Smyth, John (ca. 1565-1612)

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John Smyth (Smith) was born in East England. He studied theology at the University of Cambridge in 1586-1593, and probably also medicine, and became a minister in the Church of England at Lincoln. In 1602, after nine months of doubt and deliberation, he left the state church. About this time or shortly before he was won to the principles of the Puritan Brownists, whom he had previously attacked in a polemical tract. After leaving the state church he seems to have traveled and preached for some months. Early in 1603 he was invited by a number of Puritan manufacturers of Gainsborough to be their preacher, and for nearly four years he served as the leader of the Gainsborough Brownist congregation. But the oppression of the Nonconformists was becoming more and more severe during the reign of King James I; Smyth left England, and with a number of adherents went to Amsterdam in October or November 1607. Here he found a Brownist congregation led by Francis Johnson and Henry Ainsworth. Smyth and his followers, however, did not join this congregation, but founded a second English (Brownist) church, apparently because he did not agree with Johnson's views, who leaned toward Calvinist doctrines, such as predestination. While serving this congregation as minister, Smyth made his living by the practice of medicine. The Smyth congregation, at first rather small in membership, increased, particularly in 1607 when the Brownist congregation of Scrooby, of which John Robinson, "the father of the Pilgrims," had been the preacher, also moved to Amsterdam. Some of its members, including Thomas Helwys, joined the Smyth group. In the meantime Smyth had come to a deeper understanding of the nature of the church, and believed that the church should be a church of believers and only those should be admitted to the church who were converted to the faith, infant baptism being unscriptural. He severely attacked the Johnson group, accusing them of idolatry while they maintained the legality of infant baptism and ministers' ordination received in the state church, and reproaching them with accepting money from unbelievers. Smyth's reproofs were not all fair, and caused a sharp paper war with Johnson, Robinson, Clyfton, and others.

Smyth, convinced of the truth of his newly acquired views, and with the approval of his congregation, step by step turned to Anabaptism, and finally, holding that the baptisms he performed were not valid because he himself had not received the right baptism, in the fall of 1608 "in the solemn divine service, before them all (i.e., the members), baptized himself on confession of faith." This baptism was severely censured by the Johnson leaders, and even in his own group some did not agree and left the Smyth congregation. Soon Smyth himself came to the conclusion that his baptism was unbiblical and repented it. About the same time, Smyth with some 40 followers acquired Jan Munter's bakehouse for their meetings. Repenting his self-baptism and trying to bring his congregation to a more Biblical pattern, he sought to contact the Waterlander Mennonite congregation of Amsterdam, of which Jan Munter had informed him. As an introduction he sent a letter to this congregation, where Lubbert Gerritz was the elder at this time. In this letter he included a list of members, signed by 14 men and 17 women, all of whom declared that the self-baptism of Smyth was wrong; he added a confession of faith of 20 articles in Latin. (Later Smyth delivered a still more detailed confession in 102 articles.) It was obviously the intention of Smyth to form a union or even a merger between the Waterlander Mennonite congregation and his own. But not all of Smyth's followers agreed; about ten of them, including Helwys, refused to sign the letter to the Mennonites. Though they wished to be on friendly terms with the Waterlanders and shared the Mennonite views concerning baptism, they did not favor a merger. Helwys, in the name of the dissidents, wrote a letter to the trustees of the Waterlander congregation, asking them not to consent to Smyth's proposal. Helwys also drew up a confession of faith (19 articles) pointing out that the Brownists in many respects agreed with the Mennonites, but differed on the nonswearing of oaths and nonresistance. Helwys severely attacked Smyth, charging him with apostasy and sin against the Holy Ghost, and soon after excommunicated Smyth and his followers.

The letter by Smyth was cordially received by the Amsterdam Waterlanders, though they hesitated to take Smyth's outstretched hand; the warning of Helwys as well as the objections raised by some Waterlander country churches in Friesland deterred them from precipitate action, though both Lubbert Gerritsz and the preachers of Amsterdam as well as Hans de Ries, the outstanding Dutch Waterlander leader, urged a union with "the English." Lubbert Gerritsz and de Ries together drew up a confession of faith of 38 articles, an English translation of which was sent to the Smyth group. After a number of debates and negotiations, the union finally came about in 1615. By this time both Lubbert Gerritsz and Smyth had died.

