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Arguing regenerate church membership: Baptist identity during its first decade, 1610-1620: non-Baptists seeking membership in a Baptist church frequently inquire as to why Baptists insist that they be rebaptized.

The explanation normally takes a while: they are told that Baptists understand baptism differently than do most denominations. (1) Whereas most denominations practice infant baptism, according to the thinking of most Baptists baptism should follow expression of faith in Christ that can only cxme from one who has made a self-conscious commitment to Christ. Thus, infant baptism is not an option for most Baptist churches. In modern American culture, however, Baptists commonly marry outside their own denomination, and often the couple wants to join a Baptist church together. Most Baptist pastors whose churches do not accept infant baptism are pragmatic enough to create some form of a "watchcare" program of halfway membership with the hope that the non-Baptist will eventually accept baptism again with the new understanding that it is a sign of an established relationship based on the believer's decision. Something like this practice seeks to accommodate present realities while holding to the original vision that gave Baptists their name.

Baptist identity has been a topic of keen interest in Baptist studies. The task for historians and theologians is perhaps more urgent today considering the denomination's struggle to keep members. (2) Many Baptist scholars have taken up the task of defining Baptist identity. Numerous works offer discussion of what are often called "distinctives." But "distinctives" claims too much since the list often includes ideas shared with other Protestants, such as the authority of scripture alone and the Lordship of Christ. (3) Wheeler Robinson's use of "principles" would seem to be a better choice of terms than either "distinctives" or "characteristics." (4)

Robinson and other scholars have attempted to capture the essence of being Baptist. Indeed, historian after historian of the Baptists--even if they are recounting later stages of Baptist history, such as the history of the Southern Baptist Convention--often begin with a discussion of Baptist origins and principles. (5) Two major obstacles to this task today are (1) awareness that Baptist identity is diverse and (2) that Baptist identity has changed over time. (6) The older approach was to abstract a series of key Baptist beliefs and practices such as reliance on scripture, voluntary church, conversion experience, missions, and separation of church and state. However, the list is ever-changing, ever-modified to adapt to changes in the Baptist experience. Ernest Payne sought to articulate the heart of the denomination's experience at mid-twentieth century when he titled his "principles" genre book, The Fellowship of Believers: Baptist Thought and Practice Yesterday and Today. (7) Yet another approach was to avoid any of the terms claiming to be "distinctives," "characteristics," or "principles," and simply refer to "the Baptist way" (8)

The fact that the list of Baptist beliefs and practices is ever-changing is evidenced by the fact that had such a list been made in 1750, foreign missions, a key theme for Robinson in 1927, would not have been included. If the list had been made in 1950, ecumenism would not have made the Southern Baptist list, whereas it would have been on the American Baptist Convention list. A list made in 1950 also would not characterized the Southern Baptist Convention by its leaders' espousal of fundamentalist ideas; today, a list would include fundamentalism. The term, however, would not be used to describe the American Baptist Convention. Baptists have multiple identities today.

The earliest Baptists shared much with other dissenting and separationist Christians when they emerged as a separate entity, including criticism of the established church, which they viewed as false in its ministers, worship, theology, and practices. The dissenters argued their positions with as much force as they could generate. They wrote out of conviction and became apologists for their respective opinions. They were not twenty-first-century scholars, offering opinions from ivory towers and at academic conferences; nor were they pursuing tenure at a university. They were committed believers pursuing the truth in churches and in jails. The earliest Baptist writers demonstrated a passion for re-creating the true church, for acknowledging the authority of scripture and reason, for imploring the state to tolerate various religious expressions, and for critiquing Calvinism. But what especially set the Baptists apart from other major groups in England in 1612, at the point of its origins in England, was their conviction regarding a believer's church--which meant that members must first actually believe in Christ before undergoing baptism in his name. (9)

As Baptists think about and seek to recover aspects of their heritage during this period of the 400th anniversary of Baptist origins, exploring the dynamic at work in creating the "big bang" moment of the origins of Baptist life is useful. In 1612, the single most unique Baptist idea was believer's baptism, the unquestionable foundation of the movement and its original core belief.

This article focuses on the earliest years of Baptist history in England and explores the debates that set in place the key idea of Baptist identity. The article affirms that Baptist identity, at its outset, focused on the faith of the believer, adult baptism, and the nature of the church as limited to believers only. First, the article is purposely restricted to publications by English Baptists in the first decade of its life, 1610-1620. Second, the argument is framed by (1) examining the interpretation and arguments set forth by founder Thomas Helwys in 1612, by (2) analyzing the 1614 response of John Robinson, a fellow Separatist but critic of Helwys's views on baptism, and by (3) the critical response to Robinson by Baptist leader John Murton in 1620. All three reformers appealed to scripture and to logic. (10) This argument established and confirmed the trajectory that was central to life in the Baptist future. Third, the language of" the debate is characterized by conviction, and the rhetoric against other views is heated. The debate remained vigorous throughout the seventeenth century and beyond. (11) Clearly, the views held by Baptist writers of succeeding generations about the concepts of believers' churches and baptism of adults only remains four hundred years later as a vital center of Baptist formal identity.

