Christendom, the Reformation, and Baptist Polity: Part III

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John Smyth and Thomas Helwys Unleash a Burgeoning Polity and Theology

            Insofar as church polity had been about political control for the previous one hundred years, the goals and aspirations of the Separatists, and eventually the Free Church movement, were politically conceived as well.  However, their political aspirations did not seek to have the national Church succumb to their demands; rather, they sought to have the true church come out from under the authoritarian and adulterous relationship it had endured with the magistracy.  This, consequently, was not a direct complaint against the episcopacy as much as it was a plea for religious freedom. 

            As an Anglican priest, to say Smyth had only political problems with the Anglican Church would be a gross mischaracterization, however, the consolidation of James’ political power within the church prevented those theological problems from being worked out in an ecclesiastical setting.  In fact, Smyth had personally exercised a myriad of options searching for the means to deal with the discrepancies he saw.  Coffey explains:

“Smyth went through a prodigious number of religious incarnations; he began his career as a puritan within the Church of England, became an Independent, moved on to separatism, baptized himself, and finally joined the Waterlanders, a Dutch Mennonite sect. Although his 1610 Confession of Faith was published before he had joined the Mennonites, it reveals significant Anabaptist influences, not least in its comprehensive statement on freedom of religion: the magistrate, wrote Smyth, was ‘not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience’.”[1]

This left Smyth and those like him having to reject political power in order to have theological dialogue.  Like Luther and Calvin before them, their attempt to call the church to theological purity was hindered by demagoguery, though some would have certainly accused Luther and Calvin of being demagogues themselves at this point.

            All of this inner turmoil and self-discovery culminated in a concerted effort along with Richard Bernard, Thomas Helwys, and others to begin to meet at Gainsborough in 1606 under the auspices of a Separatist congregation in order to formerly resist the established church of King James.[2]  Shortly, this congregation was forced to flee to Amsterdam, because of Anglican persecution.  Under the influence of Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, no doubt, this small congregation, lead by Smyth and Helwys, were persuaded that, “baptism should be administered only to those who could testify to a work of grace in their lives and that infant baptism had no precedent in the New Testament.”[3]  This subsequent conviction regarding believer’s baptism would become a staple of Baptist faith and polity, and would also prove to be the theological axiom by which their conclusions of separation of Church and State were derived.  However, it also proved to be the sticking point for Smyth and drove him to seek membership with the Waterlander Mennonites, which was still pending at the time of his death.[4]

            While a Baptist theology was definitely still emerging by the time Smyth’s congregation broke from Helwys in favor of the Waterlanders, Baptist polity had emerged from out of its Separatist and Anabaptist surroundings as a movement toward “extreme toleration.”  Helwys even propagated that religious freedom ought to extend to all “peaceable religions,” arguing that the magistracy’s power could not extend to the spirits of men.[5]  He rejected more than the political abuses of the episcopacy.  He rejected the whole of the Catholic Church in all its forms in favor of a free congregational polity.  Indeed, he moved the congregation back to England, in Spitalfields, just outside of London in order to become an evangelistic presence in the “city of the Beast.”  This is officially recognized as the first Baptist congregation on English soil.[6]

           Helwys’ increasing insistence that the magistrate ought to have no dealings with the church, though Christians could belong to the magistracy, gave rise to church polity founded in the theological notion that the believer’s priesthood supplants not only the Levitical priesthood but also the episcopacy.  This was due, in part, because Helwys viewed the episcopacy in both political and theological terms.  In Helwys’ mind, it was congruent to simultaneously call for civil toleration from the episcopacy, because they had no right to impose religious views, and proclaim God’s intolerance/judgment upon that same institution, because of the Christian hypocrisy that it engendered.  By this time, what began as a civic protest with Smyth and other Separatists had turned into a theological polemic.

            The political rejection of the Anglican Church and its use of the episcopacy turned quickly into a theological rejection of the Anglican Church as a whole for Helwys and his followers, which, in-turn nearly ended in a theologically unsound entity.  Maclear notes that, “Even obvious polity differences were eclipsed by anti-Anglican polemic.”[7]  During the next thirty years, men like Helwys and Barrow would discover that the intricacies of Separatism would be explored in thought and practice, and would come to realize the “disruptive tendencies that conservative Puritanism had been trying to keep in check.”[8]  Namely, the very parameters of a congregational church which existed outside the boundary of magisterial authority existed in an experimental realm.  There was no doctrine or dogma that could currently speak to the group because they had effectively removed themselves from magisterial restraint, and the group was consequently impotent in dealing with its own problems.[9]  Because of their political ostracizing, they were left with no readily available authority structure to deal with errant theology outside of self-regulation.  After a generation of battling for religious liberty, the Free Church hardly had the fortitude now to battle internally for doctrinal purity.  This theological deconstruction, which came at the hands of their religious liberty, had the effect of amplifying the alienation the group felt.  Consequently, many of the initial movement left with other English Puritans to pursue religious freedom in the Colonies.


            The episcopacy of the Catholic Church had run unchecked for hundreds of years, and when the need for change in the Church reached its apex those who fought for the purity of Christ’s church found themselves battling much more than the false teachings of a priesthood who had fattened themselves with magisterial authority.  They found themselves battling self-propagating notions of authority and structure.

            Initially, the Baptist response, in its seminal years, addressed largely political arenas, much like the context into which it spoke.  As that polity was tested and gained articulation, however, it became clear to its adherents that the very system by which it tried to argue its tenets was skewed against them.  There was no use in trying to wrest political control from a governmental entity by Spiritual means.  Nonetheless, as the early Baptist church pursued its calling, believers pioneered the notions of separation of Church and State and religious freedom that became theological cornerstones for colonial Christianity.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), 46.

[3] Bill J. Leonard, Baptists in America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 8.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Coffey, “Puritanism and Liberty Revisited,” 964.

[6] Leonard, Baptists in America, 9.

[7] Maclear, “The Birth of the Free Church,” 103.

[8] Ibid., 104.

[9] Ibid., 109.



  1. 30,000 denominations later…

    What’s interesting to me is that there were Anglicans who were arguing for religious freedom at this time as well. Some formed the backbone of what we consider modern liberal politics. Some people just have a contentious bug in them.

    Always division comes from those who want to ‘purify’ the Church. The Plankeye principal should always apply in such cases.


  2. Tony,

    Perhaps the scariest element of what you mention (look at me, Ma – I’m hijacking my own thread!) is that I can look back at my childhood and now pick out the individuals that were indoctrinating me (and many others) to be that “purifying” element in Christianity. I shudder to think about what my life would be like, if that influence had continued.



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