With all of the various “worship wars” going on in the Baptist church, it is refreshing to take a look back from whence we came. The first baptist church would almost be unrecognizable to us today. John Smyth, one of the first Baptist pastors (1610), wrote about the type of worship that marked “separatists” churches (those who were separating from the official church of England). In his writings, he set forth three principles of worship.
First Principle: Openness to change. The only traditions they had to follow were the traditions of the Bible, and they possessed an extraordinary openness to change as they progressed in their understanding of Scripture. When their earnestness and zeal broke through the dam of prescribed worship, they flowed over land bounded only by the Scriptures. Thus, the earliest Baptist worship was characterized by a constant search for a more biblically based worship.
Second Principle: Openness to the Spirit. The problem of quenching the Spirit was of major significance among early Baptists. Growing out of prescribed worship in which they sensed an attempt to control and squelch all movement of the Spirit of God, they reacted toward an extreme position of openness almost to the point of disorder. They never quite crossed over into chaos, however. Smyth and his friend Thomas Helwys were themselves too educated, too orderly, to allow that to happen. Their worship might be described as an orderly openness to the Spirit. Early baptists had had enough of prescribed patterns and forms which, to them, were faulty, faultless, icily regular, and splendidly null. They knew from experience that psalms could be sung without real praise, prayers could be said without real prayer, and sermons could be preached without speaking or hearing a word from God.
Third Principle: Freedom of conscience. They were unwilling to allow any human authority to superimpose religious belief upon their keen minds. This basic belief would eventually cost Thomas Helwys his life.
Smyth vigorously opposed stated prayers and even stated songs, meaning he opposed reading the prayers that someone else had written and singing the songs that someone else had penned. This might forbid the free flow of the Spirit of God who might lead one to pray something different or to sing something different.
Makes me wonder what John Smyth might think about our Baptist worship today. He might become a “separatist” again.
Source: Thomas R. McKibbens, “Our Baptist Heritage in Worship,” Review and Expositor (Winter 1983): 53-69.