The Emergence of the Baptists in England

The Emergence of the Baptists in England

There were some things, perhaps many that provided fertile soil for the beginnings of what we call the Baptist denomination. It was a complex beginning. Political and religious factors forced men to question the nature and function of churches. Some sought to reform the Church of Roman and England. While others knew that was impossible, so they separated from those two institutions and began new denominations. Among those new denominations, we find the Baptists.

The Political Background

In 1534, King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. He established the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. Yet, it retained a Catholic flavor.

Interestingly, Henry VIII did not seek the tutelage of Anglicans for his son Edward VI, rather he chose the Protestants. When Edward assumed the throne he pushed the break from Rome even further. He styled the Church of England in a protestant fashion. His toleration of the reformers sparked reform movements throughout Europe. That lasted for only six years, the length of Edwards reign, which was cut short by death.

His stepsister, Mary Tudor changed all of that. She instantly reversed Edwards’s protestantizing of the Church of England and made it Catholic once again. She did this by force, lethal force. So lethal was Mary, her nickname was “Bloody Mary.” She was “bloody” in that she ordered mass executions of Protestants.

Mary’s reign was brief also, lasting only six years. However, in those years, she brought the Catholic-style back into the Church of England. Her sister, Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1559. Right away, knowing that the English began to enjoy the Protestantizing of the Church of England, Queen Elizabeth attempted to strike a compromise between the Catholics and the Protestants. She established a religious system known as the “Elizabethan Settlement.”

As with compromise, the only ones truly satisfied are the moderates. Those who truly wanted to follow Scripture and worship God in a pure fashion were not satisfied with this “Settlement.”

The Religious Background

Although the political structure of England was tumultuous, Christianity was experiencing a glorious reformation. Martin Luther led the Germans to true Christianity by nailing his 95 theses on the doors of a Catholic church decrying indulgences and other various heresies. John Calvin led the French and Swiss the doctrines of grace. Zwingli proclaimed the scriptures verse by verse, allowing them to speak for themselves without having the “Church” interpret the holy writ for the masses. These men opened the doors for a true reformation and revival.

These reformers proclaimed Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, and Sola Gratia. These Latin phrases are Scripture alone, Faith alone, Christ alone, and Grace alone, respectively. This sent a missile into the Vatican in Rome. Some of these men (and many of their followers) lost their lives defending these truths.

As the Church of England settled on its compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism, a number of persevering saints opposed it.

The Puritans

Not convinced that the Church of England has seen its last days, these believers wanted to reform the Church. They did not want to leave it, but to bring it back to a “purer” theology. Hence they were named “Puritans.”

The Separatists

Some were not so convinced. They were more pessimistic (which is not always a bad word) that the Church was beyond repair, so they separated from it, hence the name “Separatists.” It is from this latter group of believers that the first Baptist church in history makes its debut.

The Baptist background

The General Baptists

John Smyth (c 1565–1612), was born and raised in the Church of England. He studied at Cambridge University and became a minister in the Church. It was not long before Smyth was “won to the principles of the Puritan Brownists.”1 This was his first step Both he, and a man by the name of Thomas Helwys, soon rejected the Puritan’s beliefs regarding infant baptism. The Mennonites were influential in persuading Smyth and Helwys regarding believer’s baptism. Having this infantile, yet developing, understanding, Smyth baptized himself,2 as well as Thomas Helwys and the rest of his congregation. This moment is that which most historians consider to be the first Baptist congregation.

Smyth did not stay a Baptist for long. He followed the Mennonites too closely. It was not long before he desired to become a Mennonite.3 Helwys and a few others split from Smyth. Unfortunately Smyth gained a greater following and requested membership with the Mennonites. They stayed his membership request for three years.4 During that time, Smyth died. However, after his death, the Mennonites did admit Smyth’s congregation into their number. Helwys continued to pastor the Baptists.

The General Baptists, though first, are not the direct ancestors of our Baptist heritage. There were many differences between them and the Particular Baptists. These will be spelled out in more detail.

Particular Baptists

In another city, at another time, another variety of Baptists began. Though not a Baptist, Henry Jacob, an English Separatist, founded a church in 1616. Jacob and the two succeeding pastors (Lathrop and Jessey) developed an understanding of church life from the Scriptures. Some of the members were not so patient with the church in its development. One particular man, Samuel Eaton, left the church and started his own congregation. Meanwhile, Jessey did settle on believer’s baptism by immersion by 1638.

