The theological movement represented by the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries were reflected in the life and writings of men who all lived and died in continental Europe. These men were “first-order theologians, many of them martyrs, who were shaping Baptist teachings by what they did”, rather than what they could theorize. The incredible thing about their lives and their works is that all was done within the border of “Christendom”, albeit on the fringe. Men like Sattler, Simons, Grebel and Hubmaier; who lived their irreducible convictions publically; challenged the established theologians; and gave their lives on the firm belief that martyrdom was simply part of the cross Christ called Christians to bear. Highlights will be brought forth, in this writing, to give a glimpse into the theological battle in which these men found themselves on the front line.
Converted scholar and humanist, Conrad Grebel, a Swiss Anabaptist displays his fiery convictions, as well as, his willingness to be corrected, in a letter to Thomas Munster. One of the more notable arguments against Munster’s methods was the translating of song into the German tongue, for the purpose of congregational singing. No matter, how much one may disagree with his conclusion that singing should not be allowed in the congregation; one must concede to the heart of his arguments which honor the Scriptures and seek to safeguard the believers from falling into unbiblical practices. The heart of the argument is as follows, “whatever we are not taught by clear passages or examples must be regarded as forbidden, just as if it were written: ‘This do not; sing not’.
You can hear the same heart and tone in Balthasar Hubmaier, a hero of early Anabaptist faith, when he argues against the practice of Infant Baptism. In a splendid volley of argument he urges Oecolampad to concede to the clear words of Scripture. “Infant baptism is against scripture, for what is not with the Scripture is against Scripture. Or point out where the Scripture commands baptizing children.” To which Hubmaier’s opponent replied, “I want to do it”. To which Hubmaier replied, “Who has so entirely bewitched you that you do not look to truth?”
In the Schleitheim Confession, Michael Sattler wrote that Scriptural baptism was to be administered to those “who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ…” So strongly was this belief in regenerate baptism by the men of that day, until it lead them all to concur with Sattler, when he further stated, “This excludes all infant baptisms, the highest and chief abomination of the pope.”
To be fair, there were other troubles in the establishment of “Christendom” in those tense days. There were even some just as highly abominable, like indulgences or the power of the sacraments to save; but each “season” or century in church history, to be sure, had its anthem. The Seventeenth Century saw a change across the landscape of old establishment in all of Europe. Catholics and Protestants took their shots at one another to the point of war. As war brought on violence, death, poverty and a whole host of “justifiable sins”, the Baptist camp was heralding for the cause of separation and obedience to Christ. This separation began to witness a turbulence among it’s theologians of salvific importance, namely the divide among Calvinism and Arminianism. This divide gave birth to two groups who were then known as General Baptists and Particular Baptists. Other “denominations” found their footing in this period of church history as well. There were lines clearly drawn as well as those lines that were more blurred.
One of the thinkers that sprang from this period was the self-titled “unlettered and simple man” John Bunyan. “Bunyan is claimed by both the Congregationalists and Baptists.” Although the Bedford congregation of which he was the un-ordained pastor, practiced but did not require believers’ baptism. He was author, of what is possibly the greatest Christian work outside of Scripture, Pilgrim’s Progress. A chapter from this classic is exhibited in Baptist Roots, which describes the prevailing thought of the need of careful examination of one’s walk and profession before he could be accepted in to the Church by a congregation. This comes to expression when Christian comes to the Porter of the Palace Beautiful. Porter says to Christian, “”Well, I will call out one of the virgins of this place, who will, if she likes your talk, bring you into the rest of the family, according to the rules of the house.”
Freedom from state persecution sprang forth in the following Eighteenth Century. Along with this came a waning of spiritual fortitude. Apathy, theological lethargy, and ecclesiastical entropy scarred this era of toleration and material accumulation. There was witnessed a decline of Baptists across Europe. But the landscape of America was seeing a Great Awakening at both the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and the revival meetings of Whitfield and Wesley. The Baptist Mission Society was formed in 1792 and its first missionary, William Carey was sent to India. “Baptists, who had been despised in previous years, now found themselves at the forefront of the revolutionary movement, with strong leaders.” Much of what came from this formative time in American history would set the Baptists on a course to establish them as the leading denomination in the world. However it would seem that England would see the diminishing of English Baptists for which the hype- Calvinists are largely to blame. Time and space would fail of providing volumes of example of this very thing, not only in England but in America, as well.
A “free church” effort can be seen in the Nineteenth Century. This Century was heralded by many to be the Great Century. These were the days of Baptist thought that pictured the apostolic church as a missionary church. It was not the earlier mindset of “extending Christian Civilization; but rather, evangelizing and converting unbelievers.” It was also times of facing some difficult theological challenges which were brought on by the Enlightenment. Charles Darwin introduced a theory called “Evolution” that threatened to shake, predominately undereducated Baptist pastors to the core. Yet, God would prevail by blazing a bright and shining light through the revivals of Charles G. Finney, D.L. Moody as well as others. It was this “season” of evangelical revival that challenged Protestants to be “born again.”
However, it is the opinion of the present author that many historians misse the mark when dealing with the century that followed. Even though a few godly Baptist men beat the drum for a righteous church; the “born again” mentality of the previous era reduced largely to a church of tradition and hollow religion. The days of prohibition drew a divided line all across the American culture. And by the time of the great depression, Americans were looking to politicians and government for salvation from ruin. Sadly, a scant few were crying out to God in repentance and brokenness.
The World Wars brought great wealth and prosperity to a nation that formerly had been eager to strive vigilantly for the freedom to worship a Holy God. By the end of the Second World War, a nation free from the Great depression, was no longer marching to “Onward Christian Soldiers”; but rather “Happy Days are Here Again”. Although, the days seemed to mark the Great Falling Away in American Baptist life; God was not left without a witness. Mighty men of God were rising up to call a nation unto God. The Forties saw the simple Gospel call of the great evangelist Billy Graham. In the same decade, a fiery young Baptist preacher by the name of Percy Ray, from Myrtle Mississippi, emerged to warn and to plead with a backsliding America to repent and turn to God. The Ministry of this great man of God must have, surely slipped under the radar of many. It was due to Dr. Ray’s ministry that State Capitols as well as the Federal Capitol found hundreds on their steps praying and pleading for a revival like those of Finney and Edwards.
Then there was the resurgence led by Dr. Pressler and Adrian Rodgers; the Moral Majority led by Dr. Jerry Falwell The Secular Humanism, Liberalism and Feminism of the Sixties and Seventies threatened to snuff out the Christian life of a once evangelistic nation. All of these men rose up at a time when the spiritual pulse of Baptists and a nation was critically low. Through radio and television God sent the heralding voice of men like Rogers and Falwell into the living room of nearly every home in the nation.
Craig Layton is pursuing a BA in Christian Studies with a Great Commission Minor. He is a conference speaker and Revivalist who speaks to issues from Christian Worldview issues to how to prepare for genuine revival within a body of believers. He is senior pastor of Leary Baptist Church in Leary Georgia; which is presently experiencing a protracted season of true God sent revival.. Married for 6 years to his wife Kimberly, they have two children and two grandchildren. You can follow Craig on Twitter at twitter.com/Pastor_COLayton. And on Facebook at facebook.com/craig.layton72