Hardly Anabaptist

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Southern Baptist Convention 

Recently I did some research on the issue of whether the SBC or Baptists in general were Anabaptists or had any historical connection with them. The following is what I uncovered on the matter.

Years ago, when I started investigating Anabaptistica the Anabaptists were still the pariahs of the Reformation. Church History texts relegated them to the inquisitional dungeons of Christendom in the form of an obscure sentence or paragraph generally accompanied by the terms “heretic” or “aberrant”.  Now everyone appears to taking on the Anabaptist moniker as mentioned previously principally the Baptists.

Not too long ago Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary held the Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists Conference in which the speakers praised Anabaptism and they passionately made the claim that contemporary Baptists were descended from this group.

However, many scholars find very little connection between the two groups in any significant sense. Contemporary Baptists originated from two streams or individuals namely John Smyth (c. 1565 – 1612) and Thomas Helwys (c. 1570 – c. 1615) around the 17th century.

Just because the designation Baptist has “baptist” in it that does not signify that, they are associated or originated with Anabaptists. There is not definitive relationship to the “Anabaptists” but the Waterlander Mennonites briefly influenced John Smyth whereas Helwys (Smyth successor of sorts) had reservations about the Mennonites specifically their Christology thus he severed bonds with the group.

Yet, the biggest group of Baptists that influenced modern-day Baptists was a group called Particular Baptists that found their beginnings with Henry Jacob (1563-1624). This group diverged with General Baptists (Smyth and Helwys). In the work The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness states “General Baptists always represented a small part of Baptist life in England, and an even smaller part in America. Their influence upon the main currents of Baptist life in either country appears to have been slight” (40).

Interestingly enough, the Particular Baptists made it perfectly clear that they did not have any association with the Anabaptists.  The opening of the London Baptist Confession of 1644 asserts:

The CONFESSION OF FAITH, Of those CHURCHES which are commonly (though falsly) called ANABAPTISTS; Presented to the view of all that feare God, to examine by the touchstone of the Word of Truth: As likewise for the taking off those aspersions which are frequently both in Pulpit and Print, (although unjustly) cast upon them.

The Particular Baptists wrote their confession as an expression of their faith and beliefs. In addition, they wanted to make sure that others knew that they did not have any relationship with Anabaptists. By that time in history, Anabaptism was identified with the Mennonites. The Particular Baptists desired to be acknowledged with Protestantism and the Magisterial Reformers specifically John Calvin. They viewed Anabaptism as unorthodox.

The similarities of Anabaptists and Baptists are superficial at best, just because a group is non-Catholic and reject paedo-baptism does not make them one and the same. Even when it relates to baptism, their views differ in a significant fashion. Baptists believe in adult or credo-baptism that generally manifests itself as someone experiencing conversion in one service and submitting to baptism in the following one. The Anabaptists believed in disciples’ baptism that is a person was educated in the teachings of Christ then once obedience through faith was exhibited they were baptized in harmony with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). An early Anabaptist leading light named Hans Denck wrote in his work Concerning True Love in 1527:

The most important task of disciples of Jesus Christ is to teach and make disciples of the Lord, seeking above all else the kingdom of God. When you baptize before a person has become a disciple you are by that act saying, in effect, that baptism is more important than teaching and knowledge. In the eyes of God this is a terrible error. So if teaching is more important than baptism, let baptism wait until teaching has taken place. To baptize before teaching is saying that baptism is more important, but this is contrary to Christian doctrine. Now some say they give priority to teaching for those willing to listen. But in his commission, Christ did not say to go to the Jews and preach but go to the Gentiles and baptize! One does not baptize Isaac because his father Abraham is a disciple! The commission says clearly, “Go forth and teach, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them (those who have become disciples!) in the name of the Father (who draws them to him) and the Son (who now leads them) and the Holy Spirit (through whose power they are made firm in fulfillment of the Father’s will).” In short, just as Christ is Christ before anyone believes in him, so teaching is done before baptism. Where there is no Christ there is no faith. So baptism without teaching is not a true baptism.

A brief historical encounter, which was later denied, does not make an organic connection. The truth is current Baptist churches trace their history to the English Separatist movement. Now no one is saying that a Baptist cannot adopt some or all Anabaptist beliefs but if one did they could not continue to call themselves Baptists. Theologically and practically speaking there would be too much conflict.  Particularly on the issue of pacifism, Southern Baptists have not been known for their nonresistance.


3 thoughts on “Hardly Anabaptist

  1. I’m not sure if adapting an Anabaptist theological view and perspective is necessarily prescriptive of “no longer call[ing] themselves Baptists.” I know of Anglicans who lean more towards Anabaptist theology. I know of a Catholic or three who, while catechized into the RC church, are actually much more Anabaptist in their views and practice. I know of non-denominational evangelicals who are Anabaptists. Anabaptism is not a “denomination” per se… it is a theological viewpoint based upon Jesus as the core and model of life… it is centered on radical discipleship and incarnational living. To say that a Baptist cannot follow that incarnational model and still not call themselves a “Baptist” equates Anabaptism to just another denomination… I disagree with that stance.. .I know Mennonites who are not Anabaptists despite the fact that the Mennonite denomination prides itself as an “Anabaptist” denomination. And I know non-denominationals who are more Anabaptist than the most Mennonite Mennonites.

    • Robert

      Would the Swiss Brethren and those that follow agree with your viewpoint? They saw themselves as neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic. Historically speaking those groups that you mentioned would align with one of the two mentioned options. The titles that people carry have a lot of baggage that goes with them. They are identifiers and they speak for someone before they even say a word.

      Take Baptists in general, they are not historically identified with pacifism. In addition, the SBC originally identified with the rebel South during the Civil War that promoted chattel slavery not to mention some of the questionable things attached to the denomination at present. How does the name Baptist etc. gel with a group that was about nonviolence, justice and equality in the eyes of God?

      • Just because someone follows the Baptist church, is member of the Baptist denomination, does not automatically mean they agree with everything Baptist. Likewise with Anglicans… and even Mennonites. so, to apply the “Baptist” label to someone and say, “Oh, you’re Baptist, huh? God and country, kill the enemy, USA uber alis, right?” is unfair to the person’s personal convictions and journey.

        As to the Swiss Brethren… again, probably, much like Luther, they weren’t necessarily interested in setting themselves apart (Menno was a Catholic priest) but more on the lines of following a christ-like path. Take the Fransciscans and Jesuits in the Catholic church… they certainly don’t look much like “most” Catholics… in fact, both groups share a LOT of qualities with Anabaptists.

        So, I would, again, beg to differ that Anabaptists were setting themselves up (especially post-Munster) to be a different “religion” than the magesterials and Catholics… instead, it seems like they were aiming towards a more faithful following of Christ that went against the accepted politics of the day, hence the persecution. Keep in mind, baptism=citizenship in the region. You were baptized and added to the tax rolls at the same time. To get “rebaptized” meant that you were no longer following the law of the state and, since state and church were combined, you got prosecuted by both.

        Agreed, the titles people carry for themselves carry baggage… but I think we need to be awfully cautious at assuming something simply by their title. The baggage on the title may not apply to the individual person… it’s better to get to know the person than assume based upon a title.

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