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
Southern Baptists must reach back to the distant origins of the larger Baptist traditions rather than to their own sub-tradition to demonstrate substantial actual interaction between Baptist and Anabaptist groups. The traditional starting point for the Baptists is generally identified as the “Se-baptism” or “self-baptism” of John Smyth which probably took place in 1609.[i] Smyth was a former Church of England clergyman who had fled with his fellow English Separatists to Amsterdam in 1607.[ii] They planned to join other Separatist congregations already in exile at Amsterdam, particularly the “Ancient Church” led by Smyth’s former Cambridge tutor, Francis Johnson. Smyth’s group had separated from the other Separatists by 1609. They had rejected infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism, embraced a theology of volitional choice over the doctrine of election held by English Separatists, and dismantled the Separatist structure of church leadership in favor of a pastor/deacon polity. Smyth sparred in writing with his former Separatist colleagues over these issues, accusing his former Separatist colleagues of failing to follow through with the logical implications of rejecting the traditionalism of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism.[iii]
Fissures began to appear between Smyth and Helwys as well when Smyth proposed to join the Waterlander Mennonites, a local Anabaptist communion. In 1610, Smyth issued a confession of faith written in Latin. “Corde Credimus” (or “we believe with our hearts”) included twenty articles of faith. Helwys and his faction of the church produced another statement of faith entitled “Synopsis Fidei” or summary of the faith. Both statements bore the impression of either Mennonite or Arminian influence. They affirmed free will in matters of salvation and general atonement.[iv]
With this confession of faith, Smyth appeared to be initiating his quest for acceptance into the Mennonite fold. In 1610, Helwys and his followers sent a letter written in Latin to the Waterlander Mennonites urging them to reject Smyth’s application for membership. The Mennonites were not convinced by the letter and continued to entertain Smyth’s application.[v] Helwys and his faction returned to England by 1612, where their influence established the General Baptist tradition. Smyth and his congregation remained in the Netherlands, seeking admittance to the Waterlander Mennonite communion. They achieved their goal, but only after Smyth’s death of tuberculosis in 1612.[vi]
By 1610, John Smyth had rejected many basic tenants of Reformed theology. He had demonstrated this change in direction when he wrote his twenty articles of faith in Corde Credimus.[vii] The fact that Helwys also addressed a confessional statement to the Waterlander Mennonites in 1610 revealed that the two men and their respective followings had already begun to divide personally if in fact the division of the congregation had not already taken place. Both of their statements of faith revealed an absolute rejection of the Reformed principles of original sin and particular atonement. Smyth’s confession stated:
5. That there is no sin of origin, but all sin is actual and voluntary, viz., a word, a deed, or a design outside the law of God; and therefore, infants are without sin. 8. That the grace of God, through the finished redemption of Christ, was to be prepared and offered to all without distinction, and that not feignedly but in good faith, partly by things made, which declare the invisible things of God, and partly by the preaching of the gospel. 14. 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.[viii]
Thomas Helwys also included an emphasis on human free will in his fifth article and supported the view that God “hath foreseen and ordained in him (Christ) a medicine of life for all their sins, and hath willed that all people or creatures, through the preaching of the gospel, should have these tidings published and declared unto them.”[ix]
Despite the strong protest of the Helwys group, the Waterlander Mennonites were open to accepting Smyth’s congregation. Hans De Ries, one of their members and a medical practitioner like Smyth, drew up a confession of faith in 1610 for Smyth’s congregation. Smyth and his congregation were to indicate their agreement with the confession by signing it, which they did by 1611. Smyth was forced to defend the confession against an unnamed Reformed critic in Defence of Reis’s Confession.[x] Such a defense was necessary because Smyth’s new views were in direct contrast to his former English Separatist profession. We will turn our attention in the third section of this series to possible influences that encouraged Smyth to interpret the Bible against the grain of Reformed theology. By exploring those influences, it is possible to get a clearer picture of the potential role of Anabaptism in the Smyth/Helwys congregation’s story and, by extension, that of the Baptists.
[i] Henry Ainsworth, A defence of the Holy Scriptures, worship, and ministerie, used in the Christian Churches separated from Antichrist Against the challenges, cavils and contradiction of M. Smyth: in his book intituled The differences of the Churches of the Separation. Hereunto are annexed a few observations upon some of M. Smythes censures; in his answer made to M. Bernard, (Amsterdam: Giles Thorp, 1609). Richard Bernard, Plaine euidences The Church of England is apostolicall, the separation schismaticall. Directed against Mr. Ainsworth the Separatist, and Mr. Smith the Se-baptist: both of them seuerally opposing the booke called the Separatists schisme, (London: Printed by T. Snodham, 1610).
[ii] Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite, (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003).
[iii] John Smyth, The character of the beast, or, The false constitution of the church discovered in certayne passages betwixt Mr. R. Clifton & Iohn Smyth, concerning true Christian baptisme of new creatures, or new borne babes in Christ, &nd false baptisme of infants borne after the flesh: referred to two propositions, 1. That infants are not to bee baptized, 2. That antichristians converted are to bee admitted into the true church by baptisme, (Middelburg: R. Schilders, 1609).
[iv]William H. Brackney, A Genetic History, 16. William H. Brackney, Baptist Life and Thought: A Sourcebook, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998), 23-29. William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 97-142.
[v]Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 102.
[vi]William H. Brackney, A Genetic History, 16. Torbet, 38-39.
[vii]Lumpkin dated this “Short Confession” in 1609 while Brackney dated it in 1610. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 100-101. Brackney, Baptist Life and Thought, 25-26.
[viii]Brackney, Baptist Life and Thought, 25-26. Lumpkin, 100-101.
[ix]Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 104-105.
[x] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 104-105.
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