From the Archives: The Move to Believer’s Baptism

JOHN SMYTH WAS the first Englishman (of record) who declared himself dearly in favor of believer’s baptism and organized a church based on the implications of that principle. Smyth, a graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge, made the pilgrimage from Anglican to Puritan through Separatist to a Baptist position. In 1608 Smyth and his Separatist congregation fled to Amsterdam where, with other exiled Englishmen, he began to work out his doctrine of the church. Early on he differed with the other Separatists, notably Richard Clifton on the issue of infant baptism, which Smyth held to be a fundamental error of the Church of England. In his book The Character of the Beastor The False Constitution of the Church (1609), Smyth traded arguments with Clifton on the issue of believer’s baptism. An excerpt from his “Reader’s Epistle” follows.

Be it known therefore to all the Separation that we account them in respect of their constitution to be as very an harlot as either her Mother England, or her grandmother Rome is, out of whose loins she came: and although once in our ignorance we have acknowledged her a true Church yet now being better informed we revoke that erroneous judgment and protest against her, as well for her false constitution, as for her false ministry, worship, and government: The true constitution of the Church is of a new creature baptized into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: The false constitution is of infants baptized: we profess therefore that all those Churches that baptize infants are of the same false constitution: and all those Churches that baptize the new creature, those that are made Disciples by teaching, men confessing their faith and their sins, are of one true constitution: and therefore the Church of the Separation being of the same constitution with England and Rome, is a most unnatural daughter to her mother England, and her grandmother Rome, who being of the self same genealogie and generation, (that of the prophet being true of her, as is the Mother so is the daughter) she dare notwithstanding most impudently wipe her own mouth, and call her mother and grandmother adulteresses. Herein therefore we do acknowledge our error, that we retaining the baptism of England which gave us our constitution, did call our mother England an harlot, and upon a false ground made our Separation from her: For although it be necessary that we Separate from England, yet no man can Separate from England as from a false Church except he also do Separate from the baptism of England, which giveth England her constitution: For if they retain the baptism of England, viz: the baptism of infants as true baptism, they cannot Separate from England as from a false Church though they may Separate for corruptions. For the baptism of England cannot be true and to be retained, and the Church of England false and to be rejected: neither can the Church of England possibly be false except the baptism be false, unless a true constitution could be in a false Church which is as impossible as for light to have fellowship with darkness: It is impossible that contraries or contradictions should both be true: and so it is impossible that a false Church should have a true constitution or a true baptism: To say thus:

England hath a false constitution.

England hath a true baptism, is as much as to say thus.

England hath a false constitution.

England hath a true constitution, which is to contradict:

Therefore the Separation must either go back to England, or go forward to true baptism: and all that shall in time to come Separate from England must Separate from the baptism of England, and if they will not Separate from the baptism of England there is no reason why they should separate from England as from a false Church:

Now concerning this point of baptizing infants we do profess before the Lord and before all men in sincerity and truth that it seemeth unto us the most unreasonable heresy of all Antichristianism: for considering what baptism is, an infant is no more capable of baptism then is any unreasonable or insensitive creature: For baptism is not washing with water: but it is the baptism of the Spirit, the confession of the mouth, and the washing with water: how then can any man without great folly wash with water which is the least and last of baptism, one that is not baptized with the Spirit, and cannot confess with the mouth: or how is it baptism if one be so washed: Now that an infant cannot be baptized with the Spirit is plain, 1 Pet. 3:21. where the Apostle saith that the baptism of the Spirit is the question of a good conscience unto God, and Heb. 10:22. where the baptism which is inward is called the sprinkling of the heart from an evil conscience: seeing therefore infants neither have an evil conscience, nor the question of a good conscience, nor the purging of the heart, for all these are proper to actual sinners: hence it followeth that infants baptism is folly and nothing.

By John Smyth

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #6 in 1985]

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