From The Reformed Reader | December 30, 2010


THE word Baptists, as the descriptive name of a body of Christians, was first used in English literature, so far as is now known, in the year 1644. The name was not chosen by themselves, but was applied to them by their opponents. In the first Confession of Faith issued by the Particular Baptists in 1644, the churches that published the document described themselves “as commonly (but unjustly) called Anabaptists.” While they repudiated the name Anabaptist, they did not for some time claim the new name of Baptists, seeming to prefer “Baptized believers,” or, as in the Assembly’s Confession of 1654, “Christians baptized upon profession of their faith.” These names were, however, too cumbrous, and they finally fell in with the growing popular usage. The name Baptists seems to have been first publicly used by one of the body in 1654, when Mr. William Britten published “The Moderate Baptist.” The first official use of the name is in “The Baptist Catechism” issued by the authority of the Assembly. The surviving copies of this document are undated, and we only know that it was prepared and printed  “some years” after the Assembly’s Confession.

For the fact that the name Baptist comes into use at this time and in this way, but one satisfactory explanation has been proposed: it was at this time that English churches first held, practised, and avowed those principles ever since associated with that name. There had been no such churches before, and hence there was no need of the name. The name Anabaptist had been well known, and it described not unfairly from the point of I view of those who invented it, the principles and practices of a body that, under various names, had existed from the eleventh century. The Anabaptists denied the scripturalness of infant baptism, and insisted on a baptism upon profession of faith. But the Anabaptists, for the most part, were content to practise the rite of baptism as they saw it in vogue about them; that is to say, sprinkling or pouring. They gave little attention to the act of baptism, regarding the subjects of baptism as a matter of far greater importance, as indeed it is. The English Anabaptists seem, at the beginning of their history, to have differed not at all from the other branches of the party in this respect; but about the year 1640 the attention of some among them was called to the question of the fitting act of baptism according to the Scriptures, and the introduction of immersion soon after followed. The name Baptists came to be applied to them almost at once as descriptive of their new practice.

The history of Baptist churches cannot be carried, by the scientific method, farther back than the year 1611, when the first Anabaptist church consisting wholly of Englishmen was founded in Amsterdam by John Smyth, the Se-Baptist. This was not, strictly speaking, a Baptist church, but it was the direct progenitor of churches in England that a few years later became Baptist, and therefore the history begins there. There were before this time, it is true, here and there churches that might fairly be described as Baptist. Such was the church at Augsburg about 1525, commonly called Anabaptist, but practising the immersion of believers on profession of faith; such were some of the Swiss Anabaptist churches, apparently; such were some of the Anabaptist churches of Poland. But we find such churches only here and there, with no ascertainable connection existing between them. Further research may establish such connection. or may bring to light additional instances; but it must be confessed that there is no great probability of such result. At any rate, there are no materials for a history in such facts as are now known. A history of Baptist churches going farther back than the early years of the seventeenth century would, therefore, in the present state of knowledge, be in the highest degree unscientific. The very attempt to write such a history now would be a confession of crass ignorance, either of the facts as known, or of the methods of historical research and the principles of historical criticism, or of both.

“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.” Such was the reply of our Lord when his ever-confident disciple answered the question, “Who say ye that I am?”  in the memorable words, then for the first time uttered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Church of Rome points to this text as conclusive proof of her claims to be God’s vicegerent on earth, the true church, against which the gates of hades shall not prevail. It further points to its unbroken succession, and a history which, if dim and uncertain at the first, since the fourth century at least has not a break, and not improbably extends back to the apostolic era, if not to Peter himself. It challenges any of the bodies that dispute its claim to show an equal antiquity and a succession from the days of the apostles as little open to serious question. Those that accept this test and fail to meet it must confess themselves schismatics and heretics, resisters of God, and doomed to overthrow here as well as condemnation hereafter.

Many Protestants make haste to accept Rome’s challenge to battle on her chosen ground. Certain Anglican divines have great faith in a pleasing tradition that the Church of England was founded by the Apostle Paul during a third missionary tour hinted at in the New Testament but not described; and they flatter themselves that they thus establish an antiquity not second to that of Rome. Some Baptists have been betrayed into a similar search for proofs of antiquity, misled by the idea that such proof is necessitated by the promise that “the gates of hades shall not prevail” against the true church. If then, they reason, Baptist churches are true apostolic churches, they must have existed from the days of the apostles until now without break of historic continuity. This exaggerated notion of the worth of antiquity as a note of the true church is strengthened by the theory of baptism held by some; namely, that no one is baptized unless he is immersed by one who has himself been immersed. This is to substitute for the apostolic succession of “orders,” which the Roman Church boasts, an apostolic succession of baptism. The theory compels its advocates to trace a visible succession of Baptist churches from the days of the apostles to our own, or to confess that proof is lacking of the valid baptism of any living man.

