John Smith - 'Se-baptist'?



John Smith, (more properly Iohn Smyth), was he the originator of the Baptist denominations along with Thomas Helwys?


Gal 2:4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:


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The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church states Smyth was born c. 1554, died 1612. Smyth was educated at Cambridge university and ordained in the church of England. As a Calvinist he became a puritan preacher at Lincoln (1603-5) and later a preacher at a separatist congregation at Gainsborough, which is about twenty miles north of Lincoln (1606). In 1608 Smyth led a company of people to Amsterdam, where Smith baptised himself hence the title 'Se-Baptist'.  It is stated in the  Oxford dictionary of the Christian church that he became in 1609, in Amsterdam, the founder of the first Baptist church.  He styled the community 'The Brethren of the Separation of the Second English Church at Amsterdam'. Membership was for baptised believers during which time Smyth came under Mennonite (Anabaptist) influence. He died in Amsterdam in 1612, having never returned to England. Possibly whilst at Gainsborough Smyth rejected Calvinism. The above history is easily confirmed from several sources, including that his baptism was by sprinkling or pouring. In 1612 another company of believers, possibly the first church mentioned, under Thomas Helwys returned to England, it is from this church in London that many historians date the Baptist denominations, both the General Baptists, who rejected Calvinism and the Particular Baptists, the forerunners of the Calvinist Baptists. Historians do disagree, some claiming Smith was the founder of the General Baptists only. There is no question that Smyth (Smith) has been subject to many controversies to which this web page will no doubt add to the debate.


We will now look into these claims!

Smyth had by 1605 abandoned the title 'City Preacher of Lincoln', now calling himself 'Minister and Preacher of the Word of God', a brave move in this time period for a preacher of the Church of England.

We know and will not argue that Smyth was at first a puritan and Calvinist. When he left Lincoln for Gainsborough he had rejected Calvinism. Whilst at Gainsborough he learned of baptism by immersion for believers. We learn this from a manuscript which purports to be the minutes of the Baptist Church at Epworth and Crowle (Dr. John Clifford, The General Baptist Magazine, London, July, 1879, vol. 81), was found. It records:

"1606, March 24. This night at midnight elder John Morton baptized John Smyth, vicar of Gainsborough, in the River Don. It was so dark we were obliged to have torch lights. Elder Brewster prayed, Mister Smith made a good confession; walked to Epworth in his cold clothes, but received no harm. The distance was over two miles. All of our friends were present. To the triune God be praise".

The Epworth and Crowle congregation who baptised believers by immersion for the remission of sins, started in 1597, whilst a Baptist church today, they were then associated with other congregations who denied modern Baptist doctrine wearing the identity - church of Christ and meeting each Sunday for the Lord's Supper.

Another account of this event is recorded by John Christian concerning the congregation at Epworth and Crowle in the Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire, England. The church Covenant, dated January 4, 1599, is recorded in these words:

"We, this church of Christ, meeting at Epworth, Crowle and West Butterwick, in the county of Lincolnshire, whose names are underwritten, give up ourselves to the Lord and one to another according to the will of God. We do promise and covenant in the presence of Christ, to walk together in the laws and ordinances of baptized believers according to the rules of the Gospel through Jesus Christ, so helping us. James Rayner, John Morton, Henry Helwise, William Brewster, William Bradford, elders of ye church".

There are appended thirty-two names, some with the X. It is further stated that William Bradford was "baptized in the old river Don below Epworth town at midnight, 1595." There is also a record that the church desired to leave for Holland, "where we hear there is freedom for all men."

It is further recorded:

It affirms that John Smith, vicar of Gainsborough enquired about baptism in February 4, 1604, was convinced of its truth May 7th and "at midnight on the 24th of March, 1606, he was baptized by Elder John Morton in the river Don, and walked to Epworth, a distance of two miles, in his wet clothes."

And the document also records that "John Smith, John Morton (who immersed him), Henry Helwise and others held a meeting in regard to removing the church to Holland." This was the 4th of April, 1609. Clearly Smith soon gave up his title of 'vicar'.

This account has caused great controversy amongst the Baptists. Whether the Gainsborough church practised  believers baptism we do not know. But Gainsborough is a short distance of about ten miles to Epworth. The church at Epworth would not in 1606 used the name Baptist, such churches used the identity 'church of Christ', of that there can be no dispute. We see a plurality of elders, full immersion, or baptising in the river and a walk of over two miles, at night, in the cold would not be required. We should also note that confession was required prior to baptism and that in this period, baptism was always for remission of sins. England was in this time according to the Anglican church 'infested' by those who practised believers baptism. Therefore the account should not surprise us.

Gainsborough is about fifteen miles from Scrooby, where another another such church met, they like Smyth and his friends fled to Holland. The Scrooby and Gainsborough church were in fellowship, but we know little about, except those who led these churches would become involved in two separate works. Establishing a church of Christ in London, and establishing several churches of Christ in New England, America being part of the company of the Mayflower. When the Mayflower landed in 1620, William Brewster and his family were on board. Brewster was a former elder at Scrooby, and former postmaster. He would later become instrumental in the new colony being possibly the most famous of the 'Pilgrim Fathers'. 

