WHEN AND WHERE WAS THE FIRST RECORDED BAPTIST CHURCH IN HISTORY
The historian David Benedict states the Gospel was preached in Britain within sixty years of the Lord’s return to heaven. These churches appear to have been baptistic and remained sound until Austin, the Catholic monk brought Catholicism to the Isles in 597 A.D. He states there were Baptists in England 1400 A.D., and mentions William Sawtre, who was identified as a Lollard and Baptist. He was the first person burned at the stake after Henry IV’s 1400 A.D. decree to burn heretics. His “crime” was refuting infant baptism and rejecting the Anglican church as being biblical. Benedict states that the English Roman Catholics in 1535 put to death twenty-two Baptists for heresies. In 1539 thirty-one more that had fled to Holland were apprehended and martyred there. He records that five hundred others who were identified as Anabaptists were also killed in England during this period. After Henry VII separated England from the Roman Catholic Church the Baptists fared no better. Many Baptists were executed by the newly formed Church of England during what is called the “Protestant inquisition.”
The line of English churches that can be traced, who called themselves Baptists, began in 1610 in Holland. This is not to say there were no Baptists in Britain earlier, but that this began a line of churches whose history can be traced. It began with a man named John Smyth, who was an ordained bishop in the Church of England. In 1606, after nine months of soul-searching and study of the New Testament, he was convinced the doctrines and practices of the Church of England were not biblical, and thus he resigned as priest and left the church.
Because of persecution by the Anglican Church of all who disagreed with it and who refused to agree to its authority, John Smyth had to flee England. In Amsterdam, he, with Thomas Helwys and thirty six others, formed the first Baptist church of English people known to have stood for baptism of believers only.
Smyth believed the only real apostolic succession is a succession of biblical New Testament truth, and not of outward ordinances and visible organization such as the Church of England or the Roman Church. He believed the only way to recover was to form a new church based on the Bible. He then baptized himself (which is not biblical) and others of his congregation. In only a few years however, the church had lost all but ten members to the Mennonites and other groups in Holland.
Smyth died in 1612, and the church ended in Holland shortly after that with Helwys, Thomas and John Murton returned to England as persecution there lessened. History records the members of this Baptist church went back to England. Those who remained in Holland joined the Mennonites. Therefore, the Baptist church in Holland did not produce a succession of other churches, but those who founded it went on to set up other Baptist churches in England.
Back in England, these men formed the first recorded Baptist church on English soil. By 1626, the churches had grown from one to five churches and by 1644 there were forty congregations. Through preaching the New Testament, the Gospel went forth in power and the Baptist movement grew rapidly.
These first Baptist churches formed in England were Armenian in theology, which taught that all men could be saved. Another group of Baptists were the Calvinistic or Particular Baptists and they believed in limited atonement, in which only the elect could be saved. Particular Baptists had their beginnings around 1616, when some “dissenters” left the Church of England and were led by the Rev. Henry Jacob. By 1644, these congregations grew to seven churches.
About this time, the Puritans were also becoming strong in England. The Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England. They wanted to bring reform to the Church of England. Although they were a great deal more pious than the Church of England, they still practiced most of its beliefs, including infant baptism. Anyone who differed from the practices of the State church was subject to great persecution. Puritans and Baptists alike, to escape persecution, migrated to the New World.
One man, Hanserd Knowles, is an example of dissenters of the Church of England who had to flee to America. He was a presbyter and former deacon in the Anglican Church. Knolleys was under deep conviction of the need to preach the New Testament and follow its example as one’s rule of faith. He refused to wear the robes of his church office, and refused to let unsaved people take the Lord’s Supper. Further, he ignored the reading of the “order of service” and simply preached instead the Scriptures. To preach the Bible without the rituals of the Church of England was against the civil law. Knolleys joined with other dissenters and left England. In 1638, he landed in Boston and settled for a short time in Piscataway (now Dover) in New Hampshire. There he became the pastor of the Puritan church. The Puritans were in control of the colonies and, in fact, had set up an unbiblical theocracy in which the Puritan church governed both secular and religious affairs. Because Knolleys refused to baptize infants and preached against it, he was banned from the colony by the famous Puritan governor Cotton Mather. Knolleys after two years, returned to England at the request of his father. He became an outspoken “Separatist” or dissenter of the Anglican or state church. In 1645, he formed a Baptist church in London. Shortly after, the Church of England fell from grace when the English monarch was overthrown and the Presbyterians became the favored church of the state. The Presbyterians, who are Calvinists, then took up the persecution of biblical believers and forbade Knolleys from preaching in parish churches. He, however, continued to preach by holding services in his own home. One of the last acts of the Presbyterians, before the Long Parliament in England fell, was to pass a law imposing the death penalty on anyone who was caught holding to what they called “Eight Errors in Doctrine.” These “doctrines” included infant baptism. Knolleys was imprisoned many times and suffered at the hands of the “State Church.” He is only one of many such godly men who would not compromise God’s truth. The “crime” of these men was that they believed the Bible was God’s Truth, and rejected dictates of false churches and men. It is revealing that the Calvinistic Protestant Presbyterians persecuted those who followed the Bible and rejected hierarchy and false teachings which included Calvinism.