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1953 Article

The Baptists are one of the largest of the Protestant religious denominations in America. Historians trace the origin of the church back to the European Anabaptists by way of the Mennonites in Amsterdam. Among the various separatist religious groups which developed in the southeastern corner of England during the latter part of the 16th century, either as a result of the presence of Dutch Anabaptist refugees in that area during that period, or because of the return of the Marian exiles from the continent, or perhaps for both reasons, there were among others, two small neighboring Separatist congregations, Scrooby and Gainsboro, the former under the leadership of John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford; and the latter under the leadership of John Smyth. Because of persecution, both fled from England to Amsterdam in 1608, but the Scrooby group soon left for Leiden, later emigrating to America as the Pilgrim Fathers.

Before the close of 1608 John Smyth, convinced that the logical conclusion of separation from the established church involved a renunciation of the chief symbol of initiation into that church, namely, infant baptism, decided to be rebaptized. But not finding at that time in Amsterdam a true church which he considered worthy of administering this rite, he baptized himself, then his chief follower, Thomas Helwys. These two then baptized the rest of the group, some 30 in number.

But before the close of another year (1609) John Smyth had a further change of heart. Having in the meantime become better acquainted with the Mennonites in Amsterdam, he decided that, after all, the Mennonites were a true church, and that he had made a mistake in baptizing himself, since by seeking baptism from the Mennonites he could have retained the line of apostolic succession. With the major part of his congregation, after subscribing to the confession of faith written by Hans de Ries, which the Mennonites had submitted to him, he now applied for membership with the Waterlander Mennonites, the most tolerant wing of the denomination in Amsterdam then.

Thomas Helwys and John Murton, in turn, together with a minority of the group, hesitating to concede that their former baptism had been a mistake, denying the need of apostolic succession, refused to follow Smyth in this venture, withdrew from him, and advised the Mennonites to deny admission of the group to membership. Two years later the Helwys party, deciding that Christians should not try to evade persecution, and no doubt because of their differences with Smyth and his group, returned to London to found the first General or Arminian Baptist Church in England.

The Amsterdam Mennonites hesitated to admit Smyth to their fellowship. In the meantime in 1612 Smyth died, and it was not until 1615, after the group had continued their separate worship in the bakery of Jan Munter, a Waterlander Mennonite, that they were finally admitted to full membership in the Mennonite congregation. But, due to language difficulties, the English branch of the church held their separate worship for some years, until their children learned the Dutch language, when they became an integral part of the congregation.

The London church, in turn, usually known as the General Baptist Church because, like the Mennonites, they espoused the Arminian theology which held that Christ's atonement applied to all mankind, including children, and not only to the elect few as maintained by the Calvinists, developed certain religious practices and beliefs distinct from both their Amsterdam brethren and the other Mennonites. Among other points of difference they declared that the magistracy was a divine institution and that the Christian was not forbidden to take a part in it. They also disagreed with the Mennonite view rejecting the oath and war. Anticipating the later Quakers, they also maintained that a layman, in the absence of the regular pastor, might preach and administer baptism and communion. A lively correspondence, mostly in Latin, was carried on with the Amsterdam Mennonites until well into the middle of the 17th century, asking for closer fellowship between the two churches and suggesting complete union. But the Mennonites, because of these conflicting views mentioned above, refused the union; and so the English Baptists and Dutch Mennonites after this each went their own way.

In the meantime, there had been another independent Baptist movement in England, usually called the Particular Baptists, because, unlike the General Baptists, they had adopted Calvinistic views. In 1616 Henry Jacob, a university graduate, leader of a separatist movement, exiled for a time to Zeeland, Holland, where he may have come in contact with the Dutch Mennonites, returned to London as leader of a small independent church. A division in this group in 1633 led to the formation of another Baptist group, which decided to adopt immersion as the only acceptable mode of baptism. In 1641 this group sent one of their number, Richard Blount, to a Collegiant congregation in Holland, likely Collegiant Mennonite, to receive immersion. Although the two wings of the church, the General and Particular, remained in close fellowship, agreeing in the main on fundamental Baptist doctrines, including immersion, they maintained their independent organizations until their final union in England in 1891.