Interestingly John Morton, one of the elders at the Epworth congregation was involved in the London congregation started later by Thomas Helwys  in 1611/12. It was possibly at this time at Epworth in 1606 Thomas Helwys was baptised, though this cannot be proven, it seems his father Henry was an elder in the congregation.

Due to arguments and persecutions, Smyth was now a hunted man, he left with others to Amsterdam, Holland. The journey is easy, a short trip by sea. The Dutch were far more tolerant of religion and many English people had done the journey previously for many decades. This would be a natural and safe move, and being so close, would mean in future years the possibility of returning made easy.

Smyth had joined on the journey to Amsterdam with Thomas Helwys, who is one of the popular and early pioneers of Baptist history. Helwys was born in 1550 and died, 1616, in prison. Smyth had met Helwys at Gainsborough.

Shortly after Smyth arrived in Holland he repudiated his former baptism. This was probably about the year 1609. He remained convinced of believers baptism and then was excluded by the church which he had organized, leaving Thomas Helwys who became leader. At a later date Smyth applied to the Mennonites for membership, but after much discussion and disturbance among them, his application was rejected. It was the occasion of a great debate and much acrimony among the Mennonites. Letters were written by many parties and some of the Mennonite churches went so far as to formally condemn the union in severe terms. Two Mennonite preachers, Ris and Gerritz, wrote Confessions which were favourable to the Mennonites and had Smyth and others to sign them. The Confessions only dissatisfied both parties and failed to bring union of the forty-two English who signed one of them, eleven erased their names, and the gravest dissatisfaction arose over it among the Mennonites themselves. The result was that Smyth was not received by the Mennonites and the remnant of his company was only received after years of waiting, and then not without friction. Smith died in 1612 without returning to London. It is clear Smith had little influence on the churches in the UK, and the later Baptist denomination. He had been dis-fellowshipped and died in Holland. 

Thomas Helwys married Joan Ashmore and together they had seven children. He was a wealthy land owner and gave this up for the cause of Christ.

Smith and Helwys agreed on several points, church autonomy, plurality of elders, separation of church and state, baptism by full immersion for the remission of sins whereby one is added to the church of Christ.

There were serious doctrinal differences between Helwys and Smyth, for which Smith had been dis-fellowshipped, disagreeing with the following:

1/ That Christ took his flesh of Marie, having true earthlie, naturall bodie.

2/ That a Sabbath or day of rest is to be kept holy everie first day of the weeke.

3/ That ther is no succession or privilege to persons in the holie things.

4/  That magistracie, being an holy ordinance of God debarreth not any from being of the Church of Christ.

5/ Smith's self baptism at Amsterdam and the rejection of the baptism at Epworth, this is possibly what is referred to in 3.  The issue of Smith's baptism has long been argued but it seems Smith's self baptism was an error he introduced and for which he was dis-fellowshipped. Smith stated "in the Old Testament every man that was unclean washed himself; every priest going to sacrifice washed himself. Every master of a family ministered the Passover to him self and all of his family." He adds: "A man can not baptize others into the church, himself being out of the church. Therefore it is lawful for a man to baptize himself together with others in communion, and this warrant is a periphery for the practise of that which is done by us."

Sources, Estwep, The Anabaptist Story, page 222, and Thomas Helwys' book, The Mystery of Iniquity - 1612, Grays Inn, London.

Helwys demanded the the Lord's Supper be taken every first day of the week which was contrary to the Mennonites. He also rejected original sin, but it is claimed he changed his mind on this later, or someone changed at a later date one of his leaflets, it was usual to reprint tracts for generations in the 1600s and sometimes by people not in direct association with the original writer.

Whilst Baptists claim Helwys started the first Baptist Church  in London we do know this:

1/ He baptised by immersion for the remission of sins upon repentance and on confession of faith for believers, rejecting infant baptism. He called infant baptism "mystery of iniquity".

2/ Through baptism one is added to the Church of Christ.

3/ Church and State are separate.

4/ The Lord's Supper is to be taken every first day of the week.

5/ Congregations are overseen by a plurality of elders.

6/ Christ was born of Mary being incarnate.

7/ He never used the identity 'Baptist Church' but 'church of Christ'.

8/ He taught the church is the called out of God.

9/ He taught the word only in establishing doctrine.

10/ He taught Free Will, a dangerous doctrine in the early seventeenth century.

11/ Helwys rejected a succession for baptism teaching an unbaptised person can baptise, and from there the now baptised Christian can baptise his baptiser, so a church can grow through the word. 

12/ Helwys' church was established on Bible principles alone, he had rejected Augustine, Catholicism, Anglicanism and Calvinism.  His congregation wore the identity 'church of Christ', and had none of the marks of the Baptist denominations that would start to come into being thirty years later.

After establishing a congregation in London, Helwys boldly pleaded to King James for Religious Liberty.  Preparing an autographed copy of his only theological treatise, the Mistery of Iniquity, Helwys challenging the King to grant religious freedom for all men.  King James, responded by throwing Helwys in London's notorious Newgate prison where he died. The House Lords still has his plea for liberty in their library.

