Last week, you may remember, we started talking about why we call ourselves Baptist and what a Baptist church believes. This week I am going to continue on the same theme but we will explore the historical aspects of being a Baptist.
I’ll go ahead and tell you that there is far more that could be said about historical Baptists than I could fit in this article. If you are interested in reading further about Baptists throughout history then I would be glad to point you to some good resources that have been a help to me. Probably the best book I’ve read on the subject is “The Faithful Baptist Witness” by Dr. Phil Stringer. I learned much of the information in this article from this book and Dr. Stringer himself. He has thoroughly studied the subject and is considered an expert on Baptist history.
Before we begin in earnest I must explain one little detail. Though biblical Christianity has existed since the time of Christ, the term Baptist is relatively new in the grand scheme of time. The name comes from the a group of Swiss believers who were given the title Anabaptist in the sixteenth century. Anabaptist simply means “re-baptizers” and references these believer’s custom of only baptizing those who had already made a profession of faith in Christ and been born-again. Since the majority of official religions in this day baptized infants into membership, those who were saved and joined the Swiss believers were, in the eyes of the established churches, being re-baptized.
The core beliefs of these Swiss Anabaptists were not new or radical in any way. In fact, they had bee practiced and believed by Christians since the time of Christ and His Apostles. The groups had went by different names and lived in different regions, but the beliefs they held to were all remarkably similar. These beliefs were in opposition to many of the doctrines promoted by the established religions and these believers suffered persecution at the hands of these state-sponsored churches.
It is also important to note that Baptists are not Protestants. Though Martin Luther led the charge against the Roman Catholic Church and was ultimately responsible for many splinter groups that left Catholicism, the Baptists were not one of them. It is interesting to study the relationship Luther had to Baptists and the persecution he and his followers eventually inflicted on the Baptists of his day. Of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation (Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli), all had serious issues with Baptist doctrine and eventually persecuted the Bible believing Baptists.
As you study the beliefs that Baptists hold today, and the origins of those who held to these beliefs, you will see that these doctrines are not new in any way. A short list of those Christians who held to basically the same pattern of belief include the Montanists (founded circa 150 AD), Donatists (fourth century), Novatians (third century), and Paulicians. If you take the time to study Christianity in the British Isles you will conclude that the Celtics (the earliest settlers in Brittain) also, for the most part, were Bible believers who held to most of the Baptist Distinctives. Even the Catholic saint Patrick believed in most of these distinctives (including baptizing converts by immersion himself) and was not a member of the Roman Church. Patrick is heralded as a great figure in Celtic history, and he was, but he was not a Catholic.
During the Dark Ages it is widely assumed that the only real religious body at work was the Roman Catholic Church. Further study though shows us that groups such as the Waldenses, Albigenses, Petrobrusians, Arnoldists, and Lombards were all groups who believed and taught what we call the Baptist Distinctives during the Dark Ages. Each were independent, re-baptizing, Bible believing churches who suffered much at the hands of Roman persecution.
Through though persecution at the hands of the Romanists and the Reformers, the Baptists of whichever name moved to flee certain death. For a while they were primarily found in Switzerland (where they got their name), but were forced to move to Holland, then England, and, finally, the American Colonies. Though the first permanent settlers of the Americas, the Pilgrims, were not Baptists, they believed some of the Baptist Distinctives and opened the doors for believers of all stripes to come to the promise-filled shores of New England. The Baptists were not alone in following the Pilgrims as several groups also wanted religious freedom, the most well-known being the Puritans.
Soon, though, the Baptists fell out of favor with the government-controlling Puritans and were forced to relocate away from Massachusetts colony. Roger Williams and his group fled this persecution and founded the first Baptist church in the Americas in their new territory they called Providence Plantation that was later changed to Rhode Island Colony (the city that ultimately sprung up around these believers still retains Williams’ original name, Providence). Since that time the Baptist churches have grown and multiplied in every aspect of the American landscape and have played a pivotal role in the history of our great nation. Space does not permit me to tell of the Baptist leaders who have influenced everything from the founding of our governmental system, the inclusion of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, and even the abolitionist movement in the 1800s. Baptists have literally been helping guide the United States with biblical principles since before it’s founding as an independent nation.
There is much more that could be said about Baptists and Baptist history had I the time or space to write it all. Ultimately, though, it is important for us to realize that the Baptist Distinctives are not in any way new or unproven ideas. Believers throughout history have believed them just as the New Testament churches did in the time of the Apostles. We at Cornerstone Baptist Church are thankful for the Baptist heritage that has been left for us and preach the same doctrines these believers also taught from God’s Word.