Most modern day Baptists give little thought to matters of church history or the origins of the Baptist church. But what makes a Baptist a Baptist is deeply rooted in the past and informs our present church life. Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses might have been the official starting point of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, but the ripples of the Reformation continued for decades. Theology and church practices were reformed one by one, as the clarion call of the Reformation reached far and wide. As individuals and groups separated from the Catholic Church tried to purify the church’s theology and practice, they were labeled as “separatists” or “puritans.”
One doctrinal issue and church practice dealt with baptism. While the Catholic church practiced infant baptism, many separatist groups believed the Bible taught that baptism was for those old enough to make a profession of faith and by total immersion instead of sprinkling. These separatists holding to “believer’s baptism” were nicknamed “Baptists.” One of the earliest leaders of these separatists was John Smyth. Smyth was a minister of a church who separated from the state church of England, an act outlawed by the King of England. Under persecution, the group fled to Holland. While Smyth’s church in Holland did not start out as a Baptist church, it soon became one. In 1609, Smyth led the church to adopt believer’s baptism as the basis of the church. Smyth himself was baptized, as were the other members of the church. In 1611, the group returned to England and formed the first Baptist church on English soil.
For over 400 years, one of the distinguishing marks of a Baptist is the testimony of baptism, being immersed in the image of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as a testimony to one’s personal faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. Some are baptized immediately following their conversion, while others are not afforded this opportunity for years after their conversion. But regardless of when this testimony is experienced, it is a powerful testimony to the world and to the church of the gospel message, of one’s new birth in Christ, and of one’s eternal hope in the future resurrection.