Dr. Scott Culpepper is Assistant Professor of History at Louisiana College and he is the author of Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence. He is married to Ginger and the father of 3. His education includes:
Ph.D., Baylor University
M.A., Northwestern State University
M. Div., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
B.A., Louisiana College
The Baptist traditions are a complicated stream fed by many theological and ecclesiological tributaries. Some of those streams consist of the Anabaptist traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There is no doubt that interaction did occur between the early founders of the Baptist traditions, both General and Particular, and some Anabaptist groups, particularly Mennonite groups living in the Dutch Republic. It is certainly debatable, and it has been debated extensively, how much direct influence the Anabaptist tradition had on shaping the Baptists. While some Baptists have clung to an “Anabaptist kinship” theory of Baptist origins, others have argued that the Baptist traditions owe more to the influence of the English Separatist movement from which they first appeared and against which they defined themselves. Both traditions have much to recommend them, and both have had some influence in the development of Baptists. In addition, the Dutch Remonstrant tradition may also have influenced the early General Baptist movement. The complexity of the relationships between the various Baptist traditions and the movements that came before them demands that we be careful and humble in assessing how much Baptists owe to each one. Above all else, we must be cautious about using history, especially history done with a political agenda, to provide the trump card in our contemporary theological debates.
Much of the recent scholarship on the topic of Baptist/Anabaptist relations comes from an interesting subset of the larger Baptist family. Southern Baptists have fostered a historiographical school, largely encouraged by the work of scholars at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which has celebrated the Anabaptist tradition as an important, sometimes as the most important, precursor of the Baptists. I describe the promotion of Anabaptist foundations coming from Southern Baptists as interesting because Southern Baptists seem primarily interested in historical Anabaptist influence rather than forging any significant contemporary links with Anabaptist groups. The Southern Baptist Convention, born in the midst of debates over slavery and missionary appointments in 1845, has never itself had any formal or informal connection to Anabaptist groups. There was no Anabaptist connection to the founders of the convention nor was there any attempt to express a preference for Anabaptist influence over English Separatism at the founding of the convention.
The historiographical school that formed at Southwestern Theological Seminary owed a great deal to the teaching and writing of Dr. William R. Estep, professor of church history at Southwestern from 1954-1990. Dr. Estep was an expert in Anabaptist studies and author of the widely used survey text, The Anabaptist Story.[i] Estep influenced two generations of Baptist seminarians to give the Anabaptist movement greater weight when assessing the genetic influences on Southern Baptists. H. Leon McBeth, a student of Estep and later colleague at Southwestern, helped to continue this emphasis in his teaching and in the textbook The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. McBeth, as a colleague of William Estep, was respectful of the Estep tradition of Anabaptist Influence but also indicated that the Particular Baptist tradition could be genetically traced through Henry Jacob and other Independents who had been influenced by English Separatism.[ii] Contemporary heirs to the Estep tradition in Southern Baptist life include scholars such as Malcolm Yarnell III of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Dr. Steve Lemke of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. These scholars were particularly drawn to Anabaptist influences because of the common tradition of persecuted dissent they shared with Baptists and also because of their shared theological views, including believer’s baptism and congregational autonomy.
Whatever qualms one might have regarding the theological diversity of the Anabaptist movements, a feature that often gets lost in Southern Baptist discussions of a unified Anabaptist tradition that never truly existed, one can certainly see why contemporary Southern Baptists might want to demonstrate genetic links to the Anabaptists. They were certainly assertive about their belief in believer’s baptism, a belief for which they were willing to suffer ostracism and death. Anabaptists generally rejected the conflation of church and state though, unlike most Baptists, they also rejected all association with secular powers. And they did endorse a congregational autonomy with individual churches led by pastors and deacons. The complication, however, is that the above sentences only describe some Anabaptist groups, in particular the Swiss Brethren and some Mennonites. Not all groups that fell under the category of Anabaptist in the seventeenth century could be accepted as theologically orthodox by evangelicals today. George H. Williams, professor of church history at Harvard Divinity School, demonstrated the complexity of Anabaptist identity in The Radical Reformation.[iii] William’s typology of Anabaptist identities alone makes the book an essential tool for Anabaptist studies. One might legitimately ask Southern Baptists who quote freely from Balthasar Hubmaier’s work what is to be done with the problematic Melchior Hoffman? Thomas Helwys had some definite aversions to Hoffman’s Christology. Have Southern Baptists been influenced as much by the radical revolutionary Thomas Müntzer as they have been inspired by heroic martyr Michael Sattler? Some survivors of rural Southern Baptist business meetings might be tempted to say yes. In order to access properly the nature of Anabaptist influence on Southern Baptists, it is necessary to define accurately and specifically the points of contact between the two traditions. We will turn our attention to that task in the second part of this series.
[i] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 3rd edition, (Grand Rapides, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1996).
[ii] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 36.
[iii] George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Philadephia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1962).
Recent Commentsdr. james willingham: What an encouragement to read this young man's rem...Tommy Moore: As an alumnus, Failure on the part of LC to remain...Drew Wales: Hi Ben: It is something about the way wordpress h...Ben: why do so many of these articles on this site and ...Collin Garbarino: Excellent analysis, Drew. Let's hope that Aguillar...Collin Garbarino: The LBC only gives 3 million a year to the school....Devin Stutes: My name is Devin Stutes. Before I begin, I want to...Josh LeBlanc: Well said Drew, unfortunately the LBC has made it ...truth: Your response actually made me laugh (and I needed...Drew Wales: Hello "Honest" or "Mickey:" Could you please sta...