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Did They Dip?


I can but feel that entirely too much importance has been given to the so-called se-baptism of John Smyth. It is a matter of little moment whether he dipped himself or was baptized by another. Crosby says that his 'baptism did not affect the baptism of the Baptist Churches of England. His words are:

"If he were guilty of what they charge him with, 'tis no blemish on the English Baptists; who neither approved of any such method, nor did they receive their baptism from him." (Hist. English Baptists, Vol. I., pp. 99, 100).

It is sufficient to say of the personal history of John Smyth that he was a clergyman of the Episcopal Church, that he was born some time in the sixteenth century and died in 1611. There are two theories of his baptism. 1. Dr. Dexter's theory, the one followed by Dr. Whitsitt, and the one generally followed by Pedobaptists, is that he was baptized in 1608. (The true story of John Smyth, p. 10). After a long dissertation, in which Dr. Dexter tries to prove that sprinkling was the general form of baptism apparently from the earliest days of the church, he says of Smyth:

"Thus gathered together, after quietly waiting until all with one consent had laid the duty of beginning upon himself, I conceive of Mr. Smyth—disrobed sufficiently to allow of the easy washing of the upper portion of his body by himself—as walking into the stream, lifting handsful of water and pouring them liberally upon his own head, shoulders and chest, until clean and white they glistened under the purifying streams, solemnly repeating as he did so that formula which the Saviour bequeathed to his people to the end of time. Then turning, I imagine as receiving his associates, Helwys, Murton, Pygott, Seamer, Overton, Bromhead, Jessop, Hodgkins, Bywater, Grindal, Halton, and the others, not forgetting Mary Smyth, Ann Bromhead, Ursula Bywater, the Dickens sisters, and the rest, and, one by one, after the same manner, reinitiated each into the earthly kingdom of God. And I have ventured here to introduce, as possibly with considerable exactitude pictorially representing the service performed by Mr. Smyth upon himself, a tracing from an ancient engraving representing the selfbaptism in earlier days of a 'Hermobaptist."' (pp. 30, 31 ).

This description is manifestly absurd. Nobody but an enemy of the Baptists ever presented a baptism in this manner. If the nude picture given by Dr. Dexter teaches anything, it is that John Smyth was immersed. And there is not one whit of testimony presented by Dr. Dexter himself to prove that Smyth was sprinkled. It is purely "from fancy which may be truth "(p. 31), from which he draws his conclusions. The fact is that the whole account as given by Dr. Dexter is full of guesses, uncertainties, and nowhere is there a definite statement that John Smyth did actually baptize himself. Every one of his witnesses may be explained away without difficulty. No one who was an eye-witness has described the baptism according to this account, and we are left to conjecture as to whether it was by Smyth baptizing himself or by some one else baptizing him. Dr. Whitsitt gives no authorities which are not found in Dexter, and not one of them intimates that Smyth was sprinkled.

Barclay, who holds to the affusion view, was compelled to admit that "the question of the manner of baptism does not come up." (Inner Life of the Religious Societies, p. 70).

Thomas Price, D. D., one of the very best writers on this subject, gives us some very important data. We must remember that Smyth's enemies are responsible for this history, and that Is not always trustworthy. Dr. Price says:

"Much has been said about Mr. Smith having baptized himself. Ainsworth, Jessop, and some others of his opponents charge him with having done so, and make use of the alleged fact to awaken the ridicule of their readers, or to invalidate his administration of the ordinance. I confess that the matter does not appear to me to be of so much importance as some Baptist authors deeem it; nor do I think it so easy to determine the truth or falsity of the statement as the writers on both sides conclude it to be. The mere fact that such a statement was made by the contemporaries of Smith, and that no direct denial of it has come down to us, gives it some appearance of truth. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the parties making the statement were angry controversialists, who spared no invective or abuse, but seemed to think that every epithet appropriate and every assertion lawful, by which they could injure the reputation, or render ridiculous the proceedings of their opponent. Mr. Smith's defenses of himself are not known. His enemies adduce long quotations from his writings, but no one of them admits the fact with which he was charged, or attempts to justify it. He doubtless must have referred to it, and had he, in doing so, made the slightest admission, they would readily have retailed his language. It is a further confirmation of this view of the case that contemporaneous writers, referring to the baptismal controversy amongst the Brownists, and that with no friendly design, make no reference to such a fact." (The History of Protestant Nonconformity, Vol., p. 497).

