Coming to America (Church, Who? What? How?)

While the Reformation was doing its work in the greater part of Europe, it was also making waves in the proud monarchial tradition of England.  While some in England wanted something protestant, it was important for them to somehow preserve the relationship between the church and the throne.  The end result was the Church of England.  An arrangement that very much resembled the monarchial ecclesiology of The Catholic Church, but gleaned some of the fervor of the Protestant Reformation.
The story of the Reformation in England is the stuff of historical legend and modern film.  It is during this time that we are given the great monarchial characters of the House of Tudor and the House of Stuart. The list of names here would include:
  • Henry VIII (1509-1547) - who separated the Church of England from Rome by the Act of Supremacy.  Henry did this primarily because the Catholic Church would not condone divorce.  Henry was married 6 times. 
  • Edward VI (1547-1553) - son of Henry VIII who never married.  Moved England decidedly toward Protestantism as his father Henry had appointed for him a Protestant tutor as a child.
  • Mary I (Mary Tudor, Bloody Mary) (1553-1558) - the half sister of Edward who moved England back to Catholicism as it was important for her to validate herself as the legitimate heir to the throne over her Protestant brother Edward and her rival 16 year old sister Jane.  Mary dismantled the Act of Supremacy and exacted a harsh persecution of protestants, hence her name Bloody Mary.
  • Elizabeth I or Elizabeth Tudor (1558-1603) - though she preferred Catholicism she chose Protestantism for political reasons.  Through her Elizabethan Settlement she settled the question of religion in England by enacting her own version of the Act of Supremacy thus making England a Protestant, Anglican (Church of England) state.
  • James I (1603-1625) - wanting to squelch controversy from Puritans (who sought reform in the Church of England) and wanting to further substantiate the Church of England, James and the English parliament “authorize” a new English translation of the Bible in 1604.  The Bible was completed and published in 1611 and became known as the Authorized Version or the King James Version. 

