History must look at beginnings. To know the origin of a movement or group gives a head start to understanding its present identity and significance. An effort to understand that denomination of Christians called "Baptists" must begin with Baptist history. Who was the first Baptist? When and where was the first Baptist church established? What factors best account for Baptist origins? These sound like simple questions, and one might expect straight-forward answers. The story of Baptist beginnings, however, is surprisingly complex. Additional insights surface as new evidence comes to light. This chapter will recount the historical facts of the origin of Baptists as those facts are presently known.
The modern Baptist denomination originated in England and Holland in the early seventeenth century. Baptists emerged out of intense reform movements, shaped by such radical dissent as Puritanism, Separatism, and possibly Anabaptism. Influenced by the Reformation theology of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, the English Bible, and a deep desire for spiritual reform, some of these Separatists adopted baptism for believers only. They later applied that baptism by total immersion and were nicknamed "Baptists" for that practice.
Two major groups of Baptists emerged in England in the early 1600s. While they shared much in common, they differed in their views of the atonement and church organization. The earlier group was called General Baptists because they believed in a "general" atonement. They believed that the death of Christ has "general" application; that is, anyone who voluntarily believes in Christ can be saved. The General Baptists were less influenced by John Calvin, who taught that only the predestined may be saved, and more influenced by the Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius, whose theology made room for free will. The General Baptists also, like other Arminians, taught the possibility of "falling from grace," and their church structure allowed only limited congregational autonomy, giving more power to the associations. Two primary founders of General Baptists were John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. The earliest church of this persuasion was formed about 1609.
A later group, known as Particular Baptists, surfaced by the late 1630s, led by such men as Henry Jessey, William Kiffin, and John Spilsbury. Under the influence of Calvinism, they taught a "particular" atonement. They believed that Christ died not for all mankind, but only for "particular" ones, namely the elect. Like Calvin, they believed that God had elected some to salvation, that the elect inevitably would be saved, and that the saved could never become "unelect" or lose their salvation. While originating a generation later than General Baptists, Particular Baptists were destined to become the larger of the two groups. The earliest church of this persuasion dates from 1638 (some say 1633). Their organizational structure gave the local congregation complete churchly power, while associations had only advisory functions.
Both groups flourished in England. By 1650 the General Baptists numbered at least forty-seven churches. They grouped these into associations, issued several confessions of faith, and had the rudiments of a national organization. The Particular Baptists, while fewer, had at least seven churches by 1644. Those churches acted together to issue a confession of faith that year. This First London Confession wielded vast influence upon the future shape of Baptist life and thought. Present-day Baptists can be traced back to these beginnings.
This summary, like one snapshot from a larger album, gives only the briefest view and leaves great gaps. We must now fill in some of those historical gaps, first by looking more closely at religious developments in England at the time Baptists emerged as a separate denomination.