by the late Norman H. Wells
The history of the ancient churches is very obscure. Much of the early recorded history was either lost or destroyed. A great part of the history that remains was changed to suit the interests of the Roman Catholic Church. All of church history has been involved in much controversy and was subject to the whims and fancies of each particular age.
In a very broad outline we want to look at the history of the church.
The First 300 Years of Church History
Jesus Christ, during His earthly ministry, founded the first church in Jerusalem in approximately the year 30 AD.
This first church was commissioned to go forth preaching the gospel, winning the lost to Christ, baptizing and teaching the converts and establishing new churches.
On the pages of the New Testament we find the record of the growth of Christianity and the founding of many New Testament churches.
Nero, the Roman Emperor, blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome in 64 AD. and began the first of ten persecutions the Christians were to receive at the hands of the Romans.
Despite all the persecution, Christianity grew. At the end of the first 300 years the religion of Jesus Christ was established all over the then known world. There were churches in every town and community.
The Progress of Error During The First 300 Years
In the first two centuries the individual churches rapidly multiplied and some of them became very large. The church at Jerusalem had possibly as many as 50,000 or more members!
These large churches each had several preachers or elders. Some of these bishops or pastors began to assume authority over smaller churches. This corrupted the original democratic policy and government of the churches and led to the kind of hierarchy we see in the Roman Catholic Church today.
In the first two centuries the false teaching of “baptismal regeneration” began to spread. This error led to infant baptism and many other errors.
It has to be remembered that these changes did not come about all in a day, nor within a year. They came about slowly and never within all the churches. Some of the churches vigorously repudiated these errors.
About the middle of the third century the lines were clearly drawn. Those churches that remained loyal to the Scriptures were now clearly separate from those that had gone into error and apostasy.
Constantine ruled as Emperor of the Roman Empire from 306 to 337 AD. and his reign was to mark one of the great turning points in church history.
During a battle in 312 AD. Emperor Constantine believed he had a vision of a flaming cross and above it the words, “By this sign thou shalt conquer.”
He decided to fight under the banner of Christ and Christianity came into favour in the Roman Government.
In 313 AD. Constantine gave a call for all the churches to come together and pronounced himself as the head of the churches.
Many, but not all, of the churches came. The true churches would have no part in this error.
This hierarchy or body of church rulers, that Constantine formed was the definite beginning of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the errors of Catholicism had already had their beginning but now they were organized into a definite system.
Constantine made “Christianity” the “State Religion.” Up until this point the persecution of the Christians had been done either by Judaism or Paganism. Now came a change. Christians (in name) began using the law to compel all Christians to join the organization. The true churches that refused were persecuted.
The division was now complete. The true churches refused to line up with the errors of the “state church.” The church of Constantine became what we know as Roman Catholicism. Baptists were never part of Roman Catholicism. They remained true to the Scriptures and rejected the error.
After the organization of the churches into a hierarchy and their acceptance as a “State Religion” the true, loyal churches that rejected this error were identified by various names.
It is not to be understood that each of these groups was entirely free from error or entirely embraced the truth. Through these groups can be traced the people called Baptists. In these groups is to be found the true church — not in Catholicism.
Montanist … Paulician … Novationist … Paterines … Donatist … Albigenses … Anabaptists … these were some of the names used to identify those who refused to identify with Rome.
The Dark Ages
The period from 426 AD. to 1628 AD. is called the “Dark Ages.”
With the establishment of the new Catholic temporal power a bloody persecution began. Loyal, New Testament churches, by whatever name they were called, were hunted and hounded to the utmost limit by this new Catholic power.
The now established Catholic Church began a war of extermination upon all who opposed her.
It is reliably reported that 50,000,000 died of persecution during the Dark Ages.
During the bloody times of persecution, as Catholicism tried to exterminate the true churches, many of the false doctrines of the Catholic church of today began to take place.
The Inquisition 1198-1700
The Inquisition was instituted by Pope Innocent III and perfected under Pope Gregory IX. It was a “Church Court” established by the popes for the trying and punishing of “heretics” … a heretic being anyone who did not agree with Roman Catholicism. The inquisition lasted for 500 years and was a time of indescribable horror.
During all this persecution Baptist churches continued to exist.
The conditions within the Catholic Church had become so corrupt that many voices were raised within the church in protest. Among these voices was that of John Wycliffe (1320- 1384), John Huss (1373-1415), Savonarola (1452-1498), Zwingli (1484-1531), John Knox (1505-1572), John Calvin (1509-1564), and Martin Luther.
The combined effort of these men, along with many others, brought about the Reformation.