It will be worth while to note that Jessop, a backslider and renegade, and Ainsworth both wrote books to sustain infant baptism and to overthrow the position of believers-baptism as held by Smyth. A close reading of these books would easily convince any one that they had no love for Smyth nor the doctrines that he held.

Wilson says:

"His principles and conduct soon drew upon him an host of opponents, the chief of whom were Johnson, Ainsworth, Robinson, Jessop and Clifton. The controversy began in 1606, about the time Smyth settled in Amsterdam. Soon afterwards he removed with his followers to Leyden, where he continued to publish various books in defence of his opinions, till his death in the year 1610." (The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches, Vol. I., p. 30).

I will further refresh the memory of the reader by reminding him that this company which persecuted Smyth were those who settled in New England. They fled from persecution in England and Holland, and were hardly settled in New England until they were burning witches and whipping Anabaptists. I do not think that Smyth and his opinions met with much justice at their hands.

2. There is another account given in certain church records of the Baptist Churches of Epworth and Crowle in the Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire, England. The church Covenant, dated January 4, 1599, is recorded in these words:

We, this church of Christ, meeting at Epworth, Crowle and West Butterwick, in the county of Lincolnshire, whose names are underwritten, give up ourselves to the Lord and one to another according to the will of God. We do promise and covenant in the presence of Christ, to walk together in the laws and ordinances of baptized believers according to the rules of the Gospel through Jesus Christ, so helping us. James Rayner, John Morton, Henry Helwise, William Brewster, William Bradford, elders of ye church.

There are appended thirty-two names, some with the X. It is further stated that William Bradford was "baptized in the old river Don below Epworth town at midnight, 1595." There is also a record that the church desired to leave for Holland, "where we hear there is freedom for all men."

It is further recorded:

4. It affirms that John Smith, vicar of Gainsborough enquired about baptism in February 4, 1604, was convinced of its truth May 7th and "at midnight on the 24th of March, 1606, he was baptized by Elder John Morton in the river Don, and walked to Epworth, a distance of two miles, in his wet clothes."

And the document also records that "John Smith, John Morton (who immersed him), Henry Helwise and others held a meeting in regard to removing the church to Holland." This was the 4th of April, 1609.

The authenticity of these records has been violently assailed by Dr. Whitsitt. He says:

A generation has passed away since 1862, and yet the only English production in Baptist history that has come to the attention of the general public has been the fraud at Epworth, Crowle and West Butterwick, that brings blushes to the cheeks of intelligent Baptist people in all parts of the world. (p. 15).

On pp. 62, 63, Dr. Whitsitt uses many words of censure on these documents. He calls them "a fabulous statement," "fabrication," "no sadder humiliation has ever been inflicted upon our Baptist name and cause," "fill up the cup of our mortification," etc. Dr. Whitsitt is very severe against Dr. Clifford who published these records. Dr. Whitsitt always praises those who praise him. He cannot say enough of Prof. Hoop Scheffer, of Amsterdam, who complimented him and agrees with him (p. 17). But Dr. Clifford and the English Baptist historians generally, who ought to know something of this subject, all differ with Dr. Whitsitt, and so their investigations reflect "a painful light upon the condition of studies among Baptists in England." (p. 63).

My position holds good that John Smyth was immersed irrespective of these records, but it is absolutely essential for Dr. Whitsitt to prove that these records are false.

I would also suggest that both of these theories might be true. It might be true that Smyth was baptized in the Don river and afterwards baptized himself. The Baptists of that generation were much disturbed on the subject of a proper administrator of baptism, and were often rebaptized. If Smyth was the visionary man that Dexter declares him to be, nothing would be more probable than that he should do this very thing.

It is a strong fact that cannot be overcome that the historians declare that Smyth was immersed. The array of writers who affirm this is a very formidable one, I shall give some of them.

Joseph A. Adshead, Manchester, says:

"Mr. Smyth (who had been a Brownist) and his followers settled in Amsterdam in 1608. He was led to RENOUNCE. INFANT SPRINKLING and came to the conclusion that immersion was the true and proper manner of baptism; and that it should be administered only to those who are capable OF PROFESSING FAITH IN CHRIST." (The Progress of Religious Sentiment, p. xix. London, 1852).

George Punchard says:

"Mr. Smyth proceeded first to rebaptize himself, by immersion, and then to immerse Mr. Helwise, his associate, and several others, his followers." (The History of Congregationalism, p. 319. Salem, 1841).