Smyth published a large number of writings; besides two confessions of faith and a volume of sermons, The Bright Morning Starre . . . (1603), he is the author of many polemical tracts, including The Character of the Beast (1609), in which he explains his motives in his baptism and his proposal to unite with the Mennonites against Helwys. Most of these tracts by Smyth give the impression that in accord with the fashion of his time he was a disagreeable theological polemicist, but this view is one-sided, because this man, successively an Anglican divine, a Puritan, a Brownist, an Anabaptist, a Mennonite, through his whole life passionately sought after the truth of God. At the end of his life he found peace. Overwhelmed by the bitter polemical writings of his opponents, he kept silent. A few years before his death he wrote, "If any man say, why then do you not answer the books written in opposition? my answer is, my desire is to end all controversies among Christians rather than to make and maintain them, especially in matters of the outward church and ceremonies; and it is the grief of my heart that I have so long cumbered myself and spent my time therein. . . . And now from this day forward do I put an end to all controversies . . . and resolve to spend my time in the main matters wherein consisteth salvation." -- Nanne van der Zijpp

1990 Update

An English Puritan and a Cambridge University graduate, Smyth was city lecturer in Lincoln 1600-1602, losing his job in a local political dispute. Disillusioned by the anti-Puritan policies of James I and unable to obtain employment in the Church of England, he became a Separatist about 1606. (English Separatists advocated a church composed only of committed believers but retained infant baptism.) Smyth became a leader among Separatists near Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, and Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. These Separatists fled to Amsterdam in the spring of 1608, where they quarreled with the Ancient Church of Separatists. In The Differences of the Churches of the seperation [sic] (1608) Smyth criticized the Ancient Church for using "man-made" books (including Scripture translations) in worship services; for distinguishing between pastors, teachers, and elders and limiting their numbers in a congregation; and for receiving money from nonmembers.

At least half of the Smyth congregation, led by John Robinson, moved on to Leiden early in 1609. About the same time, Smyth decided that infant baptism was wrong and rebaptized himself and his congregation. He published The Character of the Beast (1609) as a defense of believer's baptism. Coming into contact with a Waterlander-Frisian Mennonite congregation, Smyth decided that they were a true church and he should have sought baptism from them. Thirty-two members of the congregation sought union with the Mennonites, having accepted Mennonite positions on the state, free will and possibly the incarnation. An alliance was achieved in 1610, which alienated other Mennonite groups and contributed to the breakup of the Mennonite alliance, the Bevredigde Broederschap. William Bradford of the Robinson faction described Smyth as gifted but unstable, a description which has been widely accepted by historians. In his "Last Booke," written shortly before his death, Smyth repented of his uncharitable attitude toward theological opponents, while repudiating none of his theology.

Smyth died in 1612, survived by his wife Mary and their children. Mary evidently shared his theological views and signed the application to join the Mennonites, but little else is known of Smyth's family. -- James R. Coggins

See also Baptists.


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Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Knopf, 1959: 9-17.

Burgess, W. H. John Smith, the Sebaptist, Thomas Helwys. London, 1911.

Burgess, Walter H. John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers. London: William A. Norgate, 1920: 409-417.

Coggins, James R. "John Smyth's Congregation: English Separatism, Dutch Mennonites and the Elect Nation." PhD dissertation, U. of Waterloo, 1986.

Dexter, H. Morton. The True Story of John Smyth . . . Boston, 1881.

Hoop Scheffer, Jacob Gijsbert de. Inventaris der Archiefstukken berustende bij de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente to Amsterdam, 2 vols. Amsterdam: Uitgegeven en ten geschenke aangeboden door den Kerkeraad dier Gemeente, 1883-1884:H, Nos. 1345-55.

Hoop Scheffer, J. G. de and W. E. Griffis. History of the Free Churchmen. Ithaca, N.Y., n.d.-1922: 88-115, 145, 147.62, 197.207, 211-18, 211-53.

Newman, A. H. A History of Anti-pedobaptism. Philadelphia, 1897: 376-393.

P(igott), T(homas). John Smyth's Confession and Life. 1612; a copy of 1875 in Amsterdam Mennonite Library.

Whitley, W. T. The Works of John Smith, 2 v. Cambridge, 1915.

A series of articles in The Baptist Quarterly 30 (1984) debated Smyth's theology.

Author(s) Nanne van der Zijpp
James R. Coggins
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Zijpp, Nanne van der and James R. Coggins. "Smyth, John (ca. 1565-1612)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jun 2024.,_John_(ca._1565-1612)&oldid=132228.

APA style

Zijpp, Nanne van der and James R. Coggins. (1989). Smyth, John (ca. 1565-1612). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 June 2024, from,_John_(ca._1565-1612)&oldid=132228.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 554-555; vol. 5, pp. 830-831. All rights reserved.

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