History of Baptists – A brief overview
Knowledge of history is valuable, especially when considering the different churches that make up the spectrum of what is called Christendom. Most of Christianity views history through the Roman Catholic, or Protestant perspective of church history. This belief is basically the position that the Roman Catholic church was the church of the New Testament and is in accordance with their claim as Peter being the first pope. While Protestant history doesn’t try and dispute those claims, the basis of Protestantism is that the church had become corrupt and needed to return to a more Biblical position, both doctrinally and practically.
While there is a mix of truth and error in those historical positions, the primary thing is that it does not contain all the facts of church history. There are several questions that come to mind. Such as, is there credible supportive evidence that the Roman Catholic church started in the New Testament, or did it have a later origin? Or who were the heretics that the Roman Catholic church was putting to death through the dark ages? Did the Protestant churches really follow through on the five “Solas” in which they claimed they were returning to? Who were the Anabaptists? And why did the Church of Rome persecute them? And why did Martin Luther also persecute the Anabaptists, now called Baptists. There were also other denominations that persecuted the Baptist people during the Reformation.
The primary purpose of this article is to present historical statements regarding the Anabaptists, and their place in church history. Virtually all of the Protestant denominations have an origin on this side of the Reformation, and it is important to note that Baptists are not Protestants. Prior to the Reformation, there were 3 different types of churches, the Roman Catholic churches, the Greek Orthodox churches, and the Anabaptist churches which at the time of the Reformation became known as Baptists without the prefix “Ana”. Prior to the split between the Greek Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church, there were basically two different types of churches, the Anabaptists or Baptists, and the Roman Catholic churches. One has a record of departing from the scripture, and oppressing the scriptures while the other preached the scriptures and practiced them.
The statements that will be presented are made by denominational historians that are not Baptists. The significance of this should not be underestimated, nor undervalued as many who are a part of a denomination are unawares of this information. If more Christians in the Protestant denominations, and Roman Catholicism were aware of a more complete accounting of church history, they would realize that there was, and always have been churches that came from the New Testament lineage of churches, and have gone down through the ages, and are present today, adhering to the New Testament as their rule of faith and practice.
Before we consider the statements from history regarding the Anabaptists, let us define why they were called “Anabaptists.” The term Anabaptist was given to them by the churches that were in opposition to their practice of “rebaptizing” converts. While their detractors said that they were rebaptizing people, the Anabaptists claim was that they were not rebaptizing. The Anabaptist believed they were baptizing them for the first time, acknowledging that their first baptism was lacking scriptural requirements and therefore not to be counted as a legitimate baptism. There were two things that were called into question regarding the persons baptism, authority to baptize, and the qualification of the candidate being baptized, and a third issue in later years was the mode of baptism.
First, the Anabaptists rejected the idea of the Roman Catholic churches as being scriptural churches because of their departure from the scriptures. The practice of baptism was an obvious public practice and they began to practice baptism as necessary to salvation, which in turn led to the baptizing of infants. As a result, the Baptist churches did not recognize the Roman Catholic churches as having authority to baptize. Their departure from the scripture was considered as evidence that the Bible was not the sole rule of faith and practice. The practice of infant baptism not being found in the scripture, was a confirmation to the Baptists that those churches had departed from truth. They had given up an identifying mark of a New Testament church. Secondly, the candidate to be baptized was to be a believer in Jesus Christ, knowing and understanding the gospel prior to being baptized.
Baptismal regeneration is the teaching that baptism is salvific. They would baptize infants for the purpose of their salvation, believing that through baptism they were united with Jesus Christ and recipients of eternal life. The Bible does not teach the doctrine, nor give any examples of baptismal regeneration.
The testimony of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss reformer who was contemporary with Martin Luther and John Calvin bears witness to the long history of the Anabaptists.
“The institution of Anabaptism is no novelty, but for thirteen hundred years has caused great disturbance in the church, and has acquired such a strength that the attempt in this age to contend with it appears futile for a time.” (1)
It was also declared that those who practiced anabaptism were to be drowned, and that took place under Zwinglis leadership in Switzerland.
If you go back 1300 years from Zwingli, it places you at the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century, which is just a little over a hundred years past the time of the apostles. The apostle John died in approximately 93-95 A.D.
John Lawrence von Mosheim
The testimony of the famous Lutheran historian, John Lawrence von Mosheim wrote this:
“The true origin of that sect which acquired the denomination of the Anabaptists, by their administering anew the rite of baptism to those who came over to their communion, and derived that of Mennonites from that famous man, to whom they owe the greatest part of their present felicity, is hid in the remote depths of antiquity, and is extremely difficult to be ascertained.” (2)
This statement by a distinguished historian bears witness to the early origin of the Anabaptists.
The testimony of Alexandar Campbell the founder of the Church of Christ denomination, in a debate with a Presbyterian minister on the subject of baptism made this statement:
“… from the apostolic age to the present time, the sentiments of Baptists, and the practice of baptism has had a continued chain of advocates, and public monuments of their existence in every century can be seen.”
John Clark Ridpath
John Clark Ridpath was known for his monumental work, History of the World. In a letter to a Baptist preacher and writer, John Clark Ridpath made this statement regarding Baptists.
“I should not readily admit that was a Baptist church as far as back as 100 A.D., although without doubt there were Baptists then, as all Christians were then Baptists. (3)
Recognizing the early history of Baptist, and specifically as noted to be 100 A.D., places them just a few years after the death of the apostle John.
This is just a sampling of quotes to introduce the reader to the truth of church history, regarding the Baptists. Our hope is that this will be the beginning of your pursuing a greater knowledge of church history. The New Testament church has a history that begins with Jesus in the gospels, and continues through the book of Acts, and continues on in Baptist churches today. The apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:21 Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen
As you consider what church you will attend, it is our hope that the Bible and history will be influential in your decision.
(1) G.W. Bromiley, The Library of Christian Classics, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press)
(2) Johann Laurenz von Mosheim, An Ecclesiastical History)
(3) John Clark Ridpath, personal letter to W.A. Jarrell, quoted in W.A. Jarrells Baptist Church Perpetuity
History of Baptists – A brief overview