What is the study of Baptist origins?
Simply put, to study Baptist origins is to study when Baptists as we know them had their beginning. Yet the study of Baptist origins encompasses more than just answering "Did Baptists start in Canaan land in AD 27 or England AD 1641 (or somewhere in between)?" That would be the simplistic and seemingly natural approach, but it’s just not that simple. Baptists are never that simple! If they began in AD 27, how did they get from there to here? Why were they not called Baptists back then? If they began in AD 1641, can they truly be New Testament churches? Did the truths they hold exist before that time?
The discussion of Baptist origins transforms into a discussion of its interconnected points: (1) Baptist history – not only when did it start, but how did it get from there to here, from point A to point B; (2) Baptist identity – Just what is a Baptist, anyway? (3) Baptist polity – How should we constitute a church? Who should baptize? Further, it knits itself into our ecclesiology and theology (doctrine). If New Testament churches haven’t been here since AD 27, just what did Jesus mean when He said the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, and just what is the nature of the church anyway? To whom or what did He make that promise?
“Perhaps this is going to be harder than I thought. Why should I study views of Baptist origins, or Baptist origins at all for that matter?” In his novel Erewhon Revisited, Samuel Butler wrote, “It has been said that though God cannot alter the past, historians can...” This must be where the Baptist historians come in, right? Don't like the past. Rewrite it.
No, there are good reasons to study Baptist history and origins other than finding ways to change it! We should study Baptist origins to add to our knowledge. We should study it to understand Baptists. Who are the Baptists? Why aren’t they all the same? Understanding a Baptist groups’ views of Baptist origins helps explain some of the beliefs of the group (e.g. Separatism vs. Ecumenism). Understanding their history may help explain some of the practices of the group. We should study Baptist origins to appreciate our heritage. Those who know something of the trials and hardships, triumphs and glories, faults and foibles – as well as the writings – of their ancestors are better positioned to appreciate and learn from them. We can learn from their experiences and their testimony, both positively and negatively.
What are some of the differing views of Baptist origins? There are probably about five theories, with sub-theories beneath those with varying emphases. All may be fairly represented by two broad categories – restorationist theories and continuationist theories.1 Milburn Cockrell wrote, "A person who believes that a church pops up here and there with no organic connection to any other church, and a man who believes that there has been a link-chain of churches (one church starting another church), do not believe one and the same thing." -- Observations on Church Organization
Restorationist theories hold in common that there has not been a successive groups of baptized believers from the time of the New Testament to the present. Continuationist theories hold in common that there have been successive groups of baptized believers from the New Testament times to the present.
Why are there so many different views of Baptist origins? Because we are Baptists!! And as Baptists we feel compelled to disagree, don't we?
Actually, there are probably two main reasons why we have two broad differences of opinion about Baptist origins, with competing theories and sub-theories under these. History and theology. There are different opinions and interpretations of the historical knowledge we have of the Baptists, and there are different opinions and interpretations of the theology we hold concerning the church as seen in the New Testament. And -- these two can act like magnets, at times attracting one another and at times pushing each other away. They do affect one another. Some historians seem to write with an air of having in hand a documentary of exactly how the Baptists started in the 1640’s, while others reinterpret history to fit their theological presuppositions.
"Baptists today should know about Baptist historians and their views about Baptist history and succession. This is what I call the historical consensus. A Baptist's historical theology includes the historical consensus. All students of Baptist history should realize that theology shapes the historian's views.(emphasis mine, rlv)" -- Some Critical Lectures on Baptist Succession by R. E. Pound
A third reason, from the historical standpoint, is obscurity of records. Brackney on p. 15 of Baptist Life and Thought wrote: "Since present documentation is scarce, complete validation of any of these theories must await further discoveries of primary source materials..."
I don't intend to try to solve all the problems and answer all the questions, but over the next several posts to investigate what are the main different views of Baptist origins.
1. I am indebted to Elder Mark Osgartharp, pastor of Lakeview Missionary Baptist Church in Wynne, Arkansas, for the naming of these two categories.