John Smyth

Baptist origins are traced to John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. These two men worked together in England, and under political pressure, they migrated to the Netherlands in 1608. (12) They rented property from a Mennonite and established ties with the Mennonite community. The "Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles, by John Smyth," 1609, was a concise summary of his beliefs, in which he articulated in Articles 12 and 14 the Baptist understanding of faith and baptism. In Article 12, he wrote that "the church of Christ is a company of the faithful; baptized after confession of sin and of faith, endowed with the power of Christ." (13) Two points were essential: (1) The church of Christ is comprised of the faithful who have been endowed with the power of Christ. (2) This group first confesses sin and professes faith after which baptism is administered. Article 14 declared that "baptism is the external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and of being made alive, and therefore does not belong to infants." (14) Smyth's position was crystal clear: infants cannot be members of the church of Christ because they do not have the conscious awareness to confess sin and faith. Thus, the Baptists adopted the idea of a church formed only of believers.

Unlike most other groups of their day, with the exception of the Anabaptists, Baptists rejected infant baptism. (15) Smyth developed his ideas more fully in The Character of the Beast (1609) in which he declared that "all those churches that baptize infants are of the same false constitution." (16) Smyth denounced the Roman Catholic and the Anglican as false churches. Other churches of the separation criticized the parent Anglican Church, but in Smyth's view they too were false churches because they also practiced infant baptism, which he called a false baptism. (17) Smyth argued that infants should not be baptized because they cannot believe. (18) Prior to baptism the individual sinner must deal with his or her conscience. Clearly, infants cannot take any action of repentance before their baptism. Hence, Smyth concluded that infant baptism was invalid. (19) In the "Short Confession of Faith" (1610), Smyth affirmed in Article 29 that baptism was given to those who "hear, believe, and ... receive the Holy Gospel." Thus, Baptists must exclude infant baptism: "For such hath the Lord Jesus commanded to be baptized, and no unspeaking children." (20)

Smyth was an able theologian and committed churchman. Of him, Mandell Creighton wrote, "None of the English Separatists had a finer mind or a more beautiful soul than John Smyth." (21) However, Smyth and some of his followers abandoned the Baptist path, sought to join the Mennonites, and were eventually absorbed into its tradition. Although he did not continue as a Baptist, Smyth nevertheless has the distinction of arriving first at the key Baptist position on faith and baptism. A. C. Underwood therefore accorded him priority among Baptist founders: "he stands at the fountainhead of consecutive Baptist history. He may be regarded as the father and founder of the organized Baptists of England and of General Baptists in particular." (22)

Thomas Helwys

The other Baptist founder, Thomas Helwys, returned to England, planted the first Baptist church there, and thus assured that the Baptist tradition did not die. His "Declaration of Faith of English People, 1611" affirmed that the two sacraments "are outward visible ... tokens." Article 13 of that declaration stated that baptism was given "upon the Confession of their faith and sins wrought by the preaching of the Gospel, according to the primitive Instruction, Matt.28:19. And practice, Acts. 2:41. And therefore Churches constituted after any other manner, or of any other persons are not according to CHRIST'S Testament." (23) Helwys cited Matthew 28:19 to demonstrate that baptism must follow confession of faith and sins. Baptists in the following years would point to the sequence in this text as their model: Jesus told his followers first to make disciples and teach them, and then to baptize them. Peter's sermon in Acts 2 called for first receiving the word and then being baptized. In Article 14, Helwys specifically clarified his position, as did Smyth in his "Short Confession": infants were excluded because they cannot first die to sin and walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:2-4). (24) With this logic applied to the text of scripture, Helwys established what in his own opinion was the basic argument needed to declare all other churches to be "false churches."

Arguing regenerate church membership employed the twin strategy of logical argument and citation of scripture. Smyth, Helwys, and fellow Baptists found no direct passage to quote forbidding infant baptism. Instead, they proceeded by logical inference. They cited biblical examples of adult followers of Christ. But more importantly they looked carefully at the sequence of wording in the biblical text to support their position: "make disciples ... [then] baptizing" in Matthew 28:19-20 provided a convenient summary of their argument. Moreover, the sequence of "repent, believe, be baptized" was taken as a scriptural blueprint and was a favorite argument that they repeatedly employed. The result was that the Baptists turned the understanding of baptism on its head: baptism must come at the end of a completed process of becoming Christian. The model it challenged started with the act of baptism in infancy as beginning the process of salvation. On this point, Baptist theology and practice were revolutionary. The earliest Baptists soon began to create rhetorical formulas which stated their new belief clearly. For example, contemporary Baptist leader Leonard Busher wrote in 1614 that "the one true religion is not attained by natural birth. But the one true religion is gotten by new birth." (25)