W. M. Blackburn, D. D., Methodist, says:

"Among the English Separatists in Holland was Rev. John Smyth, who, probably immersed himself, felt so adverse to liturgies that he thought that the Bible ought not to be read publicly in churches, nor psalms sung from a printed page, gave an Arminian shape to his vague theology and at Amsterdam (1608-9) gathered a flock of English Baptists, who began to be more clearly distinguished from the Anabaptists." (History of the Christian Church, p. 553. Cincinnati, 1879).

Ivimey, the Baptist historian, says:

"Upon a further consideration of the subject, he saw reason to conclude that immersion was the true and proper meaning of the word baptism and that it should be administered to those only who were capable of professing faith in Christ." (A History of the English Baptists, Vol. I., p. 114).

David Masson, M. A., LL. D., Professor of English Literature in the University of Edinburgh, spent a great deal of time in the British Museum gathering material for his great life of Milton. He gives an interesting account of his work. He says:

Of the multiplicity and extent of the researches that were required, any general account would be tedious. Perhaps, however, I may allude specially to my obligations to the State Paper Office in London, where there were printed calendars of the State papers; the task of consulting them is easy. Unfortunately, when I began my readings in the great national repository, the domestic papers of the period of most interest to me—from 1640 to 1643—were utterly uncalendared. They had, therefore, to be brought to me in bundles and inspected carefully, lest anything useful should be skipped. In this way I had to persevere at a slow rate in my readings and note papers; but I believe I can now say for much the greatest part of the time embraced in the present volume (III— 1640 to 1643—there is not a single domestic document extant of those that used to be in the "State Paper Office," which has not passed through my hands and been scrutinized. (Preface to Vol. Ill.).

Masson said:

Now Smyth, adhering to the tenet, had pushed it to a logical consequence not ventured on by the Separatists before him. If the ordination of the Church of England were rejected, so that her ministers had to be reordained when they became pastors and teachers of Separatist congregations, why was the baptism of the Church. of England accounted valid; why were not members of the Church rebaptized when they became Separatists? Through the prosecution of this query, aided by other investigations, Smyth had developed his Separatism into the form known as Anabaptism, not only requiring the rebaptism of members of the Church of England, but rejecting the baptism of infants altogether, and insisting on immersion as the proper Scriptural form of the rite." (The Life of John Milton, Vol. II., p. 540. London, 1871).

Daniel Neal, M. A., the standard Puritan historian, says:

He was for refining upon the Brownist scheme, and at last declared for the Principles of the Baptists; upon this he left Amsterdam, and settled with his disciples at Leyden,where, being at a loss for aproper administrator of the Ordinance of Baptism, he plunged himself, and then performed the ceremony upon others, which gained him the name of Se-Baptist." (The History of the Puritans, Vol. II., p. 29. London, 1732).

Thomas Price says:

"But his views on the subject of baptism were still more obnoxious, and awakened an angry and fierce controversy, in which the sacredness of character and the charity of the gospel were alike disregarded. His sentiments on this latter point were substantially as those now held by the English Baptists; and the mode in which he arrived at them was as follows, etc." (The History of Protestant Nonconformity in England, Vol. I., p. 495).

Taylor, the historian of the General Baptists of England, says;

In reviewing the subject of separation, Mr. Smyth discovered that lie and his friends acted inconsistently in rejecting the ordination received from the Church of England, because they esteemed her a false church, and yet retained her baptism as true baptism. This led him to examine the nature and ground of baptism and he perceived, that neither infant baptism nor sprinkling had any foundation in Scripture. With his usual frankness he was no sooner convinced of this important truth than he openly professed and defended his sentiments. He urged the inconsistency of their practice on his former associates so clearly that the bishop before mentioned tells Mr. Robinson, 'There is no remedy; you must go forward to anabaptism or come back to us; all of your Rabbins cannot answer the charge of your rebaptized brother (Mr. Smyth). If we be a true church, you must return; if we be not (as a false church is no church of God), you must rebaptize. If our baptism be good, then is our ordination good. He tells you true: your station is unsafe; either you must forward to him or back to us."(Hall's Works, Vol. IX., pp. 384,400. The History of the English General Baptists, Vol. I., p. 68).

Walter Wilson, who is one of the best of the Puritan historians, says:

Upon a further consideration of the subject he saw grounds to consider immersion as the true and only meaning of the word baptism, and that it should be administered to those alone who were capable of professing their faith in Christ." (The History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches, Vol. I., p. 29).

