Where Did Baptists Come From? A Brief Case for Spiritual-Kinship

What Saith Baptists?

Where did Baptists come from? There are many different theories out there:

  • English Separatism. Some say that the Baptist identity, as it exists today, is an outgrowth from 17th century English Separatism
  • Anabaptist Origins. Some say that Baptists have their origins in the Anabaptist movement from the 16th century
  • Spiritual-Kinship. Others say that Baptistic churches, to greater or lesser extent, have always existed since the church has been founded
  • Unbroken Succession. Still others claim that there has been a sure, certain and unbroken chain of true Baptist churches since the time of the apostles

This paper will not evaluate each position. I will simply put forth my own modest case for believing in the Spiritual-Kinship view of Baptist origins. This position is simply stated by Jack Hoad:

“Making a full allowance for the failures of those early baptistic witnesses for the truth, we conclude that the Holy Spirit has continually raised up a biblical witness against apostasy and to a surprising extent those upsurges have borne a common testimony, majoring on those principles of faith and order which are characteristically Baptist, or what is even more important, the marks of true apostolic Christianity.”[1]

Thomas Armitage adds:

“So, likewise, the unity of Christianity is not found by any visible tracing through one set of people. It has been enwrapped in all who have followed purely apostolic principles through the ages; and thus the purity of Baptist life is found in the essence of their doctrines and practices by whomsoever enforced.”[2]

“Truth calls us back to the radical view, that any Church which bears the real apostolic stamp is in direct historical descent from the apostles, without relation to any other Church past or present.”[3]

 What is a Baptist?

Baptists are not a denomination, as such. A denomination has a united, common confession and a creed. It has a hierarchy and layers of authority. It has periodic meetings and issues edicts that the churches are required to follow, or be at risk of expulsion. In short, a denomination controls its churches, in some form or fashion. No Baptist ought to submit to this. We’re autonomous, not monolithic. Basically, I think it is safe to say that that the Baptist is not defined by a list of distinctives per se, but by a philosophy of ministry.

“Baptists, let it be repeated, are not in essence a denomination at all. Their ‘stripes’ or ‘spots’ may be deep-dyed but are not all found uniformly and consistently in all those families of Christians called by that name . . . One clear factor, which is emerging in thus ecumenical age, is that Baptists, true Baptists, are uncomfortable bedfellows. Their inherent nonconformity and rugged independence is liable to wreck the best laid schemes to merge into one the many strands of professed Christianity in the world.”[4]

Baptists are concerned with the purity of the church, and simply abiding by what the New Testament says about the church – nothing more and nothing less. Jack Hoad bluntly stated, “the Baptist Identity is therefore defined by the thorough-going submission to the Word of God in everything, with the consequent rejection of all else that has no explicit requirement in scripture.”[5] What does it means to be concerned with the “purity” of the church? This is where the various acrostics of “Baptist distinctives” come into play. All the Baptist acrostics (both BAPTIST and BRAPSIS2) exist to explain what the New Testament teaches about the church. The distinctives do not, in and of themselves, explain the Baptist identity. They are not infallible “marks” of a Baptist. They merely elaborate on what the New Testament teaches about the doctrine of the church.

“From their earliest manifestations, they have been a protest movement against any over-riding authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical. They stand for the simplicity of the New Testament order of local independent churches. Not that they are isolationists for they have readily recognized like-minded churches and sought to express their inherent responsibilities towards each other. They have, however, persisted in there being one only God-appointed basic unit, the local church, with no overlordship of any kind, other than that of Christ Himself, who is the Head of the Church. It is this, taken with the insistence on a regenerate, believing and baptized church-membership, which makes that primary distinctive of Baptist churches. This is the Baptist doctrine of the church.”[6]

To define what a Baptist is, and to therefore answer the question ‘where did Baptists come from,’ it is necessary to set aside detailed acrostics and distill and crystallize what the Baptist philosophy is. They are:[7]

  • The supremacy, sole authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures in all matters of Christian faith and practice, which translates into a complete obedience and submission to . . .
  • The Biblical Doctrine of the Church and a willingness to be always reforming our church polity, practice and philosophy to that ideal

A Baptist believes the Bible is the only place where the doctrine of the church (and all that entails) is taught. The distinctives flow from that principle:

“Where scripture rules there can be no marriage to the state, no shared rule with the magistracy, no subservience of the local church to denominational structures or officialdom, no use of force of any kind to compel faith, no unwilling or unconscious ‘baptisms’ and no compromise with erroneous bodies.”[8]

Notice that Hoad touched on all of the so-called “Baptist distinctives” in this brief explanation. Obedience to Scripture will yield every single Baptist distinctive without exception. Insofar as a local church pursued the NT doctrine of the church, it was a baptistic church.  This is why the so-called Spiritual-Kinship theory of Baptist origins is correct. There is massive evidence that various separatist groups throughout church history have struggled, to greater or lesser extent, to cast off the doctrines of men and follow a distinctly Biblical church polity.

