The identification of the originating events and the "founders" of the Baptist tradition is less clear than it is for most other Protestant traditions of Christianity. There are several streams or sub-traditions that participate in the earliest decades of the Baptist tradition.

As a result of disagreements with the Church of England, John Smyth established a "Separatist" congregation in 1606. Because of continuing conflict with the Church of England, and subsequent persecution, he, along with Thomas Helwys and members of their congregation fled to Amsterdam later that year. A number of somewhat similar groups had already formed in the Netherlands prior to their arrival. Nonetheless, they formed a new church congregation rather than joining one of the existing groups. Though not on English soil, this congregation is usually regarded as the first English Baptist church. Approximately two years later, in 1609, Smyth baptized himself (sometimes referred to as "se-baptism") and other adult members of the congregation. This affirmation of baptism for believers only defined the group as the first Baptist congregation.

Thomas Helwys led a congregation that emerged from Smyth's around 1610, drafting its own confession of faith in 1611. The following year, Helwys returned to England and established a Baptist congregation at Spitalfields, near London.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys are representative of the General Baptists. This name is reflective of the fact that Smyth, Helwys, and the members of their congregations believed in a "general" view of the atonement of Jesus Christ. That is, they believed that Jesus Christ died for all (thus the label "general") people. Only those who trust in Christ for salvation are in fact saved, but his death, nonetheless, was made for all people. This view is associated with Arminian theology. This stands in contrast with a "particular" view of the atonement, according to which Jesus Christ died only for those who are elect, or chosen, by God. This view is associated with Calvinist theology. Baptists who held to this latter view of the atonement are referred to as Particular Baptists.

The first Particular Baptist congregation in England was established by John Spilsbury around 1633. Spilsbury left the separatist church in London of which he was a member, was baptized, and organized a Particular Baptist church. Approximately five years later, William Kiffin was baptized and joined Spilsbury's church. Kiffin went on to become one of the leading spokespersons for the Particular Baptist sub-tradition. It is worth noting that the practice of baptism by complete immersion in water, as opposed to sprinkling or pouring, was not embraced within the Baptist tradition until the late 1630s, when it was adopted by Particular Baptists who concluded that this is what the Bible teaches. The General Baptists had not yet adopted the practice of immersion, but eventually did so in the 1640s.

The origins of a third sub-tradition, the Seventh Day Baptists, are less clear than those of the General and Particular Baptists. As their name suggests, these were (and are) Baptists who were sabbatarians, that is, they believed that it was mandatory for Christians to observe the Sabbath. This included abstaining from all work and devoting the day to worship and fellowship. The earliest documented Seventh Day congregations appear to have been formed in the 1640s and early 1650s. Congregations may have been formed earlier in the century, but this cannot be confirmed from existing documentation.

The non-conformist views and practices of the Baptists, in all three sub-traditions, were viewed as a challenge to both social and ecclesiastical order, and, consequently, resulted in persecution by the state-church alliance, whether Anglican or Presbyterian. Thus, it is not surprising that some Baptists sought greater religious freedom by leaving England and heading for colonial America. However, the situation they found there was not entirely different. The Congregational churches were the established church in New England, and the Church of England held sway in most of the rest of the colonies. In these regions Baptists generally faced religious persecution. For example, in 1644 the Massachusetts Bay Colony banished Baptists by law.

They found, however, considerable religious freedom in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Baptists thrived in Rhode Island, and in 1638 or 1639, the first Baptist church in America was founded in Providence under the leadership of Roger Williams and Ezekiel Holliman. This was a Particular Baptist church, holding to Calvinistic beliefs regarding the work of Christ and salvation. Furthermore, under the political leadership of Williams and layman John Clarke, the principle of freedom of conscience, including freedom of religious conscience, was written into law in the Charter of Rhode Island (1663).

Study Questions:
     1.     When was the first Baptist Church formed? By whom?
     2.     What is meant by the term, “General Baptists”? What theology comes with this view?
     3.     Who are the Particular Baptists? When did they originate?
     4.     What do Seventh Day Baptists believe?
     5.     Where were Baptists persecuted? Where did they thrive?

Back to Religion Library