Once Upon a Time, Four Hundred Years Ago…

Founders Journal 76 · Spring 2009 · pp. 2-8

Once Upon a Time, Four Hundred Years Ago…

Tom J. Nettles

… John Smyth baptized himself and John Clarke was born. The first of these phenomena gave a strange birth to the present day Baptist denomination. The second introduced into the world one of the most important figures in the founding and sculpting of identity for Baptists in America.

John Smyth, A Sojourner for Truth

For twenty-three years before 1609, John Smyth had been intimately involved in the tense seventeenth-century discussion of ecclesiology. At his entrance in Cambridge in 1586, a plan had been afoot for three years by the infant Puritan movement to reform the English church by means of The Book of Discipline. Archbishop Whitgift had been systematically repressing this movement since its inception in 1583. Elizabeth had been under a cloud and hesitant to confront it until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Then as W. T. Whitley wrote, “She struck hard and shattered the Puritan hopes.”[1] While Smyth enjoyed an auspicious university career from 1586-1598, he also witnessed the earliest frustrations of Puritanism, the rise of Separatism, a challenge at the University to the prevailing Calvinism of the English church with the consequent production of the Lambeth Articles by Whitaker of Cambridge and endorsed by Archbishop Whitgift,[2] and the conversion to Separatism of his former tutor Francis Johnson. The Separatist church over which Johnson served as pastor immigrated to Amsterdam in 1593.

Meanwhile, Smyth expanded his reputation for both piety and scholarly achievements, lecturing in philosophy and theology, preaching in chapel, and holding prayer meetings in his room. He left the University in 1598, but virtually nothing is known for sure of his movements until his election as Lecturer at Lincoln in 1600.

From the vantage point of this influential, and coveted, position of Lecturer to a corporation, Smyth surveyed the variety and power of religious influences immediately around him. His knowledge of a strong Roman Catholic contingent in Lincoln, combined with the Protestant fear of the bloody oppressiveness of Rome, influenced Smyth to advocate governmental intervention in religious affairs and support a policy of intolerance. Since the devil in his subtlety takes advantage of man’s natural inclination and leads many to follow false religions, so he reasoned, “the Magistrates should cause all men to worship the true God, or else punish them with imprisonment, confiscation of goods, or death as the qualitie of the cause requireth.”[3] Fight blood with blood, so the standard wisdom of the day taught.

Smyth also showed his spirited disapproval of ignorant, incompetent, heretical, worldly, lazy, and fearful ministers. He affirmed the doctrines of election, Christ’s substitutionary death for his elect, justification of them through forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and the certain perseverance of these to eternal glory. He held that the baptism of infants in the Anglican Church was a valid baptism while at the same time he worked with the Puritan goal of establishing a more thoroughly reformed approach to parish life.

Several factors of personal study and historical circumstance drove Smyth to a Separatist position by 1607. He gave a succinct outline of his understanding of the marks of a true church in a short work entitled Principles and Inferences Concerning the Visible Church. Several notable features of this include his description of the true church as containing “1. True matter. 2. true forme. 3. true properties.” The true matter of a true visible church is saints, “men separated from all knowne syn, practicing the whol will of God knowne unto them.” The inward form of a church consists of the Spirit, faith and love while the outward form is a two-fold covenant between God and the faithful and between the faithful mutually. The true properties of a true church consist of communion in the holy things of God and exercising all the powers granted by Christ to the church. These powers include communion, the exercise of gifts, the election and proper functioning of officers, and excommunication. Smyth still maintained, in spite of his perception that true saints compose the matter of the church, that “Princes must erect them in their dominions & command all their subjects to enter into them, being first prepared and fitted therto.”[4] This separatist construction had tensions within it that could not long be maintained–that is, a procedure for creating a believers’ church while still practicing infant baptism and magisterial power in its establishment.

Smyth expressed his earnest intent plainly in stating, “I will every day as my errors shall be discovered confess them and renounce them.”[5] Accordingly, he discovered differences in three distinct areas between his kind of separatism and the separatism of Francis Johnson. These differences illustrated for Smyth how deeply the “mystery of iniquitie” had sunk in to the worship and offices of the church. He sought a more purely biblical church by reformation of three areas: an increasing purity in the corporate worship of the church as “spiritual worship,” in the officers of the church by rejecting a tri-fold presbytery for a uniform eldership, and a treasury sanctified by refusing contributions from non-members.