It is not clear that Eaton himself was a Baptist, but a member of his church, Richard Blunt, persuaded the church to baptize believers by immersion. They became a Baptist church by 1640.

Differences between the General and Particular Baptists

Not only were the General and Particular Baptists different in their origin, they were different in their beliefs and practices.

Differences of Theology

Particular Baptists were Calvinists, whereas the General Baptists were Arminian. The following table represents these differences.5


Particular Baptists
2nd London Baptist Confession

General Baptists
Orthodox Creed

Election God has elected certain individuals to salvation. Only they will come to Christ, and they come only by God’s free and unmerited choice. All who believe in Christ are elect. Election is not of individuals but of Christ himself. Anyone who comes into Christ becomes elect.
Atonement Jesus died for his elect only, and the benefits of his death are applied to the elect when God generates faith in their lives. Jesus died for all men, and any person may partake of the benefits of Christ’s death by accepting Christ when the gospel is preached.
Free Will Man lost free will in the Fall. He has lost any ability to will spiritual good. He cannot convert himself or even prepare himself for conversion, for he is dead in trespasses and sins. Man is wholly passive at the moment of regeneration. The will is made immutably free only in the state of glory. Although man does not have free will, God’s grace, which is the offer of salvation, frees man’s will so that he may either choose or reject that grace without bing compelled for or against the offer.
Perseverance The elect can never finally or totally fall away; they are kept by the power of God unto salvation. True believers may from lace of watchfulness fall from the grace of God and become withered branches cast into the fire and burned.
Sin Man is conceived a sinner, Man becomes a sinner upon his first act of sin.

The General Baptists held to a subjective, mystical, understanding of the Christian life. They were more like the Quakers.

When it came to issues of separation, the General Baptists compromised two cardinal doctrines. They associated themselves with a preacher by the name of Matthew Caffyn (1628–1714) who denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ. By the late 1700s, the General Baptists died off, many of whom became Unitarians.

Though General Baptists immersed professing believers, they wrongly believed that baptism was a symbol of the washing away of sins. Particular Baptists “recovered the view of baptism as a testimony to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”6

They differed in their structure

Both Particular and General Baptists enjoyed fellowship with other churches. Both groups formed associations. General Baptists established a hierarchal framework. That is, they made their churches subject to the association. They were not truly self-ruling churches.


God has ordained the events of this world to bring about His Sovereign purposes. As we have learned today, it pleased God to use a monarchy (even a wicked one), the Puritans, and Separatists to prepare the way for a new denomination – the Baptists. We find a number of biblical principles at work:

God is sovereign. No monarch or movement can thwart His purposes.

The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (Pro 21.1)

His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing.He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” (Dan 4.34–35)

Man is responsible. He is to respond to God’s sovereignty in utter dependence and radical obedience.

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. (Jnh 3.1)

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! (Ac 5.29)

As man searches the Scriptures and follows them as God’s very words, he will seek to win others to the same truths.

One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Ac 18.9–11)

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience.… If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2co 5.11, 13–15)

While we may appreciate the history of Baptists, we must never lose sight that we are motivated by the above principles. Failure to cherish, obey, and proclaim these principles will again make fertile ground for persevering believers to destroy the foundation our forefathers laid in our heritage.

1 Brownists were those Puritans who followed Robert Browne. Robert Browne did not remain a Puritan however. He defected back to the Church of England. The Mennonite Encyclopedia, “Smyth, John,” p. 554.

2 The common mode of baptism was that of affusion (pouring water over one’s head). Though Smyth was right regarding the necessity of believer’s baptism, he did not practice baptism in the correct way by immersion.

3 The Mennonites believed in apostolic succession. That is, they were the true church because they could trace their beginnings back to John the Baptist. Smyth wrongly believed that this made his previous baptism null and void. Therefore, Smyth desired to join their number.

4 Helwys wrote the Mennonites warning them not to accept Smyth because of his theological drifts.

5 L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles, Baptists and the Bible (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), p. 31.

6 Michael Haykin, Rediscovering our English Baptist Heritage: Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach (Leeds, Ontario: Reformation Today Trust, 1996), p. 26


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