WHO WERE THE FIRST BAPTISTS?
In discovering who the first Baptists were, you must first identify to whom you are referring. You could mean those people or churches which held to the Baptists beliefs although they may not have called themselves Baptists. Or second, you could be referring to those who held to Baptist beliefs and were called by the name Baptist. There are historians and even one Baptist denomination that claims an unbroken line of churches from the time of Christ and John the Baptist. However, these historians have included groups which were clearly not doctrinally sound. The name Baptist refers to a local assembly strictly held to the teachings of the New Testament. Being unsound, these churches cannot honestly be called Baptists. Further, none of them produced a linage of Baptist churches that followed them.
It is difficult to trace churches that held to Baptist principles down through history. Some Baptist historians have made attempts at doing this, but in many cases they referred to groups as early Baptists, who did not hold to pure New Testament beliefs held by Baptists today.
In the simplest of terms a true Baptist assembly is one which follows the New Testament as their sole authority for their faith and practice. Whether these groups of believers called themselves Baptists or not, if they were doctrinally pure, following the New Testament for their faith and practice they were New Testament churches and thus they can be called “baptistic.” The point is, the name Baptist historically was used to designate a true New Testament assembly that was biblically sound. These biblically sound churches were called by various names before the name Baptist came into popular use. The crucial point is not that they called themselves Baptists, but that they followed the Bible as their sole authority for faith and practice. The connection with churches back in history is not the name they used, but was rather their doctrine and practice was scripturally sound.
Doctrinally sound New Testament churches have always existed from the time of Christ and the Apostles until today. To call these people Baptists or baptistic, in the sense they believed the Bible and followed it as their sole authority for faith and practice is acceptable, although it serves no purpose. To say there is an unbroken line or succession of New Testament churches from the time of Christ until today it historically true.
It cannot be stated too often that the importance of these churches was not in their name, or their succession, but in what they believed and practiced. These churches patterned themselves strictly after the New Testament example, and this made them valid churches, approved of God. This is the true heritage Fundamental Independent Baptists hold dear, that is there have always been assemblies which submitted themselves only to the sole authority of the Word of God. However, it is difficult to document these congregations because they were rarely in the spotlight of history.
For an example, there is Patrick of Ireland. Patrick was born in Scotland in 360 AD and sold into slavery at age sixteen and carried to Ireland. Later, he escaped and became a Christian missionary. Although the Roman Catholic Church claims him as one of their “saints,” there is no evidence he even knew the Catholic Church existed. In his writings he appears ignorant of the practices of the Roman Church and never refers to church councils, creeds, traditions or even to the existence of a pope. There was no hierarchy in the churches he founded, which were patterned after the simple New Testament example. These churches were missions minded and formed schools to train preachers and missionaries. Later in history, around 600 AD, Austin, a Catholic monk, was sent to Britain by Pope Gregory the Great. King Ethelbert and his court, and many Britons were won over by the successful monk. Under the Roman Catholic influence these missionary centers diverged into monasticism. However, history is clear that in the beginning and into the 9th Century there were churches in Britain that rejected pedobaptism, popery and other false doctrines of the Catholics. These churches remained sound in doctrine and practiced the faith of the New Testament. These churches are good examples of Bible believing churches that existed independent of the Roman Catholic Church, and were for some time not corrupted by its influences. They were, in fact, churches founded on the same New Testament principles that modern day Baptists have founded their churches.
Some have pointed to the Anabaptists as the examples of early modern Baptist churches. This, again, cannot be proven from history. The Anabaptists were mostly a God-fearing group of people. They loved the Lord and many of them gave their lives and fortunes for the sake of Christ. In their beginnings, most were doctrinally sound. However, history does not record even one Anabaptist group or church becoming or founding a Baptist church. Most of the Anabaptists successors became the Mennonites, Amish and Quakers. The historical record shows that not one modern Baptist church can trace its history as coming from the Anabaptists. Many Anabaptists churches were strong New Testament churches believing and following the Word of God. Other Anabaptists groups were in gross error and corrupted. As with any true New Testament church, its validity as a true church approved of God, does not, nor or has ever rested on its name or on a succession of churches. A true New Testament church must be solely discerned based on its adherence to the principles of God’s Word.
Some Baptist churches believe in a succession of Baptist churches that passed down the authority to baptize and give the Lord’s Supper. This is contrary to the very foundation of what is a true New Testament church. A true New Testament church bases its faith, practice and authority solely in the Word of God. To hold to the “secessionist” position takes the authority away from the New Testament and places it in the hands of man.
Secessionism is a gross error of Catholicism. God said He would preserve His church and that task was not left in the hands of fallible men or groups. God deliberately used isolated groups in many different places though out history to preserve His word. He did not entrust His word just one church or an unbroken line of churches to pass His Word to the next generation. He preserved His word and the true Gospel during every moment of history since Pentecost though many different believers. What possible value is there in appealing to a supposed unbroken line of Baptist churches as a church’s authority? However, there is every value in appealing to the adherence to the New Testament as one’s sole authority for faith and practice.
The best illustration of this point can be made this way. Suppose an airplane flew over some isolated country that had no past or present contact with anyone else in the world. Further, suppose that a Bible somehow was to fall from the plane and the inhabitants of this isolated land were to be able to pick up that Bible and read the text for themselves. Suppose, too, that some of them on reading that Bible, were to believe and repent of their sins and place their trust in God’s Son and His redemption for personal sin. These new believers would then, following the New Testament example, submit to believer’s baptism by immersion, and organize a local church. That local body of baptized believers would be as valid as any true New Testament church Christ ever founded. Why? Because it was founded on God’s Word and there is no necessity that it have contact with some other church which belongs to a succession of churches to give it legitimacy or authority.
Although the founding of the first Baptist church in America is widely attested to Roger Williams, in 1639 at Providence, Rhode Island it can be shown that Dr. John Clarke founded the first Baptist church in America in March 1638 at Newport. This was a year before Roger Williams began the Providence church in 1639 as the plaque on the wall of the meeting hall of the Providence church states. When a congregation results from the preaching of the Gospel and that congregation solely believes and practices the doctrine of the New Testament it is authenticated and not in its affiliation or succession.