Theology Thursday - Where Do Baptists Come From?


In 1867, Pastor R.J.W. Buckland delivered a conference lecture on Baptist history, which was later re-produced in the famous Madison Avenue Lectures (1867). Buckland later became a Professor at Rochester Theological Seminary and died a relatively young man, aged 48, in 1877. One contemporary obituary damned him with rather faint praise when it remarked he was “by no means a brilliant orator,” then hastened to add he was a beloved and admired member of the faculty.

In this short excerpt from his lecture,1 Buckland presents a successionist (or Old Landmark) view of Baptist origins.

Have Baptists then a history?

I answer—if the Faith once delivered to the saints has a perpetuity and a history, so that the gates of hell, however they have seemed to prevail, yet have not prevailed against it—then Baptists, who make that Faith their law, have a history.

If a people holding from age to age these fundamental doctrines—that the Bible is the supreme law of Christians; that personal faith in Christ gives salvation; that baptism in water is the covenant of a believer with his Saviour; while infant baptism, and all other commandments of men, are not to rule Christ’s followers; if such a people are Baptists, then Baptists have a history.

If the principle of Vincentius - quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus - is correct, and that doctrine which has been held always, everywhere, and by all, is vindicated as truth in history, then are the principles of Baptists the great principles of history. For all acknowledge that this maxim is not to be taken of the whole body of belief, but of that which is fundamental; not of the prevalent, but of the underlying, the unchanging, and unchangeable.

And a personal faith in the Lord Jesus gives salvation—all ages of church history being the judges. The baptism of a believer in water is obedience to Christ’s law; the gathering of baptized believers together in church relations, to be ruled by the word of God, and to maintain Christ’s ordinances, is his command—all ages of church history being the judges. A people holding such principles, so far from being unhistorical, must be recognized as resting on the fundamental principles of historic truth.

Oftentimes they have been a remnant, but so was God’s Israel of old. Oftentimes they have been left alone in the earth, while the dominant and the prevalent faith of the world was all against them, but so were God’s churches in the days of Elijah.

Oftentimes they have been a hidden people; but so was God’s church when driven in prophetic vision into the wilderness. And so they have a history, the word of God being judge.

It is the history of the Church of God, in the light of those great principles which were made essential to it in the New Testament, its charter and constitution.

It is the history of the church as Jesus Christ organized and completed it, and gave it, by his Holy Spirit, an undying vitality, and an incorruptible character, to leaven and change all ages, but not to be changed by them.

It is the history of the New Testament faith, and life, and law, and power; and of those who maintained these; embracing the perversion of these, and the consequences of such perversion; the perpetuation of these, and the Divine might which perpetuated them; the triumph of these, and of the people who triumphed through them.

The New Testament law gives us the constitution of the church complete and perfect, and the New Testament prophecies give us the outline of its entire career. From that divine foundation we cannot turn aside. If we should, we must accept the authority of a traditional faith, and a worldly development; and we should find ourselves resting on the grand principle of the papal church, while all its errors would follow in logical order; or, rebelling against papal authority without the word of God to guide us, we must yield to the spirit of a worldly philosophy, and be led into the waste of scepticism, rationalism, and moral death.

Between these two issues choice must be made. Adopting God’s word for our law, we have the Baptist Church and its history. Adopting the authority of human tradition, we have the Church of Rome and its history, with its inevitable reaction from absolutism into rationalism.

No other alternative is left us.

To God’s word then we turn, and learn the founding and organizing of that body of Christ, whose history through the ages is to be the fullness of him who filleth all in all. The New Testament gives us the church complete. The stone cut out of the mountain without hands, needs no modern workman’s tool to add an after-finish of higher beauty.

The New Covenant, written in the hearts of a people who are each personally taught of God, and have each a living faith, and who, from the least of them to the greatest, all know the Lord, has been once divinely sealed, and no man need amend or improve it. Surely it is enough to make this our model, and live and walk and act in Christ’s church, as he himself lived and taught with his apostles. If not, who will show us a more excellent way?

The first or formative period of Church History is that of the Apostolic Church.

In this, Christ is the central figure, its head and life and light. In his advent, the fullness of time was come, and the kingdom of heaven set up. By him, the nucleus of the church was gathered and fed and taught its laws and ordinances were given it by himself. By his atoning blood, he cemented its structure, and fixed its foundations deep on the everlasting love and purpose of God.

The spiritual power which should be its means of growth was imparted to it by him; and all its order and symmetry were unfolded by inspired apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, so that when the labors of the apostles were ended, Christ’s church was complete in every essential requirement for all time. Then he sealed up its divine charter, never to be added to nor taken from, and sent it forth upon its earthly mission. And no age nor exigency has shown the need of a new feature in its constitution, or shape, or spirit, which the church had not when the volume of inspiration closed.