All these Reformers started new churches. This was the beginning of Protestantism. All Protestant churches had their beginning in the period of the Reformation or since that time.
Baptists continued to exist through the Reformation as they had since the time of Christ. Since the Reformation the Baptists have had a glorious history. There are over 23,000,000 Baptists in the United States and they are also found in over 100 different countries.
C. H. Spurgeon on Perpetuity
“We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our 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. We have always existed from the very days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel underground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents. Persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a Government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor I believe any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man. We have ever been ready to suffer, as our martyrologies will prove, but we are not ready to accept any help from the State, to prostitute the purity of the Bride of Christ to any alliance with the government, and we will never make the Church, although the Queen, the despot over the consciences of men”. (From The New Park Street Pulpit, Vol.VII, Page 225).
“History has hitherto been written by our enemies, who never would have kept a single fact about us upon the record if they could have helped it, and yet it leaks out every now and then that certain poor people called Anabaptists were brought up for condemnation. From the days of Henry II to those of Elizabeth we hear of certain unhappy heretics who were hated of all men for the truth’s sake which was in them. We read of poor men and women, with their garments cut short, turned out into the fields to perish in the cold, and anon of others who were burnt at Newington for the crime of Anabaptism. Long before your Protestants were known of, these horrible Anabaptists, as they were unjustly called, were protesting for the ‘one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.’ No sooner did the visible church begin to depart from the gospel than these men arose to keep fast by the good old way. The priests and monks wished for peace and slumber, but there was always a Baptist or a Lollard tickling men’s ears with holy Scriptures, and calling their attention to the errors of the times. They were a poor persecuted tribe. The halter was thought to be too good for them. At times ill-written history would have us think that they died out, so well had the wolf done his work on the sheep. Yet here we are, blessed and multiplied; and Newington sees other scenes from Sabbath to Sabbath.
As I think of your numbers and efforts, I can only say in wonder – what a growth! As I think of the multitudes of our brethren in America, I may well say, What hath God wrought! Our history forbids discouragement.” (From the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1881, Vol. 27, page 249.)
By Norman H. Wells
It is an established fact of history that as far back as the fourth century those refusing to go into the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and refusing to accept the baptism of those baptized in infancy, and refusing to accept the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” and demanding rebaptism for all those who came to them from the Hierarchy were called “Anabaptists” — rebaptizers.
The Origin of the Anabaptist Churches
A. For the first century or so, nearly all the churches remained comparatively pure in doctrine and practice.
1. With the growth of error concerning church government, doctrine, ordinances, etc., there came a widening of the separation between those churches departing into error and those remaining loyal.
2. Those churches who remained loyal were called ”Anabaptists” from the very beginning.
3. One of the first great errors to divide the churches was ”baptismal regeneration” and “infant baptism.”
B. As all the groups who bore many different names held true to “believers baptism” they were all called Anabaptists. The Montanists, Novatians, Donatists, Paulicans, Henricans and Arnoldists were all Anabaptists.
C. Near the beginning of the 16th century, the ”Ana” was dropped, and the name shortened to simply “Baptist,” and gradually all other names were dropped.
D. No definite beginning can be ascribed to the Baptists of today this side of Christ Himself.
1. First, all churches were true New Testament churches believing and practicing the doctrines held by Baptists today.
2. For centuries the loyal, true, New Testament churches were called by many different names and were always classified “Anabaptist.”
3. The Baptists of today are a continuation of this line.
The Character of the Anabaptists
A. Never in any age, did the Anabaptists form any hierarchy that bound their churches together.
1. No one leader ever spoke for all of them.
2. In every age they remained free, independent churches governed by the rules of democracy.
B. Not all the churches that were called Anabaptist remained true to the New Testament. Each age and each locality had its deflections and errors but it is marvellous to see how the truth was preserved through these churches.
C. With no connecting link of communication and with no history to go by, these churches scattered all over the world and in every age all fit into the same pattern of doctrine and practice.
1. All this was accomplished without any centralization of authority, establishment of hierarchy, etc.
2. This is the miracle of the fulfilment of God’s promise, “the gates of hell shall not prevail.”
The Persecution of the Anabaptists
A. The Anabaptists were always hated and despised by those who sought to bring about the establishing of error.
B. During the 1,200 years of the “dark ages” it is stated that fifty million died of the terrible persecution. The great majority of these were Anabaptists.
C. During this period it is recorded that along one single European highway, thirty miles distance, stakes were set up every few feet along this highway, the tops of the stakes sharpened, and on the top of each was placed the gory head of a martyred Anabaptist!
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