The Struggle for Purity – Separatist Groups

The Novatians

In the mid-3rd century, the Novatian schism arose in the aftermath of religious persecution. Should church members who apostatized during persecution be re-admitted to fellowship? Novatians insisted the apostates not be re-admitted. They were separatists who took church membership seriously. Rome developed her own ecclesiology partly in response to this challenge.

“The Novatianists considered themselves the only pure communion, and unchurched all churches which defiled themselves by re-admitting the lapsed, or any other gross offenders. They went much farther than Cyprian, even as far as the later Donatists. They admitted the possibility of mercy for a mortal sinner, but denied the power and the right of the church to decide upon it, and to prevent, by absolution, the judgment of God upon such offenders. They also, like Cyprian, rejected heretical baptism, and baptized all who came over to them from other communions not just so rigid as themselves.”[9]

Thomas Armitage wrote:

“The Novatians demanded pure Churches which enforced strict discipline, and so were called Puritans. They refused to receive the lapsed back into the Churches, and because they held the Catholics corrupt in receiving them, they re-immersed all who came to them from the Catholics. For this reason alone they were called ‘Anabaptists,’ although they denied that this was rebaptism, holding the first immersion null and void because it had been received from corrupt Churches.”[10]

As Justo Gonzalez has put it, “the issue was whether purity or forgiving love should be the characteristic note of the church.”[11] The Novatians were worried about the purity of the church, and took the Bible’s commands for church discipline and membership seriously.

 The Donatists

This schism was once again about the purity of the church, specifically those who has apostatized amidst persecution. We have more information about these folks than the others. They were concerned about:

  • Church membership (true believers)
  • Separation from impure fellowships
  • Church purity
  • Godly ministers
  • A free church mindset (autonomy)

“The Donatists championed a church which was pure, a church was intolerant of those elements which would contaminate it. A chief emphasis of the Donatists was upon the holiness of the church.”[12]

The tale of the Donatist controversy is too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that they stood firm amidst intolerance and persecution – because they believed what the Bible taught about the church. Augustine, when gentle persuasion failed, turned to force to achieve his aims.

“. . . by his misuse of the words of Luke 14:23, ‘Compel them to come in,’ Augustine, during this time, set forth teachings that would ultimately make him the first widely influential churchman to assert and argue the doctrine that the power of the state can legitimately banish separatist Christians in favor of the Catholic Church and transfer their properties to the Catholics.”[13]

Schaff’s words here are excellent:

“The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people. It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness.”[14]

As Beale has observed, “[t]he orthodox Donatists’ only crimes were separation and rebaptism.”[15]

 The Medieval Era

It’s easy to scour historical records, searching for something “Baptist” to hang one’s hat on. “We may attribute to them more light and knowledge than they really believed, thus adopting too rosy-hued a viewpoint.”[16] You see traces of concern for a pure church from groups in the medieval age. The Albigenses thought the Roman Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon.[17] The Paulicans “were really ‘men who were disgusted with the doctrines and ceremonies of human invention, and desirous of returning to the apostolic doctrine and practice.’ ”[18] The Waldensians were likewise very concerned about the purity of the church and believed in separation from false teaching. Pickering concludes that “[i]n the study of these dissident groups, the doctrine of the ‘gathered’ church, that is, the church of the regenerate only, comes to the fore time and again.”[19]

 The Anabaptists

“They thought that the Reformers stopped half-way, and did not go to the root of the evil. They broke with the historical tradition, and constructed a new church of believers on the voluntary principle. Their fundamental doctrine was, that baptism is a voluntary act, and requires personal repentance, and faith in Christ. They rejected infant-baptism as an anti-scriptural invention. They could find no trace of it in the New Testament, the only authority in matters of faith. They were cruelly persecuted in Protestant as well as Roman Catholic countries. We must carefully distinguish the better class of Baptists and the Mennonites from the restless revolutionary radicals and fanatics, like Carlstadt, Muenzer, and the leaders of the Muenster tragedy.”[20]

One scholar says that Anabaptists “were the main forerunners of ‘sectarian Protestantism,’ and their views on religious liberty are today common currency among free church groups.”[21]

In the main, the orthodox Anabaptists believed:

(1) Church members had to be regenerate, and therefore only believers could be baptized. “By baptism the believer comes under the discipline of a Biblical people, and if the door of entrance is closely watched a strong and true church can be maintained.”[22]

(2) Separation. If you’re concerned about a pure church, then it means that separation is sometimes necessary

(3) Church discipline, which is rooted in the concern for the purity of the church and its members. “Spiritual government rests, in the end, upon the threat of expulsion from the congregation of believers: the Ban. In some cases this may have meant social ostracism, but generally it meant the loss of privileges within the brotherhood.”[23]

(4) Soul liberty. Because of incessant persecution, Anabaptists firmly believed that a man ought to be left alone to worship God as he sees fit. For example, Schaff writes that in Zurich the Anabaptists were forced to baptize their infants:

 “The magistracy decided against them, and issued an order that infants should be baptized as heretofore, and that parents who refuse to have their children baptized should leave the city and canton with their families and goods.”[24]

“The blood of these poor people flowed like water so that they cried to the Lord for help.… But hundreds of them of all ages and both sexes suffered the pangs of torture without a murmur, despised to buy their lives by recantation, and went to the place of execution joyfully and singing psalms.”[25]

Baptists have inherited this insistence on religious liberty from the Anabaptists. “The concept of religious freedom was implicit in the Anabaptist movement. They, as well as others within that which has been called the ‘Radical Reformation,’ insisted that one’s personal religious commitment was between himself and God alone and that the nature of the Christian faith, discipleship, and the church demanded complete freedom.”[26]

Estep well remarks, “[i]f we can learn anything from the Anabaptist experience, it should teach us that coercion makes no true Christians, but, as Roger Williams said three centuries ago, only hypocrites.”[27]


There have always been groups throughout the ages who have sought to go “back to the Bible” for their ecclesiology. Insofar as a group actually followed the New Testament doctrine of the church, they were baptistic (to greater or lesser extent). The Baptist “denomination” (philosophy would be a better term) is not an invention of 17th-century English separatism.

Leon McBeth writes that Baptist viewpoints certainly did exist before that time, but “[t]he seventeenth-century Baptists did not invent these doctrines; they rediscovered and articulated them afresh for a new era.”[28] This is specious reasoning. Baptist ecclesiology is Biblical ecclesiology. To say that the Baptist identity did not form until the 17th-century is to suggest that every single local church, to some extent, was not following the New Testament pattern up until that time. Nothing could be more outrageous.

McBeth anticipates this accusation, and retorts that “one should distinguish between faith assumptions and historical evidence.”[29] To follow McBeth’s reasoning, one would also have to conclude:

  • The doctrine of justification by faith first came about during the Reformation. The Reformers didn’t invent the doctrine, but rediscovered and articulated it afresh for a new era. No church must have actually taught the doctrine as a whole before the Reformation, because it wasn’t neatly packaged and systematized until that time.
  • The deity of Christ came about at the Council of Nicea. They didn’t invent the doctrine, but rediscovered and articulated it afresh for a new era. No church must have actually taught the doctrine as a whole before that time, because it wasn’t neatly packaged and systematized until then.

I could go on, but the point is made. Just because a doctrine is systematized at some later date, it does not follow that the doctrine was not taught, believed and practiced prior to that date. If it is a Biblical doctrine, men everywhere have taught, believed and practiced it to some extent. This is why I believe in the Spiritual-Kinship view of Baptist origins.


[1] Jack Hoad, The Baptist (London, UK: Grace Publications, 1986), 24.

[2] Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (New York, NY: Bryan, Taylor & Co., 1890; reprint, Watertown, WI: Roger Williams Archive, n.d.), 1.

[3] Hoad, The Baptist, 2.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 17.

[6] Ibid, 10-11.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Ibid, 17.

[9] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:196.

[10] Armitage, History of the Baptists, 178.

[11] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, combined ed. (Peabody, MS: Prince Press, 2007), 1:90.

[12] Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 20.

[13] David O. Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 2013), 1:376.

[14] Schaff, History, 3:365.

[15] Beale, Historical Theology, 1:376-377.

[16] Pickering, Separation, 29.

[17] Ibid, 31.

[18] Ibid, 33.

[19] Ibid, 39.

[20] Schaff, History, 7:607.

[21] Franklin Littell, “The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution of the True Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950), 33.

[22] Ibid, 36.

[23] Ibid, 37.

[24] Schaff, History, 8:82.

[25] Ibid, 8:84.

[26] William Estep, “The Reformation: Anabaptist Style,” Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993), 201.

[27] Ibid, 206.

[28] Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1987), 61.

[29] Ibid, 62.