In Book IV of his A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, (26) Helwys argued the key Baptist principle while condemning the Brownists, whom he called "false prophets." (27) While both Brownists and Helwys criticized the Anglican Church, the Baptist leader also rejected the Brownists, who retained infant baptism. He argued that "you have joined [yourselves] together in a voluntary profession, but have not joined yourselves to Christ." (28) "And therefore," he continued, "your profession is a false profession, and you have a false Christ that is no Christ as shall be hereafter plainly proved." (29) He contended that "there is no way to join and come to Christ, but only to 'amend their lives and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). Further "all ye that are baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). Furthermore, "infidels and unbelievers have no other way to come, and be joined to Christ, but only by believing and being baptized." (30) The biblical passages cited by Helwys emphasized personal commitment to Christ before baptism, and in an extended discourse Helwys argued that the Brownists are no true church:
 You confessing yourselves to be of the world before you .joined
 yourselves together in your voluntary, profession, by a covenant of
 your own divisings (you being of the world), your condition was the
 same. Then were you without the Spirit of truth, unbelievers, not
 knowing God, lying all in wickedness. And so are you all infidels,
 and there was, nor is, no way for you to join unto Christ, but to
 'amend your lives and be baptized,' and by baptism 'to put on
 Christ,' which seeing you have not done, you are still of the
 world. The Spirit of truth is not in you, you are infidels and
 unbelievers, you know not God, and you remain in your wickedness.
 And so is your profession a false profession of Christ, and you
 have not the true Christ, but a false Christ. And so is your
 baptism a worldly baptism brought out of the world, an ordinance of
 the world, and not the baptism and ordinance of Christ, whose
 baptism is not of the world, as he is not of the world. (31)

Halfway through Book IV Hewys identified his adversary as Mr. Robinson and the Brownists. (32) Robinson's merciless denunciation of Helwys "provided the occasion for [Helwys] to preach his views on baptism." (33) Helwys's editor; Richard Groves, argued that the "Separatist position was that a church is essentially a body of people who voluntarily enter into relation with one another on the basis of a covenant," whereas for Helwys "baptism, not covenant is the unifying foundation of the church." (34) Historian Champlin Burrage articulated a similar assessment a century ago. (35)

Robinson stated his view of the covenant clearly. (36) In an appeal to Mark 16:16, Helwys replied, "They must believe and be baptized." He then charged Robinson with "deceitful distinction," because Robinson held that the Anglican Church is a false church, but that its baptism was valid. Helwys concluded that a false church is no church of God, and a false church could not deliver a true baptism. This dissenting position moved Helwys farther from Anglicanism than Robinson's Separationist stance, and Helwys contended that Robinson's church was a church of Satan, and his baptism was a baptism of Satan. (37) Not interested in conciliation, Helwys argued with all the fervor he could muster for the truth of his understanding, and his position excluded Separatists as well as Anglicans and Catholics. Reflecting on the factors that may have moved Smyth and Helwys to adopt the radical idea of a believers' church, B. R. White suggested that "unease" over the Anglican baptism may have been a critical factor. (38)

Whereas Robinson admitted the validity of baptism from "Babylon," i.e., baptism by the Church of England, Helwys vehemently denied it and instead argued that the new covenant was spiritual. (39) He declared that infants could not be baptized with the Spirit because they were not regenerate. (40) Whereas most Puritan and Separatist writers, including Robinson, asserted that the covenant extended to infants, Helwys pointed out that such a promise was not found anywhere in scripture. (41) He argued that God does not promise to accept the salvation of the parents' faith for their children, nor does God condemn infants for their parents' infidelity. (42) Echoes of this language still resonate with modern Baptists who have heard versions of it repeatedly from their pulpits. Helwys concluded by noting that although all of Abraham's sons were circumcised, not all were under the covenant. (43)

Helwys's rejection of universal state-sponsored infant baptism was similarly clear--whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Separatist/Brownist. The Baptist/Anabaptist position that the church consisted of a few true believers rather than the masses baptized as infants stood alone against the vast majority in the Christian community and has persisted to the present. In adopting this view of the church, Helwys articulated the critical idea of English Baptists vis-a-vis other groups in their quest to discover the true church.

Helwys argued his position by simple logic with appeal once again to Mark 16:16--belief precedes baptism. He believed that when he used his reason to understand the appropriate sequence of events described in this verse, his position was proven. (44) Helwys's choice of language from the book of Revelation to describe the established church demonstrated his intent to condemn the church with the words of scripture itself. The book of Revelation condemned Babylon, which is usually interpreted historically as a code for the Roman state. Instead of its original intent, Helwys and his contemporary dissenters applied this text and its harsh .judgment to the Anglican Church of the early seventeenth century. He asserted that whoever obeys Babylon bears the mark of the beast and shall be tormented with fire and brimstone. (45)

