PART ONE: Origin of the English Baptists
With the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603 the Puritans, who were Calvinists in their doctrinal sympathies, had reason to hope the severe persecution they were suffering would end with the ascension of James I. James was raised and educated in Scotland under the watchful tutorage of Presbyterian clergy. His avowed admiration and attachment to the Kirk and the pure doctrine and practice of Calvinist Presbyterianism gave reason for such hope.
However, James proved to be a disastrous disappointment to all non-conformists. Once crowned, he succumbed to the persuasive abilities of Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bancroft, Bishop of London. The praise and adoration which James received from these Anglican notables was in contrast to his rigid and stiff necked Calvinist mentors in Scotland, where Andrew Melville had once chastised the young royal to his face by calling him "God's silly vassal." The appeasement of James' colossal vanity lead to the edict of the Hampton Court Conference in which dissenters were given to expect nothing but rigorous persecution from their arrogant king.
This new round of persecution, with little expectation of early abatement, resulted in the migration of many dissenters to Holland. Among those who fled James' renewed oppression was a congregation of Brownists, or Separatists Puritans from Gainsborough led by John Smyth, an ex-Anglican clergyman. Their removal from England to Holland occurred around 1608. In Amsterdam they were joined by another group led by John Robinson, who later moved his congregation to Leydon and is noted as one of the Pilgrim Fathers.
In his book Shapers of Baptist Thought, James Tull makes a distinction between Independents and Separatist within the Puritan movement. He notes Independents wished to reform the Church of England, while the Separatists believed the Established Church was beyond reformation. They believed true reformation could only occur through a presbyterian polity directed from Geneva. However, the majority in both groups were Calvinists. In a sense, Independents were dissenters within the Church of England while Separatists were dissenters from without, having been either excommunicated or voluntarily separated from the Anglican body.
After arriving in Amsterdam, Smyth gradually came to the conclusion that the baptismal practice of his Calvinist Puritanism was not scriptural. Believing that pedobaptism was false, he persuaded his congregation to declare themselves not a church and disband. He then baptized himself by immersion and afterward baptized his entire congregation. Thus immersed, they proceeded to reconstitute themselves as a church, based upon believers baptism and baptism by immersion. It is from this act that historians conclude Smyth's group became a Baptist church.
Shortly after this reformation, Smyth initiated conversations regarding the possibility of joining a nearby Dutch Waterlander Mennonite Church, since they were no longer Puritan Separatists because of their rejection of pedobaptism. Because of the irregularity of their baptisms, the Mennonites were understandably reluctant to admit Smyth's group into their body. Their reluctance might also have stemmed from the fact that Smyth was a Calvinist while the Waterlanders, though Mennonites, were Arminians. However, it appears Smyth soon changed his coat and became an Arminian, urging his church to submit to baptism by the Waterlander Mennonites. Though he died before the merge occurred, a remnant of his followers finally joined the Mennonites.
Smyth's willingness to abandon his Calvinist theology attests to the pliability of his doctrinal convictions. However, Smyth must have realized that by rejecting pedobaptism he had separated his group from the Puritan movement. Evidently he felt baptism by immersion was important enough to warrant separation from his Puritan brethren. As to church identity, lacking any other direction of affiliation, evidently he willingly surrendered his Calvinism in order to gain identity with the Waterlander Baptists.
Smyth's desire to join the Mennonite congregation caused a split in his congregation, led by John Helwys. The split was not over the Arminian theology of the Waterlanders; rather, Helwys' group was uniformly satisfied with their reformation baptisms at the hand of Smyth and would not submit to rebaptism by the Mennonites. This group started a separate church, complete with an Arminian Confession of faith. Composed by Helwys in 1610 before leaving Holland, it is written in the new church's name and contains twenty-seven articles. According to William L. Lumpkin, "Mennonite influence is readily seen in the confession for it shows a departure from the hitherto markedly consistent Calvinism of the Separatist movement." Helwys included articles relating to general atonement for all believers, justification by faith as received through the gospel, and a tenet which stated saints may fall from grace through disobedience and unbelief. Article five deals with predestination. In part, it reads; "That God before the foundation of the world predestinated that all that believe in him shall be saved and all who believe not in him shall be damned, all which he knew before. And this is the Election and reprobation spoken in the Scripture, concerning salvation, and condemnation, and not that God hath Predestinated men to be wicked, and to be damned, for God would have all men saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth, and would have no man to perish, but would have all men come to repentance." From this article alone there can be no doubt that the Helwys group were Arminian Baptists. It was this Confession of Faith, with its high Arminian doctrine, which Helwys brought back to England.
In 1612 or 1613 Helwys and his followers returned to England. As stated, during their exile in Holland, Smyth's group underwent certain doctrinal changes resulting from their affiliation with the Dutch Mennonites. Though Smyth left as a staunch Calvinist Separatist, the portion of his congregation led by Helwys, which later came back to England, returned as strict Arminians However, Smyth's transition from Calvinist to Arminian was in keeping with his constant search for religious satisfaction. His theological journey, which started with Anglican Episcopalianism, ended with Dutch Waterlander Mennonite Arminianism. According to Baptist historian A. C. Underwood, Smyth's theological wanderings resulted in the founding of the Arminian General Baptist denomination. He wrote of Smyth, "....he stands at the fountain head of consecutive Baptist history. He may be regarded as the father and founder of the original Baptist of England and of the General Baptists in particular. After the lapse of three hundred years he must be placed in the vanguard of what is now the ecumenical communion."
When Helwys and his group returned to England, they returned as a church. This group is uniformly credited by Baptist historians as the founding congregation of the Arminian General Baptist assembly in London. The group left England in 1608 as Calvinist Separatists and returned in 1613 as Arminian Baptists. Thus, the heritage of this persuasion of Baptist conviction is first, based upon a belief in baptism by immersion and believers baptism; next, founded by spontaneous reformation and self-baptism; and last, upon the Peligian philosophies of James Arminius as they were embraced by the Waterlander Dutch Mennonites. The origin of this denomination's Baptist identity begins with seventeenth century reformation. If succession is carried any further back it leads these Baptists to Anglican, then Catholic succession.
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