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History of UK Baptists

Organised Baptist life in England had two distinct beginnings in modern times.

  • In 1611 Thomas Helwys led back from Amsterdam a small group who a few years earlier had sought religious freedom in Holland and who there formed themselves into a Separatist church – under the leadership of John Smyth – practising believers’ baptism. Helwys was the author of the Mistery of Iniquity, the first English printed book to plead for full religious freedom. The successors of Helwys and his friends became known as the General Baptists. They were Arminian in theology but their church order was previously independent but modified by the appointment of inter-congregational officials known as “Messengers”.
  • In 1633 a group connected with a Calvinistic Separatist church in London broke away on adopting believers’ baptism. This was the origin of the Particular Baptists. They remained Calvinistic in theology but their church order was of the more “independent” type.

The first Baptist Church in Wales was founded in 1649 at Ilston, near Swansea. Baptists had founded work in Ireland by the mid-seventeenth century and in Scotland by the mid-eighteenth century.

A “New Connexion” of the more evangelical General Baptists was formed in 1770 under the influence of the Methodist revival by Dan Taylor; certain General Baptist churches remained aloof, however, and of these the majority became Unitarian.

The late eighteenth century also witnessed a resurgence of evangelistic zeal amongst the Particular Baptists, as a result of the influence of Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and others whose Calvinism was actively evangelical in spirit.

The formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, whose first missionary William Carey went to India in 1793, was the most notable fruit of this renewal of Particular Baptist life.

The influence of the BMS led in its turn to the formation in 1812-13 of the first Baptist Union amongst Particular Baptist churches. The Union had an uncertain early history, but after its re-formation in 1831-32, Particular Baptists and General Baptists of the New Connexion began to draw more closely together. This process culminated in 1891 when, when the General Baptists of the New Connexion, under the leadership of John Clifford (1836-1923) amalgamated with the Baptist Union.

Certain churches have remained more strictly Calvinistic, and in general have refused to receive any at the Lord’s Table who have not been immersed as believers. They are known as Strict Baptists, usually, and have three regional Associations of Strict Baptist Churches. The Strict Baptist Assembly continued until 1976 when they joined the Assembly of baptised churches, holding the Calvinistic doctrine of Sovereign Grace to form the Grace Baptist Assembly.

The Baptist denomination has, over the years, spread to many lands and is today one of the largest Protestant communions in the world, linked in the fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance, formed in 1905.

Note: The text above is based on an unattributed short history of UK Baptists in the Baptist Union handbook 1990-91. A good place to look for more about the history of the Baptist denomination in England is: English Baptist History and Heritage by Roger Hayden published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain as part of the Christian Training Programme.

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