THE ORIGIN OF THE BAPTISTS
By S. H. Ford
A pure Christianity is the glorious embodiment of soul freedom.
Adapted to the spiritual wants and immoral aspirations of the individual man; meeting him in his darkness with the clearness of its discoveries; meeting him in weakness with its transforming power; meeting him in wretchedness with consolation and refuge; coming in direct contact with the heart, and flashing in upon it a full sense of its sinfulness and responsibility, and breathing into the deep recesses of his being the breath of life and hope, it raises him to communion with the Eternal, as responsible and as free to worship God, so far as human agencies or interferences are concerned, as though no other being but himself dwelt upon the earth. Christianity, uncorrupted, presses upon man his personal, his individual relations to eternity, telling him to "work out his own salvation," and thus makes it a matter entirely between himself and his God.
Hence its announcement was not to kings or magistrates; to a convocation of rules or a hierarchy of priests. It chose no organized power as its oracle. It sanctioned no assumptions of human authority in spiritual concerns. Replete with blessings boundless and eternal, with all that could elevate and adorn a fallen humanity; shedding the light of truth on man's ruin and redemption; unfolding the future and perfection of his being, and flinging an everbrightening radiance over the grandeur of his destiny, Christianity was and is her own revealer; her own oracle; attending herself the heaven-lit fires that burn upon her altar.
Passing by, without a word or a look of recognition, the exalted ranks of principalities and powers, thrones and dominions, she unvailed her beauty and whispered her message of mercy to the obscure, the despised, the pious poor. She visited the haunts of the people, and not the conclaves of priests or the palaces of kings. From the hill-tops, by the shepherds, her songs were first heard. Amid poverty in the manger she took up her abode. She uttered her voice in the streets, and in the fields, in the fisherman's hut on the sea-shore, and in the chief places of concourse in the city. Leveling or ignoring all artificial distinctions, Christianity places each man on an equal platform before his Maker, equally dependent, equally responsible, and therefore equally free. This is the great conservative principle of human society, the freedom of the soul, a principle whose elements Christianity concentrates and proclaims.
Where, then, shall we expect to behold Christianity, robed in her pure forms, lifting her laureled brow and gathering up her trophies?
"Go walk where she hath been, and see The shining footprints of her deity, And feel those godlike breathing in the air Which mutely tell HER SPIRIT hath been there."
Truth flourishes where freedom is. On a fair field, single- handed against the serried hosts of error, her victory is sure.
Well, where did the truth flourish most? Let a foe to Baptists answer:
"In the times of general liberty this opinion (of Baptists) grew mightily." (Wall, ii, p. 317.) Yes, in the times of general liberty it grew mightily; and even beneath the withering blast and fiery thunderbolts of despotism, though often riven, it could never be uprooted.
Such a time of general liberty was that glorious epoch known as the Protestant Reformation. Night had long wrapped in darkness and tyranny a sleeping world. Suddenly, as at the trump of God, men everywhere awoke and struggled to roll off the weight that was crushing them. Simultaneously in Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Spain, throughout Europe, mighty men rose up pleading for truth and freedom. But the history of the Reformation is known. Its results are all around us. Protestant Episcopacy, and that branch of it called Methodism, Presbyterianism through all its subdivisions, and Lutheranism, all Reformed or Protestant Churches, are the results of that mighty awakening and revolution. The Church of Rome they reformed. In it these Reformers were baptized, and its materials were used in the new formation.
And truly great men were these Reformers, these founders of the present Protestant Churches. From the monk of Wittemberg, from the valleys of the Alps, from the plains of France, the notes of soul-freedom rung forth. These notes were heard amid the mountain glens, in the forest depths, by thousands sheltered in remote obscurity, who came forth at the cheering call and owned themselves - BAPTISTS. Is this so? Let their opponents decide. Mosheim says this:
"The true origin of that sect which acquired the denomination of Anabaptists, by their administering anew the rite of baptism to those who came over to their communion, and derived that of Mennonites, from that famous man to whom they owe much of their present felicity, is hidden in the depths of antiquity, and is of consequence difficult to be ascertained. This uncertainty will not appear surprising when it is considered that this sect started up suddenly in several countries at the same point of time, under leaders of different talents and different intentions, and at the very period when the first contests of the Reformers with the Roman pontiffs drew the attention of the world, and employed all the pens of the learned in such a manner as to render all other objects and incidents almost matters of indifference."