I will now quote from Crosby, who wrote in the 1700s "It may be proper to observe here, that there have been two parties of the English Baptists ever since the beginning of the reformation; those that have followed the Calvinistical scheme or doctrines, and from the principal points therein, personal election, and have been termed Particular Baptists: And those that have professed the Arminian or remonstrant tenets; and have also from the chief of those doctrines, universal redemption, been called General Baptists (Crosby, I. 173).

Also from Crosby "There were likewise many Baptists in England who did not choose to assume either name, because they receive what they think to be truth, without regarding with what human schemes it agrees or disagrees" (Crosby, 1. 174).

Crosby wrote of Enoch Clapham, who wrote against the church in 1608. "The Anabaptists, according to his account held, that repentance and faith must precede baptism, that baptism of both the church of England and the Puritans was invalid and that true baptism was amongst them. He says further that they complained against the term Anabaptist, as a name of reproach unjustly cast upon them" (Crosby, 1. 88).

It has been assumed by some that Smyth was baptized by affusion, and started the Baptist church with affusion as the mode of baptism. Again, Crosby comments "If he (Smyth) were guilty of what they charge with him," says Crosby, "'tis no blemish on the English Baptists; who neither approved any such method, nor did they receive their baptism from him" (Crosby, History of the English Baptists, 1.99).

In the early and mid 1700s the term 'Baptist' referred to those who baptised believers for the remission of sins by immersion. Later it would be used as a distinct identity.

We know from history that there were congregations (churches of Christ) in London and England, prior to Helwys bringing his congregation to London in 1611/12.

By the 1650s there are three distinctive groups baptising believers by immersion in England:

1/ The churches of Christ, which pre-existed Smith, Helwys and later Baptist denominations.

2/ The General Baptists and their Arminian theology.

3/ The Particular Baptists and their Calvinist theology, the forerunners of the Baptist (Calvinistic denominations).

Regarding the identity and associations of the 'Baptist Church', Crosby wrote "In the year 1683, the Baptists, who had hitherto been intermixed among the Protestant Dissenters, without distinction, and so consequently shared with the Puritans in all the Persecutions of those times, began now to separate themselves, and form distinct societies of those of their own persuasion" (Crosby, The History of the English Baptists, I. 147).

Baptist historians in their books and web sites too often remove the identity 'church of Christ' from their sources, replacing the bible identity with either 'Baptist church' or just 'church', both are a falsification of history.


John Smyth's twenty articles, his confession of faith, click on the link below:



And just where did the churches of Christ take their identity? As with all matters pertaining to doctrine, the scriptures - Romans 16:16:


According to Herbert Skeats in his book, 'History of the FREE CHURCHES of England 1688-1891' (1851, with a continuation by Charles S Miall 1891), there were congregations separated from the Church of England baptising believers in England prior to Helwys. Skeats gives the earliest date of 1417, another date he quotes is 1589 regarding several congregations (page 18).

Also according to Skeats there were no "Baptists" in England who held to Calvinism prior to about 1640 (page 32).  Skeats was an independent having no Baptist affiliations, having no axe to grind.


Conclusion - Smyth died in Holland, forming no lasting church, and no church in England. It was his friend and colleague, Thomas Helwys, who formed a church of Christ in London, along bible principles.

Neither started the Baptist church denomination, which came into being about three decades after their deaths. It is also true that churches of Christ were in London prior to the congregation of Helwys and elsewhere in Europe.

The impression left by historians is that no church of Christ existed prior to Alexander Campbell, and that Baptist churches originated with John Smyth (Smith). Other Baptist historians take a line of succession back to the church of the first century, of such a mind was Smyth.

Such is not true but revisionist history.  On investigation the Baptist Church in all of its various denominational forms was an apostate movement which came out of the churches of Christ in the 1640s, from which it spread abroad into the world.

There was no Baptist church of that name or denomination prior to the 1650s.   

Churches of Christ founded on biblical principles preceded the Baptist church from where that denomination came out, as can be with ease confirmed by the reading various confessions of faith, as published by the Baptists.


For more information of the progress of Calvinism into the Lord's Church and the important 1646 churches of Christ Calvinistic confession, regarded as the second most important 'Christian' confession made, resulting years later in the Baptist denomination/s click below:




Click on logo below to enter the John Morton and the Newgate, London congregation page:






If you have arrived here from elsewhere, click on logo below for the introduction page:



Sources used: I have used original mss and books held at the University Library Cambridge and the British Library London to confirm the accuracy of the information presented. I have also quoted from Thomas Crosby, who produced four volumes in his  "History of the English Baptists," published in London in 1738, 1739, and 1740. For Crosby the term 'Baptist' simply referred  to anyone who baptised by immersion, he did not use it in a sectarian way (preface, vol 1). I have also referred Champlin Burrages's 'The Early English Dissenters', Cambridge University Press, 1912. Other books used have been quoted above. The date of first publication is 7 June, 2007. This article has not been borrowed or taken from elsewhere.



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