John Smythe - Baptist Beginnings and Development
(Texts combined and reworked from several sources - with thanks to those with
greater religious and historical knowledge of the issues.)

From "A Short History of the Baptists" by Henry Vedder - extracted from General Baptist Net

The history of English Baptists does not begin on English soil, but in Holland. The leader in the new movement was the Rev. John Smyth. Much obscurity hangs over his early life, and many writers have identified him with several other men, bearing a name then as now very common. He was a pupil and friend at Cambridge University of Francis Johnson, later one of the Separatist leaders. He is said to have been ordained by Bishop Wickham, of Lincoln, but he was never, as has been frequently stated, vicar of Gainsborough, as the records of that parish show. He was, however, appointed lecturer or preacher in the city of Lincoln, September 27, 1600; and though deposed as “a facetious man” by vote of the Corporation, October 13, 1602, appears to have held the office until 1605.

He tells us himself that he passed through nine months of doubt and study before deciding to leave the Church of England, but by 1606 he had reached a decision and joined himself to a company of Separatists in Gainsborough, of whom he became the recognized “teacher”—for they disliked “ ministers “ and all similar terms. Thomas Helwys and John Murton were the leading members of this group. A few miles distant, in the manor of Scrooby, there was another group of Separatists, in close fellowship with the Gainsborough group. Prominent among the Scrooby group were William Bradford, William Brewster, and John Robinson, the last being the “teacher.” Scattered throughout the surrounding region were a score or more of adherents, who were rapidly increasing in numbers.

This was the time when James I. was vigorously making good his threat regarding sectaries in England: “I will make them conform, or I will harry them out of the land.” Persecution became so violent that these Separatists despaired of maintaining themselves in England, and Thomas Helwys, whose wife had been imprisoned for her schism, induced the Gainsborough group to immigrate to Holland. They established themselves at Amsterdam, where they became the second English church, and their teacher supported himself by practicing medicine.

The first English church was composed of Separatists, mostly from London, who had come to Amsterdam at various times from 1593 onward, and had as their pastor Francis Johnson, who had been a tutor of Smyth at Cambridge. Not long after the Gainsborough exodus, the church of Scrooby fled to Holland, going first to Amsterdam and thence to Leyden. Their pastor was John Robinson. It was this congregation, with certain additions, that afterward became the Pilgrims of the Mayflower.

Our concern is, however, with the second church at Amsterdam. Pastor Smyth here became acquainted possibly for the first time, with the theology of Arminius, and here, it is also reasonable to suppose, he learned the Mennonite theory of the nature of the church. If he had had doubts before concerning infant baptism they were now confirmed into conviction that it is not warranted by the Scriptures, and that a scriptural church should consist of the regenerate only, who have been baptized on a personal confession of faith. He gave utterance to these views in a tract called “The Character of the Beast”(1609). Before this (1608) differences had arisen over a question of comparatively slight importance between the two English churches, and the result had been an interruption of their communion. Now a still more important step was taken: Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and thirty-six others formed the first church composed of Englishmen that is known to have stood for the baptism of believers only.

Smyth is generally called the “Se-Baptist” which means that he baptized himself. There can be no doubt that such was the case, since an acknowledgment of the fact still exists in his own handwriting. In this respect he resembles Roger Williams. He held that the real apostolic succession is a succession not of outward ordinances and visible organizations, but of true faith and practice. He therefore believed that the ancient, true apostolic succession had been lost, and that the only way to recover it was to begin a church anew on the apostolic model. Accordingly, having first baptized himself, he baptized Helwys and the rest, and so constituted the church. They soon after issued a Confession of Faith, in its theology, but distinct in its claims that a church composed only of baptized believers, and that only such should “taste of the Lord’s Supper.”

Smyth died in 1612, but before that the church he had been instrumental in founding, reduced to some ten members, disappeared from Holland.


In 1607, John Smythe (1554-1612) Thomas Helwys and John Murton of England led a small group of followers from the Persecution then taking place In England to the freedom of religious beliefs and practices offered in Holland. This group advocated "Believer's Baptism Only" and rejected the accepted practices of infant Baptism. History dates the modern emergence of the people now known as "Baptists" back to this group which sought to restore the actual New Testament beliefs and practices, often obscured and violated by the established government-supported churches. This group later returned to England in 1612 and organized the first Baptist Church known by that name just outside London. In 1613 a small booklet of Baptist beliefs and principles was published, and when King James I of England read these (the same King James who authorized the King James Translation of the Bible in 1611), he immediately began persecuting and imprisoning Baptists and/or Anabaptists.

The term "Anabaptist" covers several denominations but some of the major ones are the Mennonite, the Amish, the River Brethren, and the Dunkards. Many other groups have incorporated some of the traditions and beliefs even if the line of descent was not direct. Because of the persecution, which was severe in the early days in Switzerland and in Holland and which continued in Switzerland for at least two hundred years, the Anabaptists had a disincentive for maintaining any written records. They were the happiest when the church and state were separated. So it is not profitable to look for early records from within the Anabaptist churches. More success seems to have been achieved with census, tax, and property records.

In England, early in the 1600s, some men wanted to reform the established (Anglican) church. Smythe decided the easiest thing to do was to break with the Church of England. The clearest way of doing this was to switch to adult baptism instead of infant baptism. Several other similar groups sprang up also. They generally shared a belief in the separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and in a congregational form of government. Out of these movements, came the churches we know as the Baptists. They had no set policy on baptismal records and were more inclined to keep membership rolls where baptism may have been the route of entry into the congregation but was not the only way.

All of the churches who practiced adult baptism generally did not practice confirmation. Confirmation had arisen as a counterfoil to infant baptism to involve the young adult in the visible act of joining the church (and of being educated). In the Anabaptist churches, joining the church (baptism) was done as a youth or young adult. There was no need for a separate rite.

The beliefs and time-honored practices of the Old Regular Baptists are rooted in a history that dates back almost 400 years to the early teachings of John Smythe in Holland and England. He was one of the leaders of a group of Separate Baptists who lived in Amsterdam.  Smythe (sometimes the spelling is without the "e" - "Smyth") and his followers retreated there because of the persecution of James I.  While in Holland, Smythe was heavily influenced by the teaching of the Mennonites and rebaptized himself and his group as Anabaptists.  Together they formed the first English Baptist Church in 1609.  His little flock would only follow him so far, however.  When Smythe tried to get them to give up their English heritage and turn into Mennonites, they excommunicated him.  Later the group went back to London, England, and still under persecution, they organized another Baptist church.

Famous English Baptists included John Bunyan (although he went back and forth between Baptist and Congregationalist), and Charles Spurgeon. Prominent Anabaptists were Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), Felix Manz (1498-1527), Michael Sattler (1490-1527), Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528), and Menno Simons (1496-1559) [The Dutch Anabaptists took upon themselves his name, the Mennonites]. The name Anabaptist goes all the way back to the early 1520s, - interestingly, the Church of Christ will say that the Baptists started with John Smythe in 1607 in Holland.

The Calvinists who believed in replacing Episcopacy with elected ministers, had under the leadership of Thomas Cartwright, become known as "Purifiers" or "Puritans", whilst the Independents, who believed in the importance of the congregation over membership, led by Robert Browne had formed the first Congregational Meeting in Norwich in 1580.

The period of religious turmoil following King Henry VIII's break with Rome and the see-sawing changes resulting from the religious views of his successors, Mary I (Catholic) and Elizabeth (Protestant) left the English Church in a weakened state by the time King James I ascended the English throne in 1603. The Protestant State religion, forced on the people, seemed unlikely to succeed. More than half the clergy had received no formal training, preachers were ill-used and often lived in poverty, leaving a breeding ground for dissent. Catholics hoped that the Stuarts would return to Catholicism, Puritans that closer links could be formed with the Presbyterians in Scotland.

Under the early Stuart Monarchs, however, neither Catholics nor Puritans fared well, despite growing strength in Parliament. Puritans who refused to accept the discipline of the Established Church were suppressed and in 1604 300 Puritan clergy were ejected from their livings. In 1609 John Smythe seceded from the Amsterdam Church and formed the Baptist or Anabaptist group, which repudiated Calvinism and believed in delaying baptism until the people concerned were old enough to believe. Their first meeting was held in London in 1611and became known as the General Baptist. The first Baptist Church to be founded in England was in London's Newgate Street in 1612. In 1616 - four years after the death of John Smythe - the Independants formed a Congregation at Southwark, followed by ten more before 1631 and, by 1640, there were 80 Congregations. In 1633 a group of Calvinist sympathisers had left the Southwark Congregation to form the Particular Baptist Congregation, combining Calvinist with Baptist beliefs.

The Puritan movement expanded under King Charles I, leading to open suppression by the Established Church. The English Civil War, which resulted from a mixture of political, social and religious causes, was followed by the period of The Commonwealth. During this period the Independents formed new chapels at Yarmouth and Norwich in East Anglia (1642), the General Baptists at Portsmouth (1640) and Dover (1643), and the Particular Baptists at Taunton, Somerset (1647). At this time too, the Quakers expanded, despite persecution by the Commonwealth.

By the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 the people had become sickened by the religious intolerance of the extreme Puritans. The pendulum now swung the other way, with persecution of the Puritans, particularly the Quakers. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required all ministers to be ordained and to accept the Book of Common Prayer. Nearly 2000 ministers refused to conform and were ejected from their livings. There was some respite in 1672 with the Declaration of Indulgence, which gave some relief to Catholics and Protestant Non-conformists. This, however, proved shortlived, and the Test Act of 1673 debarred Catholics and Protestant Dissenters from holding civil or military office.

The accession of a Catholic monarch, James II, in 1685 brought hope to the Catholics and the King actually intended, initially, to ensure tolerance for all religious groups. It was at this time that large numbers of Protestant Huguenots settled in Britain to escape from French persecution. Angered by the lack of support for his tolerance King James opened up office to more Catholics and thus increased anti-Catholic feeling. As a result both Catholic churches and Dissenting Meeting Houses were the target of violence and eventually James was forced from the throne.

The Toleration Act of 1689 seemed to provide greater hope for dissenters and over the following twenty years 1000 new dissenting congregations were established. This was accompanied by closer bonds between the various dissenting organisations. In addition Catholics and Quakers were given a certain amount of toleration.

During this period the Established Church became remote from its parishioners and the clergy seemed to be more interested in worldly goods than in the care of the people of their parish. Pluralism (the practice of clergy holding the livings of several parishes at the same time) was rife. The people felt neglected. As a result a small group within the church led by John and Charles Wesley met to try to restore the church's loss of spirituality.

Closer co-operation between the various sects was promoted by the Act of Union of 1813, and in 1891 the Particular Baptists and the New Connection merged to form the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Lincolnshire connection.

Gainsborough has a former congregational chapel - now a United Reform chapel - called the John Robinson Memorial Chapel. It was built in 1896. The Chapel was named after the celebrated 17th century "separatist" - Robinson. On Sundays he and the other original separatists would walk to Gainsborough to worship at services conducted by the Baptist, the Reverend John Smythe. They were led by a marvellous character called Robert Trouble Church Browne.

Smythe had been sacked from his living in Lincoln for preaching "strange doctrines" and Robinson had been the pastor at Norwich before he had to flee to Gainsborough. When the authorities prevented them from preaching in churches, they met in the Old Hall in Gainsborough. When John Robinson and his friends were persecuted, he tried to leave for Holland from Boston in Lincolnshire in the autumn of 1607. He was arrested and imprisoned in Boston, but finally left for Holland, as did many of his friends. In 1620 several of them set out in the ship, "Mayflower" and Robinson was either on the first or the subsequent trip. Certainly, some of the original pilgrims on the Mayflower who founded American democracy came from Gainsborough and the surrounding Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire countryside. Indeed, the Americans showed a spiritual and cultural interest in Gainsborough when the then American ambassador, T. S. Baynard, laid the foundation stone of the John Robinson Memorial Chapel in 1895.