Baptist History, Part I (with a view toward understanding American Baptist Polity)

I thought I’d share with you a series of articles I’m writing to fulfill a Baptist Studies Certificate. I’ve learned alot from the readings and the history of our own denomination, American Baptists. Despite my daily doubts and rants against God and the evils of this world, I’ve grown in faith (believe it or not 🙂 ) from writing and researching these. I hope you enjoy them:

Smyth and Helwys Are Not a Night Club Act in Vegas

There comes a time in every believer’s life when he/she must decide on which doctrines, issues, or creeds they will make a stand; whether they are worth standing up for in a local class, a church business meeting, an area assembly, or at a state convention. How far would you go and how much persecution would you receive to protect your right to believe what you believe? In my study of Baptist history, I learned of two people, coming out of the Church of England in 1606, who were willing to take that stand and who are credited as founders of the Baptist faith in England: John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.

Smyth and Helwys were among a group of Christian dissenters in England who questioned the legitimacy of infant baptism and other doctrines of their church. Smyth was a Church of England clergyman and Helwys was a wealthy layman who followed Smyth’s teachings. Smyth sympathized with a growing movement of Anabaptists (re-baptizers) from Switzerland who maintained that the Roman and English Churches had strayed far from biblical practice when it came to infant baptism. They had begun re-baptizing adults and forming new communities of faith based on teachings they had gleaned from the bible. Smyth agreed that Christians are only born again when they are old enough to choose to follow Jesus and baptized into the community of the faithful. Once he stood his ground on this point, many other dissenting members of the English Church joined him. After a couple of months the increasingly persecuted movement transplanted to Amsterdam, where Smyth and Helwys joined with others of like thinking. They studied the scriptures and were compelled to guide their communities based on three basic principles:

1) the church should be made up of believers only, through adult baptism.

2) the government of the church should be a democracy, not a hierarchy.

3) the Bible alone was their guide.

I would like to report that everything was smooth sailing for Smyth and Helwys from this point on, but I would be wrong. Early Baptists still had some discerning and maturing to do. Even though Smyth had re-baptized himself and others, he reconsidered some of his beliefs and applied for membership with the Mennonites in Amsterdam for himself and his congregation. The Mennonites believed that Christians should have nothing to do with governmental affairs, should not take oaths, and should remain separate from secular affairs (Gritsch, Birth of the Baptist Movement). Helwys, who disagreed with Smyth, returned to England with some of their followers and founded the first Baptist church on English soil. Helwys maintained that the government should allow the religious freedom of everyone. He thought it was possible for a Christian to be loyal to his church and his government at the same time without serious conflict. But, his confidence would not last. In our next article we will learn more about Helwys’ bold stand for religious liberty and the price he paid for it.

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

John 8:36


5 thoughts on “Baptist History, Part I (with a view toward understanding American Baptist Polity)

  1. Thank you Suresh and Diana. They are not complete by any means, but meant for a quick overview for my church, so I hope you’re not disappointed in Baptist History Light. I look forward to posting them. 🙂

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