John Smyth
Bornc. 1554
Diedc. 28 August 1612 (aged c. 57–58)
Alma materChrist's College, Cambridge

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

Early life

Smyth is thought to have been the son of John Smyth, a yeoman of Sturton-le-Steeple, Nottinghamshire.[1] He was educated locally, most likely under Rev Quipp at Sturton though at the grammar school in Gainsborough has also been suggested. Then he attended 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] During his time as Lecturer, he held somewhat moderate Puritan views, accepting the set forms of prayer as well as both vocal and instrumental music in church. He was concerned with the influence of recusants throughout the parish, and wrote in support of the Crown's authority to govern the church and appoint ecclesiastical magistrates.[4]

In 1607, he broke with the Church of England and left for Holland where he, Thomas Helwys and his small congregation began to study the Bible ardently.[5] He briefly returned to England. 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.

It was in Holland that Smyth discovered Anabaptist theology and retained its principles, notably on believer's baptism by immersion, opposed to infant baptism and the memorial of the last Supper, opposed to consubstantiation and transubstantiation.[6]

In 1608, he published The Differences of the Churches, in which he explained the characteristics of a biblical church:[7][8]

First, Smyth insisted that true worship comes from the heart and that there should be no books other than the Bible in worship. Praying, singing and preaching should be spontaneous only. He did not read the Bible translation during worship, preferring the original language version.[9]

Second, Smyth introduced a twofold church leadership, that of pastor and deacon and said that a church could have several pastors.

Third, the financial support of the church should come only from the members and not from the government, because that would mean giving them control over the church.[10]

In 1609, Smyth, and Thomas Helwys, 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. He was utterly convinced that believer's baptism and a free church gathered by covenant were foundational to the church.[11]

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 in 1609 (for which reason he was called "the Se-baptist," from the Latin word se '[one]self') and then with Thomas Helwys proceeded to baptize the Church.[12]

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.[13] It has been suggested by W. T. Whitley that Smyth may have coined such well-known theological terms as Pedobaptist.[14]

In February 1610, Smyth and other church members wrote a letter to a Mennonite community in Waterland to join their movement.[15][16] This resulted in his excommunication from the church by Thomas Helwys. Smyth and part of the church joined a Mennonite church, while Helwys and part of the church returned to England to found the first permanent Baptist church there, in 1612. 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".[17] This is seen as a step away from fully Calvinist commitments.


He died from dysentery on 28 August 1612 in Amsterdam.[18]

See also


  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. ^ Smyth, John; Whitley, William Thomas (1915). The works of John Smyth, fellow of Christ's college, 1594-8 (Tercentenary ed. for the Baptist Historical Society, with notes and biography by W. T. Whitley ed.). Cambridge: University Press.
  5. ^ Britannica, John Smyth,, retrieved 8 June 2021
  6. ^ Sébastien Fath, Une autre manière d'être chrétien en France: socio-histoire de l'implantation baptiste, 1810-1950, Éditions Labor et Fides, Genève, 2001, p. 81
  7. ^ Doniger, Wendy, ed. (1999). Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. p. 1019. ISBN 0-87779-044-2.
  8. ^ Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite, Mercer University Press, USA, 2003, p. 54
  9. ^ Lee, Jason (2003). The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-86554-760-2.
  10. ^ Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Academic, USA, 2001, p. 253
  11. ^ Sébastien Fath, "Une autre manière d'être chrétien en France: socio-histoire de l'implantation baptiste, 1810-1950", Éditions Labor et Fides, Genève, 2001, p. 81
  12. ^ Robert E. Johnson, A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2010, p. 33
  13. ^ R R Kershaw, Baptised Believers, Nottingham University, 1995
  14. ^ Whitley, W. T. (1915). The Works of John Smyth fellow of Christ's college, 1594-8. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. vi. Retrieved 26 May 2017. W. T. Whitley, ed. (1915). The Works of John Smyth. Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press.
  15. ^ Jason K. Lee, The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite, Mercer University Press, USA, 2003, p. 87
  16. ^ T. Lyon, The Theory of Religious Liberty in England 1603–39, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2014, p. 119
  17. ^ Russ Bush, L.; Nettles, Tom J. (1999). Baptists and the Bible. ISBN 0805418326.
  18. ^ J. Gordon Melton et Martin Baumann, Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-CLIO, 2010, p. 298

Further reading