    It should also be noted that it was during these struggles of the monarchs to establish the Church of England that many dissenters sought religious freedom.  The eventual result was the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 to America.  Its passengers (102 Puritans and 42 of which were Separatists rooted in the Particular Baptist tradition) sought to establish a new colony built on religious freedom.
  • Oliver Cromwell, Revolution, Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy (1653-1660) - Oliver Cromwell was a great military leader who brought an end to the unrest of the monarchy and ushered in the short lived age of the Commonwealth in England.  While a commonwealth, many dissenting groups who stood against both the Catholic and Anglican (Church of England) Churches gained governmental influence.  It is during this time that the Fifth Monarchy Movement (a movement that sought to usher in the millennial reign of Christ through reform of parliament) took hold.  Cromwell was forced to suppress the movement and in doing so imprisoned many Baptists.  Cromwell’s untimely death and failure of his son to be successor led to the careful reestablishment of the Stuart throne to Charles II.  Charles enacted the Clarendon Code which contained numerous provisions that made it illegal to resist the Church of England.  It is during this time that dissenting Protestants, Puritans, Separatists, and Baptists sought religious freedom.  Many of them fled to America.  As “Baptist” friendly colonies began to develop, particularly in Rhode Island due to the work of Roger Williams (who founded the first Baptist (particular) congregation in Providence,1639), more Baptists begin to flee England for America.    
The Groups Who Fled England for America:
During the times of unrest in England several groups fled for America that contributed to Baptist life.  Below is an outline of the characteristics of these key groups:
The Puritans:
  • The term “Puritan” is used more to describe the spirit of the movement rather than a denominational label.  There were various groups within Puritanism, yet they had a common concern, to purify the Anglican Church.  The Puritans first sought to carry out reform from within the church.  
  • Much like the Anabaptist opinion of the Protestant Reformers in Switzerland and Germany, the Puritans did not think that the Anglican Church took their reforms from the Catholic Church far enough.
  • Primarily reformed in doctrine.
  • Primarily congregationalists who advocated autonomous relationship for local church life between the church and the state.
  • Greatest opposition to reforming the Anglican Church was the English throne, primarily Elizabeth I who sought to enforce religious conformity by law.  Due to legislation Puritan clergy were forced to be considered as “non-conformists” in their relationship to the Anglican Church.  Their dissent and separation from the Anglican Church set the stage for a new movement, the Separatists.
The Separatists:
  • “Unable to purify the Church of England, many churchmen determined to separate and form their own independent congregations where they could institute what they regarded as biblical practices.”
  •   As such these congregations were considered as Separatist.
  • At the core separatists were continually seeking to institute “biblical practices” in congregational life.
  • By nature of being “separatists” there was no real cohesive nature to the movement.  A wide variety of ideas and debates were prevalent across the spectrum of congregational life such as whether to stand or kneel, whether to allow the congregation to sing, but there was especially debate concerning Calvinism vs. Arminianism.  
  • Separatists congregations were found in fields, homes, and ships.  Each congregation ordained their own clergy and deacons as well as administered the sacraments.    
  • There was no common church life among Separatists, but they tended to be congregational or moderately presbyterian favoring some degree of congregational participation.  They mostly rejected liturgical forms of worship in favor of using only the Bible.  They were concerned that the church be made up only of the redeemed.  However, many Separatists did not emphasize believer’s baptism or religious liberty for all.  Ironically many early American colonies mimicked the intolerant forms of church/state relations their settlers once fled in England.  Citizenship was tied to church membership.   
  • A notable Separatist congregation was the Pilgrim Church led by John Robinson.  After finding no friendly place to build their community, the congregation eventually settled in Amsterdam.  Fearing that their children would lose their English heritage by marrying Dutch families a portion of the church under the leadership of William Bradford and William Brewster fled to the new world aboard the Mayflower in 1620.  
  • While Baptists owe a great deal to the Separatists, it cannot be said that Baptists came exclusively from the Separatists.
The Rise of the Baptists (Particular and General)
We know that the first Baptist congregation in America was established by Roger Williams in Rhode Island (1639), but this was not the beginning of the Baptist church.  There is no real point in history in which a congregation emerged that was known as the first Baptists.  The term Baptist has been used to describe various groups from Anabaptists to Separatists that were Baptistic in their practice.  At first the name was derogatory slang used to criticize various groups that were practicing believer’s baptism (not necessarily by immersion).  However, as time wore on the name began to stick with particular congregations.
General Baptists
  • Older congregations that were more Arminian in their theology.  As such they believed man had the freedom to choose to be saved but also were in danger of losing salvation.  General Baptists also held that although there are many local autonomous churches, there is only one true church. 
  • The early key leaders of the movement was John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.  In his views, Smyth journeyed through Anglicanism, Puritanism, Separatist, Baptist, and eventually sought to become Mennonite.  Taking over the Gainsborough church in 1606, the congregation grew quickly.  Being under constant threat by James I the congregation split for safety; Smyth and Helwys taking one group and Brewster and Bradford taking the other.  The Brewster/Bradford group became the Mayflower Church as mentioned above.  Smyth and Helwys took their group further in their Separatist reforms and adopted believer’s baptism thus making them, in that sense, truly Baptists.
  • Smyth also believed that worship should be completely spontaneous.  As a reaction against the Book of Common Prayer he forbid song books and even at times reading from English translations of the Bible.  Seeking a pure church membership, Smyth constantly questioned every aspect of baptism and would baptize himself and re-baptize the congregation.  However, he was never completely satisfied, even considering his own actions “hasty and disorderly” and eventually sought to join the Mennonites as the true orderly church.  Smyth believed the Mennonites represented the true succession of the church and in so doing he broke with the Baptists.
  • Not willing to follow Smyth and his conclusions, Helwys reluctantly broke with Smyth and continued to develop the Baptist church.  Under Helwys’ leadership the church:
    • Adopted believer’s baptism, but not by immersion.
    • They departed from Calvinism making room for free will and falling from grace.
    • They allowed the church to elect its own officers, preaching elders, and both men and women as deacons.
Particular Baptists
  • General Baptists derive their name from the idea that Jesus died “generally” for all.  This view is known as general atonement.  Particular Baptists then hold to a “particular atonement” which means that Christ died only for the elect.  The Particular and General Baptists did not divide.  Their relationship is described better as “Baptists of different kinds.”
  •   Both came from the Separatist movement, but as described earlier, within the movement there were divergent views.  Therefore, it can be said that the Particular Baptists emerged from a different section or strain of the Separatist movement than their General Baptist counterparts.
  • Like the General Baptists, Particular Baptists were searching for the “true church.”  In their beginnings, from the influence of Henry Jacob (1563-1624), Particular Baptists held a high view of the Anglican Church as the true church, however they saw it in much need of reform.  As is the story of the Separatist movement, Jacob was not allowed to exact his reforms due to pressure by King James I.  Still holding that the Church of England was the true church, Jacob was eventually forced to differentiate between what he considered to be congregations that represented the “true” Church of England and false congregations.  
  • Along with John Lathrop and Henry Jessey, Jacob formed the JLJ church in 1616; so named due to its first three pastors.  This congregation is primarily responsible for the rise of Particular Baptists.  Jacob eventually left the church and settled near Jamestown, Virginia in 1622.
  • Under the leadership of Lathrop, the church grew despite increasing questions of its continued acknowledgment of its relationship to the Church of England.  Eventually the pressures of a large congregation in dangerous times and increasing unrest in their relationship with the Church of England led to a schism in the JLJ church in 1633.  
  • Like their General counterparts the Particular Baptists recovered the idea of believer’s baptism.  The General Baptists taught this as early as 1609 and the Particular Baptists by 1638.  While General Baptists were first in this phase of the practice of Baptism, it was the Particular Baptists who led the way in the recovery of the ancient mode of immersion - arguing that this is the mode taught in the New Testament.  Particular Baptists began immersing in 1640; General Baptists by 1660.  
  • Though the mode certainly drew criticism, it was the charge of immodesty that was the greatest struggle for the church.  Opponents of immersion wrote pamphlets that called the practice “unscriptural, unnecessary, and unhealthy.”  They charged that not only did many people grow sick and die after immersion, often being baptized in icy rivers, but that immersing Baptists baptized both men and women together, often naked.  History shows that not all Baptists immersed their converts naked, but in various areas nude baptism was the common practice. 
As Baptists begin to emerge in England and America, while it is difficult to attribute any one common ancestry, it is not difficult to identify the core of influential ideas and practices.
  • The influence of Reformed theology, particularly justification by faith.
  • A return to the Bible as the authority for the doctrines and practices of the church as opposed to the papacy or the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Congregational autonomy and participation in church life.
  • Religious liberty.
  • Recovery of believer’s baptism and the beginnings of a return to the ancient practice of baptism by immersion.
  • Constant questioning over whether a leader or a local congregation is “true.”
  • A belief in the right to “separate” from those considered to be “false.”


Popular Posts