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English Separatist-Baptist Confessions


By 1562 Dutch exiles on English soil are said to have numbered 30,000; but the Anabaptist element among these had to lie concealed, for throughout the reign of Elizabeth the death penalty awaited any who were convicted of holding Anabaptist sentiments.  These sentiments, however, seem to have penetrated areas of English life where Anabaptists themselves did not appear, and to have become part of the thought-system of the people generally, coming into expression in the radical dissent of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England. 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the interpretation of the scriptures by certain Englishmen concerning such matters as the doctrine of a pure church, of freedom of conscience, of believers' baptism, of congregational autonomy, and of separation of church and state owed something to the infiltration of Anabaptist ideas.  To this case of ideas came Robert Brown, a congregationalist, in 1580 to make his beginning.  In the Dutch town of Norwich, Robert Brown and Robert Harrison worked out their congregational theories without showing any conscious indebtedness to Anabaptist influences.

His experiment failed and his people fled to  Holland where the group disintegrated, and Browne himself later conformed to the Church of England.  However, Seperatists ideas did not cease.   Two leaders of a young Separatist church, Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood, were imprisoned in 1586, but in 1589 they sent from prison a simple church creed called A Trve Description ovt of the Word of God, of the visible Church.  The creed did not concern itself with doctrinal matters since the congregation was already of one mind in holding Calvinistic views. 

In the summer of 1593 there was a change of policy on the part of the government toward the Separatists.  While their leaders remained in prison, the dissenters left England for Holland.  Most of the emigrants reached Holland in 1595 where the church was re-gathered1.  Desiring to make clear its doctrinal position and its ecclesiology, in view of the threats of attacks, the church prepared in 1596 a new creed, the shortened title of which is A Truve Confession.  The seven Particular Baptist Churches of London used this confession as a model when they drew up their earliest confession in 1644.  Thus, the Separatist Confession entered into Baptist life.  

edited from "Baptist Confessions of Faith", Lumpkin

1 It came to be known as the "Ancient Church"[return]

note.gif (869 bytes) TRR Editor's Note:  This confession is at times difficult to read.  The original language has been retained with only minor changes for a clearer understanding.



John Smythe is one of the significant early Baptist leaders. This is his personal confession, never officially published. The original document is located in the Mennonite Archives, Amsterdam. Smyth's purpose in composing this confession seems to have been to stake out a distinct theological position in relation to both the main body of English separatists, and the continental Anabaptists with whom he had thrown in his lot.



Early in 1610 the Helwys party, also desirous of maintaining friendly relations with the Waterlanders, sent the Dutch a letter, written in Latin, urging them not to accept the English into their church. To receive them, Helwys said, would be but to encourage the erroneous belief of Smyth in a succession in spiritual things. With the letter went a confession of faith, also in Latin, consisting of nineteen articles in which the group described itself as the "true Christian English church."  The confession was intended to enable the Dutch to distinguish its authors from the Smythe congregation, rather than to argue for admission of the Helwys party to the Mennonite fellowship. The Helwys party did not intend to seek such admission.

Some of the ‘Waterlanders, in spite of Helwys’ protest, were favorably disposed toward the Smythe application, and they suggested that a closer study of doctrinal positions be undertaken. Would the English examine the popular confession of de Ries and Gerrits of 1580 and afterwards indicate their agreement or disagreement? The Smyth people being willing, an English translation in somewhat shortened form was drawn up by de Ries and submitted to them. Soon the names of forty-three English people, John Smyth’s standing first, were affixed to the document. The confession is practically a reproduction of that of Gerrits and de Ries of 1580, with articles XIX and XXII omitted. The English now were willing to accept Menno’s views of oaths, war, and civil magistracy. The Dutch original is in the Mennonite Archives, Amsterdam, and the translation of Muller is given here.




When the Smyth party sought admission to the Amsterdam Waterlander Church in 1610, some resistance was encountered inside the Mennonite fellowship.  Some Waterlanders discouraged haste in the matter, suggesting that Mennonites in parts of Holland beyond Amsterdam and even in Prussia and Germany should be consulted to forestall possible later disharmony and disunity.

However, Smyth's party was not in unanimous agreement.  Regarding the question of their baptism, Smyth, Gerrits, and others of Smyth's close followers stood in a position near that of the Mennonites, for they now believed their own baptism to have been unscriptural.

Meanwhile, Thomas Helwys was busily writing in 1610 and 1611, and in the latter year he published, in the name of his church, a confession of faith of twenty-seven* articles2.  It repudiated the conciliatory views of the Latin articles which he had earlier submitted to the Waterlanders, particularly renouncing Arminian views of sin and the will.

Mennonite influence is readily seen in the confession for it shows a departure from the hitherto markedly consistent Calvinism of the Separatist movement.  But it shows also decided signs of its authors' Calvinistic background.  It is anti-Calvinisitc on the doctrine of the atonement and anti-Arminian in its views of sin and the will.

The confession shows considerable independence of thought and is rightly judged the first English Baptist Confession of Faith.



2Compare Article 26 with sections 19-20 of Smyth's Twenty-Article personal Confession (Burgess, op. cit.) and with Acts 26-27.

*When republishing it in 1738, Crosby (Vol. II, 389 ff.) accidentally combined articles 24 and 25, thus reducing the total number of articles to twenty-six



After Smyth's death in August, 1612, his party, now abandoned by the Helwys part, continued to wait for admission into the Amsterdam Waterlander Church.  By this time Helwys had written not only his Confession of 1611, but also some additional works.  Smyth's followers responded by issuing a confession consisting of one hundred, two articles.

The Confession may have been instrumental in finally accomplishing union with the Mennonites, which occurred on Jan. 20, 1615.  It is principally notable, however, as perhaps the first confession of faith of modern times to demand freedom of conscience and seperation of church and state.   In these respects it was the pioneer for later Baptist confessions which almost always contained similar views.  This Confession found its way into John Cotton's hands in America, and it appears to have been referred to by English General Baptists as late as 1651. 

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