A Brief History of the Baptist Church

A Brief History of the Baptist Church

Although some have assumed that the Baptist denomination is related to the historical Anabaptist movement, this is not the case. While there are some similarities, the differences in theology and in historical development are significant. Religious affiliations descending from the Anabaptist movement actually include the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites.

The Baptist church as we know it was not founded until the 17th Century. There are two distinct groups that came about simultaneously in England: The General Baptists and the Particular Baptists.

Both groups practiced believer’s baptism by immersion, had a congregational form of church government, and came out of the Separatist Movement (which sought to separate from the Church of England).

General Baptists

Due to persecution in their home country (since it was illegal to be outside of the Church of England), the congregation of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys fled to Amsterdam in 1606. They formed their own church which, even though they had not yet returned home, is often considered the first English Baptist church.

Because they did not believe that other churches followed the Bible’s teaching on baptism – which was to be administered to believers only – Smyth baptized himself and then proceeded to baptize other adult believers in the congregation. This belief in believer-only baptism (or credobaptism) was and remains a primary distinctive of the Baptist church.

After starting another congregation in the Netherlands, Hellwys returned to England in 1612 and went on to establish a Baptist church near London. By 1624 there were several other Baptist congregations in England, and five of them joined together to form what would be the earliest association of Baptist churches.

This association consisted of what came to be referred to as “General Baptists.” These churches took a “general” view of the atonement, which is to say that they believed that Christ’s atoning death was for all people but that it is made effective only for those who respond in faith. As such, General Baptists hold to a theological position known as Arminianism.

General Baptist churches continued to grow in number, experienced periods of decline and persecution for their beliefs, and eventually made their way across the Atlantic to establish a presence in the colonies that would eventually become the United States.

Today, there are Baptist churches around the world that would fit within the category of General Baptists (although this is not a formal denomination or association).

Particular Baptists

At roughly the same time that the General Baptists were forming, Particular Baptist congregations also came about. They did not break away from General Baptists, but instead formed simultaneously and independently. They are called “particular” because their view of the atonement is that Christ died particularly for the elect. While the General Baptists viewed the atonement as making salvation possible for those who choose to receive it, the Particular Baptist view sees Christ’s death as making salvation certain for God’s elect.

Because their views of the atonement and other doctrines align with the teachings of John Calvin and other prominent figures of the Reformation, many Particular Baptist churches carry the label of “Reformed Baptist.” In fact, the 1689 London Baptist Confession stands out as one of the most concise and theologically rich expressions of Reformed Christian beliefs.

Particular Baptist churches can trace their origins to John Spilsbury, who started a church in London in 1633. While Spilsbury’s church and similar congregations were taking shape in England, Baptist churches were also beginning to take root in the English colonies – particularly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Because of the uncertainty of dating, scholars differ as to whether the first Baptist Church in America was founded by John Clark or Roger Williams.

Either way, Particular Baptist congregations soon began to flourish in America. In a 1793 survey it was estimated that there were 1,032 Baptist churches in America. Out of those, 956 were Calvinist or Particular Baptist congregations.[1] The Baptist church would prove to be influential in the forming of the United States, successfully pushing for an amendment to the Constitution to protect religious liberty.[2]

Even so, growth and influence is not the whole story of the Particular Baptist church. Not unlike their General Baptist counterparts, Particular Baptists have experienced periods of growth, persecution, theological missteps, and decline. The excesses of revivalism, the influence of hyper-Calvinists, and theological liberalism all have posed challenges to the Baptist movement.

Despite these challenges, God has been gracious in preserving the ministry of the Baptist church. Periods of growth and renewal have come at the hands of men such as Thomas Fuller, Isaac Backus, William Carrey, C.H. Spurgeon, and many others.

Reformed Baptist churches continue to thrive today around the world. Commonly held views of such churches include believers baptism by immersion, the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture, the autonomy of the local church, and the Doctrines of Grace.

Grace Baptist church would fit within the category of Particular Baptist due to our view of sovereign election.


Note: This article is derived from an article I originally posted at ReasonableTheology.org.

[1] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/calvinism-is-not-new-to-baptists

[2] https://pastorhistorian.com/2013/11/27/john-leland-james-madison-and-the-first-amendment/

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