Question: What’s more boring than a Baptist?
Answer: A Baptist from 400 years ago.
I’m fairly certain that many modern evangelicals (even Baptists) would agree with the above catechism, but I am here to challenge this notion. I am here to give you five reasons that 17th Century English Baptists are cooler than you think:
1. Their contemporaries considered them dangerous radicals. We may think of modern Baptists as people who hold on to traditions with ferocity, but in their first century of existence people feared that they were destroying the social order. Mostly, they believed this because they challenged the basic assumption of European Christendom—the notion that someone could be born into the Christian faith. They did this by denouncing infant baptism and insisting on believer’s baptism. This doctrine made them scary to both traditional Anglicans (Laudians) and Puritan Congregationalist and Presbyterians. While they were seen as radical in the sense that they were extreme and dangerous, they viewed themselves as radical in a greater sense—they were getting to the root of the Christian faith. This desire to restore Christianity to the primitive excellence of the Apostles is best seen in Thomas Grantham’s Christianismus Primitivus.
2. They were uniquely democratic in an Age of Absolutism. Baptists earned their radical reputation by supporting Parliament against King Charles I in the English Civil War (1642-1649). Not only did they willingly join the army in an effort to stand up to the personal rule of a King they saw as a tyrant, many went further by supporting the Leveller party. This proto-democratic group called for greater amounts of suffrage and religious freedoms in England. Thomas Lambe’s London Congregation became a major center for Leveller activity and William Kiffin even supported the Levellers in his early days. In addition to their democratic political tendencies, Baptist church meetings were exceptionally democratic. Other Puritan churches were also congregational, but Baptists gained a reputation for enjoying public debates, voting on who would give a sermon, and even allowing women to preach.
3. They invented modern literature. Well, this is a huge overstatement, but it’s important to highlight the impact of John Bunyan on the English novel. In many ways Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was the predecessor to the modern novel born in the 18th century. It certainly has had a profound impact on future generations in both theological and creative circles. There was a day, not long ago, that most people in the English-speaking world read Pilgrim’s Progress in childhood. (If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis, you would know that he assumes you have read Bunyan.) While Bunyan’s creativity is unique among Baptists, his bold preaching without the license of the English church was a common trait among 17th century Baptists. It landed many of them in chains. The prison that Bunyan found himself in at the start of the book was a familiar sight to many Baptist ministers.
4. They pioneered arguments for religious liberty. This very well may be the greatest Baptist contribution to the world. Baptists were the first to argue in English for universal religious toleration. In his 1611 Mystery of Iniquity, Baptist founder, Thomas Helwys, proposed that even Muslims should be allowed to practice their faith in English soil. Helwys’s arguments for religious liberty were most famously echoed by the Baptist Roger Williams in his Bloody Tenant of Persecution (1644). Williams ensured that one of the original American colonies (Rhode Island) was founded on the Baptist principle of religious liberty. Also, it is no coincidence that we get our phrase “separation of Church and State” from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to an association of Baptists in Virginia. While Baptists were certainly not the only ones to argue for religious liberty, they are an essential part of the story of freedom.
5. Not all of them were strict Calvinists. This may not excite many people as much as it excites me, but in a time where conflicts over Calvinism are heavily impacting the Southern Baptist Convention it’s important to note the diversity of soteriological opinions among early Baptists. Many modern students of Baptist history choose to focus on Calvinist Baptists like William Kiffin, Benjamin Keach, and Hanserd Knollys to find the roots of their movement. This is a partial story at best. The founders, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, were certainly Arminian in theology. Moreover, some of the most influential Baptists during their period of immense growth in the 1640s were neither Calvinist or Arminian. Thomas Lambe and Henry Denne vocally rejected Arminianism, but insisted that Christ died for all mankind. This insistence left them out of fellowship with what would later be known as the Particular Baptists and the General Baptists denominations. We must note that the strict labels of Particular and General Baptists do not apply to the first three-fourths of the 17th century. This century saw the formation of two major Baptist denominations, one Calvinist and one Arminian, but this was a process that didn’t happen overnight. It is their concern to restore primitive biblical Christianity and not their loyalty to any theological system that makes the men and women that we call Baptists cooler than you think.