Nestled on a remote hillside overlooking Axe Valley in Devonshire, England, is a small, nondescript church building. A few weatherworn gravestones surround it, many of them nearly toppled over. The roof has been thatched again and again, its walls have been repaired repeatedly through its many years. The Loughwood Meeting House has stood here since the late 1600’s and it represents one of the oldest surviving Baptist meeting houses in all the world. In this series which looks at The History of Christianity in 25 Objects, the Loughwood Meeting House points us to the existence and the rise of the earliest Baptists.
When the Protestant Reformation swept Europe and reached the British Isles, it was a Reformation of Christians we would recognize today as Lutheran, Anglican, Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian. It would take some time before we would begin to see a distinctly baptistic movement.
The earliest Baptist church was founded in Holland in 1608 or 1609 by an English pastor named John Smyth. Smyth had been ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1594, but soon found himself at odds with the church hierarchy. His zeal and his refusal to conform to Anglican doctrine and practice landed him in prison, marked as a Separatist.
When it became clear that he could no longer continue in Anglican fellowship, he relocated to Holland and it was here that he and his fellow congregants became convinced that believer’s baptism, as opposed to infant baptism, was the biblical mandate for Christians. Together they founded the first Baptist congregation and Smyth immediately baptized himself and the rest of his congregants. Smyth’s views would continue to evolve over the course of his life so they soon became almost unrecognizable as either Baptist or Anglican, but he did make at least two significant contributions to the history of the church: He led the way in introducing and practicing believer’s baptism and he introduced the model of having only two offices in the church—elder and deacon—which contrasted with both Catholic and Reformed practice.
Baptist beliefs soon spread far beyond Holland and it was not long before Baptists became a significant presence in England so that the first English Baptist church was founded by Thomas Helwys in 1612. We must note two important milestones in the development of Baptist doctrine.