English Separatists

During the sixteenth century several movements sprang up in England hoping to reform the Church of England.  Most called for a return to the simple teachings and practices of the Bible.  

One militant group, the Puritans, were deeply influenced by John Calvin and the reform of the church that he instituted in Geneva.  They were called "Puritans" because they insisted on purity of doctrine and practice in the church.

Another group, the Separatists, were people who had given up hope of reforming the church from within.   They were called "Separatists" because they separated from the Church of England and formed independent congregations.  

While many Separatist congregations were comprised of discouraged and extremist Puritans, Separatism included congregations holding a variety of theological views.    The movement branched into groups as diverse as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and a variety of independent churches.

The first Baptist church sprang from a Separatist congregation that formed in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire around 1606.  John Smyth became its leader.  Smyth and his congregation believed 1) the Bible, not creeds or church tradition, should be the guide for faith and practice, 2) the church should be comprised only of believers, and 3) the church should be governed by its members and not by bishops.

The Gainsborough church grew so rapidly that the large size of the gathering made it dangerous to meet.  English law forbade separate "conventicles" and congregations.  The congregation divided.  Smyth continued to lead the congregation that remained at Gainsborough.  Another congregation was formed at Scrooby Manor and they elected John Robinson as pastor.  By 1608 both congregations had fled to Holland to escape persecution.  

Robinson's congregation settled for a time in Leyden.  Among them were William Bradford and William Brewster.  In 1620 Bradford, Brewster led some members of the congregation and others to set sail for America on the Mayflower.  These "Pilgrims" were the founders of the Congregational church in America.

Smyth's congregation settled in Amsterdam.  Among his congregation was Thomas Helwys.  In Amsterdam the group came in contact with Dutch Mennonites who taught believer's baptism and advocated religious liberty.  Smyth soon became convinced that infant baptism was invalid and that only believers (people who make a personal profession of faith in Christ) should be baptized.  In 1608/09 Smyth baptized himself and then baptized the other members of his congregation.  

In 1611 Thomas Helwys led a portion of Smyth's congregation back to London to advocate religious liberty and to establish the first Baptist church on English soil.  Smyth and the bulk of his congregation remained in Holland and eventually united with Frisian-Waterlander Mennonites.



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