After this publication in 1608, Smyth intensified his study as to what constituted the real spirituality of a true visible church. Trueness included the right practice of baptism on the basis of a true faith and true calling. In his lengthy answer to Richard Bernard, Paralleles, Censures, Observations, Smyth wrote “True calling, profession & baptisme: & inward calling, profession, & baptisme, are the infallible tokens of Sanctification and Saynts,” He goes on to clarify this further when he reiterates, “He that is baptized into that true faith, after that true manner Christ hath prescribed, I must needs say that he is truly called, truly professeth, is truly baptized, and so he by reason of his outward true calling, true professions of the true faith, and true baptisme is discerned & judged to be inwardly called, inwardly to have faith, to be inwardly baptized, & that truly.”[6] These statements seem so consonant with believers’ baptism that some, including W. T. Whitley, have concluded that Smyth had already initiated the baptism of believers by the time he wrote this work. That is not the case, however. When he asserts that “a baptized person, must baptize into the true Faith of Christ, a person capable of baptisme,”[7] he is indicating the falsity of the Anglican faith, the Puritan faith, and thus the falsity of their baptisms, and the purity of the Separatist faith. “Christ & wee of the Seperation have a third Faith, ” he contended, ” for we wil Subscribe neither to the [Bishops] Faith, nor the Puritanes Faith, but the faith of Christ indefinitely comprehended in the Holy Scriptures.”[8] These three groups represented three faiths and thus three baptisms. The Separatist baptism introduced the person, new believer or infant, into the pure faith of the Separatist congregation, and therefore into a true covenant, true repentance (demonstrated by the practice of discipline), true ministry, and true worship. He still maintained that the things revealed “aperteyne to us & our Children.”[9] In addition, his understanding of the new covenant was not matured, so that he still defended the place of the magistrate as “keeper of both the tables of the commandments: both to abolish Idolatry & al false wayes, also to forbid & punish all unrighteousness as also to command & cause al men within these Dominions to walk in the wayes of God.”[10] Smyth continued his identity with the Separatist history in reminding Bernard, “Remember that our cause is the same in a manner with the Puritane cause, onely they dare not practise as wee doe: remember that the Lord hath had those that have spilt ther blood in this testimonie, & ther blood & testimony hath stirred us up to this our witnesse.”[11] The truth that he defended had been opposed by a number of “Oxford Doctors,” and though “it was opposed in the Queenes dayes,” it has still prevailed. He certainly has in mind the cause of separatism.[12]

The pressure, however, exerted by his increasingly spiritual understanding of the church drove him quickly to reject infant baptism and the entire hermeneutic that had supported it, and to adopt the baptism of believers only. Very soon after the publishing of Paralleles, early in 1609, Smyth disclaimed the legitimacy of his church, dissolved it, and reconstituted on the basis of believers’ baptism. Since none of the members of the church considered themselves truly baptized, Smyth baptized himself, then baptized Thomas Helwys and “so the rest, making their particular confessions.”[13] In this diminutive congregation increasingly isolated from the larger movements of Protestantism, in the difficult pilgrimage of a single individual as he guided the spiritual life of a devoted and loyal congregation, we locate the beginning of the present-day Baptist movement.

Smyth then argued for this new-found way of constituting a true, spiritual, and faithful church in a book entitled The Character of the Beast. The book had two major points and three arguments in demonstration of each respective point. The major propositions were “1. That infants are not to bee baptized” and “2. That Antichristians converted are to bee admitted into the true Church by baptisme.”

The three aspects of his argument under point one were, first, that neither precept nor example in the New Testament from Christ or the apostles supported infant baptism. Second, Christ commanded that disciples were to be made by teaching and then baptism, but infants cannot be brought to Christ by teaching. Third, baptism of infants introduces the carnal seed into the covenant when the covenant does not belong to them.

