Baptist Origins

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).