Four Views of Baptist Origin

Baptist_history

Leon McBeth cites four views pertaining to the sources of Baptist origin: (1) the outgrowth of English Separatism, (2) the influence of biblical Anabaptists, (3) the continuation of biblical teachings throughout the ages, and (4) the succession of organized Baptist churches through the ages.[1] Proponents believing the outgrowth of English Separatism to be the origin of Baptists minimize any role or influence Anabaptists may have played in England before 1600 and instead focus on the diversities between Baptists and Anabaptists. McBeth, illustrates, “They maintain that every distinctive Baptist belief and practice is inherent within Puritanism/Separatism.”[2]

Supporters of the Anabaptist influence view set out to link Baptist origins to the influence of biblical Anabaptists. McBeth highlights, “Most of them acknowledge that Baptists emerged through English Separatism, but they believe Anabaptism both on the Continent and in England prepared the way for Separatism.”[3] Anabaptists can be difficult to classify because the name was associated with a diverse group of believers ranging from extreme mystics, like the Quakers, all the way to extreme rationalists. Some historians contend, “Baptists originated largely in response to the Anabaptist movement, [and] Anabaptists influenced the early Baptists at two points: (1) in preparing the way for Separatism and (2) by leading some to go beyond Separatism to believer’s baptism.”[4]

The latter two views are often both labeled under successionism. McBeth demonstrates, “While almost all recognize that early Baptists were related to the Separatists, disagreement centers around what preceded the Separatists.”[5] This third group looks to trace a continuity of Baptist teachings from New Testament times to the present, asserting the origin of Baptist-like faith and practice never completely died out. Thomas Crosby claimed, “that Baptist principles not only root in the New Testament but also can be traced through various groups since then.”[6]

Arising in the nineteenth century, the final argument for the origin of Baptists goes a step further than the previous. Sometimes referred to as the Jesus-Jordan-John (JJJ) theory, this view contends that Baptists originated with John the Baptist, Jesus, and/or baptisms in the Jordan. McBeth explains, “This theory assumes that John the Baptist represents a denominational affiliation and that Jesus formed a Baptist church and promised in Matthew 16:18 that Baptist churches would never vanish from the world.”[7] There are multiple variations of belief in this view ranging from the premise that: (1) organic succession can be proven and that it is essential, (2) succession is essential and does exist, but cannot be proven, or (3) succession can be proven, but it is not essential.[8]

While each view has merit, it seems the most convincing views pertaining to the origin of Baptists are explained by both the continuation of biblical teaching and that Baptists emerged from the Separatist movement. Tracing Baptist succession back to the New Testament is an admirable attempt to demonstrate provenance, but is seemingly impossible to prove and also unnecessary. While Anabaptist influence is still often debated, McBeth demonstrates, “the earliest Baptists recognized their Separatist background, but later historians obscured that heritage under layers of successionist theory.”[9] In the wise words of William T. Whitley, “For the sources of Baptist life, one must look not to the Anabaptists, but to the Scriptures and the desire for reform…” This new view of Scripture and recognition of what God was calling His followers to do arose as the Separatists moved away from the state church, ultimately leading to the formation of Baptists.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987.

[1] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987), 49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 53.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid., 59.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 50.

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