Separating the concepts of the religious and the political in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be impossible; it is a theological and historical swamp. However, of all the groups represented at the Reformation, the problems in the Church of England were propagated by some of the most audacious political power plays of the era. Consequently, it was precisely these kinds of political maneuvers that fueled further endeavors by German and Swiss Reformers. This would ultimately drive some within the Puritan sects of the Church of England to separate entirely in search of reformation from the Reformation, in turn forming the General Baptist movement.
Saying the Reformation is the historical context within which the Baptist church developed, though, is much like saying that Europe is the geographical context of someone driving in Berlin. “The Reformation,” as a historical term, encompasses much more than a particular set of doctrinal qualms, political quagmires, or ecclesiastical debates. McGrath is helpful in navigating the use of the term “Reformation” and all of its ancillaries in recent scholarship. In its broadest sense, “Reformation” incorporates the four elements of the western European movement that began with Martin Luther’s protest in 1517 in Wittenberg: Lutheranism, the Reformed tradition, the Radical Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation.
Within this context, the Counter-Reformation and the Radical Reformation, those concerning the Roman Catholics and Anabaptists respectively, fell outside of the “magisterial Reformation”: a phrase which draws attention to “the manner in which the mainstream reformers related to secular authorities, such as princes, magistrates, or city councils.” According to McGrath, the term magisterial Reformation is increasingly recognized in scholarship as a reference to Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anglicanism collectively. Consequently, the English Reformers who influenced John Smyth were representative of the Reformed tradition which sought to reset the boundaries of magisterial authority within the church, but had “relatively little interest in doctrine, let alone one specific doctrine.” This state of affairs was unacceptable to Smyth, whose Puritan leanings were known by the time of his ordination, and so one of the foundational thinkers of the General Baptist movement in England began to seek a more radical reformation outside of the magisterial Church of England. He sought a reformation that removed magisterial interference in religious choice and expression.
John Smyth and his colleague, Thomas Helwys, were among the first English thinkers to insist that the magistracy had no right to impose religious beliefs or practice on its population. This contradicted those magisterial thinkers who hoped to create some form of theocracy with a continued union of the Church with the State. The lives of Smyth and Helwys, then, become important indicators of the true nature of issues facing early Baptist polity. Common theological concerns over adult baptism drew Smyth and Helwys to the Netherlands during English persecution, but internal fights, which would cause splinter groups to break fellowship, were especially common during their shared time among the radical Reformers. Those conflicts, which were rarely theological, were driven predominantly by differing views about the extent to which the magistracy ought to be involved in settling affairs of the Church.
A rejection of the episcopacy continues to be theologically important for congregational churches, but is, in fact, historically subsequent to the political factors that were inexorably tied to the episcopacy’s ecclesiastical significance during the magisterial Reformation. If the beliefs of Smyth and Helwys were truly indicative of the early Baptists, then early Baptist polity was primarily a political reaction to the magisterial Reformation. Somewhere along the way, however, the episcopacy became guilty by association and came under theological fire, and as that theology of ecclesiastical liberation evolved so did the ethos that sundered congregational polity from the episcopacy. This series will explore early Baptist polity as it occurred within the context of the English Reformation; it will attempt to demonstrate that early Baptist (congregational) polity as conceived by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys functioned primarily as a political critique of the magisterial Reformation and only subsequently as a theological amendment, and that the subsequent theological amendments following the death of John Smyth served only to further polarize already alienated factions within the English Reformation.
 Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 158.
 Ibid., 159.
 Ibid., 161.
 This, of course, presumes that the agenda of the Reformation broadly was to, “make European culture more Christian than it had been” by “rerooting” what was seen then as the traditional imposition of the Church by the State. See Scott Hendrix, “Rerooting the Faith: The Reformation as Re-Christianization.” Church History, 69 (Sep. 2000): 560-564.