Showing no restraint when attacking fellow Separatists who retain infant baptism, Helwys charged Robinson with "deceitful skill," "hardness of heart," and "great blindness and ignorance." (46) Sustaining this general indictment with a series of specific attacks throughout his argument, Helwys's scorn knew no limits when he addressed Robinson's explanation of baptism in terms of water, washing, and words. "Is all truth debarred from your understanding?" (47) He continued, "If you had known Christ ... you would never have written thus. Do you [not] know that Christ's kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, his ordinances spiritual ordinances?" (48) Again, attacking Robinson, Helwys wrote:
 If darkest errors did not possess your heart, you could never have
 written such things. But that we know your stiffness in your false
 ways we should pity to point out your palpable ignorance in these
 things. Did ever man of any understanding in religion write thus?
 You are lighter than vanity herein. Will any man that has any
 knowledge of God be so blind as not to see how the spirit of error
 does lead you to justify that a baptism where there is neither the
 Spirit of God, lawful minister, right subject, nor true communion
 is the true baptism and ordinance of Christ in the essential part
 thereof. (49)

Thus, Helwys condemned Separatist preachers as "false prophets" and their congregations as "unbelievers" who are not joined to Christ. (50) In a clever rhetorical stratagem, Helwys conceded that "we cannot deny but there are many worthy truths in [your book]. Then he undermined Robinson by declaring that "you and all the false prophets of your profession do mix your falsehood with divers truth ... for that is your sheep's clothing," (51) and thus asserted that Robinson could not be trusted. These representative selections show how passionately Helwys set forth his own views and also sought to discredit those of his rival interpreters. Robinson responded with similar passion. Their dialogue was notable for its absence of charity. Out of this crucible of this fierce debate the Baptist argument emerged, and because it was such a persuasive argument for many believers, it would have staying power for centuries.

John Robinson

John Robinson was a leading Separatist of the era of Baptist beginnings. He and his group followed Smyth, Helwys, and others to the Netherlands, but he rejected the basic Baptist premise regarding baptism. He served as an excellent foil for understanding the shaping of the Baptist debate with other Separatists. He, of course, became famous for his role in assisting the Plymouth settlers in their preparations for going to the New World. Robinson was probably Cambridge trained and took up the pen to defend his religious views, addressing a variety of' religious topics in his 1614 essay "Of Religious Communion private and publique." (52) As a Separatist, Robinson positioned himself as a critic both of the Anglican Church, his mother church, and the bold new Baptist position on baptism. Robinson and Helwys, like most Puritan religious reformers of their day in England, rejected many features of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, sometimes identifying both with the two beasts of the book of Revelation. (53) Robinson called the struggle to reform the English church a "spiritual struggle." The Separatist reformers had no legal authority for the positions they took regarding English society, but they believed that they must resist the "false" established church nonetheless: "But for our fighting against England: it is only by the spiritual weapons of our testimony, the word of" God, our practice of Christ's ordinances and sufferings against the confusion, clergy and superstitions there: and thus we must war against all iniquity whether of apostate Israel in Babylon it matters not." (54)

The Puritan-Separatist Robinson and the Baptists Smyth and Helwys agreed on many, but not all, doctrines concerning the true church. Robinson rejected the Baptist position on baptism. Robinson attacked Smyth at the point of his greatest weakness--his self-baptism, which Smyth himself later recanted. (55)

In "On Religious Communion Private and Public," Robinson addressed Helwys by name and engaged in extended discussion of baptism. (56) Much of the latter section of this essay consisted of direct challenges to Helwys's interpretations. Robinson clearly stated his view of the covenant and also the Baptist rejection of its conditions. He noted that the Baptists believed: "God will write the law in men's own hearts, by the power of his Spirit in the preaching of the gospel, and will be their God and save them; and on the people's behalf to believe the gospel and to be baptized. And here upon he [Helwys] infers, and concludes that children are not within the covenant of the New Testament, or gospels, and therefore not to be baptized." (57)

Robinson accepted the traditional Puritan position on infant baptism and the standard arguments in its support. The general argument was based on Old Testament/New Testament typology. Just as the Old Testament practice of circumcising infants thereby included them in the covenant, so now infant baptism brings them into covenant with God. (58) As he wrote, "now baptism cometh instead of circumcision." (59) Both actions, he believed, were signs or seals of the Covenant of God. (60) Arguing that although the Anglican Church was wayward, Robinson noted that the baptism it offered nevertheless was efficacious. (61) He further argued that the Lord had true followers even in false churches such as those of England and Rome. (62) Timothy George labeled this position "sacramental objectivity." (63) In 1610, Robinson wrote that "a man once baptized is always baptized." (64) His position was firm: "we retain the seal of the covenant of grace, though ministered in Babylon." (65)

In order to affirm the validity of Anglican baptism, Robinson recognized two levels of baptism: "I conclude therefore, that there is an outward baptism by water and an inward baptism by the spirit." (66) The outward baptism was to be administered by the church; the inward or spiritual baptism "cannot be had without repentance" and was "not to be repeated." (67) Here the tensions within the Separatist argument became apparent. In Robinson's view, the church offered the outward baptism as a sign; yet it only became effectual for the elect but not for the others. Clearly, he did not want to go as far the Baptists. In his view, giving up infant baptism and insisting on re-baptism was worse than denying the validity of baptism performed by a false or errant church. Robinson maintained the legitimacy of Anglican baptism and offered numerous biblical arguments for his position. Essentially, he believed that children were included in the relationship established between God and the believer, a position held by the vast majority of the Separatists.