Under the second proposition concerning the baptism of converted antichristians, one must see first that Antichristian was the nomenclature Smyth used for members of churches that practiced infant baptism. His publication of the book conformed to his personal quest “for the glory of God, the manifesting of the truth to our own nation, & the destruction of the man of sinne.”[14] All three supporting points for the second proposition emphasized that a true church depended on true baptism; false baptism, therefore, perpetuated a false church. One cannot leave a false and antichristian church without at the same time leaving its baptism. The baptism of infants Smyth contended “to have been a cheef point of AntiChristianisme, & the very essence & constitution of the false Church.” Members of those churches that baptized infants, were unbaptized and also members of visible antichrist. The Separatist no more than the Puritan could effect a true church while maintaining the baptism of the false. Rather, he candidly asserted that “the Seperation the yongest & the fairest daughter of Rome, is an harlot.”[15]

To come out of antichrist meant to reject its baptism and receive the true baptism. Churches reforming from antichristianism, must be constituted in the same way as the primitive churches, that is, by baptism of believers, to as many as the Lord our God shall call. Infant baptism means the continuation of the Old Covenant which was manifest in the implementation of carnal, elemental, principles as types of the truly spiritual that was to come. The introduction of carnal seed into the covenant has been surpassed by the spiritual principle of regeneration that replaces physical birth as the means of qualifying for the sign.[16] If one baptizes infants he may as well continue the levitical priesthood and temple worship, and cannot consistently separate himself from Anglicanism or the church of Rome.[17] Smyth portrayed the argument that infant baptism is a necessary consequence of circumcision as “mere hallucinations & sophisms” and the position to which he had arrived on believers’ baptism as the “most undoubted & most evident truth that ever was revealed to me.”[18]

When Smyth baptized himself, he was not unaware that the Anabaptist Mennonites practiced believers’ baptism. He did not seek the institution from them because he still believed that they were heretics in several important doctrines. In his preface he contradicted a position on several doctrines allegedly characteristic of anabaptism. He affirmed the full inspiration and usefulness of the Old Testament, but maintained that its types and shadows had been fulfilled. Second, he affirmed the Puritan view of the Sabbath. Third, he acknowledged the divine ordination of magistrates for the well-being of nations, but now admitted that he was in a transition state concerning his viewpoint of their relation to the church. “The Lord we doubt not,” Smyth assured his readers, “will direct us into the truth concerning that mater.” He also rejected the Mennonite teaching of the celestial flesh of Christ, affirming instead that “he is the Sonne of Mary his Mother, made of her substance” and that Chr[ist] is one person in two distinct natures, the God-head & manhood, & we detest the contrary errors.”[19] In addition, Smyth still was firmly entrenched in his Calvinistic beliefs, convinced of total depravity, the necessity of regeneration, election of mere mercy, and particular redemption. Each of these played a part in his rejection of infant baptism as argued in The Character of the Beast.[20] I concur with the judgment of Jason K. Lee that Smyth “rejected his Reformed views between the publishing of The Character of the Beast in 1609 and his submission of Corde Credimus to the Mennonites in 1610.”[21]

This confession of Smyth, Corde Credimus, is twenty articles long.[22] It demonstrates that in a short time, Smyth concluded that the Mennonites were not a false church, that their distinctive theological ideas were either correct or harmless to traditional orthodoxy. It also shows that he had displaced a part of his ground for rejecting infant baptism to an aggressive non-reformed theological basis, particularly his radical shift on original sin and general atonement. His subsequent attempt to dissolve the church and unite with the Mennonites was rejected by Thomas Helwys and a dozen other members of the church. This small group returned to England with a witness for church purity based on the baptism of regenerate persons only.

Ironically, this late-term soteriological shift of Smyth, not more than two years before his death, created enduring difficulties for the theological integrity of the group of Baptists that owed their origin to him, the General Baptists. Though Helwys did not go so far as Smyth in rejecting Calvinism, the trajectory meant a recurring cycle of difficulties with Christology and universalism. A second group of Baptists that emerged three decades after the publication of Character of the Beast, the Particular Baptists, soon found among their number an American pioneer named John Clarke.

John Clarke

Clarke was born in 1609, the year of Smyth’s baptismal revolution. Trained in law, medicine, and theology, Clarke reached Massachusetts in November 1637. He had reached convictions on assurance that differed from those of the Puritans, more closely aligned with the troublesome Ann Hutchinson, a view he modified later. He soon left Massachusetts, and with the help of Roger Williams purchased land from the Indians that become Newport. Clarke also aided in establishing a charter for the colony that became known as Rhode Island.

