John Smyth c 1570 - 1612


John Smyth.jpg

Who was the very first baptist? John the Baptist? Philip the Evangelist? Well, strictly speaking  neither. The answer is the first baptist in the Baptist Church was John Smyth. John was the minister of the very first Baptist congregation, which presents an interesting question. Who baptized the very first Baptist? Who would be able to carry out the ceremony? Well, for John there was only one solution as to who should baptise him; he baptised himself and then baptised all his congregation. What a Sunday morning service that must have been. I wonder if the service finished at 12 o'clock and if they had lunch afterwards.

Sixteenth century England was a far different place from today for anyone who was religious. There was no such thing as religious freedom, everyone was told what to believe and where to worship. The problem for John and a growing number of people was that they profoundly disagreed with what they were being told. People were reading the Bible for themselves in English and discovering the truth about the love of God and the way in which the early church had worshipped and served God. It was in this period that John realised that the then Church of England was not the 'real' church and he joined a group of people called 'Separatists' who left the church because of it's teachings and practices. John was outspoken in his criticism of the church and ended up spending time in prison.

John had been to Cambridge University to train for the Anglican priesthood, but had a drastic change of career. In 1600 he was invited to become the pastor of a separatist congregation in Lincoln, but his preaching caused a lot of trouble locally, so he soon had to leave. From 1607 he had a happier time as minister of a church in Gainsborough, the congregation began to grow, but because they were afraid of persecution, they left this country and moved to Amsterdam where they were free to worship and study the Bible together. It soon became clear to John and his congregation that infant baptism was not right. He could find no examples of infant baptism in the Bible, only descriptions of people who had made the choice to believe and trust in Christ and then baptised. It was this practice of believers baptism which was to give the church its name.

Those few years spent in Amsterdam were formative with many of the basic principles of the Baptist Church being established. The first baptists were for religious freedom and against any government interference. The church should be made up of people who had been baptized and worship should be free and inspired by the heart. They did not accept money from anyone who was not a church member and every local congregation of believers should have the right to make its own decisions and determine its mission.

John and his congregation worked to keep their independence. John worked to support himself as a doctor and the congregation baked biscuits to sell to people on ships in the harbour.

Later in life John felt drawn to join the Mennonite church but by then the Baptist Church had been established and many others were convinced by the beliefs and practices of that first baptist congregation.

John must be on the list of Baptist heroes because his actions led to the beginning of our denomination, he was prepared to take the lead in dangerous times. I for one think we should follow the example of these first baptists; I'm off to the kitchen right now to bake some biscuits and then I may have to go to the doctors!