John Smyth (1554-1612): Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite
28 August 1612 is the day historians believe (records are shaky) that John Smyth died in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Smyth was a pivotal figure in church history–a major link in the growing radicalism of the Separatist wing of the English Puritan movement; a tireless champion of democracy and religious liberty; a biblicist and radical congregationalist who strove to defend liberty of conscience against what he saw as the tyranny of extra-congregational bishops; the “founder” of the modern Baptist movement; and an Elder in the Waterlander congregation of Mennonites in Amsterdam.
John Smyth was born in Lincolnshire to “middle class” English commoners and educated at a Grammar School in Gainsborough. Feeling a call from God to the ministry, he studied for the Anglican priesthood at Christ’s College, Cambridge University (A.B., 1575; M.A., 1595) becoming a life Fellow of Christ’s College. During this era, many in the U. K. thought the English Reformation was not nearly thorough enough. The Church of England was still “too Catholic” for these dissenters. Those wanting further reform, wanting to “purify” the Church of all unscriptural “papist” accumulations of tradition, were known as “Puritans,” and several of the colleges of Cambridge University were hotbeds of Puritan sentiment. Smyth’s teachers were Puritans and by the time he earned his M.A. and was ordained an Anglican priest(1595), Smyth knew that he could not go along with the Anglo-Catholic majority.
He managed to get appointed as a private chaplain to a minor noble in order to avoid the restrictions and scrutiny of a parish priest, but his Puritan preaching soon became too radical and he lost that post. Since physicians did not need licenses to practice medicine in those days, and Smyth had studied biology at Cambridge, he supported himself as a family doctor while deciding his next move.
The mainstream Puritans wanted to work for reform within the Church of England, to “purify” the Church from within. Those who lacked the patience for slow reform, or who had concluded that the Church of England had strayed so far from the gospel that it was a false church, became known as Separatist Puritans, or simply, Separatists. Smyth became convinced of this need for reform “without tarrying for any” as one famous Separatist put it. He gathered a congregation of like-minded London reformers and they met in secret since Non-Conformity to the established Church was illegal. As their numbers grew, the group had to split peacefully to avoid notice, one group meeting in Scrooby and the other, led by Smyth, meeting in Gainsborough. The Scrooby congregation, led by John Robinson, soon fled to the Netherlands–which had more religious tolerance than any other Western European nation at the time. From there, the Robinson congregation would eventually sail to New England and enter history as the “Pilgrims” of American Colonial history.
Meanwhile, by 1607 Smyth’s Gainsborough congregation was again growing too large to keep hidden and to escape persecution they too fled to Amsterdam–financed by a prominent layperson in the group, Thomas Helwys (c. 1550-c. 1616), a lawyer (solicitor). In Amsterdam, the Smyth congregation was offered a place to meet for worship by one Jan Munter, a member of the Waterlander Mennonite congregation in the city. Smyth’s congregation met in the bakehouse owned by Munter. At first, however, though grateful for the hospitality, they were wary of the Mennonites because Anabaptists had a reputation across Europe as heretics and revolutionaries–spread both by lies told by the Magisterial Reformers and by the horrid involvement of a few Anabaptists in the bloody-but-failed Peasant Revolution in Germany and by more in the even-more-disastrous attempt to bring in the Kingdom of God by revolutionary force in Münster, Holland. The language barrier between the English Separatists and the Dutch Anabaptists probably didn’t help, either.
For that matter, the Mennonites had their own reasons for being wary of the Smyth group. First, only recently had persecution against Anabaptists ceased in the Netherlands–and that persecution had taught them to be wary of outsiders. Second, many congregations of English Puritans and Separatists, refugees like Smyth’s group, were fighting with each other and denouncing one another, which the Mennonites rightly considered scandalous. So, the two groups approached each other cautiously, at first.
