Four Views of Baptist Origin


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.


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.


3rd Century Persecution & Theology

How did the periods of persecution cause the church to think about the doctrines of salvation and the church?

Persecution during the third century only intensified, but as Everett Ferguson states, “The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.” It was during the strong emperor rules of Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus that Christianity faced some of its hardest times. Part of this stemmed from Christianity being illegal and the other part came out of the Christians being blamed for everything from the fires under Nero to the plague under Marcus Aurelius. During the reign of Septimius Severus, he went as far as banning the conversion to Christianity and Judaism despite there being an established distinct difference between the two religions. The Romans believed these new religions had upset the balance in their polytheistic paganism and had angered their gods.

Despite the persecution and martyrdom, Christianity still grew extensively and although there were two significant periods of peace during the third century, Emperor Decius and Valerian as Ferguson puts it, “Declared war on the church with an effort at systematic oppression.” This oppression and persecution led to increasing apologetics and martyrdom as Christians were put to death for maintaining their faith. Out of this, Tertullian coined the saying; “The blood of the martyrs is the seed for the church.” This war on Christianity caught the church unprepared and much of the higher clergy were arrested and forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods. While many church members compromised their faith, some held fast and chose martyrdom instead. It was after martyrdom, the individuals new birthday became the day of their death as the anniversary of their immortality was now to be celebrated.

If a baptized believer succumbed to persecution and gave up his/her faith, did the church believe salvation was lost as a result? Also, could the church include Christians who denied their faith?

Under the persecution of Decian and Valerian, the unity of the church was in jeopardy which caused a schism to develop between Cyprian: the bishop of Carthage, Novation: a leading presbyter in the church at Rome and other church leaders. One of the major issues was what to do with those people who had fallen away from their faith during the persecution. Should the church and its members who did not compromise their faith immediately reconcile them? This was the consensus of church leaders; they believed those who did not fall away had been given an extra measure of the Holy Spirit and were entitled to forgive those who had strayed. Cyprian was against this and argued once the bishops were safe to return from hiding they should agree on a unified policy. As Ferguson states, “Cyprian confronted the extremes of both rigorism, which said apostates could not be restored to full fellowship, but must be kept in the condition of penitents for the rest of their lives, and laxism, which said that penitent apostates could be restored to full communion immediately.” Other issues such as rebaptism, backed by Stephen: bishop of Rome was also a major controversy with Cyprian as well as the validity of baptisms that were administrated by anyone outside the Catholic Church.

Novatian also faced a schism in the church at Rome opposing any reconciliation of apostates to full communion in the church. Whether or not the believer’s salvation was lost depended on which church leader you asked. This only showed how much disunity resulted from the persecution. Cyprian believed the validity of the baptism was relative to whom the baptizer was meaning there could always be an element of uncertainty in one’s salvation. Stephen viewed himself as the successor of Peter and believed strongly against rebaptism as passed down from the apostles. Out of this debate, we see Cyprian say, “Custom in the antiquity of error” meaning just because something is old does not make it right. Ultimately, Ferguson concludes, “The position of Stephen came to prevail, although Cyprian’s view lived on in North Africa, being powerfully revived by the Donatists in the next century.”


Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Volume One From Christ to the Pre-Reformation 2nd Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.