A confession to start off this week: I like Baptist history…a lot. So, I will try to keep this from being a nerdy, bore you to death venture into the depths of our history. Wish me luck!
Contrary to the beliefs of some, our heritage does not link us to John the Baptizer, the cousin of Jesus. Sorry. However, there were Baptists in the Bible. Just look at all of the complaints! Okay, seriously, there were some very strong origins to our particular strand of Christianity. Our convictions regarding the baptism of believers by immersion is how the early church in Acts operated. But, contrary to some who believe there is a direct succession from John to us, there is well over 1,000 years of church history between the early church and our Baptist beginnings.
Baptists, as we understand them today were part of the Reformation that swept through Europe in the 15th and 16th century. We can trace our history back to some early reformers called the “Anabaptists” or “re-baptizers”. From figures like Ulrich Zwingli and Balthasar Hubmeier, we begin to see some key departures from the Catholic church as things begin to boil in the early 16th century. These forerunners to the modern day Baptists argued for the freedom of the conscience (a break from Calvinistic reformers), believers baptism by immersion (a break from Catholicism, Lutheran reformers, and Calvinistic reformers), and the priesthood of all believers.
At this point, I want to highlight a couple of key aspects to these early reformers, especially as it pertains to the Great Commission and who we are today.
- Our Anabaptist forefathers, specifically the Swiss Brethren of the 15th century, were vocal about the Gospel and justice in society. Unlike many of the magisterial reformers (i.e., John Calvin), these believers did not seek to take over society, but desired to transform society by advocating Gospel change and discipleship. Ulrich Zwingli argued vehemently against the practice of selling indulgences by the Catholic Church. This practice, also repudiated by Martin Luther, levied a “temple tax” on low income families to “pay off” their sins. One of our German Anabaptist fathers, Thomas Müntzer argued against the exploitation of peasants and was killed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. Hübmaier was a daunting figure for the Anabaptists in arguing for the freedom of the conscience for both believer and heathen. He wrote extensively against the state established church and argued that the state had no authority or right to punish someone on the basis of their religious belief. This was a decisive break from the Catholic run governments of Europe, the magisterial reformation of John Calvin, and the establishment churches that Martin Luther began to set up in Germany and northern Europe. This is a major theme throughout Baptist History and we will see it develop in America with the establishment of the First Baptist Church in America under Roger Williams in Providence, RI in 1640.
- The freedom of the conscience, as argued by the Anabaptists, was fueled by the invention of the Gutenburg printing press in 1440. This press allowed for people to have access to the Scripture for themselves. I will call it a control mechanism, but the only opportunity that Europeans had to hear Scripture was through the Catholic Mass. Several issues arise from this. First, the Mass was conducted in Latin and many of the parishioners did not understand Latin. Second, interpretation of the Scripture had to come through the Priest, which would always be in accordance to what the Catholic Church purveyed. Third, you could not read the Scripture for yourself. When you combine all of these, you end up with a flawed system that manipulates and leaves out the personal ability to grasp the Word of God. The printing press was a major step in getting the Word of God into the hands of individual believers in their own language. Think of it this way: When you read the Word of God for yourself, the Holy Spirit of God will bring to your heart and mind conviction concerning Who He is and what He requires. Now that people were able to read this for themselves and understand it for themselves, a new challenge rose within the Church: proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation in His name, not in the Catholic Church.
Now we are getting to a new direction for the Church. Previous conquests and ventures were in the name of the Pope or under papal authority. As Christians became more and more aware of the Gospel and the true teaching of Scripture, we begin to see evangelism rise as a priority among churches. Missions begin to spread throughout the world from these European countries because Christian disciples were grasping the idea that salvation was truly by Christ Jesus alone, not by the Church. Baptists in Europe begin to form solid associations and congregations beginning a new venture as a “denomination” with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys in the early 1600s.
I want to break here because our Baptist heritage really takes the priority of missions from this point. Next week, we will talk over some of the missions strategies that lead up to the foundation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. And, yes, we will discuss some of the unfortunate and ungodly reasons for our break from churches in the northern US. From there, our journey will highlight Southern Baptist missions over our 175 years together and we will wrap up in three more weeks with a challenge for the next generation as Great Commission Baptists. To end, I want to leave you with a quote from Balthasar Hübmaier concerning the role of prayer in our endeavor to fulfill the Great Commission: “We should pray and hope for repentance, as long as man lives in this misery…A Turk or a heretic is not convinced by our act, either with the scrore or with fire, but only with patience and prayer.”
I hope you will make this a prayer for Fairburn and Georgia as we proclaim Jesus.
 Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003), 19.
 Leonard, 20.
 William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1963), 53.