The growth of the Baptist movement during the first century in England was steady though slow. The first congregation in Wales was organized 1649, but none in Scotland until near the middle of the following century. During the Commonwealth period, Baptists were among the most influential of the Independent groups, and played a conspicuous role in Cromwell's army. With the Restoration in 1660, at which time they numbered about 20,000, they suffered severe persecution, but under the Toleration Act of 1689 they were granted greater liberty. Like the Quakers and the Mennonites of their day, their insistence upon religious toleration was never popular with the state churches. Among their distinct doctrines were: (1) church membership based on adult confession of faith, and consequent renunciation of infant baptism; (2) separation of church and state; (3) freedom of religious conscience; (4) congregational church government; and (5) immersion as the only Scriptural mode of baptism.

Following the Wesleyan revival at the close of the 18th century, the English Baptists entered upon a period of steady expansion throughout Europe and the non-Christian lands. In 1792 they organized a foreign missionary society and sent William Carey, the pioneer missionary, to India. Soon after, they established the Sunday-school movement, a foreign Bible society, and tract and publication societies. By the middle of the 19th century they had begun congregations in most of the European countries and British colonies, in Germany in 1834, France 1835, Denmark and Sweden 1848, and Italy 1866. About the same time they gained a considerable following among the Russians, mainly among the Stundists. Among the prominent English Baptists in history may be mentioned John Bunyan, of Pilgrim's Progress fame (1628-1688); William Carey, the India missionary (1761-1834); and Charles H. Spurgeon, the famous London preacher (1834-1892).

The Baptist Church in America started independently of the English movement, but about the same time. Roger Williams is credited with being the first of the faith in America. Three years after his expulsion from Massachusetts, he sought rebaptism at the hands of a Separatist, Ezekiel Holliman, whom he then in turn baptized, together with several others, thus founding (1639) at Providence, Rhode Island, the first Baptist church in America. Roger Williams did not remain a Baptist, however. Within a few months he deserted his fold to become "seeker." In 1641 another congregation was formed at Newport, Rhode Island. In 1644 Mark Lukar, a Welsh Baptist immigrant joining the Newport group, introduced immersion, which finally became th accepted form of baptism for the whole American Baptist Church. The movement gradually spread to other colonies, into Massachusetts in 1649; Maine 1682; Pennsylvania 1684; and later into Virginia, North Carolina, and other southern colonies.

Because of their insistence upon complete separation of church and state, the Baptists were extremely unpopular during the Colonial days in those colonies where state churches were well established especially in New England and Virginia. They were often fined and jailed for their stubborn refusal to conform to the demands of the state church. A conspicuous case is that of Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College, who, because he espoused the Baptist doctrines, was expelled from the college, and publicly reprimanded by the ruling authorities for his act. It was only in Baptist Rhode Island and Quaker Pennsylvania that Baptists were granted a measure of religious freedom. With the adoption of the Federal Constitution, Baptists, as well as all other religious groups, were granted complete religious toleration. In the early years American Baptists were inclined to the Arminian theology, but in the 20th century they have become largely Calvinistic. In 1845 the slavery question divided the denomination into a northern and a southern division, a cleavage still existing, though on other grounds.

The 19th century was one of steady expansion for American Baptists. Missionary, benevolent, and educational institutions were established, and before the middle of the century a number of theological seminaries, among which were Colgate, 1819; Newton, 1825; and Rochester and Louisville before the Civil War. By 1928 the two Baptist conventions—North and South—controlled 16 theological seminaries and 53 colleges, some of them among the largest in the land. The University of Chicago was originally (1893) a Baptist foundation. Baptist Negroes, too, had their own missionary soccieties and schools.

In church government the Baptists were strictly congregational and democratic, each congregation free to control its own local affairs. For carrying on their missionary and benevolent work, however, they were united into associations, state and regional, and nationally into conventions. The Baptist World Alliance was founded in 1905.

