Where did Baptists come from and, historically, what are their beliefs? The majority of historians agree that today’s Baptists were derived from three major sixteenth-century streams: Particular Baptists, General Baptists, and Seventh-day Baptists. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these denominations birthed a multitude. Separate Baptist, Primitive Baptist, American Baptist and Southern Baptist are just a few of today’s 100-plus Baptist denominations. Each of the three major Baptist groups claims a different line of descent. The Particular Baptists claim a heritage going back to the Protestant Reformers and Puritans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The General Baptists trace their roots from the earlier Anabaptists of the fifteenth century, and the Seventh-Day Baptists came later, in the sixteenth century. All three major Baptist denominations started in England.
Other Seventeenth-Century Baptists
The Seventh-Day Baptists, known to follow the Judeo-Christian tradition of worshipping on the seventh day of the week, were never large in number, nor are they today. They number less than 50,000 worldwide. The General Baptists were named for their theological stance of having a general, and thoroughly Arminian, view of the atonement. Lead by John Smyth, they were a noncreedal denomination. By the eighteenth century, English General Baptists had mostly moved into Unitarianism, while most of America’s General Baptists were overtaken by the diverse strands within the Regular Baptist denominations.
The Particular Baptists
Particular Baptists were also commonly called Strict Baptists because of their practice of closed communion, their theological stance on Christ’s definite atonement for His elect, and their two-office congregational polity. It was the Protestant forerunners, like the Reformers & Puritans, that brought about a strong confessional emphasis among Particular Baptists’ theology. The Particular Baptists first appeared in a London church organized by Henry Jacob following his exile from Holland. This church was founded on a basis of confession of individual faith and of a covenant, and it contained both Independent Puritans and radical Separatists. In 1633, the issue of who would administer baptism splintered the two camps. In 1638, the first Particular Baptist Church was established in London under the leadership of John Spilsbery.
The theology of these Baptists appealed to the nation’s prevalent Calvinism and offered no obstacle to the mass of Englishmen. With the rapid growth of the Particular Baptist came serious accusations, such as Pelagianism and Anarchy. This is important to note because both groups were part of the radical wing of Anabaptism; thus, Anabaptism cannot trace its historical roots to the Particular Baptist denomination.
By 1644, the seven Particular Baptist churches in London were quick to follow their Protestant forerunners’ confessional examples. To document their doctrinal differences from the General Baptists and Anabaptists, the seven closely associated and London-based Particular Baptist churches prepared to published their own confessional statement of theology.
The London Confession of 1644 served as an apologetic theology, defending Particular Baptist views against the Arminian General Baptists and other radical groups like the Anabaptists. Henry C. Vedder called it “one of the chief landmarks of Baptist history.” There were five key futures that made it different from the multitude of Protestant Reformed Confessions of its time:
- Two representatives from each of the six Particular churches and three from Spilsbery’s church were included in the signatories of the confession.
- It had a strong Christological focus.
- It was building a confessional theology that gave structure to the New Testament’s administration of the Covenants of Grace—not attempting to reform the National Church.
- It charged that the act of baptism was to be a complete immersion of the individual and gave an outline for conduct in case of civil persecution.
It gave the Particular Baptists of its time a distinctive Baptist theology of the church, all while affirming the Reformed view of salvation.
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H. Leon McBeth introduces his readers to the major figures and documents of Baptist history. He goes beyond leaders and institutions to present the color and character of Baptist heritage.