A Dictionary of Dissent: B (part 1)
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Date: 22 May, 2008

John Bunyan. Picture: Wikipedia Commons ( public domain)

'Early members were champions of religious freedom for all.'


Andrew Chapman continues his voyage through British and Irish sects and schisms


The history of Baptism in Britain is a complicated one of division and subdivision - and subsequent union.

The main concept that unites them theologically is a belief in adult baptism, generally through immersion in water.

The movement has its origins in ANABAPTISM (see A in this series), but has long dissociated itself from that term.

Baptism is Britain is generally held to have been founded by John Smyth, a Church of England priest ordained in 1594 whose dissenting views led him to flee to Holland.


There, in around 1609, he issued a declaration of faith stating the two main doctrines of Baptism to be: "to receive all their members by baptism upon the confession of their faith and sins"; and "baptism in no wise appertaineth to infants".

Early members were champions of religious freedom for all. Smyth died in 1612, but his followed Thomas Helwys returned to England and founded the first General Baptist church in Spitalfields.

The name 'general' came from a belief in general atonement, ie salvation being possible for anyone receiving faith in Christ.

This theology led to a split only 20 years after the Baptists were founded, with Particular Baptists founding c1633 and adopting a Calvinist viewpoint of predestination, ie salvation only available to the 'elect'.

Both groups were persecuted under Charles II, then given freedom to worship under the Toleration Act of 1689. In 1770, the General Baptists split into the New Connexion under Dan Taylor, with the old church moving to a UNITARIAN (see later in this series) theology.

Meanwhile, Particular Baptists split into Strict or Reformed Baptists, though there were some overlaps. The Strict Baptists held to 'strict' or closed communion, ie open only to baptised believers (John Bunyan was a Particular Baptist exception to this rule).


The Strict Baptists had no formal structure, but key figures included William Gadsby, John Kershaw and John Warburton, all active in the mid 19th century.

The Reformed Baptists, meanwhile, were of the 'particular' persuasion, and held to the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

In 1813, the Baptist Union was founded, bringing most Particular Baptists together under one umbrella. The General Baptists were only united with them in 1891.

The Union has three core principles, namely belief in Jesus, baptism, and evangelism. Needless to say there are still some baptist groups not part of the Union, and a full genealogy of Baptism, if such a thing is possible, would require a very complicated diagram.


Henry Barrow (or Barrows, or Barrowe) lived in the second half of the 16th century, and was an early separatist from the Church of England.

He initially trained as a lawyer, then was profoundly influenced by a sermon he heard c1580 and became a strict Puritan. He joined the congregation of leading separatist John Greenwood, but was imprisoned himself when visiting Greenwood in the Clink in London.

Barrow spent six years in the Fleet Prison, where he wrote religious tracts and denounced the bishops as oppressors. Barrow advocated the end of the Church's elaborate hierarchy in favour of a simple structure based around elders.

He and Greenwood were executed in 1593. Many of their followers went to the Netherlands, and others became founders of the Congregational Church of New England.


English Behminists were 17th century followers of the German Lutheran mystic Jakob Boehme, who died in 1624 and held that the Fall was a necessary part of history.

Many of them later merged with the QUAKERS, or had FAMILIST beliefs (see later in the series for both).

Next time: from British Israelites to Bryanites

Read the introduction to this series, and the previous part

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