Baptists and the Reformation
John Smyth was an early Baptist minister of England, and a defender of the principle of religious liberty. Many historians consider John Smyth as a founder of the modern Baptists.
Smyth was ordained as an Anglican priest in England. Soon after his ordination, he broke with the Church of England and became a Separatist. In 1609, Smyth came to a belief in believer's baptism and opposed to infant baptism. Smyth baptized himself and his followers. It is true that he later rejected this baptism and sought baptism from the Mennonites, but this brought about a separation between Smyth and a group of Baptists led by Thomas Helwys a well to do layman. The churches that descended from Smyth and Helwys were of the General Baptist persuasion.
Let me back up a bit. Baptists were first identified by the name General Baptists in 17th century England. They were called General Baptists because they believed in a general atonement meaning they taught that the death of Christ made salvation possible for any persons who voluntarily exercises faith in Christ. In my estimation this is biblical, sound, and true. However, these churches were also Arminian in tendency and held the possibility of falling away from grace. In my estimation this is not biblical, it is unsound, and false. The earliest known church of this type was founded about 1609 in the Netherlands. Early leaders of the movement were those afore mentioned, namely Thomas Helwys and John Smyth (circa 1560-1612). Smyth and Helwys gathered a band of believers in the Midlands, but migrated to Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1607. In 1611, after Smyth left to join the Mennonite, Helwys led a small group back to England and established in Spitalfield what appears to have been the first General Baptist church on English soil. Smyth and Helwys were also ardent defenders of religious liberty for all men.
General Baptists slowly spread through England and into America, but never seemed to command as vital an existence as the Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptists. The English General Baptists declined due to several factors. Early Quaker converts were drawn from the General Baptists, and many other churches moved into Unitarianism. Most surviving Arminian elements would eventually be absorbed into the Baptist Union of Great Britain, though a few remain semi-autonomous as the Old Baptist Union.
Baptist history helps us to grow and mature in our convictions. It facilitates learning from our past mistakes so we may correct them, and strengthens us in our veracity so that we may become more authentic as Christians. Though there are incidents in our history that may make us blush, Baptist history is rich, and full of events that have benefited all people. To God be the glory!
* See Anderson and Gower, Biblical Distinctives of Baptists (Adult Teacher), p.81