Robinson used many other traditional approaches to defend of infant baptism. He noted the ways that Jesus welcomed the children, the biblical accounts of household baptisms in the New Testament, and language in the scriptures that implied the inclusion of infants, not their exclusion. (68) Another strategy of Robinson was to take on the argument of the Baptists and agree with their understanding of the key marks of the church, but nevertheless to reach a different conclusion. For example, in his essay he noted that "the outward or visible Church consists of penitent and believing persons [opposing them to the unrepentant and the unbelievers] and that such only are to be baptized, I acknowledge ... but deny ... opposing believers to their infants, which are neither unbelievers and impenitent innocent, as is affirmed. (69) Thus, he challenged the understanding of infants assumed by Baptists who taught that infants could not believe or express repentance and therefore should not be baptized. He stressed instead the opposite ideas regarding infants: they could not be considered unrepentant or unbelievers.

Robinson's language was suited to the question of truth and falsehood as the central concern of Separatist reformers. Affirming repeatedly that there are true and false churches, he asserted that the heart of the dissenting quest was to create a true church; hence, finding evidence to expose the false churches was essential, which made a profession and show of Christ, and Christian baptism and religion but were guilty of deception and "may ... so rightly be called a false church." (70)

In Robinson's view the criteria for proving whether a church was true or false was "the Scriptures and gospel reasons grounded thereupon." (71) He therefore turned to scripture to demonstrate that the biblical narrative describes false churches, false prophets or ministers, and false brethren. (72) He observed that the Bible warned against false worshippers who honored God with the lips but not with their hearts. The doctrines false worshippers followed were men's teachings, not God's. Their worship and prayers were vain. A company of such people was therefore a false church. (73) Robinson proceeded to find many examples of a "false church" in the tribes and individuals of the Hebrew scriptures, (74) and he applied that true/false church pattern to the Baptists. He criticized Helwys for declaring others to belong to "no church" rather than to a "false church," arguing that if this were the case, each repentance would warrant a new baptism. (75)

Robinson was as passionate about his position as was Helwys. George noted that the tone of Robinson's writing against his opponents was "condescending" and "at points, contemptuous." (76) The Separatist asserted that Helwys was guilty of "loud and licentious clamours" in taking a position based on ignorance. (77) Robinson undermined his Baptist opponent with the dismissive comments that Helwys "misinterprets words," "letteth loose his tongue into the most intemperate rage," "falls into one of his hot fits," "is utterly deceived," and "is guilty of gross ignorance and profaneness and contempt of the knowledge, judgment, zeal and graces of all other men." (78) He judged that both Smyth and "especially" Helwys labored under the common disease of all ignorant men." (79) The Separatists, including Robinson, argued the truth of their views and the error of other "false" positions with no less intensity and conviction than the Baptists argued their position. Robinson's voice was a formidable one, defending infant baptism, but Baptists were fully prepared to continue defense of their position.

John Murton

Following Helwys's imprisonment, John Murton emerged as the able spokesman for early English Baptists. (80) In 1620, Murton wrote A Description of What God Hath Predestined Concerning Man. Keenly aware of key issues affecting English religion, in his introductory passages he cited the Council of Dort, but rejected its pro-Calvinist decisions. (81) Murton was well aware of the problem of persecution and "firmly" resolved "not to persecute ... or suffer to be persecuted ... any person whosoever, for matter of religion." (82) His title page also declared that this treatise contained "An Answer to John Robinson Touching Baptism." (83)

The dissenters of all stripes were interested in defining theirs as the true church and proving all others as false churches. Murton, like other dissenters, proposed to use scripture and reason in developing his argument: "I will first strive by Scriptures and then answer [opponents'] objections particularly." (84) Like a lawyer setting forth a case or an academic stating a thesis, he wrote, "I shall show" and citing scripture concluded "it is proved." (85) Mutton urged that members of the true church of Christ were made by faith. This, he argued, was "proved" by Romans 11:20. He then pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church was not a true church because faith was not required for baptism. (86) Murton's judgment was harsh: "The church at Rome at this day and for divers hundred years, not being made by baptizing believers, but by washing fleshly infants upon confession of faith for them; therefore they have not Christ." (87) The Catholic Church was a false church because it practiced baptism, but did not set forth prerequisites. (88) Murton appealed to scripture to defend this position, citing Hebrews 10:22, 3:14, and 6:1, and 1 Corinthians 3:11, and developing a three-fold formula and sequence of repentance, faith, and baptism as essentials for belonging to the Church of Christ. (89) Having made his point against the Roman Catholic Church, which was regularly reviled by non-Catholics, Murton extended the argument to all non-Baptist groups. He asserted that the Church of England did not require repentance and faith before baptism. Thus, although Separatist John Robinson had left the Church of England, he did not leave its baptism; therefore the same argument could be made against him. As Murton stated, "[Robinson] has cast away his popish priesthood, and yet retaineth his popish washing for his Christianity." (90) All three--the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and Robinson's Separatists-had the "outward badge" of baptism. (91) All three were guilty of a similar error. Murton observed that Christ's command was to go and make disciples and baptize. "He hath coupled them together, and let no man separate them." (92) All three failed to require repentance and faith as prerequisite to baptism. Thus, by 1620, Baptists already distinguished the true church from the false church.

The Dissenting Style of Argument

The dissenting style of arguing was open and forceful, with full confidence in and reliance on argument and scripture. The attack was an assault on what dissenters perceived to be a false church. They were fond of attacking Anglicanism at several levels: false doctrine, false worship, false ministers, false practices, and so on. (93) They even cited biblical justification for their practice of intensely debating interpretations. In the midst of his argument for religious freedom, Baptist Leonard Busher appealed to 1 Thessalonians 5:21: "The people will try all things and keep that which is good." (94) Murton appealed to the same verse in the title page of A Description of What God Hath Predestined Concerning Man in His Creation, Transgression and Regeneration (1620). There he cited the Thessalonians verse ("Try all things, keep that which is good") and also cited Acts 17:11 ("There were more noble men which searched the scripture daily whether those things were so"). (95) Open appeal to the Acts text as justification for challenging the establishment suggested something of the bold style of contending for the truth as the dissenting reformers saw it. They were open and aggressive in their declarations. Moreover, they were keen on asserting that they had "proved" their position against opponents. (96) The criteria of these reformers was clearly set forth by claims such as Robinson's confident assertion: "it now remains I prove by the scriptures and good reasons." (97) This statement reflected both the tone and the chief sources of evidence employed in their debate: they would use scripture, and they would use logic.

Leonard Busher passionately defended the liberty of speech required to pursue and articulate the truths discovered in scripture. He noted that Rome and England pursued to death those excommunicated. But [by contrast] ministers and the apostolic church do "persuade all men and try the spirits whether they are of God which they cannot do, except they hear and read other men's doctrines." (98) He appealed to the authority of reason over state coercion.

Helwys, Robinson, and Mutton used passionate language and persuasive methods of argument in their search for truth, but they needed liberty to speak the truth as they understood it. Helwys became convinced that it was his duty to return [to England] to bear witness to the truth." (99) He wrote The Mystery of Iniquity (1612), thereby giving Baptists the claim to having published the first plea for religious freedom for all. In London, Helwys and a dozen men and women preached boldly and planted the first Baptist church on English soil at Spitalsfield. Arrested and imprisoned in Newgate Prison, Helwys died sometime before 1616. (100)

Clearly liberty for open examination of the Bible and liberty to arrive at new understandings and express their views was not achieved by Baptists in their first generation. In an age in which people suffered and/or died for their new understandings of Christian faith or practice and despite the fact that liberty of expression was not granted, the dissenters risked publication of their views regarding the true and false churches. Helwys attacked Robinson by name; Robinson responded to Helwys in kind; and Murton, the new Baptist leader, defended Helwys and attacked Robinson. Opposing opinion sharpened positions. The Baptist wing of dissent came through heated debate to a new view of who should comprise the church--a church of believers.


In articulating Baptist identity one topic often receives the attention: the rejection of infant baptism. But that rejection was based on the Baptist revision of the understanding of the church, namely, that a person must first have faith in Christ before claiming status as a Christian. According to Baptists, only after the experience of repentance and belief in Christ is it appropriate to be baptized. Thus, Baptists reversed the traditional sequence in the relationship of baptism and faith. They did not see baptism as a foundation of faith at birth, but rather as a practice adopted as a consequence of faith, and by espousing this view, they turned the theological world and traditional concepts of church and state upside down. Baptism was not understood as part of the path to salvation, but rather a result and a sign. Baptism was therefore a pointer to a personal transformation--from unbeliever to believer.

A generation later when Baptists wrote "The London Confession, 1644," they phrased their position with deliberation: the Church is "called into the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into that faith ..." (Article XXXIII). With great clarity it declared: "Baptism is an Ordinance of' the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispensed only upon persons professing faith, or that are Disciples, or taught, who upon a profession of faith, ought to be baptized" (Article XXXIX). (101)

Baptist historian Leon McBeth wrote that "the baptism of believers by total immersion, and the consequent denial of infant baptism proved the most controversial practice of English Baptists." (102) Believer's baptism was a key new insight, creating a tradition focused on the individual's act of belief and commitment. The twofold combination summarized in the phrase "believer's baptism" came to characterize who Baptists were. The belief is the central legacy of the earliest Baptists and continues to be celebrated by Baptists four hundred years later.

(1.) Although the majority of Baptists have historically advocated the practice of believer's baptism as a requirement for church membership, not all Baptists have done so. Among the earliest Baptists who advocated open membership was John Bunyan. Sometime in 1671 or 1672, toward the end of his first imprisonment, he wrote A Confession of My Faith, and A Reason of My Practice, in which he proclaimed that based on scriptural evidence baptism should not be required for a Christian to join a local Baptist congregation. Because of his views, some Baptists have often questioned whether Bunyan was truly a Baptist or not. In the years since, small numbers of Baptists have maintained open membership policies, and that trend became more prevalent in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For information about the recent developments in Baptist life with regard to baptism, see John R. Tyler's book, Baptism: We've Got it Right and Wrong, What Baptists Must Keep, What We Must Change, and Why (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishers, 2003).

(2.) The Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of 40,000 church members in 2007. See Jacqueline L. Salmon, "Southern Baptists Struggle to Maintain Flock," Washington Post, June 8, 2008, A02. Moreover, internal quarrels have caused some churches to become more independent and simply abandon the label "Baptist."

(3.) See, for example, W. R. White, Baptist Distinctives (Nashville, TN: The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1946).

(4.) See H. Wheeler Robinson, Baptist Principles, 4th ed. (London: Kingsgate Press, 1945).

(5.) Robert Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1607-1972 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1974) devoted the first section of this book to British beginnings and did not pick up the Southern Baptist Convention narrative until page 161. Jesse Fletcher, The Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Press, 1994) covered the Smyth-Helwys era and early Baptist ideas in his first chapter, pages 9-41.

(6.) For a recent study that reflects the reality of Baptist diversity over space and time, see Ian M. Randall, Toivo Pilli and Anthony R. Cross, eds., Baptist Identities: International Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Bletchley, Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2006). This volume offers studies of Baptists in Europe, North America, and the wider world; it spans all four centuries since Baptists began early in the seventeenth century.

(7.) Ernest A. Payne, The Fellowship of Believers: Baptist Thought and Practice Yesterday and Today (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, Ltd., 1944).

(8.) Brooks Hays and John E. Steely, The Baptist Way of Life (Englewood Cliffs, N J: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963).

(9.) Baptists shared this idea of a church comprised of believers only and rejection of infant baptism with Anabaptists, but also held distinctively different understandings about the earthly body of Christ, scripture, the magistrate, and succession. Helwys "found too many differences to join them." (W. T. Whitley, "Thomas Helwys of Gray's Inn and Broxtowe Hall, Nottingham," reprinted from The Transactions of the Baptist Historical Society [London: Kingsgate Press, n.d., 14].) The question of Anabaptist influence in Baptist origins has long been controverted.

(10.) These reformers are representative choices. Although several relevant sources can be cited, this article relied on one major writing of each author in which he specifically addressed the question of baptism. Another articulate critic of Baptists was Richard Clyfton. See his A Plea for Infants: An Answer to Mr. Smyth's Epistle to the Reader (Amsterdam, 1610).

(11.) For example, in 1678 Joseph Whiston wrote that he had read a recent publication, "Apology for Anti-Paedobaptism put forth by Mr. Grantham." The reference was to the work of General Baptist leader Thomas Grantham. Whiston's replied with Infant Baptism Plainly Proved: a Discourse (London: Printed for Jonathan Rubinson at the Golden Lion in St. Paul's Churchyard, 1678), Introduction, 6.

(12.) Ernest A. Payne sketches the relationship between Smyth and Helwys in his pamphlet-length study, "Thomas Helwys and the First Baptist Church of England" (The Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland: Baptist Church House, n.d.), 3-9.

(13.) John Smyth, "Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles, by John Smyth," Article 12 in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1959), 101.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Smyth was a prolific writer. W. T. Whitley edited his works in two substantial volumes, totaling 776 pages.

(16.) John Smyth, The Character of the Beast (1609) in W. T. Whitley, The Works of John Smyth, 2 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 1915), II, 565.

(17.) Ibid., 664.

(18.) Ibid., 589.

(19.) Ibid., 564.

(20.) Smyth, "Short Confession of Faith" (1610), Article 29, in Lumpkin, 110.

(21.) Mandell Creighton quoted by A. C. Underwood in A History of the English Baptists (London: Kingsgate Press, 1947), 45, cited in "John Smyth--Baptist Pathfinder" by James E. Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 29.

(22.) A. C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists, 45. Smyth's changing thought was the subject of Jason K. Lee's study, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003).

(23.) Thomas Helwys, "A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland 1611," Article 13 in Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 120. I have modernized spellings for easier reading.

(24.) Ibid., 120.

(25.) Leonard Busher, "A Plea for Liberty of Conscience" [1614] in Edward Beam Underhill, Tracts for Liberty of Conscience and Persecution 1614-1661 (London: J. Haddon, 1846), 15-16.

(26.) Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612), ed. by Richard Groves (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998).

(27.) The early Separatists came to be identified with the Brownists, followers of Robert Browne.

(28.) Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 96.

(29.) Ibid., 92.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid., 92-93.

(32.) Ibid., 114.

(33.) Richard Groves, "Introduction," to Thomas Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, xxx.

(34.) Ibid.

(35.) Champlin Burrage, The Early English Dissenters in the Light of Recent Research, 1550-1641 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), I, 261.

(36.) John Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public" (Leyden, 1614), in The Works of John Robinson, 3 vols., ed. by Robert Ashton (London: John Snow and Paternoster Row, 1851), III, 202.

(37.) Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 100-01.