Thus the history of the Apostolic Church is, in no true sense, rudimentary or incomplete, and after ages have added literally nothing to the church, except that, by its own inherent living, power, and growth, it spreads more and more widely to fill the world.

This apostolic period shows us, in the life and labors of Christ and his apostles, the source and organic development of the church: in their teachings and writings, its inner life, and the development of its doctrine; while lastly, in their prophecies, we have given to us the errors and corruptions which should assail it, and an outline of those mighty events which were to mark its progress through time, and a glimpse of the glories to which it should at last arrive.

Was the Apostolic Church Baptist?

I reply that as regards modern names, sects, and divisions, there were none. Christ’s seamless mantle had not yet been rent in twain. But the reality of a perfect Baptist church was there; and ever since have our churches made it their pattern, and their first obligation is to conform to this God-given ensample.


1 The Madison Avenue Lectures (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1867; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Heritage Archive, 2003), 315 – 319.


The NT itself gives us ample evidence that the church began getting things wrong right from the start — even before the start, if you look at the men who became its leaders. On the day of the Ascension, they were still confused about the nature of the Kingdom and its timing. In Acts 15, the leadership meeting in Jerusalem has to respond to widespread confusion about what to do with the Law of Moses and certain later-accumulated traditions. In Acts 10, Peter is still deeply confused about clean and clean and Gentile faith. He seems straightened out by the end of the sequence, but Paul has to correct him again during the confrontation Galatians 2 refers to. And speaking of Galatians — one of many letters written to correct problems of doctrine and practice not even one century removed from the days Jesus walked on water and healed the lame and blind.

So … I’m not sure there’s really all that much point in claiming antiquity per se, for Baptist belief and practice. As old as error is, what does antiquity prove? Other things being equal, old and continuous is better than new and contrarian, but when are other things equal?

In short, not only is the historical evidence lacking for Baptist continuity back to the apostles, but there isn’t really much value in trying to do that in the first place.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

My Seminary professor for Baptist History, when discussing Baptist origins, write in his notes:

I have been unable to find a clear statement of a view on Baptist origins prior to the appearance of this debate. This has been an issue at least since 1850, and most of the literature (both in print and on the Internet) concerns itself with articulating one position or another.

This has been my experience, too. Of course, I haven’t devoted the time to it that my Professor did, but my own pitiful research confirms this statement.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

The only clear thing about Baptist origins that I can discern from my readings is… that almost nothing is clear regarding Baptist origins. :)
The best take on it (early Particular Baptist scholars such as the Renhinans) seems to place them as arising out of the Independents of Puritan strain in some sort of dialogue with continental Anabaptists. I.e. it was messy; very messy.
PB scholars have further offered the interesting insight that the dearth of information comes from the lack of access to presses on the part of the Baptists, drawing for constituents, as they often did, on the lower-to-merchant classes. Interestingly, this often brought them into conflict with the Quakers, who drew from the same demographic. The early Baptists/Quaker fights were pretty epic, I understand.

….is the question of whether setting up tradition as authority for our theological positions has any merit. As I see things, one of the glories of Sola Scriptura and the First Fundamental is that we get to go back to the ultimate authority and fix our mistakes. If we start appealing to tradition—dipping our toes in the Tiber as it were—we automatically undermine our greatest strength. We don’t need, or want, a Magisterium of our own.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Buckland’s lecture is more rhetoric than substance.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

This is probably implicitly part of Andrew’s comment about things being messy, but it might well be mentioned that one of the reasons for a dearth of information about early Baptists is that they tended to be on the losing end of political struggles, spending a lot of time in jail and even getting slaughtered in battle.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

The Baptist Story by Chute, Finn, and Haykin.

Reviewed here. (Tooting my own horn!)

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

I lean toward origin from the English Separatists, as in McBeth’s history, but I see a bit more anabaptist mix-in than I recall seeing in McBeth.

Edit: author is H. Leon McBeth

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Don, appreciate the recommendation. I’ve been thinking about grabbing Haykin’s work. I know another Baptist history came out at about the same time, and the two books were often reviewed together. I may grab it. Thanks again!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

of why “Landmarkism” is not confined to our Southern cousins. MBU’s founding team of Cedarholm and Weeks held to the Spiritual Kinship Theory of Baptist history. And they were though going Northern Baptists.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Well, sometimes a boy baptist meets a girl baptist and they get married, and…and sometimes, baptists actually reach their neighbors for Christ.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

I’ve had a few encounters with Landmarkers who held to the Baptist Bride doctrine. I’ve also met their cousins who were known for their Baptist Pride.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan