John Smyth: Not the Founder of Baptists

John Smyth (c. 1570-1612) is an important figure in Baptist history, mainly because of his commitment to religious liberty, a believer’s church, and “baptism” of believers. He was not, however, the founder of Baptists (Wikipedia is wrong.). His baptism was not technically baptism as it was done by affusion (pouring) and he did this to himself (se-baptism). The seventeenth-century English Baptists  did not acknowledge Smyth as their founder or initiator of the practice of baptism. In his work on baptism published in 1691, Hercules Collins directly refuted the claim that the English Baptists had received their baptism from John Smyth. This refutation was made in response to the paedo-baptist Thomas Wall who had claimed in his book Baptism Anatomized that the current “English Anabaptists” had “successively received” their baptism from Smyth who had baptized himself.[1] In Believers-Baptism from Heaven, Collins asserted that the Baptist community of which he was a part had not, in fact, had their baptism passed down to them from Smyth. In refuting this charge, he referenced then living sources who knew better. In so doing, he charged Wall with falsehood in his derogatory accusation regarding the origin of Baptists.

How many Leaves hast thou spent in thy Book, in asserting and maintaining a Lie, and to cast Filth upon the holy Ways of the Lord? Could not the Ordinance of Christ, which was lost in the Apostacy, be revived, (as the Feast of Tabernacles was, tho lost a great while) unless in such a filthy way as you falsly assert, viz. that the English Baptists received their Baptism from Mr. John Smith? It is absolutely untrue, it being well known, by some yet alive, how false this Assertion is; and if J.W.[2] will but give a meeting to any of us, and bring whom he pleaseth with him, we shall sufficiently shew the Falsity of what is affirmed by him in this Matter, and in many other things he hath unchristianly asserted.[3]

Those “yet alive” would certainly have included William Kiffin (1616-1701) and possibly Hanserd Knollys (b. 1599), who did not die until September of 1691, the same year in which these words were published.[4]


[1]Thomas Wall, Baptism Anatomized (London: G. Croom, 1691), 106-8.

[2]For some reason, Collins calls Thomas Wall “John Wall” in his response. Cf. Collins, Believers-Baptism from Heaven (London, 1691), 108 and 114. Thus, the initials “J. W.” in this quote. This is all the more curious since the cover page and table of contents both use Thomas Walls. Perhaps it was an intentional slight to liken Walls with the infamous John Child with whom he compares him on p. 114.

[3]Collins, Believers-Baptism from Heaven, 114-15. Italics in the original.

[4]Knollys had attended the 1691 General Assembly held 2-8 June 1691. He died on September 17, 1691, in his ninety-third year. For more on Knollys, see Barry H. Howson, Erroneous and Schismatical Opinions: the Question of Orthodoxy Regarding the Theology of Hanserd Knollys (c. 15991691) (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

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12 comments

  1. This reformed reader website–not Wikipedia–affirms Smyth as the Baptist founder: http://www.reformedreader.org/smyth.htm

    Bruce Gourley, Executive Director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, clearly agrees.

    Leon McBeth in “The Baptist Heritage” (as well as in lecture notes) identified Smyth as our founder.

    Tom Ascol himself writes: “This issue of the Founders Journal not only acknowledges but celebrates the beginnings of modern Baptists in England in 1609. John Smyth was the pastor of that first Baptist Church.” Here is the link: http://www.founders.org/journal/fj76/fj76.pdf

    I could go on but what’s the use? More than Wikipedia and yours truly affirm John Smyth as our founder. It is the majority view among Baptist historians.

    However, unconfirmed reports indicate that Oliver Stone disagrees.

  2. Steve,

    Not trying to correct your position but you seem to have opened yourself up to criticism I don’t think you were aware of. It seems your premise that was not the “founder of Baptists” is only found In Wikipedia will not pass muster. You see Tom Nettles writing for Founders Journal has said that John Smyth gave birth to Baptists.

    … John Smyth baptized himself and John Clarke was born. The first of these phe- nomena gave a strange birth to the present day Baptist denomination.

