Baptists are one of the largest Protestant groups in Christianity. Defining Baptists is a difficult task because one of the hallmarks of Baptists is their diversity. Baptists in the United States alone are divided into some 50-plus major groups with a total membership of well over 20 million people. They are divided by such concerns as ethnicity, theology, and cultural issues. Divided as they are, they share a common heritage as well as practices and beliefs. The Baptist religion represents well the diversity of contexts that are potentially involved in the origin and development of a religion.
Baptist beginnings are associated with John Smyth (1554-1612), a Separatist Puritan minister in England. As a Separatist, Smyth was convinced that the Church should be separate from the English Crown. As a Puritan, he believed that the Church of England needed further purification from the remaining vestiges of Catholicism. His views were contrary to the Anglican Church of that time, and rather than face persecution, he fled to Holland with his London congregation. While there, he was influenced by Mennonites, who converted him to their view of believer's baptism. Believer's baptism is the belief that infant baptism is not biblical, and therefore should be discontinued. In its place they argued for what they believed was the biblical model for baptism in which a new convert first professed his or her new faith and then was baptized. In practice, this meant that usually only adults or teens would be baptized, never infants. This was a radical notion since infant baptism had been practiced almost exclusively for at least a thousand years. Smyth is responsible for articulating two core Baptist principles-this idea of believer's baptism, and the idea of religious liberty. He also founded the first Baptist church while in Holland.
Thomas Helwys (1550-1616), another minister who fled to Holland with Smyth, helped in the founding of the first Baptist church. When Smyth decided to join this Baptist church with the Mennonites, Helwys decided that he did not want to participate and wanted to remain separate. So, in 1611, Helwys returned to England where he founded the first Baptist Church in East London. In 1612, his work A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity was published. In this work Helwys articulates the first claim in English for absolute religious freedom. He stated that King James had no authority over the spiritual matter of persons' souls. Because of his views, Helwys was eventually imprisoned where he died in 1616. His associate John Murton continued the work of Helwys, and by 1644 there were forty-seven Baptist churches in England preaching believer's baptism and religious liberty. Henry Jacob began another strain of Baptist life (1563-1624) in 1616. Jacob was pastor of a Puritan church. He did not want to completely separate from the Anglican Church, but he did begin to embrace believer's baptism. His theological background, like that of many Puritans, was greatly influenced by the theology of John Calvin. Referred to as Reformed theology, these Puritans embraced such theological ideas as predestination (all human destinies, in this life and the next, are predetermined by God) and limited atonement (the atoning work of Christ is limited to only the elect, those predetermined before the beginning of time).
These views were not acceptable to the earlier Baptist churches started by Smyth and Helwys, who were more influenced by Arminian theology (named after Jacob Arminius who argued against Calvinism and for the place of human free will). This disagreement over free will or predestination is the first division among Baptists. While they agreed on such things as religious liberty, and especially on believer's baptism, they disagreed about the idea of free will and how deterministic God was.
Baptists in the Smyth-Helwys tradition came to be known as General Baptists, arguing that the atoning work of Christ was a general atonement available to all people who would accept it. Baptists in the Henry Jacob tradition came to be known as Particular Baptists, arguing that Christ's atoning work was only for a particular group, those elected predetermined before the beginning of time. This tension between the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists still exists today. Early Baptists were more concerned with the theology of baptism and the spiritual state of the one being baptized than they were with the actual practice. By 1640, Richard Blunt, who was in the Particular Baptist vein, became convinced that total immersion of the new convert was the correct biblical symbol of remembering the burial and resurrection of Jesus. By 1641, baptism by immersion was the standard practice in several Baptist churches in the London area. A Baptist presence arrived in North America at about this time in the person of Roger Williams (1603-1683). Williams was a Cambridge-educated Puritan chaplain who came to Boston in 1631. He began preaching a message of separation of church and state in the nonseparating Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1635, he was banished from the colony for what were termed "erroneous views," such as supporting the Native Americans' rights as owners of the land, that Anglican ministers should not be listened to, and that civil magistrates' power extended only to "the outward states of men."