Did the Baptists Begin in England?
I recently purchased a Baptist History book which I have been reading lately. The author of it contends that Baptists "evolved" from other independent groups in England during the 1600's. This is a very popular idea today, but I feel that there are many problems with.
First, let me say that there is a great error made on the part of British and American scholars to over-emphasize the role of English speaking Christians. Some have gone so far to say that Anglo-Saxons are "lost tribes of Israel" and subject to special blessing from God. Others have tried to see our secular history in the Bible, especially in Revelation.
The fact is that the race that is at the center of the Bible is that of the Hebrews, and the nation at its center is that of Israel. You cannot escape this fact without twisting and redefining scripture. For example, Romans chapters 9 through 11 quite clearly deal with God's working with the nation of Israel. Revelation clearly deals with the Jews. For instance, the 144,000 that the Jehovah's Witnesses claim they are just happen to be Jews (12,000 from each tribe).
So just keep in mind that while American and British people have been quite blessed by God, they are not the focus of Bible prophecy. Likewise, they are not the only nations that have rich Christian history. While they may very well be the most "Christian" today, they do not have a monopoly on all things Christian.
Let us consider the usually assigned beginning of Baptists - the ministry of John Smyth...
John Smyth is often considered the father of English Baptists, although he never led a Baptist congregation on British soil. He was a nonconformist (non-Anglican) pastor who led a congregation from England to Holland in around 1607 to escape persecution. Near 1609, Smyth embraced Anabaptist views, especially concerning believer's baptism. He baptized himself and then baptized his followers. In short time, he became convinced that the Mennonites were the true church and requested admittance to their congregation. They stalled admitting him and he died in 1612 without joining the Mennonites. Members of his congregation returned to England and founded a church in London in 1611, considered either Baptist or Anabaptist.
As you can see, Smyth was influenced by groups that many will acknowledge as being variants or offshoots of Baptists. The name "Anabaptist", which means "re-baptizer", was applied to many groups around that time. Due to some extremists and lunatics they received a very poor testimony in the world, most notably in connection with the ill-fated "Kingdom of Muenster". However, not all Anabaptists were part of such atrocities or held such strange teachings.
Mennonites began under the leadership of Menno Simons, a converted Roman Catholic priest, during the 1500's. He became an Anabaptist after careful study of the Scripture. On many doctrinal points, the early Mennonites were very similar to Baptists. They did and still hold some distinctive views such as pacifism. It was mainly after Menno Simons' death that his followers became the separatist society that they are today.
Now, we know by historical fact that Mennonites were in England in the 1500's. While there may not be volumes of evidence, we do have records of proclamations against them and of martyrs dying for holding their views. Anglican leaders Cranmer and Latimer both are on record as opposing Anabaptist doctrines in the 1500's.
You see, the groups that John Smyth himself attempted to be identified with both predated his own life on English soil. While some may disagree to what extent Anabaptists and Mennonites can be called Baptist, they are both witnesses to the fact that the core teachings of Baptists existed before John Smyth. Therefore, these groups are witness to the fact that Baptist History and Heritage must be traced back further than 17th century England and that there are much more than "four centuries of Baptist witness".
Note - I find it very interesting in comparing John Smyth, father of the English Baptists, and Roger Williams, father of American Baptists. Both never quite settled into one particular denomination or group. However, both paved the way for many better grounded Baptist churches to follow.