Baptist origins: questions, yet two realities

A portion of K. Scott Culpepper’s new book, Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence (Mercer University Press, 2011) got me thinking about Baptist origins again and the debate that is still raging about this area of Baptist history. Were the earliest Baptists in organic continuity with the New Testament, or were they indebted to the Anabaptists as well as the Puritan/Separatists have been the ruling questions in much of this discussion. It has never been solely a matter of historical research, as the resignation of Southern President W.H. Whitsitt in the early part of the last century reveals. But politics aside, surely the two realities are these:

1) When all is said and done, whatever connection the earliest Baptists had with the Anabaptists, it was minimal. If Anabaptist writings were being read, they were definitely not being read heavily (indubitable proof of this is the paucity of quotes from their works in the seventeenth-century Baptists). What was being read by the earliest Baptists were the books of their Puritan contemporaries. This is a given. This means that the overwhelming major influence on early Baptist thought and piety and praxis was Puritan thought and spirituality.

2) The General Baptists were a minor force in seventeenth-century Baptist life and future influence was provided mostly by the Particular Baptists. Like it or not, this is also a given. If I want to know then something about classical Baptist witness, I need to read the Particulars and become conversant with their thought.

Neither of these affirmations means that the Baptist study of Anabaptist thought is misguided or a waste of time: the retrieval of Anabaptist convictions for contemporary witness may very well be helpful. But it is vital to know that Anabaptist influence cannot be retrieved from the English and Welsh Baptists of the seventeenth century.