A brief Baptist Church history

Joyce Brooke, Joyce Patterson and John R Hudson

1 First stirrings of an idea

The idea of believer's baptism had gradually been abandoned after the second century AD even though some Christians continued to baptise believers. From the twelfth century AD various groups had begun to criticise the Roman Catholic church, at the time the only recognised Church in western Europe (Robinson 1912).

In England in the middle of the fourteenth century unrest about the directions in which the Roman Catholic church was heading led some people to question its authority and its involvement in politics. One of these was John Wycliffe (c. 1328–1384) whose great determination was that people should have a Bible to read in their own tongue. This determination spread to other countries, particularly Switzerland and Germany, where Martin Luther (1483–1546) stressed that the Word of God was the sole authority for Christians to follow and, although he didn't aim to bring about the collapse of the medieval church, this is what happened.

Among the groups that sprang up about this time were the Anabaptists, who differed on points of doctrine and organisation but agreed that the Scriptures were the authority for their faith. In Zürich in 1523 Conrad Grebel (1489–1526) and Felix Manz (died c. 1527) met in a private home for Bible study and shared the Lord's Supper using ordinary bread. The following June Conrad Grebel suggested the idea of believer's baptism and in December 1524 Felix Manz argued that infant baptism was invalid. At the time any philosophical or religious dispute was solved through a public debate and on 17 January 1525 Manz was opposed by Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), who had himself introduced new forms of the Lord's Supper. Zwingli won the debate but on 30 January 1525 a group including George Blaurock and Conrad Grebel met at Zollikon, a village near Zürich, where Blaurock asked Grebel to baptise him; then Blaurock baptised the others in the group (Hayden 2005). On 7 March 1526 Zürich council made re-baptism punishable by drowning and on 5 January 1527 Karl Manz was arrested and condemned to death (though there are conflicting accounts about whether he was executed immediately or escaped and was executed later).

Other leading Anabaptists of the time were Thomas Müntzer (1490–1561) who emphasised the spiritual nature of belief and had no interest in sacraments and Michael Servetus (1511–1553) and Faustus Socinus (1534–1604) who both questioned the idea of the Trinity. The ideas of Socinus were later to split the Baptist community in England.

A particularly sad episode took place in Münster, in Germany, after Bernhard Rothman, who had previously been banned by the Bishop of Münster, became the Lutheran pastor in February 1533. Anabaptists swarmed to the city and in 1534 won an election which brought Jan Matthys to power. When he was killed, Jan Bockelson (also known as John of Leyden) proclaimed himself king, ordered a return to the Old Testament and told everyone to wait for the second coming. Münster was besieged and the Anabaptists slaughtered; some escaped and ten turned up in London in 1575. Five recanted, two were burned as heretics and the others were banished or imprisoned because the Münster incident had given Anabaptists a bad name.

However, a number gathered round the Roman Catholic priest, Menno Simons, whose brother had died in anti-Anabaptist violence in 1535. On 12 January 1536 he joined the Anabaptists, rejecting the violence of Münster, and is remembered as the founder of the Mennonites.

Though the Anabaptists first expressed many of the ideas which characterise modern Baptists, such as the belief that all can be saved by faith in Jesus Christ, recent historical research suggests that their influence on Baptist churches in England only came after such churches had been founded independently in England (Hayden 2005).