AN OUTLINE HISTORY OF BAPTISTS
THE FIRST CHURCHES AND THE RELATION OF BAPTISTS TO THEM
History always interesting and fascinating is especially so when it is a record of the trials and achievements of the heroes of faith? Those who have fought, not for earthly fame, but for eternal principles, and for a "a crown of life that fadeth not away." While others may write and sing of the mighty deeds of valor of those who have gone before in their line, Baptists may tell with pride, reverence and joy of the great line of heroes and martyrs who have made the name of Baptists glorious and immortal. They died for the principles we hold most sacred, and in dying they triumphed gloriously. As we thus think, the questions arise, "Whence cometh these defenders of the faith?" and "Where the beginning?" There has indeed been much controversy as to the beginning of Baptist history. Many have proudly boasted of apostolic origin and succession, while others have as ardently denied this claim and have insisted that Baptist footprints are first seen during the period of the Reformation or with the entrance of Bunyan upon the stage of religious activities. It may be well to suggest here that "There were Protestants before Protestantism, Reformers before the Reformation," for the corruption and falling away from the faith and the assumption of authority by the papacy provoked a succession of revolts from within the church. It was the combining of these protesting elements that finally gave rise to the great Reformation.
"Upon this rock I will build my church," was Christ's positive statement made in response to Peter's declaration that "Thou art the Christ." Whatever questions have arisen as to the work of the Master, there is no difference of opinion as to the founding of his church. He did build his church, he and his disciples being the original members. Thus we have a local, visible church of divine authority. The New Testament word which is translated church is the Greek word ekklesia, which according to the world's best Greek lexicons means "An assembly of people called together," "An assembly called out." As is suggested by Dr. J. J. Taylor:
"In the New Testament Jesus uses the word ekklesia twenty-two times; in twenty-one of these he clearly uses it in reference to the local, visible, corporeal assembly, and only a manifest violation of all linguistic usage could force a different meaning in the remaining case."
The churches of which the New Testament speaks were assemblies of baptized believers; baptized upon a profession of their faith. (Acts 2:41.) With them Scriptural baptism was a prerequisite to church membership; in them were only two ordinances, viz: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The officers were pastors or elders and deacons. In government these churches were separate and independent congregations, one having not the least authority or power over another. Having pointed out these essential characteristics of the Apostolic churches, we now affirm that Baptist churches of to-day are like unto them in every essential element of faith and practice.
Apostolic succession not essential.
It is not essential, however, to the life and progress of the denomination that Baptists establish a claim to Apostolic succession, but rather that Baptist churches are Apostolic in character. Prof. Vedder is responsible for the following concise statement on this point:
"To Baptists, indeed, of all people, the question of tracing their history to remote antiquity should appear nothing more than an interesting study. Our theory of the church as deduced from the Scriptures requires no outward and visible succession from the apostles. If every church of Christ were to-day to become apostate, it would be possible and right for any true believers to organize to-morrow another church on the apostolic model of faith and practice, and that church would have the only apostolic succession worth having-a succession of faith in the Lord Christ and obedience to him. Baptists have not the slightest interest therefore in wresting the facts of history from their true significance; our reliance is on the New Testament, and not on antiquity; on present conformance to Christ's teachings, not on an ecclesiastical pedigree, or the validity of our church organizations, our ordinances and our ministry. By some writers who have failed to grasp this principle, there has been a distressful effort to show a succession of Baptist churches from the apostolic age until now. It is certain, as impartial historians and critics allow, that the early churches, including the first century after the New Testament period, were organized as Baptist churches are now organized, and professed the faith that Baptist churches now profess."
It is a matter of history that for several centuries before the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church was kept busy trying to annihilate various bodies of "heretics" that sprang up in different sections at different times. These "heretics" who are known to us as Christians, and called by various names, fought and died for the faith and practices of modern Baptists, some believing and contending for nearly all and others for not so many of these principles. But we must not lose sight of the fact that there was a long period when the Roman church was the only organized visible church, and they had departed from the faith. It therefore appears impossible to trace a succession of Baptist churches during that time.
Church perpetuity in the Scripture.