(38.) B. R. White, The English Baptists of the 17th Century (Didcot: The Baptist Historical Society, 1996), 19.

(39.) Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 106-07. See also the summation of his argument in Mystery of Iniquity where he contrasts true and false churches and declares that the false church is no church, 112-13.

(40.) Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 125-27.

(41.) Ibid., 128.

(42.) Ibid.

(43.) Ibid., 133.

(44.) Thomas Helwys, A Short and Plaint Proof by the Word and Works of God that God's Decree is not the Cause of Any Man's Sin or Condemnation,, B5, accessed November 24, 2008.

(45.) Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 111.

(46.) Ibid., 107.

(47.) Ibid., 101.

(48.) Ibid.

(49.) Ibid., 104.

(50.) See Stephen Wright's similar summary of Helwys's view of paedobaptist dissenters in The Early English Baptists, 1603-1649 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006), 52.

(51.) Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 109.

(52.) Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public."

(53.) Ibid., 106; Helwys, Mystery of Iniquity, 5-30.

(54.) Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public," 193. This quotation summarizes much of the agenda of the dissenters. Their personal experience and scripture were of critical importance. So also was setting up alternative (true) churches where Christ's ordinances are practiced as they should be rather than as they were in the "superstitious" and apostate church. Finally, dissenters conceived of the witness of their suffering as part of this spiritual wartime.

(55.) Ibid., 168.

(56.) Ibid., 91-279. He developed his argument in Chapter IV: "The Outward Baptism Received in England is Lawfully Retained," 164-197, and in Chapter V, "On the Baptism of Infants," 197-237. He. named "Helwisse" "... an infidel, without Christ and his spirit, and hating him." See Ashton, ed., The Works of John Robinson, 111, 165.

(57.) Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public," 198.

(58.) Ibid., 189-90, 202-24.

(59.) Ibid., 188.

(60.) Ibid.

(61.) Ibid., 182.

(62.) Ibid., 189.

(63.) Timothy George, John Robinson and the English Separatist Tradition (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 231.

(64.) John Robinson, Justification of Separation from the Church of England (Amsterdam, 1610), in Ashton, ed., The Works of John Robinson, 1, 395.

(65.) Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public," 185.

(66.) Ibid.

(67.) Ibid., 213.

(68.) Ibid. 215.

(69.) Ibid. 213.

(70.) Ibid. 175.

(71.) Ibid. 175, 202.

(72.) Ibid. 175-76.

(73.) Ibid. 175.

(74.) Ibid. 176-79.

(75.) Ibid. 180-81.

(76.) George, John Robinson and the English Separatist Tradition, 56.

(77.) Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public," 197.

(78.) Ibid., 175, 181, 185, 191, 194.

(79.) Ibid., 236.

(80.) Ernest Payne assessed Murton's leadership role of English Baptists during this critical early stage of their history in "Thomas Helwys and the First Baptist Church in England," 14-16.

(81.) John Murton, "An Answer to John Robinson Touching Baptism" (1620), in John Murton, A Description of What God Hath Predestined Concerning Man (London: n.p., 1620).

(82.) Ibid., A32.

(83.) Ibid., Title page.

(84.) Ibid., 154.

(85.) Ibid. The occasion for this treatise was Robinson's contention that none may baptize but pastors or elders of a church and that consequently all groups without proper pastors are unbaptized (153). Murton replied that any disciple with the power and commandment to preach may also baptize (154). However, in the course of his essay he spelled out the characteristic Baptist view of baptism which required faith before the act of baptism.

(86.) Murton, "An Answer to John Robinson Touching Baptism," 155.

(87.) Ibid.

(88.) Ibid.

(89.) Ibid., 156.

(90.) Ibid., 159.

(91.) Ibid., 157.

(92.) Ibid., 162.

(93.) A systematic list of these errors was spelled out in the "Formation of the Broadmead Church, Bristol" found in Roger Hayden, ed., The Records of a Church of Christ in Bristol, 1640-1687 (Bristol Record Society, 1974), 90-96, cited in Leon McBeth, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 30-33. Robinson regularly attacked the Anglican Church. See Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public," 172-73.

(94.) Leonard Busher, "A Plea for Liberty of Conscience" [1617] in Edward Bean Underhill, ed. Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution, 1614-1661 (London: J. Haddon, 1846), 19.

(95.) Murton, A Description of What God Hath Predestined Concerning Man, title page.

(96.) Robinson, "On Religious Communion Private and Public," 167.

(97.) Ibid., 175.

(98.) Leonard Busher, "A Plea for Liberty of Conscience," 20.

(99.) See Helwys, "Appendix" in The Mystery of Iniquity, 149-54.

(100.) For details of' this phase of Helwys's life, see W .T. Whitley, "Thomas Helwys of Gray's Inn and Broxtowe Hall," Baptist Quarterly 7 (1934-35): 250, and also Stephen Wright, "Thomas Helwys" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

(101.) "The London Confession of Faith" (1644), Articles XXXIII and XXXIX in Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 165, 167.

(102.) Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 79.

Bill Pitts is professor of religion at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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