English Baptist History in brief . . .
Baptists form the fifth largest Christian church in the world. Baptist churches are found in almost every country in the world and have about 40 million members globally. In Britain 2,150 churches belong to the Baptist Union of Great Britain and between them have 150,000 members.
The name ‘Baptist’ comes from the Baptist practice of immersion in water. It was coined in the seventeenth century by opponents to the new movement but rejected by followers themselves. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Baptists accepted the use of the label to describe themselves.
The roots of the Baptist movement date back to the sixteenth century and the post-reformation period, although the first Baptist congregation appeared in 1609 in Holland. It was here that the Church of England minister John Smyth performed a radical and scandalous act of Baptising himself by pouring water on his head. He then Baptised his fellow reformer Thomas Helwys and other members of the congregation.
Smyth and Helwys had left England for Holland in 1607 after being persecuted for wanting to purify the Church of England of all traces of Roman Catholicism. Both Smyth and Helwys had joined a group of ‘Separatists’ in Gainsborough in 1606. Their three core beliefs went on to shape later Baptists:
Eventually Smyth and Helwys parted company in Holland as Smyth questioned the authenticity of his self-administered baptism.
In 1612 Helwys and others returned to England to establish the first Baptist Church on English soil in Spitalfields, London.
Baptists initially developed in two streams of theological thought:
These two groups eventually came together in 1813 to form a General Union, which subsequently became the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland in the late nineteenth century.
Throughout the seventeenth century Baptists were persecuted for their beliefs, being known as ‘nonconformists’ or ‘Dissenters’. They refused to become members of the Church of England, saying Christ – not the monarch – was head of the Church.
The nineteenth century saw a period of significant growth for the Baptist movement. Great preachers such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon in London and Alexander Maclaren in Manchester drew crowds in their thousands.
Baptists today are represented globally by the Baptist World Alliance which was founded in 1905. It provides an international forum for the exchange of Baptist thought, paying special attention to matters concerning Christian education, religious freedom, human rights and missions.
In 2009 Baptists celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Baptist movement.
Equality - In the Baptist movement everyone is equal. There is no hierarchy of bishops or priests exercising authority over members. Baptists reject the idea that authority flows down from previous church leaders who can be traced back to the apostles in apostolic succession.
Congregational - Baptists are congregational with each church being self-governing and self-supporting, made up of members, each with a role to play. The churches encourage those attending to become church members through baptism. This entitles them to vote at the church meeting where all decisions are made. Final authority rests not with the Minister or Deacons but with Church Members at the meeting. It appoints Ministers, Elders, Deacons and others who take a leadership role, agree financial policy and determine mission strategy.
Interdependent - Despite their autonomy, local Baptist churches have always come together in regional, national and international associations for support and fellowship. Baptists believe that churches should not live in isolation but be interdependent. Technically there is no such thing as a Baptist denomination. The organisation has a ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ approach. However, in the UK, most Baptist churches belong to the Baptist Union. This isn’t a central authority but a central resource for assisting churches.
Distinguishing Features - Baptists share the Trinitarian tradition of all the major Christian denominations. However, there are several features that mark them out from other traditions, although none of them is exclusive to Baptists alone:
Believers Baptism By Full Immersion - This is perhaps the most obvious difference between Baptists and other denominations. Baptists reject infant Baptism, thinking instead that Baptism is for believers only – those who can personally declare Jesus as Lord. Some churches will Re-Baptise those who were Baptised as infants in another Christian tradition, others respect that various denominations do things differently. The Baptism is carried out by full immersion. Most Baptist churches have a Baptistry, which is more or less a pool (about 4m by 3m) in the church. During a Baptismal Service the Minister and the person being Baptised enter the water. The Minister, holding the person, will lie them back in the water so they are totally immersed and then bring them back up again. Baptists believe this practice is in line with the New Testament practice of Baptism, as carried out by John the Baptist.
Priesthood Of All - Baptists believe everyone, ordained or lay, is responsible before God for his/her own understanding of God’s word and what it means to them. They believe God created every individual as competent, with the skills to be a Priest for themselves and others. That means that in Baptist churches which appoint a Minister, he or she is an equal member in the church meeting but with special responsibilities as outlined by the congregation.
Separation Of Church & State - As each Baptist church is autonomous there can be no outside interference in decision making. This applies to any secular power, such as the state, being involved in church matters. Therefore Baptists reject the idea of an established or state church.
The modern Baptist movement was born in the 16th century and is now a worldwide denomination with millions of believers worshipping in Baptist congregations.