But it is plain that in thus accepting the challenge of Rome Protestants in general, the Baptists in particular, commit as great an error in tactics as in exegesis. To assume the necessity of an outward continuity in the life of the church is gratuitously to read into the words of our Lord what he carefully refrained from saying. Rome, for her own purposes, assumes the only possible import of the words to be that Christ’s church will have a historic continuity that can be proved by documentary and other evidence. But this is by no means the necessary meaning of Christ’s promise. The church that he said he would build on the rock, to which he guaranteed victory against the gates of hades itself, is not a visible body—that is the great falsehood of Rome—but the assembly of those in all the ages who truly love God and keep the commandments of Christ. Of these there has been an unbroken line, and here is the true apostolic succession—there is no other. Through the continuous presence of this church and not along any chain of visible churches, the truth has descended to our days. Christ’s promise would not be broken though at some period of history we should find his visible churches apparently overcome by Satan, and suppressed; though no trace of them should be left in literature; though no organized bodies of Christians holding the faith in apostolic simplicity could be found anywhere in the world. The truth would still be, as he had promised, witnessed somewhere, somehow, by somebody. The church does not cease to be because it is driven into the wilderness.

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, for the validity of our church organization, our ordinances, and our ministry.

By some 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 also beyond question that for fully four centuries before the Reformation there were bodies of Christians under various names, who professed nearly—sometimes identically—the faith and practice of modern Baptists. But a period of a thousand years intervenes, in which the only visible church of unbroken continuity was the Roman Church, which had far departed from the early faith.

The attempt has been made, at one time or another, to identify as Baptists nearly every sect that separated from the Roman Church. It will not suffice to prove that most of these sects held certain doctrines from which the great body of Christians had departed—doctrines that Baptists now hold, and that are believed by them to be clearly taught in the New Testament—or that the so-called heretics were often more pure in doctrine and practice than the body that assumed to be the only Orthodox and Catholic Church. This is quite different from proving the substantial identity of these sects with modern Baptists. Just as, for example, it is easily shown that Methodists and Presbyterians hold a more biblical theology and approach nearer to apostolic practice than the Roman or Greek churches; while yet all know that a considerable interval separates them from Baptists. It is one thing to prove that the various heretical sects bore testimony, now one, now another, to this or that truth held by a modern denomination; and quite another thing to identify all or any of these sects with any one modern body. This is equally true, whether the investigation be confined to polity or to the substance of doctrine.

In thus emphasizing the divergences of the early and medieval sects from the teaching of the Bible, as Baptists have always understood that teaching, no denial is implied of the excellent Christian character manifested by the adherents of these erroneous views. In many instances the purest life of an age is to be found, not in the bosom of the Catholic Church, but among these despised and persecuted sectaries. Not one of them failed to hold and emphasize some vital truth that was either rejected or practically passed by in the church that called itself orthodox. God did not leave his truth without witnesses at any time. Now a sect, now an individual believer, like Arnold of Brescia or Savonarola, boldly proclaimed some precious teaching, perhaps along with what we must regard as pernicious error. But it is impossible to show that any one person, or any one sect, for a period of more than a thousand years, consistently and continuously held the entire body of truth that Baptists believe the Scriptures to teach, or even all its vital parts. It is possible that with further research such proof may be brought to light: one cannot affirm that there was not a continuity in the outward and visible life of the churches founded by the apostles down to the time of the Reformation. To affirm such a negative would be foolish, and such an affirmation, from the nature of the case, could not be proved. What one may say, with some confidence, is that in the present state of knowledge no such continuity can be shown by evidence that will bear the usual historic tests. Indeed, the more carefully one examines such literature of the early and medieval church as relates to the various heretical sects, the stronger becomes his conviction that it is a hopeless task to trace the history of the apostolic churches by means of an unbroken outward succession. k succession of the true faith may indeed be traced, in faint lines at times, but never entirely disappearing; but a succession of churches, substantially like those of our own faith and order in doctrine and polity—that is a will-o’-the-wisp, likely to lead the student into a morass of errors, a quagmire of unscholarly perversions of fact.

The special feature of this history is that it attempts frankly to recognize facts, instead of trying to maintain a thesis or minister to denominational vanity. Beginning with a survey of the history and constitution of the New Testament churches, in which all Baptists profess to recognize the norm of doctrine and polity, the process by which these churches were perverted into the Holy Catholic Church of the succeeding centuries is quite fully traced. The story of the gradual suppression of evangelical Christianity having thus been told, the next step is to show the reverse process—the gradual renascence of evangelical Christianity. This is the sum of Part I., the history of Baptist principles. The second Part is devoted to the history of actual visible Baptist churches, and every statement of fact made is carefully based on documentary sources. For the important question is, not how much may be guessed or surmised or hoped about our history as Baptists, but how much may be known.

For additional information, see The Reformed Reader

Baptist History Websites

Below, you’ll find links to popular sites that provide information about Baptists online.

BaptistHeritage.Com — from the Baylor University Baptist Studies Department
Baptist Historical Society (UK) — the official website
Baptist History and Heritage Society — pamphlets, books and more
BWA Heritage and Identity Commission — from the Baptist World Alliance
Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies — from the Baptist General Convention of Virginia
Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer — publications, resources, conferences and more
Documenting the American South — excellent collection of primary documents (search for “Baptist”)
First London Confessions of Faith — text of early Baptist confessions with annotations
Founder’s Journal — devoted to the Calvinistic dimension of Baptist history
Independent, Fundamentalist Baptist History — a brief survey
Primitive Baptist Web Station —  contains text of doctrinal abstracts and creeds of faith
Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives — under the direction of the SBC seminary presidents
Strict Baptist Historical Society — British Baptist resources
Texas Baptist Historical Collection — important Baptist resources from the largest Baptist convention
The Triumph of the Southern Baptists — a brief history of Southern Baptists