Why the Pilgrims Should Have Been Baptists
During my continuing studies on the Pilgrims, I came across a passage that bears on the continuing debate over infant baptism. One accusation leveled against the Separatists by fellow Puritans was that they were headed towards credobaptism. This was intended as a pejorative, as there were radical Anabaptist sects around that time with some pretty nutty ideas. But as a Baptist, I actually agree – the Pilgrims should have become credobaptist. So let’s look at how the Separatist view of the church should have let them to belief in believer’s baptism.
Core to the Separatist movement was the belief that the Church of England was a false church, thus the need to separate from it. The Separatists held that churches ought not be composed of the citizens of an entire nation, wicked and righteous alike. Instead, as John Robinson, pastor of the Pilgrims said, “Every true Church of God is joined with him in holy covenant by voluntary profession to have him the God thereof & to be his people.”1 They believed that the church was based on a covenant between the members and God, setting themselves apart as a holy people to follow God. Because this in no way described the Church of England, they believed they were duty-bound to separate and form their own rightly constituted churches.
As one of Robinson’s non-separatist friends wrote to him, “Press this place and it will drive you to the Anabaptists, for why do you baptize infantes or any save such as gladly receive the word?”2 If Robinson believed churches must be founded on a covenant between those who had a testimony of being converted, why would he baptize infants, and bring them into the church, when they had no such testimony?
His critic continued by arguing that Robinson:
issues an exhortation that every member of the Church should purge himself from all filthiness … but if he do not, it follows that he is no visible member, or the Congregation (wherein he is) no true Church of God. And therefore if you will follow this place home … you must turn Anabaptist, as others have done upon the same ground.3
I believe the most prominent of the “others” who he referred to was John Smyth, another English Separatist who fled to Holland. While he did become a credobaptist, unfortunately for modern Baptists he is not an entirely sympathetic figure as he also adopted some other errors around the same time.
Robinson, of course, didn’t agree with this charge, and wrote his own defense of the theology of pedobaptism.4 We will leave that for another time, and acknowledge that his critic was right – if Robinson was consistent, he would have become a credobaptist.
1. Burrage, Champlin, etd. An Answer to John Robinson of Leyden by a Puritan Friend. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920), p. 21. Language modernized.
2. Ibid, p. 24
3. An Answer to John Robinson of Leyden by a Puritan Friend, p. 24
4. See The Works of John Robinson, vol. 1, p. 416ff.