(The Anabaptists) "not only considered themselves descendants of the Waldenses, who were so grievously oppressed and persecuted by the despotic heads of the Romish Church, but pretend, moreover, to be the purest offspring of the respectable sufferers, being equally opposed to all principles of rebellion on the one hand, and all suggestions of fanaticism on the other."
"It may be observed," continues Mosheim, "that they are not entirely in an error when they boast of their descent from the Waldenses, Petrobrussians, and other ancient sects, who are usually considered as witnesses of the truth in times of general darkness and superstition. Before the rise of Luther and Calvin, there lay concealed in almost all the countries of Europe, particularly in Bohemia, Monrovia, Switzerland, and Germany, many persons who adhered tenaciously to the doctrine, etc., which is the true source of all the peculiarities that are to be found in the religious doctrine and discipline of the Anabaptists." (Mosheim's History of the Anabaptists, p. 490-1).
These words of the learned Pedobaptist historian we have given in full, for all ought to know them.
The Baptists "started up suddenly in several countries at the same point of time, at the very period the Reformers drew attention of the world." They came not from these Reformers, for they started up at the same point of time, and according to Mosheim, "they were not satisfied with the reformation proposed by Luther. They looked upon it as much beneath the sublimity of their views, and, consequently, undertook a more perfect reformation; or, to express more properly their visionary enterprise, they proposed to found a true church, entirely spiritual, and truly divine." (Mosheim's History of the Anabaptists, p. 492).
They did not commence with Menno Simon, for when first he attended the Anabaptist assemblies, says Mosheim, he was a Popish priest; "and not till 1536 did he throw off the mask and publicly embrace their communion." They came not from Rome. They had not received baptism from her priests, and attempted no reformation of her dead, corrupting form. Where did these Baptists come from? The unchallenged words of Mosheim, already quoted, answer the question, "concealed in almost all the countries of Europe before the rise of Luther and Calvin." Let us illustrate his statement by a rapid glance at the places of their concealment.
In the year 1539, the thirteenth of the reign of Henry VIII, the following enactment was promulgated:
"That those who are in any error, as Sacramentarians, Anabaptists, or any others that sell books having such opinions in them, once known, both the books and such persons shall be detected and disclosed immediately to the king's majesty, or one of his privy council, to the intent to have it punished without favor, even with the extremity of the law." (Fox's Martyrs, vol., ii, p. 440).
This was soon after the bands which attached Henry to Rome were severed. It was the first dawn of the Protestant Reformation in England. Henry had divorced Catharine, and married Anne Boleyn. The effects of his quarrel with Rome emboldened the Baptists to leave their hiding- places, "and," says, Fox, speaking of the influence of Anne Boleyn over Henry, "we read of no persecution nor any abjuration to have been in the Church of England, save only that the Registers of London make mention of certain Anabaptists, of whom ten were put to death in sundry places of the realm, A.D. 1535; other ten repented and were saved." (Martyrology, p. 956, Ed. 2).
Here, then, were Baptists coming out from their concealment at the very first dim dawn of the Reformation, when Henry first broke with the Pope, because he would not grant him a divorce from Queen Catharine. The following year a convocation sat, and, after some matters relating to the king's divorce had been debated, the lower house presented to the upper house a list of religious heresies which prevailed in the realm, specifying those of the Anabaptists. Among its items are:
"1. Infants must needs be christened, because they are born in original sin, which sin must needs be remitted, and which only can be done in the sacrament of baptism.
"2. That children or men once baptized, can or ought never to be baptized again.
"3. That they ought to repute and take all the Anabaptists, and every man's opinion agreeing with said Anabaptists, for detestable heresies and utterly to be condemned." (Dr. Wall, vol. ii, p. 309).
The truth, like an over-burning altar fire, thus lived unquenchable in concealment, "or," as says the persecuting Dr. Featly, who wrote against the Anabaptists in 1645, "if it broke out at any time, by the care of the ecclesiastical and civil magistrates, it was soon put out. But of late this sect has rebaptized hundreds of men and women together, in the twilight, in rivulets and some arms of the river Thames." (Ibid, Infant Bap., vol. ii, p. 316).
"They were found," says Bishop Burnett, "in almost every town and village in England." "They were emboldened," says Durham, as quoted by Dr. Wall, "and their great increase is accounted for by the partial toleration in religion."
The fact stated by Mosheim is thus verified: Baptists lay concealed in almost all the countries of Europe before the rise of Luther and Calvin. They lay concealed in thousands in England, and came forth at the first note of partial freedom.
Where, then, did the Baptists come from?