was not intending to be unclear. The disciples knew what He meant. The church, all believers in their sum total would not have to fear a destruction by the gates of Hades. Jesus Christ did not tell the disciples that local Baptist churches would continue until eternity. If He did make this promise, why do we not see the Baptist name prior to the 1600s? Why do local Baptist Churches occasionally die off? When Christ made the promise in Matthew 16.18, He was not giving Baptists a promise for an succession of their denomination. What He meant, and the disciples understood, the gates of Hades will not prevail against the sum total of those who have placed their faith in Christ.

“Anabaptists, Waldenses, Paulicians, Donatists, and Tertullians all baptized by immersion those who professed faith in Christ. Furthermore, these groups rejected a hierarchical church government, therefore, they were Baptists.”

While it is true that some of these groups held to viewpoints shared by Baptists today, it is not conclusive (or desirable) to say that they were Baptists. Groups other than Baptists held to the same beliefs (e.g., Puritans and Congregationalists). Some of these groups were heretical in many of their beliefs.

The Anabaptists had many views that were non-Baptist. They practiced pacifism. That is a belief that Christians are not to participate in war. They also believed that it is wrong for Christians to make oaths. Do Anabaptists still exist? Yes. They are not Baptists. They are still called Anabaptists and Mennonites.

Furthermore, the first Baptists did much to disassociate themselves from the Anabaptists. The Second London Baptist Confession of the Faith in 1689 contained the subtitle, “Commonly but falsely called Anabaptists.” The next edition reworded the subtitle as “Commonly and unjustly called Anabaptists.” It is a curious thing that the defining document of Baptists is typically ignored in the successionist literature. Perhaps this little phrase would spoil (as it does) their contention that Baptists are Anabaptists.

“A succession to the days of John and Jesus is proof that Baptists are the true Church.”

Amid the multitudes stood Jesus. Behold the Lamb of God! exclaimed the enraptured herald of the kingdom. And then in those waters, consecrated by a thousand sacred associations, Jesus was baptized, while from the parting heavens came the approving voice of the Father, and the anointing symbol of the Holy Ghost. Thus it was, and there it was, that our denomination had its origin. Nor can learning nor ingenuity fix another spot, nor another period. Baptists! the flag that floats over you is that of Jesus only; the principles that govern you have the authority of Jesus only; the ordinances which distinguish you have the example of Jesus only; and the founder of your churches is Jesus only. S.H. Ford, The Origin of Baptists, pp. 104–5.[emphasis his]

[The] designation being “Ana-Baptist.” This compound word applied as a designation of some certain Christians was first found in history during the third century; and a suggestive fact soon after the origin of Infant Baptism, and a more suggestive fact even prior to the use of the name “Catholic.” Thus the name “Ana-Baptists” is the oldest denominational name in history. J.M. Carroll, The Trail of Blood, p. 51. [emphasis his]

Pure doctrine, as it is found uncorrupted in the word of God is the only unbroken, though often disturbed, line of succession which can be traced thru all the centuries . . . in fact if the Church perished and no longer existed it meant that Christ was unable to prevent that disaster and the Gates of Hades did prevail against the Church. We simply DO NOT believe this has occurred. Therefore we must reject the JOHN SMYTHE (1608) See-Baptism movement as the origin of the Baptists. A.A. Davis, The Baptist Story, pp. 8–9 [emphasis his]

It would be nice to say that Baptists have a direct succession from the time of Christ. However, a succession neither proves nor disproves that a church is biblical. Using a succession construct to prove that Baptists are the true Church smacks of the Roman Catholic tradition in proving Apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter. Some Landmarkists follow certain Mennonites in claiming baptismal succession. That is, one can genealogically trace his baptism back to John the Baptist. We would not say that a succession proves the Catholic theory, nor should we use a succession to prove a Baptist theory. History is based on factual documentation, not on presumption.

English Separatist View

Having outlined and interacted with the successionist views above, it should be clear to the reader that Baptist origins, in view of this writer, cannot be traced back to John the Baptist. From all known documentation, Baptists originated in England in the early 1600s. We have no other historical documentation of Baptist existence prior to this time.

Does this mean that Anabaptists (or other earlier groups) had no influence on the early Baptists? No. The influence was there, but it was quite minor compared to the influence of the English Separatists.

Who were the English Separatists? How did the Baptists rise out of this contingent of believers? These things will be developed in future lessons.


This is a minor issue and it should be understood that this writer does not view this as a cardinal issue. Yet, the underlying problem is worth the effort in correcting. Some believe that a historical progression is necessary to prove that the Baptist faith is the true faith. The marks of true faith are based on Scripture, not historical genealogy.

While minor, these successionist views are still being promoted in most Baptist Bible colleges today. You will usually find at least one faculty member on staff that holds to these views. With that in mind, consider the following quotes from three fundamental Baptist seminary professors:

“In the church history course that I teach from the Reformation to the 19th century, I present the origins of the Baptists as a branch of the English Separatists. Others at Calvary advocate the spiritual kinship theory.” (Clint Banz, Librarian and Church History professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary)

“No one at Central affirms a Landmark view of Baptist history. In fact, we are quite committed to opposing this view . . . Genetically and historically, Baptists do come out of English separatism. We have great spiritual kinship with some Anabaptists (e.g., the Swiss brethren), but not with others (e.g., the Muensterites). The Waldenses are probably more like Presbyterians than they are like Baptists: We probably have people [that hold to a spiritual kinship view and an English Separatist view].” (Kevin Bauder, Ph.D. Systematic and Historical Theological Department Chair at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota)

“We at DBTS hold to the English Separatist view of Baptist origins, while recognizing a doctrinal kinship with groups who are not Baptist but, to some degree, embrace New Testament principles which Baptists affirm. The agreement would be limited to select doctrines, not with the groups holding them. For example, some sects in church history practiced adult baptism, but they were heretical in other respects. True Baptists accept the practice but not as a ‘successor’ to the heretical group. Following the strict successionist view requires either forcing earlier groups into a ‘Baptist’ mold, or relying on historical tradition for the validation of belief, rather than the New Testament.” (Dr. Gerald Priest, Professor of Historical Theology, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary)

1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Eerdmans, 1910) 1:20.

2 G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, introduction.

3 Schaff, History, 1:21.


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