The total membership of the denomination in the United States in 1950, including all twelve of the divisions, totaled about 16,500,000 as follows:

Southern Baptist Convention 7,079,880
Two African-American Conventions 7,091,394
Northern Baptist Convention 1,561,073
American Baptist Association 330,315
All others 425,000
Canadian Baptists, about 100,000
English Baptists, about 255,000
German Baptists, about 70,000

Among the minor groups, perhaps the best known were the Primitive Baptists, though small with a membership of only some 70,000 in 1950, largely in the South. They composed the extremely conservative wing of the denomination. They opposed Sunday schools, missionary efforts, benevolent associations, instrumental music in church worship, and an educated ministry. They were extremely Calvinistic. They practiced laying on of hands, and in some sections feetwashing in connection with communion. Extremely individualistic, they were loosely organized, and for that reason were frequently spoken of under such names as Hardshell Baptists, Old School and Anti-Mission Baptists. There was also a Negro Primitive Church of nearly equal numerical strength. Among other minor groups were the General Baptists, United Baptists, Regular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, General Six Principles Baptists.

Because of the similarity of their doctrine of religious toleration, Baptists and Mennonites have occasionally crossed paths in later history. The Dompelaar movement in the Hamburg Mennonite Church in the middle of the 17th century was the outcome of a visit to that congregation of a Baptist missionary from London. Baptist missionaries, too, visited the South German Mennonites in the early part of the 19th century, and were partly responsible for the establishment of the first missionary efforts of the German Mennonites (see Angas). For a time the Dutch and South German Mennonite missionary gifts were sent to the English Baptist society. During the 1860's and later leading German Baptist ministers visited the newly established Mennonite Brethren Church of Russia, which for a time seriously considered the advisability of affiliation with the Baptists, and did establish communion fellowship with them. Preacher Alf, leader of the Baptists in Poland, influenced a Mennonite group in Poland (Deutsch-Wymysle) about 1860. The introduction of immersion into the Mennonite Brethren group was apparently due chiefly to Baptist influence. Many Russian Mennonite Brethren missionaries served in German Baptist missions, particularly in Kamerun and India. In North America the Mennonite Brethren had considerable close and sympathetic connections with the Baptists, particularly in the use of Baptist literature and attendance at Baptist theological seminaries. In former years a number entered the Baptist ministry. (See Baptists and Mennonites in Russia.)

Baptists have been conscious of their Anabaptist connections, and have at times emphasized this as a link in their "apostolic succession." Some Mennonites have been influenced by Baptist historiography to construct a Mennonite apostolic succession on a similar basis, though without historical warrant. Because of their historical interest, a series of Baptist historians have rendered notable service in the field of Anabaptist history, among them the two Burrages (Henry S., 1837-1926, and Champlin, 1874- ), A. H. Newman (1852-1933), Henry C. Vedder (1853-1935), and R. J. Smithson (1880- ). Balthasar Hubmaier in particular has become the Baptist hero, no doubt because he alone of the Anabaptists took a position on the magistracy and war which agrees with the Baptist position. G. D. Davidson prepared (1939) an English translation of all of Hubmaier's writings. Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary has a considerable collection of rare early Anabaptist writings, with emphasis on Hubmaier tracts. -- C. Henry Smith

1987 Update

It is generally agreed that the Baptist tradition began about 1609 in the John Smyth congregation of English Separatists (a radical group that broke away from the Puritans). While in exile in Amsterdam, this congregation was influenced to some extent by Dutch Mennonites. There are similarities of position between Baptists and Anabaptists which cannot all be attributed to Mennonite influence: an emphasis on the believers church, believers baptism and biblicism, and opposition to hierarchy and state interference in religious matters. However, when the majority of Smyth's congregation decided to unite with the Mennonites and a minority returned to England, the two traditions diverged. In An Advertisement or admonition unto the Congregations, which men call the New Fryelers (1611), Thomas Helwys, leader of the Baptist minority, outlined four reasons for the division: unorthodox Mennonite views of the Incarnation; Mennonite laxity on Sabbath (Sunday) observance; Mennonite insistence on "succession" in the church; and Mennonite damning of the magistracy (church-state relations), including the refusal to bear arms or otherwise participate in government. The Incarnation issue disappeared when Mennonites quietly dropped their unique interpretation in the 18th century. The Sabbath issue has also ceased to be prominent, but questions related to "succession" and church-state relations continue to separate Anabaptists and Baptists. Helwys insisted that each congregation has the right to initiate baptism and ordain pastors and accused Smyth and the Mennonites of accepting the successionist error of Catholics and magisterial Reformers. Smyth replied that baptism and ordination should be passed on in succession where possible. The issue was one of degree, and the differences have remained. While Baptists and Mennonites have a similar church polity, Baptists, particularly in North America, have tended to place more stress on congregational autonomy, while Mennonites have usually been more conscious of the larger fellowship.