  3. Dear Rick and Tim,

    Thanks for your comments. First, I didn’t say only Wikipedia calls Smyth a founder. I simply said that Wikipedia was wrong at this point. I am simply stating the historical facts that: 1. Smyth did not practice immersion. 2. 17th century Baptists did not acknowledge Smyth as their founder.

    A historian’s job is to look at the evidence, not count noses of other historians. In other words, I’m doing history, not quoting historians. As you have both noted many historians have noted the importance of Smyth (rightly so for the reasons I mention), but I think the use of the language of “founder” for Smyth is unhelpful and historically inaccurate. Thomas Helwys is a better candidate (both historically and theologically), but he is still problematic since he did not immerse and the churches which could have more directly traced their lineage to him had largely passed out of existence by the end of the 17th century. There is a historical continuity between the Particular Baptist community of the 1640s and modern day Baptists. However, for General Baptists, Dan Taylor (1738-1816) would be the best candidate as a “founder” since he, James Leo Garrett has stated, brought “a new and more orthodox beginning” (Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, 49).

  4. Prof. Weaver, I came by this post by way of Tom Ascol’s Facebook post. I will be a student in your History of the Baptists class that starts tomorrow. I must admit that seeing this post has all of sudden made that class just a bit more interesting.
    See you tomorrow…
    Charlie Kelly

    1. Hey Charlie,

      Thanks for your comment. I look forward to meeting you tomorrow and talking about Smyth and Baptist origins. I like Wm. Loyd Allen’s statement that sorting out Baptist origins is “like trying to untangle a snarled fishing line in the dark.” That should keep us busy tomorrow!

  5. Who can untangle a snarled fishing line in the daylight, much less in the dark?!! :-)

    Steve, it seems to me that citing John Smyth as the founder of Baptists became a dominant view of Baptist historians in the 20th century. There was much quatercentennial celebration (400 years) in 2009 based on the 1609 Smyth date. Yet, as best as I can understand, while Smyth was baptistic, he was never a Baptist and never founded any Baptist Church. If we’re looking for “baptistic” we can go back much further than Smyth (the Continental Anabaptists, e.g.), and more broadly anti-paedobaptism is found throughout church history.

    Anyway, that brings me to a question. Why do you think that so many modern Baptist historians have identified John Smyth as the founder of Baptists? I have an opinion, but I am very interested in yours.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Robert. I think it is easy to call Smyth a founder, that’s one reason it has been done. I agree with your assessment that if we’re merely going for baptistic, we can go back further. If we’re looking for continuity with modern-day Southern Baptists, that’s a different story. I think the fact that Smyth was an English speaker makes him a candidate for founder of “English-speaking Baptists.” I would be interested in doing a study of how Smyth came to be regarded as a founder of Baptists. My inclination is the same as yours, that it was a 20th century phenomenon. But I would like to do the research and see what it says. A similar thing has happened with Roger Williams in regard to American Baptist origins.

      1. Steve, I agree. I think it is easy to call Smyth a founder. And it is fair to say that the historians themselves usually don’t make it as simple as those who repeat what they’ve said. In addition to it being easy, it appears to be the furthest back one can push the date of the English Separatist origins theory (so, for example, it might seem a little better to start in 1609 rather than 1641 or thereabouts). I think the “English-speaking” idea also plays into the issue. But if one thinks there are no Baptists who existed before those in England in 1609, the “English-speaking Baptists” part really is a distinction without a difference, imo. Finally, I think this was an important foil to Landmarkism. To break the strength of it, one needed to be able to point to a particular founder. This was possibly as much theologically motivated as historical. To me, James Slatton’s look at Whitsitt through his diaries and letters brings this out (W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy). I hope you warm to the task of researching why Smyth has come to be regarded as the founder of the Baptists. I would be interesting, but important as well.

        I also agree with you about Roger Williams. He was identified as a Baptist for what, a few months perhaps? Baptists may get into a little “name-dropping” when identifying with well-known figures!

      2. Explanation of something that may be hanging:

        When I write that “James Slatton’s look at Whitsitt through his diaries and letters brings this out,” I mean that getting a glimpse in the thought processes of Whitsitt shows that there were theological issues related to his historical research.

  6. Yours is a helpful post with historical insight, Steve.
    And, here’s to wishing your Braves a herculean 2013 season!

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