The recent release of Baptists in America: A History, by Baylor University faculty Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, landed on my desk this past week. I love history, and I love my faith, so I couldn’t wait to crack it open and see the historical perspective of these two historians.
As I get into the reading, I can’t help but think that, as a whole, Baptists don’t do a good job remembering, or teaching, our heritage. Other denominations have a deliberate method of teaching beginnings and beliefs, but Baptists have never been a group to look back. Other than academia, few opportunities exist for the layperson to discover why and how we’re Baptist. I think sometimes we just assume we’ve…well…always existed.
Two Fundamentals of the Baptist Faith
Baptists, then and now, have championed 2 fundamentals of their faith – believer’s baptism by immersion, and separation of church and state. These two things are non-negotiable to Baptists. As a group which defends the authority of the Scriptures and is faithful to its direction, Baptists believe that baptism by immersion follows profession of faith. It is an ordinance that is both scriptural and historical, seen in the accounts of converts in the early Church. Not until Augustine (5th c.) was infant baptism solidified.
In an age when state-sponsored church was the norm – even in the colonies – Baptists sought to meet freely without persecution. Because Baptists rejected infant baptism, Anglicans and Congregationalists viewed them as unorthodox and frequently imprisoned, punished, or levied extra taxes for those who preached and met as Baptists. Needless to say, Baptists waved the banner of separation of church and state and helped to facilitate this in our Constitution.
A common view is that Baptists had their beginning in the Anabaptist Church which formed in the 16th century after the Reformation. Others reject this view and trace the origins of Baptists back to the English Separatists of early 17th century. Kidd and Hankins even mention the followers of Menno Simons, a 16th century Catholic priest who rejected infant baptism because it lacked Scriptural proof, who was a proponent of believer’s baptism and preached it to his followers, known as Mennonites.
Although Kidd and Hankins don’t really settle on one specific, singular origin for the Baptist faith in their history, they do mention the Anabaptists, Mennonites and the English Separatists to point out the reformers who were ardent supporters of believer’s baptism. I think it’s fair to say, though, that Kidd and Hankins favor the English Separatists as the first flowering of the Baptist Church, and this is based on both the amount of material presented as well as the narrative they present. It was the English Separatists who fled persecution in England for a more favorable and friendly reception in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1608. This would be the first named Baptist church.
Here is the impetus that moved individuals to create a new sect of believers:
By the early seventeenth century, some radical Separatists concluded that complete purity in the church demanded a rejection of infant baptism. Infant baptism reflected an inclusive, geographic view of church membership that both Roman Catholics and Anglicans embraced, introducing the children of Christian families into the church as quasi-members. But what if those children never experienced conversion? The practice necessarily brought into the church people who, according to the Calvinist view of Puritans and Separatists, were not members of the elect, the chosen people of God. Baptists sought to clear up this confusion, and to foster a pure church membership, by baptizing only those who had actually experienced conversion (p. 5)