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Religion Library: Baptist


Written by: David Buschart

A third influence on the rise of the Baptist tradition was the Anabaptist tradition, particularly the Dutch Anabaptists (Mennonites). As noted above, in 1606 John Smyth and some of his followers went to Amsterdam, fleeing persecution in England, and he remained there until his death in 1612. During this time, particularly as he came to the conclusion that he and his followers should be re-baptized, he consulted with and was influenced by the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites. In his remaining years, his theology increasingly came to resemble that of these Dutch Anabaptists, who stood within a tradition so-named by their opponents. The prefix "ana-" means "to repeat" or "again"; thus, they were seen first and foremost as re-baptizers. To the Anabaptists, and the Baptists after them, this was, of course, inaccurate, for they did not regard the baptism of an infant as a genuine baptism. Thus, the baptism of an adult who had been baptized as an infant was not a re-baptism but his or her first and only genuine Christian baptism.

The fourth and final influence to be noted here is the "new world" in North America, and two characteristics in particular. While many of the earliest colonists went to the new world in search of freedom for their own religion, rather than a generic freedom of all religion for all people, by the middle of the 17th century a more general principle of religious freedom had been written into law in Rhode Island. As noted above, this was due largely to the efforts of Baptist leaders like Roger Williams, Ezekiel Holliman, and John Clarke. Thus, this new world not only shaped but in this respect was significantly shaped by Baptist beliefs. Thus, this new context, after initially being one of prejudice and persecution, eventually provided freedom for the exercise of Baptist beliefs and practices.

Furthermore, this new American context increasingly came to be one based on democratic ideals, and as such proved particularly conducive to the flourishing of a tradition of Christianity that placed great emphasis, as the Baptist tradition does, on rights and responsibilities of individual persons and individual churches. Thus, there were significant points of commonality or continuity between some of the cherished principles of the Baptist tradition and some of the characteristics of the emerging "American spirit."

Study Questions:
     1.    Describe the “Four Streams” that shaped the emergence of the Baptist tradition.
     2.    Why did Baptists view the Church of England as spiritually dead? What prompted Baptists to separate?
     3.    Who were the Anabaptists of the 17th century? Why were they named this?
     4.    Why could it be argued that the “American Spirit” has been shaped by the Baptist tradition?


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