Gainsborough (Lincolnshire, England)

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Gainsborough, a city (1951 pop. 12,604; 2005 pop. 20,110) in east central England, county of Lincoln, in the neighborhood of which a Separatist congregation formed about 1600. Shortly after its inception John Smyth, a former Anglican clergyman and "a man of able gifts and a good preacher," was chosen pastor. Smyth's early writings, which include a kind of church polity entitled Principles and Inferences Concerning the Visible Church (1607), reveal that in principle and organization the Gainsborough group closely resembled the Brownist and Barrowist congregations, already forming for more than a decade.

The membership of the congregation included some Separatists who later were among the Pilgrim Fathers. William Bradford in his chronicle, Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-50), although he does not mention Gainsborough by name, refers to the original congregation as those who "joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all His ways made known, or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavours, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them." The same source states that they held meetings regularly for about a year, "notwithstanding all the diligence and malice of their adversaries, they seeing they could no longer continue in that condition, they resolved to get over into Holland as they could. Which was in the year 1607 and 1608."

The writings of both Bradford and Smyth indicate that the membership was scattered in various towns and villages, "some in Nottinghamshire, some of Lincolnshire, and some of Yorkshire," since the borders of the three counties join near Gainsborough; also, there was no one place of meeting. Shortly after forming, the congregation, for the sake of convenience, divided into two parts, the one gathering at Gainsborough under Smyth, and the other at Scrooby under Richard Clyfton. At the time of leaving for and upon arrival at Amsterdam both groups thought of themselves as belonging to one congregation.

At Amsterdam Smyth and his followers set up a congregation independent of the one already established there in 1593 by the English Separatists under the leadership of Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth. Instead they made contacts with the Dutch Mennonites, and several of the group joined them. Smyth himself agreed with their principles and therefore wished to introduce baptism on confession of faith in his congregation. In 1609 he baptized himself, then Thomas Helwys and John Murton, as well as 40 other members of his congregation. This congregation planted on Dutch soil by the Separatists from Gainsborough thus became the original congregation of the Baptists. In 1612 Helwys and Murton returned to England with their followers and founded the congregations from which the General Baptists sprang. Most of the followers of Smyth who remained in Amsterdam joined the Mennonite Church after his death.

The Scrooby leaders, arriving at Amsterdam somewhat later than Smyth, broke company with him, due to the contention and the acceptance of what Bradford calls "some errours in the Low Countries." After a year, in 1609, with John Robinson as pastor, they moved on to Leiden. The congregation at Leiden as well as the later Plymouth covenant of the Pilgrim Fathers reveal a close kinship to the mother congregation at Gainsborough. The only evidence of Separatism at Gainsborough after 1608 is recorded by Hanserd Knollys, who states that during the years 1625-1629 he knew a Brownist there "who used to pray and expound the Scriptures in his Family, with whom I had Conference and very good Counsel."


Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647: The complete text, with notes and an introduction by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Knopf, 1963.

Burrage, Champlin. The Early English Dissenters in the Light of Recent Research (1550-1641). New York, Russell & Russell, 1967: 229-235.

Payne, Ernest A. The Free Church Tradition in the Life of England. London, 1951: 41-46.

Smyth, John. The works of John Smyth Fellow of Christ’s College, 1594-8, W. T. Whitley, editor. Cambridge: University Press, 1915.

Author(s) Irvin B Horst
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Horst, Irvin B. "Gainsborough (Lincolnshire, England)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 10 May 2021.,_England)&oldid=132226.

APA style

Horst, Irvin B. (1956). Gainsborough (Lincolnshire, England). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 May 2021, from,_England)&oldid=132226.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 430-431. All rights reserved.

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