Although Clarke participated in religious services in the colony from its inception, it was not until 1644 or just prior to that, that the church became Baptist. Under the influence of Mark Lucar, who came from the Particular Baptists of London, Clarke initiated baptism by immersion of believers only as the manner of entrance into the church. This was the second Baptist church founded in America. Brief remnants from Clarke’s confession of faith show him to be a decided Calvinist.[23]

In 1651, Clarke, along with his fellow church members Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall, were imprisoned in Massachusetts and sentenced to be well- whipped, though their crime of being “Anabaptist” was deemed worthy of capital punishment. Crandall and Clarke were released and escorted back to Newport, but Holmes was indeed whipped severely. Clarke struck a blow for religious liberty through the details of these events in a book entitled Ill Newes from New England published in London in 1652. He closed the book with eight arguments for religious liberty, demonstrating his proposition that “no servant of Christ Jesus hath any liberty, much less authority, from his Lord, to smite his fellow-servant, nor yet with outward force, or arm of flesh to constrain or restrain another’s conscience, not yet his outward man for conscience sake, or worship of his God.” Such constraint of conscience had no biblical warrant, nothing in the New Testament could justify the use of such oppressive measures in service of the gospel. In addition, the Massachusetts Bay policy opposed the character of meekness in Christ’s disciples, substituted human force for God’s intent to manage His own kingdom, created hypocrisy and not true worship, violated Christ’s words of instruction and His example concerning the handling of doctrinal error and preaching to unbelievers, and contradicted the civil peace, liberty, prosperity, and safety of a commonwealth.[24]


These events of four-hundred years ago have cast long shadows into our time. The influence on religious history lies in the removal of an inconsistency within Puritanism between the desire for a disciplined church of visible saints and the retention of infant baptism. The political implications of believers’ baptism brought about the new order of a democratic society committed to equal opportunity for all citizens through separation of church and state. Other Christians have reason to join Baptists in thanking God for this heritage and humbly to petition the throne of grace for a more perfect zeal for His glory in the proclamation of the gospel to all nations, and not resting content that we have done our Lord’s will until we have taught those converted to observe all things that He has commanded us.n


1 W. T. Whitley. The Works of John Smyth, 2 vols. (Cambridge: University Press, 1915), 1:xxv.

2 The Lambeth article provided a strongly Calvinistic interpretation of article XVII of the XXXIX Articles. This was prompted when a student, Barrett, that eventually converted to Roman Catholicism, criticized the Calvinistic exposition of the Apostles Creed by Perkins and, when called on to defend his criticism, was pressed to read a recantation. Smyth would have found no reason to dissent from the prevailing Calvinism of Cambridge at that time.

3 Smyth, A Paterne of True Prayer, Whitley, Works, 1:166.

4 Smyth, Principles and Inferences Concerning the Visible Church (1607) Whitley, Works, 1:267

5 Smyth, The Differences of the Churches of the Seperation [sic] (1608) Whitley, Works, 1:271.

6 Smyth, Paralleles, Censures, Observations, Whitley, Works, 2:383.

7 Ibid., 475.

8 Ibid., 515.

9 Ibid., 518.

10 Ibid., 519.

11 Ibid., 527.

12 Ibid., 527-28. In the next 16 pages, Smyth answers point by point several syllogisms that Bernard foisted against the separatists, asserting in the end that he had demonstrated separatism to be “the undoubted truth of God.” [544]

13 Champlin Burrage, Early English Dissenters (Cambridge: University Press, 1912), 1:237.

14 Smyth, The Character of the Beast, Whitley, Works, 2:565. Burrage is quoting a work by John Robinson entitled “Of Religious Communion Private and Publique.”

15 Ibid., 571.

16 Ibid., 579-80.

17 Ibid., 663-70.

18 Ibid., 624, 679.

19 Ibid, 571-72.

20 Ibid., 640-42,667-68.

21 Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003), 174.

22 For the text see, William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 100f.

23 See Isaac Backus, History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists (Newton, MA: Backus Historical Society, 1871) 1:206. See also Louis Franklin Asher, John Clarke (1609-1676): Pioneer in American Medicine, Democratic Ideals, and Champion of Religious Liberty (Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing Co, 1997), 117.

24 John Clarke, Ill Newes from New England (London: Henry Hills, 1652), 63-74.