John Smyth: The Danger of Haste

JOhn-Smyth-LegacyJohn Smyth won fame from himself when he established the first English Baptist Church in 1608. Yet, few Baptists know of Smyth’s contribution to the Baptist faith because he undermined his own legacy, rapidly changing his theological convictions.

As a young man, Smyth studied a Christ College in Cambridge and was ordain by the bishop of London in 1594. Though he had been exposed to Separatists ideas in college, he remained in the Church of England, partnering with other Puritan ministers’ intent on reforming the national church.  Understandably, the Church of England took issue with Smyth’s unauthorized pleas for reform and removed him from his position as city lecturer in 1602. “Though he was loath to give offense” and did all that he could to stay in the church of England, Smyth continued to break the law. In 1606, he lost his ordination because he preached without church approval. And in 1607, he faced penalties for practicing medicine without a license. Though Smyth championed the Calvinistic doctrine of the Church of England and infant baptism, legal, clerical, and eventually financial pressures drove him to conclude that the Church of England was beyond repair and no longer a true church.

In 1607, he became one of the leaders of the covenanting Separatist’s congregation in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. He taught that the church should be founded upon a voluntary agreement between members but allowed elders to rule the congregation and permitted infant baptism. Because of persecution, Smyth and some of his congregation fled to Holland while others headed to America on the Mayflower.

Once on new soil, Smyth moved beyond separatism because he opposed elder rule, taught that tithing was an ordinance, said only Greek and Hebrew Bibles could be read during worship, and became convinced of believer’s baptism, the sprinkling of adults post conversion. Acting on his newly acquire convictions, he dissolved his Separatist church and formed the first Baptist congregation in 1609. That year, he baptized himself and then 36 others, stating that group of two to three people ordained by the Holy Spirit could start a new church. At this time, he also changed his views about original sin and predestination, repudiating his Calvinistic convictions.

Had Smyth stopped his theological evolution in 1609, more Baptists would know of him today. But, the evolution continued.

By 1610, Smyth concluded that his Baptist church was not a true church. Smyth now believed Baptism had to be performed pastor whose baptism could be traced to the apostolic era. Convinced of succession, a doctrine he had vehemently attacked only months earlier, Smyth encouraged his church to apply for membership in the Waterland Church founded by the Mennonite movement. Smyth’s church members could no longer handle his theological about-faces and split. When Smyth died in Amsterdam in 1615, the remaining members of his church joined the Mennonite church, leaving behind a tainted legacy for the Baptist faith.

Smyth’s rash application of his theological change should serve as a warning to modern pastors. In his zeal to get the Bible right, Smyth spent much of his life getting the Bible wrong. In the span of seven years, Smyth championed Anglican, Puritan, Baptist, Separatist, and Mennonite theology. With each move, he attacked those he left behind, ungraciously viewing them to be fools or servants of the anti-Christ because they rejected Smyth’s new convictions. He said the Puritans practiced a false faith because they stayed in the church of England, a church he once fought to defend. He declared that the Separatists bore the mark of the beast because they practiced infant baptism. and succession. Later in life, he criticized Baptist for not practicing succession.

During his lifetime, he both defended and attacked congregationalism, succession, Calvinism, and infant baptism. Predictably with each change, Smyth had to disavow portions of his earlier writings. Because of his doctrinal instability and harsh tone, Smyth divided his church and struggled to maintain relationships with Thomas Helwys and other close friends. Smyth’s life revealed that zeal detached from maturity harms the witness of gospel.

Paul wrote that gospel infants, “were tossed about by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” The pastor who desires to lead his church well, and the church member who values godly leadership should learn from Smyth’s haste. They should realize that bold convictions detached from prayer, patience, and counsel lead to confusion and division. As Proverbs 19:2 warns: “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” 

To lead well, the pastor must lead calmly and patiently, wrestling with truth until he has mastered it. Impatience appeared to constantly push Smyth from theological genius to theological fool. The pastor who strikes out like Smyth and begins to blog, tweet, and lecture on topics he only just encountered will harm to his church.  Often your fluctuating convictions of today cannot help but be the embarrassments of tomorrow. The life of Smyth revealed that the prudent pastor should workout his theology in his office long before he speaks about his new convictions and calls for change. Haste leads to division and fractured legacies.

Friends, have we learned the lesson of John Smyth?