Thomas Wall, 1691, was a very bitter opponent of the Baptists. In explaining the immersion of John Smyth he says:

"A third Devise these People have found to Deprive Infants of their Rights to Water Baptism, perswading People of years they were not Baptized at all, if not Dip'd or Plung'd in Water." (Baptism Anatomized, p. 107. London, 1691).

Giles Shute, in writing against the Baptists in 1606, was very bitter. He says:

"Now let the wise judge in what abominable disorder they retain their Baptisme ever since from Mr. Smyth; and whether it stinketh not in the nostrils of the Lord ever since as the ministry of Corah and his company did. In his Table of particulars wherein this passage is directed to it, is querqed, who began Baptisme by way of Dipping among English People that call themselves Baptists? The answer is, John Smith, who Baptized himself. Thus you may see upon what a rotten foundation the Principles of the Anabaptists is built and at what Door that Anticovenant Doctrine came in among us in England; therefore it is of the Earth, and but a Human Innovation, ought to be abhor'd and detested by all Christian People." (A General Challenge to all Antipedobaptists).

I think that we may easily reach the conclusion, which ever of these two theories we hold, that John Smyth was immersed. I know not a line of original testimony which teaches the contrary. The very best in favor of sprinkling is some strained inferences. The historians are unanimous in favor of immersion, and as I have shown from Pedobaptist writers of the seventeenth century, it was the concurrent opinion of that century.

Dr. Whitsitt makes a labored argument to prove that John Smyth baptized himself (p. 64) but he does not produce a line of proof that the baptism was performed by sprinkling. He only infers that the Mennonites practiced sprinkling, therefore Smyth was sprinkled. But Smyth's baptism was in no wise connected with the Mennonites. It is possible that Smyth received his views in regard to immersion from the New Testament. I am sure there is no proof that Smyth was an affusionist.

Smyth appears to have remained pastor of this congregation till his death in 1611 "when he was succeeded by a Thomas Helwisse, one of the oldest members, a plain man, of pragmatic notions, .and quite self taught." (Masson's Life of Milton, Vol. II, p. 540). But Masson does not leave us in doubt as to the views of this new pastor. He says:

"Now, this Helwisse, returning to England shortly after 1611, drew around him, as we saw, the first congregation of General or Arminian Baptists in London; and this obscure Baptist congregation seems to have become the depositary for all England of the absolute principle of Liberty of Conscience expressed in the Amsterdam Confession as distinct from the more stinted principle advocated by the general body of the Independents. Not only did Helwisse's folk differ from the Independents generally on the subject of Infant Baptism and Dipping; they differed also on the power of the magistrate in matters of belief and conscience." (Life of John Milton, Vol. II., p. 544).

Leonard Busher appears to have been a noted member of this congregation of Helwise's. "It was," says Masson, "in short, from their little dingy meeting house, somewhere in Old London, that there flashed out, first in England, the absolute doctrine of religious liberty. 'Religious Peace: or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience,' is the title of a little tract first printed in 1614, and presented to King James and the English Parliament, by 'Leonard Busher, citizen of London.' This Leonard Busher, there is reason to believe, was a member of Helwisse's congregation and we learn from the tract itself that he was a poor man, laboring for his subsistence, who had his share of persecution. He had probably been one of Smyth's Amsterdam flock who had returned with Helwisse. The tract is certainly the earliest known English publication in which full liberty of conscience is openly advocated. It cannot be read now without a throb. The style is simple and rather helpless, but one comes on some touching passages." Masson's Life of Milton, Vol. III., p. 102). His testimony on the subject of dipping is clear and concisive, Busher says:

"And therefore Christ commanded his disciples to teach all nations, and baptize them; that is, to preach the word of salvation to every creature of all sorts of nations that are worthy and willing to receive it. And such as shall willingly and gladly receive, He has commanded to be baptized in the water; that is, dipped for dead in the water." - (Plea for Liberty of Conscience, p. 50).

From this tract it is certain that Busher held three distinctive Baptist doctrines: 1. Liberty of conscience; 2. Immersion or dipping, and 3. Believers' baptism. In order to break the force of this clear and unequivocal testimony Dr. Whitsitt makes the surprising declaration that there is no proof that Busher was a Baptist.

Mr. Leonard Busher, a citizen of London, published in 1614 the well known "Plea for Liberty of Conscience." He may have been a Baptist, but there is no proof of it. He believed in immersion, which the Baptists had not then revived, and describes it as "being dipped for dead in the water;" but it has not been shown that he ever put this tenet into practice. If he did the Baptists of 1641 had never been informed of it. (Religious Herald, May 7, 1896).

