The John Smyth Dilemma
Four hundred years since the founding of the Baptist movement?
By Aurel Munteanu and Raul Enyedi
This year many Baptist organizations celebrated four hundred years since the first Baptist Church was founded in Amsterdam. At this occasion, the World Baptist Alliance promoted the knowledge of historical beginnings as well as an identification of their call from God for the future. This mega-event was organized by the World Baptist Alliance together with the European Baptist Federation and the Baptist Union of Holland.
Here is a short introduction in the history of this great event that has been celebrated.
Around 1606, a certain gentleman by the name of John Smyth, an Anglican priest, leaves the traditional church with a group of believers and joins the Separatists; in a short time, differences between them and the Separatists appeared on the subject of the proper candidates for baptism, and Mr. Smyth and his group fled to Holland, due to persecution. There, studying the Word of God, they come to believe they needed proper baptism. They believed they did not need anything, but a personal confession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his sacrifice.
History says that Mr. John Smyth baptized himself and then, thirty six members that shared his ideas asked to be baptized by him. This is how the first Baptist Church was founded in Amsterdam, in 1609.
After this took place, the Anabaptist influence changed the mind of Mr. John Smyth, and he denied the self-baptism and asked the Anabaptists to baptism him aright. Some of the members of the church he founded followed him, but a group of 10 persons led by Mr. Thomas Helwys opposed him. This group claimed that baptism administrated to adult persons based on their profession of faith is valid. After long debates, the group returned to England, in 1612, where they spread their faith. Their leader, Mr. Thomas Helwys, sealed his faith with his blood, dying as a martyr.
Most of the Baptists today believe this was their origin. However, such an origin raises some serious questions due to the initial belief of Mr. Smyth on the proper administrator of baptism.
In order to understand these questions, let us present a hypothetical case. Let us say that I was baptized as an infant, and now, being a grown up man, I start studying my Bible with my family. The Lord saves us and then we realize that the baptism received in infancy is not valid. In my town there is only one church that baptizes adults based on the profession of faith, but I do not agree with them in some points of doctrine, therefore, I decide to go to the river and baptize myself and then baptize the rest of my family. If I come to a Baptist local church, will they receive us as members with such a baptism?
This example presents a fundamental case for the Baptists. In order to be consistent with the doctrines of the founders, they should accept us as members and regard our baptisms as valid. But all the Baptist churches I know would refuse to accept me as a member because of my self baptism, neither would they accept my family, because they were baptized by me.
But their refusal shows that they believe that a lawful authorized administrator is required in order for the baptism to be valid. But rejecting the baptisms of myself and my family, they reject the baptisms of Mr. Smyth and Mr. Helwys, whom they claim as their very founders. Not only that, but if all their baptisms come from this source, they would reject their own baptisms and, showing that none of them is truly baptized!
The present refusal of Baptist churches to receive self baptisms puts them in a great dilemma. If they continue to claim their origin in Mr. Smyth, they should begin to recognize self baptisms, for consistency demands it. This, as far as I know, they are not ready to do, and it would be impossible to find proof in the Bible for such a practice. Maintaining this position, the Baptists would trespass Bible principles, would cause serious disorders in their churches, and their doctrine and practice of the church would be ultimately mocked at and destroyed.
If, however, they choose to continue to refuse accepting self baptisms, they are forced to admit that John Smyth was not baptized, neither were all those who derive their baptism from him, including themselves. If the root is wrong, so are the branches. If the foundation is wrong, the whole house is the same. What would be the sense, then, of their very denominational name, since Baptist means Baptized?
Maintaining this latter position would put these Baptists in a very embarrassing situation, and, what is worse, in an unscriptural one, since this would make them only a counterfeit church. Then, they should dismiss themselves as churches and seek an authorized administrator to baptize them and organize them into scriptural churches.
Refusing to recognize self baptisms as valid would certainly be the scriptural choice, but consistency would demand the acceptance of these, and, logically, the breaking of scriptural principles. What course would the Baptists take?
It is interesting to note the course taken by John Smyth. He was confronted with the same dilemma. He saw the necessity of an authorized administrator, and he understood this administrator receives authority not only vertically, from God, but also horizontally, from an authorized institution on earth. He came to reject his own self baptism, considering it invalid, and went to the Anabaptists.
Mr. Smyth found the consistent and scriptural way out of this dilemma. He admitted his self baptism was a singular and irregular episode and he recognized the necessity of a lawful administrator. The dilemma offers no way out if the origin by Smyth theory is maintained. The Baptists today can escape this fundamental dilemma only if they deny their origin to be in Mr. Smyth, and insist that Mr. Helwys popularized only the name “Baptist”, but that churches that believed fundamental Baptist doctrines existed long before 1609, though under different names. Thus, they will admit that the episode of John Smyth was only an irregular event in our history, and not our original beginning.