The Anglican Church
The origins of the Baptist can be traced to the Nonconformists in England. The Anglican Church was established by King Henry VIII in 1534. He requested a divorce from the Pope and was denied. Henry saw an opportunity in the Reformation that was taking place. He passed a law granting that the king was the only head of the Church and established the Anglican Church. The Church of England (Anglican) adopted the “39 Articles,” which rejected Roman Catholic theology in favor of the views of the Reformation.
There were those in the Anglican Church who were pleased by the separation from Roman Catholicism but also felt that there was still room for more reforms. They did not believe that the Anglican Church went far enough to move away from Rome and toward the Scripture. This group was broadly called the Nonconformists, although the term did not come into wide use until the 1660s. The name was given to them because they refused to follow or conform to the State Church. The majority of the Nonconformists were composed of the group that we today call the Puritans. They were given this name because of their desire for a Church that was purely Biblical.
It is important to note that the word Puritan was used in a very broad sense. Those in this group were Protestant. But they were not Anglican and they were not Anabaptist. They also saw the dangers of a state sponsored church. They had witnessed the persecutions under a Roman Catholic magistrate and saw the potential for similar abuses of power by a Protestant king. But most of all, they were concerned over doctrine and practice. They embraced “Scripture alone” as the sole rule and authority in the church and in the Christian life. Neither Pope nor King could rule in the spiritual kingdom of Christ.
Early General Baptists
In this section, we will look at the General Baptists. These are Baptists who believed in a “general” or universal atonement. Their views were in contrast to those Baptist who held to a particular and individual atonement. We will look at the Particular (Reformed) Baptists in a separate article in this series.
John Smyth (1570-1612)
Smyth was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1594. He refused to conform to the teachings of the Church of England and was imprisoned. In 1606, he renounced the Anglican Church and became a “separatist.” Like many others, he fled to Holland to escape persecution. While in Holland, he became convinced that Baptism should only be administered to believing adults. As an Anglican he was baptized as an infant but he did not view that as a valid baptism. He baptized himself and others by the method of pouring water.
He initially joined the Mennonite church but was excommunicated for disagreeing on certain issues like ministerial succession. He is credited with founding the first Baptist church. Like many of his time, he struggled to develop church doctrines. He does seem to confuse justification and sanctification and he departs form the other Reformers to establish church governance as between elder and deacons. He rejects the reading of Scripture, patterned prayers and prepared sermons as being inventions of man and not true worship from the heart. He eventually rejected the English Bible because he did not believe that the translation was directly from God.
In the early 1600s, Helwys broke away from the State Church and gathered people to meet in his home. In 1607, the court of England began to prosecute the separatists. Helwys went to Holland in 1608 to avoid imprisonment. He joined with the English congregation there and was Baptized by Smyth. Unlike Smyth, he completely breaks with the Mennonites to establish a Baptist Church in London in 1611 or 1612. Doctrinally, he agrees with Smyth that Arminianism is correct, and thus he is labeled a “General Baptist.” General Baptists believed in a general or universal atonement in opposition to the Particular Baptists who advocated a particular or individual atonement.
Helwys appeals to the king to grant religious liberty to the Nonconformists. He says that the king is a mortal man whose reign is limited to the governance of the physical bodies of men but the king has no authority over a man’s soul. Helwys is thrown in jail where he died at the age of 40 in 1616
The First Baptist in the New World
In 1627, Rodger Williams was serving as a Chaplin to a wealthy family in London. He sympathized with the Nonconformists. Fearing persecution, in 1931 he left for the “new world.” He settled in Boston, Mass. He found himself in conflict with the Puritans for their refusal to completely withdraw from the Anglican Church. The Puritans counseled patience but Rodgers saw them as compromisers. He also disagreed with the Puritans over theonomy (that the church should rule the state). He pressed for separation of church and state.
He bought land form the native people and established the colony of Providence (the location of the city of Providence, RI today). He served as a governor of the colony from 1654-58.
He is also known for his book “Key into the Languages in America,” which was a dictionary of native dialects in North America.