The Church in History

Several times, in this series, the term “dissenters” has appeared. There are many meanings for that word, but the most significant, for us, lies in its meaning in 16th and 17th England. Almost all American Christians, with the exception of some Roman Catholics and some Orthodox, trace their lineage to England and the English Reformation. Theoretically at least, we were all Anglicans from the middle of the 1630s until our particular line split off from that body, the Church of England.

First came the Presbyterians, then the Puritans, then the Dissenters; people like the Pilgrims. Among the early Dissenters were the Quakers, and then the Baptists. Baptists were not, like the Pilgrims, Anabaptist, though they may have been somewhat inspired by them. Nor were Baptists Anabaptists. Anabaptists were part of a completely different strand of reform that came mostly out of eastern Europe in the 1500s. The key marks of Anabaptism were group living (sometimes, group ownership of property; sometimes, not), and the use of baptism as a regular part of worship. That’s what “ana-baptism” means: “re-baptism”. Among the Anabaptist groups who survived into the modern world are the Moravians, the Amish and the Mennonites.

Baptists have never been Anabaptist. Neither have they ever been “Reformed” in the pure sense of the word. The French and Dutch Reformed Churches were called “Huguenots”, and they were (and are: they still exist today, even in the United States) much more like Presbyterians than they were Dissenters of any sort. Shortly after 1600, an Englishman named John Smyth developed a particular theology that drove him away from the Church of England and the Church of Rome equally. He moved to Holland and worshipped with both Huguenots and Anabaptist groups, but could commit himself to neither. Finally, he started his own Church and began baptizing new members, mostly English expatriates like himself. The key features of Smyth’s new Church were absolute congregational independence, adult baptism, and complete separation of Church and State. Smyth baptized himself to start it off, followed by a close friend or two, and then more, as they came along. He called his new movement “Baptist”. That’s the name they still bear, today.

Roger Williams came to Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, firmly in the Puritan camp, but he soon got into trouble with the Church hierarchy and moved to some unsettled territory outside the boundaries of either Massachusetts or Virginia, and, in 1638 founded a Baptist congregation there, calling the new territory Providence Plantations”. Later, it became Rhode Island. By that time, Williams had moved on, but the Baptist Church was firmly established in the American Colonies as a result of his work.