Tuesday, January 5, 2016
A New Year to Be Good Old Baptists
The congregation offered tours of their sanctuary as well as a brief greeting from the priest. As we sat in the sanctuary listening to the priest’s remarks, Kerry passed me a card in the pew rack. The card explained the origins and beliefs of the Orthodox Church and where the Orthodox fit into the story of Christianity in comparison to the Catholic and Protestant movements. Each denomination had a brief explanation, and under “Baptists”, the card read:
“Baptists believe in baptism by immersion for adults only.
Their founder is English reformer John Smyth.”
In the late 16th-century, John Smyth was a part of the English Separatist movement, persons who did not accept the Church of England’s authority or teachings. In turn, neither the Church nor the English court tolerated Separatist movements. With a small group of Separatists, Smyth fled to Amsterdam, a safe haven for religious dissidents. Over their years in the Netherlands, the congregation developed their beliefs further, taking some of their theological influences from interactions with the early Anabaptist, or Mennonite, groups also in Holland.
Historians consider Smyth’s congregation to be the first “Baptist” church, as by 1609, the congregation evidenced beliefs and practices clearly “baptistic”. The congregation, Smyth included, came to believe the true Church, as described by the New Testament, was not in existence, refuting their baptism within the Church of England. William Estep writes, “The church was then reconstituted on personal confessions of faith and baptisms”. (The Anabaptist Story, 3rd ed., revised and enlarged) Hence, Smyth baptized himself (admittedly this part of the story gives many, including myself, a case of theological heartburn) and then he baptized the rest of the people!
By 1610, the congregation had developed twenty statements about their theological beliefs. Here are two of these statements: “The Church of Christ is a company of the faithful; baptized after confession of sin and of faith, endowed with the power of Christ”. The second statement of note here: “Baptism is an external sign of the remission of sins, of dying and of being made alive, and therefore does not belong to infants”. (Quoted in Brackney, Baptist Life and Thought: A Source Book, revised and expanded).
On a side note, you will be surprised to learn, however, that these “first” Baptists did not baptize by immersion. This early congregation practiced baptism by triune affusion, pouring water over the person three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It would not be until later in the mid-17th century, when the Baptist tradition was developing further that the New Testament described baptism by “dipping”, or immersing, the person. The main concern for Smyth’s congregation was a person receiving baptism after he or she professed belief in Christ and renounced his or her sinful nature. This is “believer’s baptism” indeed!
For today’s Baptists, there are some differences of opinion on how we look back at our roots. In case you have not realized, Baptist churches differ, even within their denominational traditions. Indeed, we are like snowflakes: no two Baptist churches are exactly alike!
For example, some congregations like our own welcome persons baptized as infants into the membership without another baptism. We describe this way as “joining by Christian experience”. Other Baptist congregations would expect a candidate for membership baptized by immersion only and hold a very firm line that any other form of baptism was invalid. (Most of these congregations I knew in the Midwest had a low opinion of churches baptizing infants or baptism by sprinkling. Some churches even refuse communion to persons not baptized in a Baptist church. In one case, persons not baptized specifically within the fellowship of that specific church can partake in communion. That particular church brings new meaning to the term “closed communion”!)
Looking back at the events of 1609, what have we learned? Four hundred plus years later, what is our spiritual DNA indebted to Smyth and others? I like the phrase “spiritual DNA” as religions have unique traits passed down from generation to generation. Some traits helpfully ground a religion, while other traits remind us of the need for “gene therapy” from time to time. From the story of John Smyth and his congregation, let me suggest some helpful insights:
Let us return to where the essay began: being a tourist at the Orthodox Church. Technically the Orthodox Church’s pew card about various Christian origins had the Baptist information arguably incorrect. Smyth was among the earliest Baptists, however, he is not “the” first Baptist in the sense of a Luther or Calvin. In Baptist Ways, the current “key” text for Baptist history, Bill Leonard observes, “Baptist have no single founder whose life and thought identifies the historical and theological origins of the movement.” If you are Lutheran, you can stock your bookshelf full of Luther’s writings. If you are a Presbyterian, Calvin’s Institutes is a touchstone. The Methodists have Mr. Wesley. The Baptists have, well, literally potluck.
We have a variety of early progenitors, those who help get the tradition underway, but it is not necessarily neat and tidy history or theology alike to claim John Smyth as “the” founder of Baptists. I would stress instead that even in their origins, the Baptists are true to form. To understand Baptists, you do not look to one key figure. Hence, the early stories of Baptists speak well to our abiding witness: the Church is the company of the faithful, or the many people, great and small, or in English Baptist parlance, “the gathered people”. We respect Smyth and the other pastors who gave shape to Baptist proclamation and thought. Nonetheless, to tell the Baptist story is not to recite the cavalcade of a few key voices, or as some historical surveys tended to do in a (hopefully) bygone era: to celebrate history as the achievements of “old dead white men.”
Looking at our roots, perhaps we should claim ourselves heirs of Smyth AND his congregation. The earliest Baptists affirmed that our belief in Christ and our discipleship matter greatly as signs of our faithfulness to God. It is not Smyth alone, in writings or in his acts, making this mark in history. The perseverance of the little congregation kept the Baptist faith from dying out in the years of hardship that followed.
The significance of the events in 1609 and the leadership of John Smyth are just part of the story. What happened after that seminal year of 1609 needs its due. The original group fleeing England with Smyth was approximately 150 persons. By 1612, the congregation had whittled down to ten persons, the membership fractured by theological disagreements among the faithful.
The remnant returned to England in 1612, now led by Thomas Helwys. Smyth left the fellowship sometime after 1610, seeking membership among the Mennonites, among whom Smyth came to believe were practicing the most authentic ways of being a New Testament church. Despite Smyth’s own ironic short-term adherence as a Baptist, his congregation persevered, establishing the first Baptist church in England in 1612. Four centuries later, Baptists have spread out across the world as a global Christian tradition. Indeed, as we celebrate our roots, we do not look to one lone individual. Rather, to tell the Baptist story aright, you must tell many stories of ministry, the work of the laity and the ordained. To speak of Baptists, you tell of mission, local and global alike. To celebrate, you tell all these stories. Then, you eat, you dance (if your batch of Baptists approves of such things), and then, well, you eat again.
As we start out a new year of opportunities for ministry and mission, let us also to remember and strengthen our understanding of our Baptist history and heritage. We can begin appropriately with our own local church, taking advantage of a variety of resources for Adult Study about Baptist history and polity, many published by Judson Press. We can also look for ways to improve our local church's ministry by asking and identifying how our congregation empowers all members for ministry. Baptists of any era and context are all called to help the whole people carry out the ministries and mission of the church, as we realize that not any one person lay or ordained is solely responsible for the ministry and mission of the church.
This is how 21st century Baptists echo the spirit of 1609: Each of us is part of the whole people, the gathered people, “the company of the faithful”. Together, we listen for God’s calling. Together, we seek Christ’s path. Together, we are gifted by the Spirit to be the diverse and gathered people called “church”.