English Christianity – Part 4
July 18, 2012
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JOHN SMYTH AND THE MENNONITES
John Smyth, a minister of the Church of England, was dismissed as a preacher of that church in 1602. He continued to preach without a license, becoming the spiritual leader of a number of like-minded people from Lincolnshire and adjoining areas of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. For a time these people continued as members of their local parish churches, also meeting privately among themselves. But a conviction developed that the Church of England was not a true church at all. Late in 1606 or early 1607 this group covenanted together to form a true church, pledging themselves to walk in all the ways of the Lord known to them and that would be made known to them. By this step they moved from Puritanism, essentially a faction within the state church, to Separatism, renouncing the very concept of a state church. This little congregation contained at least 4 or 5 others who had formerly been ministers in the Church of England.
This move soon brought harassment by the authorities. In the spring of 1608 the entire congregation fled to Amsterdam in Holland. Some had been wealthy in England, but had to leave much behind and lost title to their properties. In Amsterdam they were relatively poor people, living in the wealthiest city in the world, and unable to understand the language of the land. At some point in the winter of 1608-09 John Smyth renounced the baptism he had received as an infant in the Church of England, baptized himself and then baptized all those in the congregation who were united with him in desiring believer’s baptism. Part of the congregation, led by John Robinson, did not accept this innovation and in spring they left Amsterdam for Leyden.
John Smyth himself soon came to regret his action. He had believed that the Church of God had ceased to exist on the earth. But as he and his congregation began to learn the Dutch language they became acquainted with the Waterlander Mennonite congregation in Amsterdam and realized that here was the Church of God. Early in 1610 they wrote to the Mennonites that they”now admit their error and repent of it, that is, that they began to baptize themselves contrary to the order instituted by Christ; and . . . henceforth desire to unite with the true church of Christ as quickly as possible.”
At this time a group of 8 or 10 withdrew from John Smyth’s congregation. The leader of this group was Thomas Helwys. He accused John Smyth of numerous doctrinal errors. Helwys rejected the idea that there was such a thing as a true church and that it was necessary for true believers to receive baptism and ordination from this church. Helwys also rejected the Mennonite teaching regarding the incarnation, insisting that Jesus received His flesh from the virgin Mary. Thirdly, he rejected the Mennonite teaching on the separation of church and state. On all these points John Smyth and his congregation were in full unity with the Mennonites.
Helwys and his followers returned to England and established the first Baptist church. Many Baptist historians attempt to prove the Baptists to be an offshoot of the Mennonites, by way of John Smyth, in order to show a lineage of the Baptist church back to Apostolic times. In actual fact the first Baptists emphatically rejected both the Mennonite faith and the whole idea of a lineage. There was a division in 1638, with one group of Baptists introducing the Calvinist doctrine of election, from which the eternal security doctrine originates. Three years later the first Baptist church to practice immersion was formed. For the first 30 years of Baptist history, this most characteristic practice of modern Baptists was unheard of!