Where Did Baptists Come From?

The question of the origins of the Christian tradition called Baptist has been, and to some extent still is, a much-debated issue. For example, when W.H. Whitsitt (1841–1911), the third president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued in the late 1890s that the earliest Baptists in both England and America did not practice immersion, he set in motion a controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention that eventuated in his dismissal as president.

Whitsitt’s leading opponents held to a position known as Landmarkism, of which a cardinal tenet was the assertion that there had been an unbroken line of baptisms by immersion (sometimes colloquially called “The Trail of Blood”) that went back to Christ and that were necessary for the existence of true churches. In other words, there have always been Baptists, it was alleged — though they might have used different nomenclature, such as Anabaptist in the sixteenth century or Waldensian in the late medieval era.

Whitsitt lost his presidency over this issue of Baptist origins, but his argument against Landmarkism was sound. In the past century or so, few historians have found Landmarkism to be a credible explanation of Baptist origins. The two major explanations today link modern-day Baptists to the continental Anabaptists of the Reformation era or the Puritan renewal movement within the Church of England.

Anabaptist or Puritan?

There are certainly similarities between the Baptists and the Anabaptists: both emphasize believers’ churches and credobaptism, and both are critical of church-state unions. But there are also significant differences. Some of the Anabaptist communities were fundamentally unorthodox on some basic issues like the Trinity and the person of Christ. The mainstream Anabaptist movement — that is, the Mennonites and the Hutterites — is strongly committed to pacifism, a perspective that has never been a significant part of the Baptist tradition. The Sabbatarian ethos of the Baptist movement is largely absent from Anabaptism. Finally, there are next to no major organic historical links between the continental Anabaptists of the sixteenth century and the English Baptists of the seventeenth century.

On the other hand, the ties between Puritanism — which emerged in the 1560s as a renewal movement within the Anglican state church — and the Baptists — who arose as General (i.e., Arminian) Baptists in the mid-1610s and as Particular (i.e., Calvinistic) Baptists in the late 1630s — are patent and multiple. All the leading Baptists of this era — men like John Smyth (d. 1612) and William Kiffen (1616–1701) — began their careers as Puritans. Like the Puritans, most of the Baptists of this era were convinced that the Lord’s Day is the Sabbath of the new covenant. And Baptists, like their Puritan contemporaries, wholeheartedly believed that a political life could be a Christian’s vocation. Finally, most of the Baptists of this era firmly rejected any connection to the continental Anabaptists.

Calvinistic Seedbed

The forebears of most modern-day Anglophone Baptists are the Particular Baptists, who emerged from the womb of English Puritanism in the 1630s. For me personally, these Puritan origins of the Baptist movement offer the best historical explanation of where the tradition of my spiritual forebears came from. I do not assert this because I, like those seventeenth-century Particular Baptists, am a Calvinist. I affirm it because the historical data leads me to this conclusion.

“The forebears of most modern-day Anglophone Baptists are the Particular Baptists.”

With the rise of interest in Reformed theology among evangelicals since the 1960s, it is not surprising to find similar interest in Baptist circles. In the last sixty years, there has developed a distinct movement of Reformed Baptist churches (though the term “Reformed Baptist” is a one that was rarely, if ever, used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) as well as similar-minded congregations within such Baptist bodies as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada. Prior to this rise of interest in and commitment to Reformed thinking among these North American Baptist communities, the regnant theology in many of them was a mixture of revivalism, non-Calvinistic dispensationalism, and pragmatism.

When these Reformed or Calvinistic Baptists began to ask about the origins of the Baptist movement, they were excited to find Calvinism and Reformed theology as a seedbed of the Baptist tradition. But some Baptists, who sought to retain what had become traditional Baptist practice and thinking during the twentieth century, reacted to this new stress on Calvinist origins by asserting the non-Calvinistic Anabaptist link. And thus, the discussion of historic Baptist origins became shaped by modern-day concerns, a good example of what historians have come to call presentism — namely, the use of the past to validate present-day positions. But as noted already, the investigation of the origin of the Baptist movement must be directed by the evidence from the seventeenth century. And to this historian, that evidence is patent: the English-speaking Baptist movement has its origins in Puritanism. (See, for example, B.R. White’s The English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century.)

Why Does It Matter?

What, though, is the importance of this assertion about Puritan origins? Does it make any difference to modern-day Baptist life and thought? For some, this determination of genesis means that as it was in the beginning, so it should be now. For this way of thinking, the theological position hammered out by the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists — usually taken to be epitomized in the Second London Confession — is the gold standard by which all present-day Baptist thought must be judged.

“To this historian, that evidence is patent: the English-speaking Baptist movement has its origins in Puritanism.”

Now, this idea of going back to the past for modern orientation was a key element in the Reformation. The watch cry of ad fontes, “back to the sources,” was an important principle that directed the efforts of the Reformers. Yet as the heirs of the Reformation discovered, this principle did not mean that one tradition could claim to be the true representation and repristination of the apostolic era. Was the purest form of the church to be found among the Scottish Presbyterians or the French Huguenots or the Calvinist state church of Hungary? The quintessential Puritan Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) was forced to recognize this truth when he found his New Model Army facing the Scottish Presbyterian military on the battlefield. As he asked the Scottish Calvinists, “Is all religion wrapped up in . . . any one form?”

Personally, I think the heirs of the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists — the Baptist men and women of the long eighteenth century, figures like Anne Steele (1717–1778), Caleb Evans (1737–1791), Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), and Maria de Fleury (fl. 1770s–1790s) — are extremely helpful here. While they clearly treasured the confessional legacy that came from the lives and thought of their seventeenth-century forebears, they certainly did not believe themselves to be restricted solely to repeating the arguments and formulations of a bygone era. They lived in challenging times of revolution — intellectual, political, industrial, and even sexual — and they needed to address these matters in ways that spoke to the men and women of their day. In other words, present-day discussion of Baptist origins must reckon with the fact that we do not live in the times of our spiritual ancestors. Some of their battles are no longer our battles, and some of our battles could never have been envisioned by the men and women of those days.

Our investigation, then, of Baptist origins cannot be driven by antiquarianism — that is, a misguided attempt to live in the past. Rather, as with any study of the past, we seek to understand historical questions — in this case, what gave rise to the Baptist movement — that we might better understand some of the forces shaping Baptist identity over the centuries (for good and for ill), and also that our study of the past might help us to live as more faithful Christian disciples in the present.

So, for example, Baptists in the seventeenth century found themselves having to differentiate themselves from their Anglican paedobaptist neighbors, and sometimes they did so with a degree of vim and vigour that frankly went beyond the pale. While we can learn from this battle against an oppressive Anglican regime and state-church union, that battle is not ours to wage. Rather, we thank God for Bible-believing, faithful Anglicans.