The doctrine of “Church Succession” has been a favorite dogma among certain Baptist groups, especially those who have held to Old Landmarkism. The Missionary Baptist churches, in recent years, have been the best known defenders of that doctrine, which maintains that there is a discernible line of churches holding to the basic tenets of the Baptist church going back to the days of the apostles. The first church in the New Testament, according to their teaching, was a Baptist church. Various opinions have been defended for “Church Succession” as to when precisely that first church began.
Some Baptist successionists have contended that it started with the ministry of, John the Baptist; i.e., that John built and founded the “Baptist” church. Others have held that it began sometime during the earthly ministry of Christ (e.g., at His baptism by John the Baptist, the Lord’s call of the apostles, the sending out of the seventy, et. al.). Some have taught that it began in Acts 2 at Jerusalem (c. A.D. 30). However, the basic doctrine of “Church Succession” has no foundation in fact. Not only are there logical and biblical problems with the theory, the recorded histories of the Baptists themselves are against it. They point to a much later date for the beginning of the Baptist church, and show by implication the Baptist church cannot be the church of the New Testament, which Jesus promised to build (Mat. 16:18-19) and that during the life ofsome of the apostles(Mark 9:1; cf., Luke 24:44-50; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-47). To the historical evidence concerning the origin and development of the Baptist church, we now turn.
Henry C. Vedder, a noted Baptist historian and the author of a Short History Of The Baptists, has written of his own denomination: “The history of Baptist churches cannot be carried, by the scientific method, farther back than the year 1611, when the first Anabaptist church consisting wholly of Englishmen was founded in Amsterdam by John Smyth, the Se-Baptist” (p. 4).
David Benedict, another well known. Baptist historian and the author of two major works on the history of the denomination, finds a Baptist church a few years earlier than Vedder. He says, “The first regularly organized Baptist church of which we possess any account, is dated from 1607, and was formed in London by a Mr. Smyth, who had been a clergyman in the church of England” (Jubilee Report, p. 304). It will be observed that, while there is a slight discrepancy as to the exact year and place of origin for the first Baptist church between these two highly trained and accomplished historians, they both reject the doctrine of “Church Succession” and place the establishment of the Baptist church centuries after the death of the last apostle!
The historical method of inquiry does not, as Vedder and Benedict demonstrate, validate the Baptist doctrine of “Church Succession.” Vedder writes, “If every church of Christ [Note: he uses this of denominational churches in general, HDD] were today to become apostate, it would be possible and right for any true believers to organize tomorrow another church on the apostolic model of faith and practice, and that church would have the only apostolic succession of faith in the Lord Christ and obedience to him” (p. 7).
Thomas Armitage, the most revered of Baptist historians, also rejected the notion of a discernible line of Baptist churches going back to the Apostolic Age in his monumental work History Of The Baptists(pp. 2-3). He contended that the only basis for identifying a church as apostolic in belief and practice is loyalty to the “pure doctrine” of the New Testament.
The history of the Baptist church rightfully begins with the work of John Smyth, a member of the British Separatists who had broken off from the Church of England and had fled their native land for sanctuary from persecution. They arrived in Amsterdam where they were influenced by an Anabaptist group called the Mennonites, named after their leader Menno Simon. The Anabaptists practiced sprinkling for baptism, but they did reject infant baptism. They “re-baptized” (sprinkled) those who had been sprinkled at birth (hence /“ana” meaning “again”). Smyth “re-baptized” from the Church of England and had fled their native land for sanctuary from persecution. They arrived in Amsterdam where they were influenced by an Anabaptist group called the Mennonites, named after their leader Menno Simon. The Anabaptists practiced sprinkling for baptism, but they did reject infant baptism. They “rebaptized” (sprinkled) those who had been sprinkled at birth (hence /ana” meaning “again”). Smyth “re-baptized” himself and his followers by affusion (pouring). Anabaptists they became, but the followers of Smyth refused to fully adopt all the ways and doctrines of the Mennonites.
They excommunicated the founder of this first Baptist church. Smyth died in 1612. His people filtered back across the English Channel. The old Anabaptist doctrine of the inherent evil and sinfulness of civil government was rejected by them, and they returned to be “good” Englishmen on English soil. The first two churches established upon their return were called “General Baptists,” as they believed in a general atonement for all. Later there arose a Particular Baptist church, which held to a limited atonement as taught by John Calvin.
Throughout its history, the Baptist church would experience schisms over the doctrine of the atonement. Many Baptist groups today have their doctrinal roots in the brand of Calvinism taught by the Particular Baptists during the Reformation. Some have opted for the teachings of Jacob Arminius. They, like the Methodist churches, reject the idea of irresistible grace and consequently also that of a limited atonement. They hold to some concept of “free will,” though they do not utterly cast off the shackles of Calvin, for, like Arminius, they believe that a special “enlightenment” or “illumination” from the Holy Spirit is needed to permit men to then exercise their will to discern the truth and believe.
Calvin held that the action of the Holy Spirit did it all for man by infusing the grace of God directly into the heart of the sinner, thus regenerating him without the need for knowledge of God’s Word. Some Baptists flip-flop between the competing systems and are found on both sides of any controversy respecting the atonement, the operation of the Holy Spirit in conversion and sanctification, and the free will of man.
About 1644 (some place the date earlier, about 1638) another major division occurred among Baptists. Some began to insist on immersion as the only mode of scriptural baptism. They were called by their enemies “Immersion Baptists.” They published a confession of faith, which was the model for many confessions like that of Philadelphia (1724) and New Hampshire. The word “Baptist” came to be applied almost exclusively to the immersionists of the denomination as a distinctive name.
Roger Williams, a Separatist minister who came to America in 1631, organized the first Baptist church in the New World at Providence, Rhode Island in 1639. Two years later, another was organized by John Clarke at Newport. These were both Calvinistic, and; thus, of the Particular branch. However, during his travels and revivals in the colonies, George Whitefield championed the tenets of Arminianism. The effect on the emerging Baptist congregations, which had begun to spring up in every colony, was profound. A furor arose between the Calvinistic “Old Lights” or “Regulars,” who opposed the emotionalism stirred by the revivals of Whitefield, and the Arminian “New Lights” or “Separates,” who held to an aggressive missionary posture.
A constitution signed between the groups quelled the dispute, but Whitefield’s sermons spurred missionary fervor among the Baptists for generations. Zeal unbridled led to their participation in the formation of the first Protestant missionary society in America in cooperation with other denominations; and by 1814, the founding of the first distinctively Baptist missionary society, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions. They did not bother to consult Holy Writ as to biblical authority for such practices.
Other institutions were established: a general convention, tract society, several smaller missionary societies, and the Baptist Young People’s Union. Two major manuals for church organization, et. al., were published (Hiscox’s and Pendleton’s). Doctrinal and geo-political rifts splintered the Baptist church into a number of small fellowships. A listing of the major groups comprising the Baptist church is found in Mead’s Handbook Of Denominations In The United States.