But in his book (pp. 69, 70) Dr. Whitsitt changes his mind and Busher is declared to be an Anabaptist. But with the declaration of Busher before him that dipping was baptism Dr. Whitsitt says:

It is sometimes too confidently assumed that this passage proves Mr. Busher to have been an immersionist in practice as well as in principle, but we know too little regarding him to venture distinct assertions on that point. * * * The act of baptism observed by him would in that case become a question for Dutch archaeologists. But either Dutch or English archaeologists, founding on the mere fact that he was an immersionist in principle, must jump a long distance to the conclusion that he was also an inimersionist in practice. In brief words, Mr. Busher is a shadowy figure, and it is entirely uncertain whether be spent his last years in England or Holland. Therefore we are not entitled, for the present at least, to establish any definite conclusions regarding him or his people, except that if he had practiced immersion at Amsterdam in 1611 we should have been likely to hear a good deal more about him than has been brought to light hither to. * * * The most that can be safely claimed for Mr. Busher is that he was an advance herald of genuine Baptist principles in Holland, that were shortly to be reduced to practice in England.

We have the surprising declarations that Busher was an Anabaptist, was a believer in, and advocate of immersion, and yet that he did not practice it. This is only on a line with much of the rest of this remarkable book. . Every effort is made to discredit all who practice immersion and to explain away the facts, and a like effort is made to exalt all who practice sprinkling and to magnify the number of such examples among Anabaptists.

I know of no Pedobaptist author who denies that Busher was a Baptist; and with the exception of Dr. Whitsitt, there is no difference of opinion on this subject among Baptist authors. I give the testimony of a few Pedobaptist writers:

Barclay says:

"In 1614, Leonard Busher, who is believed to have been a member of Helwys' and Morton's church, presented to King James and the Parliament his petition for liberty of conscience, which was published in 1614." (The Inner Life of Religious Societies, p. 98).

Rev. A. H. Drysdale, M. A., a Presbyterian historian, says:

"Unquestionably it was the Baptists who first repudiated, clearly and strongly, all coercive power whatever in religion. (see especially Leonard Busher's Religious Peace; or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience, 1614); and they were constant to this principle throughout." (History of the Presbyterians in England, p. 353, note).

John Stoughton says:

The Baptists were foremost in the advocacy of religious freedom, and perhaps to one of them, Leonard Busher, citizen of London, belongs the honor of presenting in this country the first distinct and broad plea for liberty of conscience. It is dated 1614, and is prefaced by an epistle to the Presbyterian reader; and a very remarkable epistle it is, deserving a renown which it has never acquired." (Ecclesiastical History of England, p. 231).

Hanbury says:

"'Religious Peace; or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience,' by Leonard Busher, a citizen of London, and a Baptist, 1614." (Memorials, Vol. I., p. 224, note).

The Baptists have been equally as explicit as the Pedobaptists in declaring that Leonard Busher was a Baptist. B. Evans, (Early English Baptists, Vol. I., pp. 229-231); Richard B. Cook, (The Story of the Baptists, pp. 86, 87); George B. Taylor, (Religious Freedom, p. 32); and Armitage, (History of the Baptists, PP. 440, 441), all so affirm. I shall quote some words from Prof. Vedder, of Crozer Seminary, whom Dr. Whitsitt claims sustains his position. He has made two declarations on the subject. The first (Baptists and Liberty of Conscience, p. 18. Cincinnati, 1884) was before this controversy began, and the second in The Examiner, May 21, 1896. I quote from the latter. Prof. Vedder says:

"That honor belongs, as far as known, to Leonard Busher, who wrote a tract in favor of liberty of conscience in 1614, called Religion's Peace. Dr. Whitsitt indeed says that there is no proof that he was a Baptist. I can only mildly express my surprise that it takes so much Proof to convince the good doctor of some things, and so little to convince him of others. It seems to me that nobody who reads the book of Busher can be in any real doubt as to who and what he was. If Edward Barber was a Baptist, Leonard Busher was a Baptist; and the latter wrote: 'And such as gladly receive it [the Gospel] he hath commanded to be baptized in water; that is, dipped for dead in the water.' We do not find such a sentiment, outside Baptist literature, in the first half of the seventeenth century."

It does not seem to me that anything could be clearer than that Busher was a Baptist. No man save a Baptist, in the early part of the seventeenth century, held such views on liberty of conscience and baptism. If we had no other authority, this statement of Busher's alone ought to settle the question of dipping among the English Baptists.

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