John Smyth (Baptist minister)

John Smyth (c. 1554 – c. 28 August 1612) was an early English Baptist minister and a defender of the principle of religious liberty.

John Smyth
Bornc. 1554
Diedc. 28 August 1612
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge

Early lifeEdit

Smyth is thought to have been the son of John Smyth, a yeoman of Sturton-le-Steeple, Nottinghamshire.[1] He was educated locally at the grammar school in Gainsborough and in Christ's College, Cambridge, where he became a Fellow in 1594.[2]


Smyth was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1594 in England. He preached in the city of Lincoln in 1600 to 1602.[3] Soon after his ordination, he broke with the Church of England and left for Holland where he and his small congregation began to study the Bible ardently. He briefly returned to England.

Believer's baptismEdit

In 1609, Smyth, along with a group in Holland, came to believe in believer's baptism (thereby rejecting infant baptism) and they came together to form one of the earliest Baptist churches.


In the beginning, Smyth was closely aligned with his Anglican heritage. As time passed, his views evolved. Smyth's education at Cambridge included the "trivium" and "quadrivium" which included a heavy emphasis upon Aristotelian logic and metaphysics. Smyth's evolving ecclesiology was due to his applying biblical truth about the truth into numerous logical syllogisms. He was utterly convinced that believer's baptism and a free church gathered by covenant were foundational to the church.[4]

First, Smyth insisted that true worship was from the heart and that any form of reading from a book in worship was an invention of sinful man. This rejection of liturgy remains strong among many Baptists still today. Prayer, singing and preaching had to be completely spontaneous. He went so far with this ideology that he would not allow the reading of the Bible during worship on the grounds that a translation was "...the worke of a mans witt...& therefore not to be brought into the worship of God to be read." This idea stemmed from the belief that worship should be ordered by the Spirit.[5]

Second, Smyth introduced a twofold church leadership, that of pastor and deacon. This was in contrast to the Anglican traditional hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon, and the Reformed Protestant trifold leadership of Pastor-Elder, Lay-Elders, and Deacons.

Third, with his newfound position on baptism, a whole new concern arose for these "Baptists". Having been baptized as infants, like the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation they came to believe they would need to be re-baptized. Since there was no other minister to administer baptism, Smyth baptized himself (for which reason he was called "the Se-baptist," from the Latin word se '[one]self') and then proceeded to baptize his flock. We can discount as a forgery the view of Dr. John Clifford as cited in the "General Baptist Magazine", London, July, 1879, vol. 81), records that "[I]n 1606 on 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." This account was later revealed to have been a forgery connected with the rebuilding of the Baptist Church at Crowle, where the church (now closed) still bears a plaque falsely claiming to have been founded in 1599.[6]

End of lifeEdit

Before his death, Smyth regretted the fact that he baptized himself, and wrote a letter of apology.[7] Due to some shared views, including the Christology, he began a rapprochement with the Mennonite church .[8] This resulted in his excommunication from the church by Thomas Helwys. Smyth and part of the church joined a Mennonite church, while Helwys and another part of the church returned to England to form the first permanent Baptist church in 1611.[9] Coincidentally, this was also the same year that the King James Version of the Bible was first published.[10]

The churches that descended from Helwys were of the General Baptist persuasion. Baptist historian Tom J. Nettles argues that Helwys and his group "earned the name General Baptists" because they "claimed that Christ died for all men rather than for the elect only".[11]. This is seen as a step away from fully Calvinist commitments. Smyth "eventually rejected the doctrine of original sin and asserted the right of every Christian to hold his own religious views. Among Smyth's works, is The Differences of the Churches of the Separation (probably 1608 or 1609)."[12]


It has been suggested by W. T. Whitley that Smyth may have coined such well-known theological terms as Pedobaptist and Presbyterian.[13]

It is also argued that Smyth had an influence in the historical development of the doctrine of inerrancy that Baptists almost unilaterally hold since the conservative resurgence.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lee, Jason (2003). The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. p. 41. ISBN 0-86554-760-2.
  2. ^ Cross, F.L., editor. (1997). Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (3rd ed./ edited by E.A. Livingstone.) Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press. p. 1511. ISBN 9780192116550.
  3. ^ "John Smyth". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  4. ^ Sébastien Fath, "Une autre manière d'être chrétien en France: socio-histoire de l'implantation baptiste, 1810-1950", Éditions Labor et Fides, France, 2001, p. 81
  5. ^ Lee, Jason (2003). The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-86554-760-2.
  6. ^ R R Kershaw, Baptised Believers, Nottingham University, 1995
  7. ^ James Robinson Graves, Jacob Ditzler, The Lord's Supper, Southern Baptist Publication Society, USA, 1876, page 894
  8. ^ Bernard Roussel, Encyclopædia Universalis, John Smyth, Official Website, France (consulted 01/04/2016)
  9. ^ Christianity Today, John Smyth,, USA, August 8, 2008
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Doniger, Wendy, ed. (1999). Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. p. 1019. ISBN 0-87779-044-2.
  13. ^ Whitley, W. T. (1915). The Works of John Smyth fellow of Christ's college, 1594-8. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. vi. Retrieved 26 May 2017. W. T. Whitley, ed. (1915). The Works of John Smyth. 2. Cambridge University Press.

Further readingEdit