An Ongoing Reformation

Protestants celebrate October 31st as “Reformation Day.” Yet, the reformers of the 16th century as well as the Puritans in America both continued to persecute Baptist Christians for simply striving to obey their Lord.

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Today, the world is celebrating Halloween and kids will be going from house to house dressed in fun costumes asking “Trick or Treat.” Many churches, though, will be having “Reformation Day” celebrations, giving kids a fun alternative to the ghoulish festivities of Halloween.

This day commemorates Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church doors of Wittenberg Cathedral 500 years ago on October 31, 1517. This event sparked the Protestant Reformation. Yet, although the Reformation did much good regarding the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, the Protestantism of the 16th century was not biblical Christianity either. The so-called “Reformation” of the 16th century was only successful in breaking from the Catholic Church because of the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg. The truth is that small sects of Christians holding to Baptist beliefs had continually protested the errs of the Papal System since its inception with Gregory the Great, the first of the “proper popes.”

I would like clarify now, though, that when I say “baptist,” I am not referring denominationally, but practically. That is, churches that reject any kind of baptism other than immersion, churches that staunchly hold to their autonomy, and that believe in the priesthood of the believer. These “baptistic” churches go back to the days when our Lord walked upon this earth and were greatly persecuted by the Catholic Church and by the Protestant churches.

C.H. Spurgeon noted thus (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1861, p. 225),

[Baptists] did not commence [their] existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther or Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves.

These “sects” of Baptist churches include the Donatists, Novatians, Paulicians, Petrobrussians, Cathari, Arnoldists, Hussites, Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards, Anabaptists, and others. While some may point to irregularities within each of these groups regarding doctrine and practice to say that Baptists err in claiming kinship with them, irregularities are to be expected though. Baptist churches are known for three distinctive characteristics: 1, believer’s baptism by immersion, 2, the priesthood of the believer, and 3, the autonomy of each church body. Therefore, it ought to be evident to clear-thinking persons that churches, independent of one another and bound together in no close organic way, when driven into seclusion and separated by persecution, would no doubt come to differ in minor matters of doctrine and polity. Furthermore, some may even depart so far from the Scriptures’ teaching as to become unworthy of the name they hold. Even the church at Corinth in the Bible had serious moral irregularities, and the church at Galatia had serious doctrinal irregularities, but neither ceased to be a true church. A church ceases to be a true church when it fails in the Great Commission, which includes the way of salvation and the way of baptism. The Roman Catholic Church fails in both counts while Protestant churches fail in the latter count, carrying over sprinkling or pouring from the Roman custom. To change an ordinance from what the Lord both commanded and did Himself is not an act of love, but indifference.

While many Protestants celebrate October 31st as “Reformation Day” and remind Catholics often of the grievous acts perpetrated by Rome, Baptists remember the heinous deeds done to them by both Protestants and Catholics. For instance, on January 18, 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, the city council led by Ulrich Zwingli decreed that all infants must be sprinkled within eight days of birth and any who refused to sprinkle their infants would be banished from the city. Another decree a few days later on January 21st forbade Baptists from meeting together or speaking in public. In response, the Baptists met together in defiance of the decree and in obedience to the Word of God which resulted in 35 being scripturally baptized within the week. Within the next two years, however, in December 1527, three Baptist leaders in Switzerland – Felix Manz, Jacob Falk, and Henry Reiman – were put to death by drowning, the council having decreed, Qui mersus fuerit mergatur (“He who immerses shall be immersed.”) The Protestant leader Gastins also wrote, “They like immersion, so let us immerse them” (De Anabaptiami, 8. Basite, 1544, cited by John Christian).

This persecution by the Protestants against the Baptists was not limited to Switzerland, however. Martin Luther, who taught in 1518 that baptism was by immersion, nevertheless defended infant baptism and eventually changed his mind, beginning to persecute Baptists in Germany. In 1529, the Diet of Speirs, composed of both Catholic and Protestant princes and heads of state, pronounced the death sentence upon all Baptists in Germany. They hated each other and did not get along even in this meeting, but they hated the Baptists more.

Then, in 1538 the Lutheran Elector of Hesse in Germany wrote to King Henry VIII of England urging him to persecute the Anabaptists. He testified, “There are no rulers in Germany, whether they be Papists or professor the doctrines of the Gospel [Protestants], that do suffer these men if they come into their hands. All men punish them quickly” (Evans, Benjamin. Early English Baptists, chapter 2).

Even the Pilgrims and Puritans who first fled to Amsterdam for religious freedom, but seeing Baptists free to worship too, they chose to come to the New World to establish their own religion. The Baptists did not have place where they were welcomed in America until March 1639 when Roger Williams was publicly immersed as a Baptist and then obtained a charter from the King in 1644 to establish the colony of Rhode Island. Elsewhere in the Americas, Baptists were continually persecuted; the first law against the Baptists in America was made in Massachusetts in November 1644. Baptists were continually driven from their homes such as Deborah Moody in 1643, or whipped like Thomas Painter in 1644. They also were publicly rebuked and fined like William Witter and John Wood of Lynn in 1646, or John Spur who was fined in 1651.

Clarence Larkin said it best when he said, “Though persecuted by others, the Baptists have never persecuted.” Yet, through it all, the Baptists still stand, the gates of hell having still not prevailed.

Christians having a baptistic understanding of Scripture know that the Reformation is ongoing; it was taking place for centuries before Martin Luther and it is still taking place today in the ecumenical age in which we live. Many Christians have become indifferent to Baptist beliefs, believing instead that the church where one attends is inconsequential to simply going to church. Yet, if that church does not “keep the ordinances as delivered” (1 Corinthians 11:2), it is not a true church. While Christians ought to strive to live in peace with all, we ought not choose peace over obedience to our Lord. As the prophet Samuel said to Saul, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). May we all be reminded this Reformation Day to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).

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