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The Baptist Movement is also Rooted in Conflict

Part 5 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

International Baptists

The first Baptist congregations appeared in the early 17th century. They arose out of a conflict in the bosom of the English reformation of the church. For many English, the reformation in their country did not go far enough. For political reasons, the English monarchs wanted a church that was somewhere between Catholicism and Protestantism. This Anglican Church still had many customs that were reminiscent of the Roman Catholic Church: priestly garments, obligatory set prayers, an episcopal system of church governance, all kinds of rituals at infant baptism, etc. 

Within the Anglican Church, a movement arose that advocated a more radical reformation. This movement – known as ‘Puritanism’ – was internally divided from the beginning. One group of Puritans wanted to remain loyal to the Anglican Church and to reform it from within. Others thought that this was a hopeless approach. They regarded the Anglican Church, because of its non-radical break with Rome, as a form of the false church which could not be improved. They seceded and formed free local congregations. These free congregations were persecuted by the English government and the Anglican Church. Many had to seek refuge abroad. Entire congregations embarked and sought religious freedom, especially in tolerant Holland.

The first Baptist group originated from these refugee congregations, which had separated from the Anglican Church. Through contacts with Dutch Mennonites some found out about the practice of baptism on confession of faith. After returning to England, they founded a congregation near London in 1612, which can retroactively be called ‘the first Baptist congregation.’ What is important in the context of this article on conflict is that the Baptist movement has its roots in a conflict within the English reformed church. In this conflict, the Baptist group chose to resolve the conflict by separation. The Baptist movement was born in conflict. The history of the Baptists shows that later they also lived from conflict. I mean ‘lived’ literally: the Baptists grew in times of political and ecclesiastical tensions. Here are a few examples:

– The first major growth of the Baptists in England occurred in the years 1630 to 1650, when Baptists enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s people’s army, fighting against King Charles I who had seized all power and oppressed the people politically and ecclesiastically. As a result of the actions of this people’s army – the soldiers sang psalms in battle against the royal troops! – the Baptist movement spread throughout England and was received with enthusiasm.

– In the 18th century, when America began its struggle for independence from the English motherland, Baptists supported this political struggle for independence. This choice in this political conflict has greatly stimulated the growth of the American Baptists.

The Baptist movement has always been in the breach in the fight for religious freedom. It was itself born in a conflict with a government that did not want to give religious freedom to Christians who were not members of the state church. The struggle for freedom of faith and conscience has led countless Christians to become Baptists over the centuries, in many situations of conflict between state and church. The Baptists have always thrived on the struggle for freedom! Thus it thrives on conflict.

Dutch Baptists

The Dutch Baptist movement was also born out of a conflict. In the 1840s, the Reformed pastor Dr J.E. Feisser had major problems in his congregation and refused to celebrate Communion with church members who were not clearly visible to be converted. He also opposed the appointment of elders who were not born again. In the course of the conflict, Feisser’s rejection of infant baptism was added. As the conflict erupted, in 1844 Feisser was removed as a Reformed minister. Baptists from Hamburg (Germany) contacted Feisser. This led to the baptism of Feisser and a group of followers in May 1845, and to the foundation of the first Dutch Baptist congregation. The Dutch Baptist churches were born out of a conflict situation within the Reformed Church, as an alternative to the established church. That’s how we were born. That’s how we still live, partially. It is no coincidence that in the current conflicts within the major Protestant churches, many concerned believers have resorted to a Baptist church. In this respect we do not deny our origins. Baptist churches are a ‘solution’ to conflicts within the major churches.

Does the history of the Baptists also have its irony?

Earlier I pointed out that the history of a spiritual conflict ironically shows the impossibility of the conflict. The history of the conflict between Israel and the Christian Church shows that, despite everything, both still need each other. The history of the Rome/Reformation conflict also makes it clear that the two cannot do without each other. Can you point to something like this in the history of the Baptists? I think so. After all, Baptist churches do not seem to be able to exist without the churches which they oppose. First of all, much of the numerical growth of our congregations comes from established churches. There is something of an irony about this. In the second place, the problems of the traditional churches do not seem to pass our congregations by. What is currently happening among us is not unique. The current polarisation among us is not unique. The various reformed denominations know all about it. In their internal conflicts the Baptist churches apparently are not a real solution. We are not that different from other churches. That should make us humble. The Baptists and the great churches cannot do without each other in the problems of our time! Baptists have always had a great openness to interdenominational and parachurch organisations. In such organisations and societies, members from all kinds of churches and faith communities find each other. They find each other by the grace of relativising the absoluteness of their own faith community and of openness to each other’s ecclesiastical tradition. I dare to interpret the openness of many Baptists to such organisations as a sign that Baptists know that they still need believers from the churches.

Olof de Vries (1941-2014) was a lecturer at the Baptist Seminary from 1981-2009 and a special professor of ‘History and Doctrines of Baptistism’ at Utrecht University from 1991-2009. He had his own characteristic way of teaching and theologizing and inspired and trained countless pastors and congregants through his lectures, sermons and articles. His consistent view of church and theology from the perspective of history is typical: how people follow their faith in time and culture. The relationship between tradition and innovation was his lasting interest, based on the conviction that tradition always contains the possibility of innovation.

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