Anabaptists & Baptists

Anabaptism developed as a radical religious and social movement during the Reformation in 16th century Europe. "Anabaptist" means "re-baptiser" and refers to the movement's central rejection of infant baptism in favour of a conscious act of adult baptism into the Christian faith.

Anabaptist congregations separated themselves from all forms of state control and avoided contact with society outside their own communities. They rejected both the Roman Catholic Church and the new Reformed Protestant Churches. The Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites and other similar groups originated in Anabaptist congregations. Militant Anabaptist uprisings occurred in Europe, notably at Münster in Germany in 1534, leaving the movement with a reputation for disrupting the established social order. Anabaptists who fled to England were persecuted during the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary I.

Anabaptism influenced several nonconformist sects in England and the New World, especially the early Baptists, but the word "Anabaptist" was generally a term of abuse during the Civil War and Commonwealth era, used to denote any potentially subversive religious doctrine.

The English Baptist movement has its origins in a Separatist congregation established at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, around 1606, which was led by John Smyth (c.1550-1612), a former clergyman who had become disillusioned with the Anglican church. Smyth's followers, along with a small number of sister congregations that had formed in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, were persecuted as dissenters and forced to flee to the Netherlands in 1608. At Amsterdam, the English Separatists came under the influence of the Mennonites, an Anabaptist sect which claimed to practise a pure form of Christianity similar to that of the early Church. A central Mennonite tenet was that infant baptism was meaningless. A deliberate act of adult baptism was essential for entry into the faith. In 1609, Smyth and his followers baptised themselves and confessed Jesus as Saviour to form what is generally regarded as the first Baptist congregation.

After Smyth's death in 1611, Thomas Helwys (c.1550-1616) wrote the first English Baptist confession of faith (A Declaration of Faith of Certain English People Remaining at Amsterdam). In 1612, Helwys led his congregation back to London where he established a Baptist church at Spitalfields. Despite their attempts to disassociate themselves from the Mennonites, the early Baptists were persecuted and stigmatised as Anabaptists. Both Helwys and John Murton, who succeeded him as pastor of the Spitalfields congregation, died in gaol, but the Baptist faith grew steadily throughout England and Wales. During the 1630s, the movement split into two groups: the General and Particular Baptists.

"General" Baptists followed the doctrines of Smyth and Helwys. They believed in free will rather than the Calvinist doctrine of predestination taught by the Presbyterians. Baptists laid strong emphasis on individual personal salvation and an acceptance of persecution as an opportunity to testify for Christ. Pastors were elected by the casting of lots. Set prayers and recitations were regarded as a discouragement to true religion and some congregations encouraged prophesying, where members said whatever they believed God had inspired them to say. Travelling General Baptist preachers were regarded as troublemakers by local civil and church authorities throughout the kingdom.

The General Baptists were challenged by the emergence in London of John Spilsbury's Calvinist "Particular" Baptist congregation in 1638. Like General Baptists, the Particular Baptists believed in the separation of church and state. Both groups encouraged lay preachers and came to accept total immersion rather than pouring as the preferred method of baptism. However, Particular Baptists practised stricter regulation of their congregations and accepted Calvin's doctrine of predestination. They believed in salvation for a "particular" few, rather than the "general" salvation preached by the General Baptists.

The Particular Baptist churches held regular meetings of delegates in London and issued the London Confession in 1644, which declared that men must be allowed to follow their own conscience and understanding. By 1658, the Particular Baptists were organised into four large regional associations covering the whole of England. There was no national meeting, but the London pastors greatly influenced the movement as a whole. Many officers and men of the New Model Army were Particular Baptists, including the regicides Ludlow, Axtell and Hewson. John Bunyan (1628-88), author of The Pilgrim's Progress and other spiritual works, served in the New Model Army during the final stages of the English Civil War and became a Baptist in 1653.

During the early 1650s, army Baptists flourished in Ireland under the sympathetic administration of the Lord-Deputy Charles Fleetwood. However, the religious radicals were highly critical of the establishment of the Protectorate. In 1655, Fleetwood was replaced as Lord-Deputy by Henry Cromwell, who succeeded in forcing the leading Baptist officers to resign their commissions or to leave Ireland.

Baptist congregations continued to meet after the Restoration, but they were regarded with suspicion by the church authorities. Many congregations prospered in America.


English Dissenters: Anabaptists and Baptists

R.D. Butler & L.A. Harsch, The Rise of the General Baptists & the Particular Baptists (NOBTS 2007)

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)


Historic Baptist Documents