Dr. J. B. Moody, in his introduction to "Baptists in History," holds that no one believes that he can prove church succession in the visible congregational sense, and that the Scriptures teach church perpetuity rather than church succession. He further maintains that church and kingdom as spoken of in the Scriptures sustain some sort of a relation, and cites the following passages to prove his contention that the Bible teaches church perpetuity: Dan. 2:44, 45; Psalms 145:10-13; Luke 1:33; Matt. 16:18. In support of this claim it is noted that history confirms this faith in the Bible principle of perpetuity, as it is a fact that the main features of the New Testament church were maintained to the third century when the episcopacy of the large city churches sprang up and got to itself more and greater power until the seventh century the papacy became a fact. It is a cause for great rejoicing on the part of the heralds of the faith, that while persecutions and the tyranny of the papacy swallowed up the Jews and the Emperors, they did not wholly destroy the church. Indeed the true witnesses of the Cross contended for the faith against the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the Popes, and the mountain fastnesses and the wilderness became their hiding and abiding places.
In writing of what Baptists generally believe in regard to their origin Dr. W. P. Harvey says:
"History points to the origin of the various denominations, and in regard to their respective founders there is no controversy, but strange there is no recognized historic account of the origin of Baptists this side of the apostolic age."
Various sects in different periods held
The people now called Baptists have been known by different names in different ages and countries. We trace them not by any particular name, but by their fundamental principles. In more modern times they have been called "the baptized people," "The dippers," and Anabaptists." The latter, Dr. Armitage says, "because they baptized those who came to them from other denominations." They did their own baptizing, and recognized no other. I quote from Dr. Armitage's History of the Baptists, page 329: "By custom their most friendly historians call them Anabaptists, yet many of their opponents speak of them as Baptists." It is no surprise to us that there are some modern historians among the destructive critics who question our apostolic origin. There are Protestant writers who exonerate the papacy from responsibility for the massacre of St. Bartholomew. There are so-called scientists who dispute the law of gravitation. According to Dr. Armitage and other writers, Anabaptists were called Baptists, and Baptists were called Anabaptists. That Anabaptists and Baptists are frequently spoken of as the same people is abundantly supported by the greatest authors who have written on the subject. Most of their articles of faith that have come down to us are essentially Baptistic." Because of their adherence to these principles so dear to the hearts of Modern Baptists the Anabaptists found themselves alone and strenuously opposed by all others. We quote Mosheim in the following: "There were certain sects and doctors against whom the zeal, vigilance and severity of Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists were united, and in opposing whose settlement and progress, these three communions, forgetting their dissentions, joined their most vigorous councils and endeavors. The object of this common aversions were the 'Anabaptists.' The elector of Hesse, Germany, commended in the following language the zeal of King Henry VIII, who had banished Baptists, giving them twelve days to leave his kingdom on pain of death if they disobeyed: "There are no rulers in Germany, whether they be papists or Protestants, that do suffer these men. If they come into their hands all men punish them quickly.' "
Beyond the AnaBaptists what?
But what of the time prior to the coming of the Anabaptists? In this connection it is highly interesting to note a few concessions of prominent church historians and scholars to Baptist antiquity. We are indebted to Church History for the following:
"The true origin of that sect which acquired the denominational Anabaptists by their administering anew the rite of baptism to those who came over to their communion, and derived that of Mennonites from the famous man to whom they owe the greatest part of their present felicity, IS HID IN THE DEPTHS OF ANTIQUITY, and is, of consequence, extremely difficult to be ascertained."
Perhaps no testimony is more significant and convincing on this point than the following by Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer:
"The institution of Anabaptism is NO NOVELTY, but for 1300 years has caused great disturbance in the church, and has acquired such a strength that the attempt in this age to contend with it appeared futile for a time." As is pointed out by Dr. Harvey, if we take 1300 from 1500, the date at which Zwingli wrote, we have A. D. 200, which brings us very near the apostolic age. In his debate with McCalla, Alexander Campbell said: "From the apostolic age to the present time the sentiment of Baptists and their practice of baptism have had a continued chain of advocates, and public monuments of their existence in every century can be produced."
The Reformed Reader Home Page
Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved