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The First Baptists: John Smyth and Thomas Helwys


Editor’s note: This article series will briefly introduce important developments in Baptist history, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Baptists throughout 2009. The series, authored by Jerry Windsor of the Florida Baptist Historical Society, will run in every issue of the Witness in 2009.

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Baptist churches cannot be found before 1609, but Baptists believe their New Testament doctrines, beliefs and practices can be traced to the New Testament and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Groups that believed as most Baptists believe today can be found as far back as Balthasar Hubmaier (1481-1528) and the radical wings of dissent during the Protestant Reformation.

Baptists today trace their heritage directly to the dissenters that fled England under the persecution of King James I (1603-1625). All who did not conform to the English state church were harassed and many of them fled to Holland seeking religious freedom. John Smyth (1570-1612) is sometimes referred to as a “Se-Baptist” or self-baptizer. He and some of his followers fled to Amsterdam and concluded that the only proper baptism was reserved for those who had made public professions of faith. Smyth and his followers were influenced by the Anabaptists (re-baptizers) who had given up infant baptism and embraced believers’ baptism. Smyth and his followers agreed with the Anabaptist position and became convicted that their own baptisms were not valid. In 1609, Smyth baptized himself and then baptized the others with him. This little congregation in Holland became the first Baptist church, as we know it.

John Smyth attended Christ College, Cambridge, and in 1600 was a preacher at Lincoln. He felt the only way to avoid persecution and practice to New Testament principles was to flee the influence of the Church of England by moving to Amsterdam. Included in this congregation that fled was Thomas Helwys (1550-1615). He was born in Nottinghamshire, England, and was admitted to Gray’s Inn, the British legal society, in 1593. Soon after Smyth baptized himself and others, a minority of members disagreed with a basic Smyth conviction. Smyth felt that baptism was not legitimate unless it was successive. Smyth, therefore, concluded that they must receive baptismal succession from the local Anabaptists for their baptisms to be valid. Thomas Helwys, three men, and four women in the congregation disagreed with Smyth. The split became open and each group excommunicated the other. After the death of Smyth in 1612, his group was joined with the Anabaptist believers.

Thomas Helwys and his small group rejected baptismal succession and claimed that spiritual succession was more important. They worshiped as a separate and distinct congregation in Holland but soon concluded that they should give their witness “where Satan’s throne is” and returned to England in 1612. Upon their return they settled their congregation in Spitalfields outside London and became the first Baptist church on English soil. Since that time hundreds of Baptist churches have begun following the same pattern and manner of the congregation at Spitalfields.

Baptists in the United States today number 28 million adherents in over 95,000 congregations.

There is a Baptist church in 3,036 of the 3,141 counties. Baptists predominate in 1,287 of these counties and have had abiding influence upon the White House, state house, court house, and school house across the years and across the land.

Jerry Windsor is the secretary-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Historical Society and retired professor of preaching at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.