The big difference between Mennonites and Baptists remains the attitude toward the state and society. Baptists in the United States have often been ardent nationalists and promoters of the military, while Mennonites have frequently been pacifists and at odds with the state. Baptists have tended to separate church and state while participating fully in both spheres, in Helwys' words, serving God with their souls and the state with their bodies. Mennonites have taken a more wholistic view of persons, separating the church, body and soul, from society. The same tendencies are evident in the Soviet Union, despite state pressure for both groups to amalgamate in the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB). Mennonite Brethren, whose position has been revised by Baptist, evangelical, and pietist influence, have tended to join the AUCECB, while other Mennonites have preferred to remain independent. Among Mennonites absorbed by the AUCECB, there has been a disproportionate number of former Mennonites among the breakaway Reformed Baptists, who refuse all involvement with the state.

On the other hand, external influences have revised Baptist positions on other issues since 1609. A second branch of English Baptists, the Particular Baptists (independent origins, 1633), introduced a Calvinist strain into the Baptist tradition. The Baptists were also forerunners and beneficiaries of the evangelical and Pietist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. This has increased Baptist stress on individual conversion, in contrast to the Mennonite stress on discipleship and lifelong commitment. The differences between Baptists and Mennonites are thus part of the larger distinction between the evangelical and Anabaptist traditions. Nevertheless, the close ties and similarities between the two groups have generated a long debate among Baptists, particularly in the United States, over whether Baptists are Anabaptists or Protestants. -- James R. Coggins

See also Balthasar Hubmaier; Johann Gerhard Oncken; Umsiedler; Baptists in the Netherlands; Baptists and Mennonites in Russia


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White, B. R. The English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century. London: The Baptist Historical Society, 1983; two more volumes are projected by the same publisher: Raymond Brown. The English Baptists of the Eighteenth Century and J. H. Y. Briggs, The English Baptists of the Nineteenth Century.

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A series of articles in The Chronicle 14 (1951), 16 (1953), 20 (1957) debated whether Baptists were Anabaptists or Protestants; Joseph D. Ban took up the question in In the Great Tradition. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1982: 91-106.

See also:

The writings of Will D. Campbell, particularly Cecelia's Sin. Macon, GA: Mercer U. Press, 1986 and Brother to a Dragonfly . New York: Seabury, 1972, represent a direct appropriation by a 20th century Southern Baptist of the 16th century Anabaptist heritage without addressing the issue of historical continuity.

Dissertations on Anabaptist and Hutterite themes have been written at leading Baptist seminaries (see Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (1980): 64-65, 60 (1986): 200-201.

See also James R. Hertzler. "English Baptists Interpret Continental Mennonites in the Early 19th Century." Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (1980): 42-52

Estep, William R., Jr. The Anabaptist Story. Nashville: Broadman, 1963; reprinted, Grand Rapids, 1975.

Moore, John A. Anabaptist Portraits. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.

Author(s) C. Henry Smith
James R. Coggins
Date Published 1987

Cite This Article

MLA style

Smith, C. Henry and James R. Coggins. "Baptists." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 17 Jul 2024.

APA style

Smith, C. Henry and James R. Coggins. (1987). Baptists. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 228-230, v. 5, pp. 56-57. All rights reserved.

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