RELIGION LIBRARY

Baptist

Origins

Influences

Four streams that shaped the emergence of the Baptist tradition in the 17th century can be noted here. First, challenges and changes to the dominant forms of institutional Christianity in the West had been stirring since the 15th century, and many of these came to have profound impact in the 16th century. The work of Martin Luther in the 1510s and beyond, the rise of various "radical" or Anabaptist movements in northern Europe in the 1520s, and the inauguration of a Church of England under Henry VIII in the 1530s, all challenged and, in various ways, decreased the standing and power of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, by the early-to-mid 1600s, when Baptist beliefs and practices became embodied in the rise of Baptist congregations, the position and power of the Roman Catholic Church, to which the Baptist tradition was essentially diametrically opposed, was substantially less than it had been in previous centuries.

Second, and more directly related to the story of the rise of the Baptist tradition, by the early-to-mid 1600s the established church in England, the Anglican Church, was now almost a century beyond the first anti-Roman Catholic moves by Henry VIII and approximately fifty years beyond the so-called "Elizabethan Settlement" that had profoundly shaped the Church of England. This Church of England had, in the eyes of Baptists and other separatists, declined with respect to genuine Christian spiritual life. The combination of privileged institutionalization, a corrupting hierarchical structure, and commitment to non-scriptural "sacramental" rituals, particularly pedobaptism (that is, the baptism of infants), had created a church that was, according to the Baptists, spiritually dead. Indeed, from their perspective, the Church of England was not properly a Christian church at all.

From a Baptist perspective, these were distortions of genuine corporate Christianity, and were tied to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the Church. Anglicans believed that on this side of eternity the Church will always be a "mixed" reality; that is, the constituents of the Church will include both genuine Christians and people who are not Christians (cf. Jesus' parable in Matthew 13:24-30). Baptists believed, on the other hand, that churches are to be pure; that is, that only those who testify in both word and deed (these deeds came to include baptism by immersion) are to be members of and active participants in the life of churches. This was a fundamental difference, which prompted Baptists to separate from the Church of England and form their own independent congregations.

Thus, this "spiritually dead" Church of England was one of the greatest influences on the emergence of the Baptist tradition -- an "influence" in that it constituted the predominant ecclesiastical reality against which Baptist beliefs and practices were asserted.

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.

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