But by 1609, doubtless influenced by the Waterlander Mennonites, Smyth and his group had undergone several changes: 1) They had arrived convinced, like most Puritans and Separatists, of Calvinism. They now adopted a mild form of the Arminianism of the Remonstrants–as had the Mennonites. 2) They came to even higher views of Biblical authority than they had previously. Smyth would allow no translations to be used in worship, but preached extemporaneously from the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, translating as he went. 3) They began to argue, as no other English Puritan or Separatist group did, for complete religious liberty and church-state separation, something Anabaptists had been advocating for nearly a century. 4) Finally, they came to adopt adult, or more precisely, believers’ baptism, on profession of faith. In his 1608 book, The Character of the Beast, Smyth had already argued that the sacraments of a false church must also be false. Thus, those baptized in the Church of England had not really been baptized. Some other Separatists argued similarly, but Smyth went further and rejected infant baptism altogether, since baptism clearly must follow repentance and faith.
Some have argued that Smyth’s adoption of believers’ baptism was influenced not by the Mennonites, but by his own Bible study. Yet, the timing of this conclusion is suggestive, and the mode these first “Baptists” adopted (pouring water over the head 3 times in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) was the same as that of the Waterlanders and, indeed, most Anabaptist groups–whereas simple Bible study would suggest full immersion as later Baptists argued. But Smyth was still not sure of the orthodoxy of the Mennonites–he was not sure they were a “true church.” So, instead of seeking baptism from them, his congregation dissolved based on a written covenant and re-formed based on believers’ baptism. Smyth baptized himself with a bucket and a dipper or ladle and then proceeded to baptize the rest of the congregation.
This act of self-baptism was shocking to all around. It forever earned Smyth the nickname, “the Se-Baptist” or “self-baptizer.” Not even Jesus baptized himself, argued Smyth’s critics. This criticism began to get to Smyth and he investigated the Mennonites more closely. He came to agree with them on almost everything, including their pacifism and their rejection of swearing oaths, and he sought to merge the two congregations.
There were one or two sticking points. 1) Although it is embarrassing to modern Mennonites, Menno Simons and most Mennonites until the Dordrecht Confession held to a really peculiar theory of Christ’s birth, whereby he got none of his human nature from Mary, “passing through her like water through a pipe.” Smyth, and most others, considered this weird Christology to be an example of the heresy of Docetism, i.e., of making Christ only seem human. 2) If Smyth was wrong to baptize himself, would the Mennonites require him and the other Baptists to be rebaptized?
The lawyer, Thomas Helwys, led a handful of others to break with Smyth over these points. They saw their baptism as valid and wanted no other baptism. Helwys, as a lawyer, had strong disagreements with the Anabaptist rejection of all oaths. And, although he was a near pacifist, Helwys defended the right of governments to raise armies for purely defensive wars–although he quickly agreed that governments would claim that any wars they wanted to wage were “necessary,” “defensive,” and “just,” and this was often a smokescreen. But Helwys and his followers could not agree to complete pacifism. Finally, if the two congregations merged, then the exile in Amsterdam was not temporary, but permanent. Helwys believed they had a duty to return to England and bear witness to the Baptist faith and take the suffering that followed.
In the end, the majority followed Smyth and became Mennonites–Smyth’s name is listed on the church wall today as an Elder. Helwys and about 10 others returned to England in 1611 and founded the first Baptist congregation on British soil in Spitalfields outside London. But these first Baptists (later called “General” Baptists to distinguish them from the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists that arose a generation later) kept in touch with the Waterlander Mennonites, exchanging letters and members and considering one another “of like faith and order” for the next 50 years. Despite the influence of Helwys, many of these early General Baptists also became pacifists.
Some have considered John Smyth to have been unstable because he changed his mind so frequently. Yet, the changes were all in one direction and one could admire his willingness to revisit doctrine and practices repeatedly in light of fresh readings of Scripture. There have been a few recent works on Smyth’s thought and, as Baptists approach our 400th anniversary in 2009, they might be good to study.
Mark Robert Bell, Apocalypse How? Baptist Movements During the English Revolution (Mercer University Press, 2000).
James R. Coggin, John Smyth’s Congregation: English Separatism, Mennonite Influence, and the Elect Nation. (Herald Press, 1991).
Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite (Mercer University Press, 2003).
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