Dissenters: B


The history of Baptism in Britain is a complicated one of division and subdivision – and subsequent union.

The main concept that unites them theologically is a belief in adult baptism, generally through immersion in water.

The movement has its origins in ANABAPTISM, but has long dissociated itself from that term.

Baptism is Britain is generally held to have been founded by John Smyth, a Church of England priest ordained in 1594 whose dissenting views led him to flee to Holland.

There, in around 1609, he issued a declaration of faith stating the two main doctrines of Baptism to be: “to receive all their members by baptism upon the confession of their faith and sins”; and “baptism in no wise appertaineth to infants”.

Early members were champions of religious freedom for all. Smyth died in 1612, but his followed Thomas Helwys returned to England and founded the first General Baptist church in Spitalfields.

The name ‘general’ came from a belief in general atonement, ie salvation being possible for anyone receiving faith in Christ.

This theology led to a split only 20 years after the Baptists were founded, with Particular Baptists founding c1633 and adopting a Calvinist viewpoint of predestination, ie salvation only available to the ‘elect’.

Both groups were persecuted under Charles II, then given freedom to worship under the Toleration Act of 1689. In 1770, the General Baptists split into the New Connexion under Dan Taylor, with the old church moving to a Unitarian theology.

Meanwhile, Particular Baptists split into Strict or Reformed Baptists, though there were some overlaps. The Strict Baptists held to ‘strict’ or closed communion, ie open only to baptised believers (John Bunyan was a Particular Baptist exception to this rule).

The Strict Baptists had no formal structure, but key figures included William Gadsby, John Kershaw and John Warburton, all active in the mid 19th century.

The Reformed Baptists, meanwhile, were of the ‘particular’ persuasion, and held to the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

In 1813, the Baptist Union was founded, bringing most Particular Baptists together under one umbrella. The General Baptists were only united with them in 1891.

The Union has three core principles, namely belief in Jesus, baptism, and evangelism. Needless to say there are still some baptist groups not part of the Union, and a full genealogy of Baptism, if such a thing is possible, would require a very complicated diagram.


Henry Barrow (or Barrows, or Barrowe) lived in the second half of the 16th century, and was an early separatist from the Church of England.

He initially trained as a lawyer, then was profoundly influenced by a sermon he heard c1580 and became a strict Puritan. He joined the congregation of leading separatist John Greenwood, but was imprisoned himself when visiting Greenwood in the Clink in London.

Barrow spent six years in the Fleet Prison, where he wrote religious tracts and denounced the bishops as oppressors. Barrow advocated the end of the Church’s elaborate hierarchy in favour of a simple structure based around elders.

He and Greenwood were executed in 1593. Many of their followers went to the Netherlands, and others became founders of the Congregational Church of New England.


English Behminists were 17th century followers of the German Lutheran mystic Jakob Boehme, who died in 1624 and held that the Fall was a necessary part of history.

Many of them later merged with the Quakers, or had Familist beliefs.

British Israelites

The notion that the British are descended from one or more of the Lost Tribes of Israel is somehow a, well, very British one, perhaps fuelled by a desire to connect this largely Celtic green and pleasant land to the somewhat distant world of the Middle East in a meaningful way.

British Israelism is not a specific sect or organisation so much as an idea that took root probably in the 17th century, then flowered a century or so later – though specific organisations have of course sprung up since.

British Israelites often lay claim to ancient documents that ‘prove’ the Israelite link, and a Dr Abade in Amsterdam asserted clearly in 1723 that if one seeks the lost tribes, one should look in Britain. In the 1790s, Richard Brothers declared he was directly descended from King David, and that most ‘true’ Jews were in fact Europeans.

The man generally regarded as the leading pioneer of these views, though, was the Rev John Wilson, who published Lectures on Our Israelitish Origin in 1840. He found parallels in English and Hebrew language and culture, and through his public lectures the idea gradually spread.

Wilson died in 1871, and Edward Hine and Edward Wheeler Bird took up the mantle, spreading the idea to the United States. Finally, in 1919 the British-Israel World Federation was set up, and it continues to this day.

In the States, the movement found harmony with the American Adventists under Herbert W Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God, famed for its distribution of the Plain Truth magazine.

British Israelites go to great lengths to establish their heritage, finding signs of ‘Isaac’ in the word ‘Saxon’, making great weight of Joseph of Arimathea’s supposed voyage to Glastonbury, and even telling a legend that St Paul visited Britain. Some have also had some interesting views about the pyramids – but we’ll save those for P.


The Brownists were followers of Robert Browne (c1550-1633) of Rutland, who became a leader of early nonconformist ‘separatists’ seeking a break from the Church of England.

He was influenced by the Cambridge-based neo-Calvinist Thomas Cartwright, then set up there and in London as a dissident preacher. In 1580/1, along with his right-hand man Robert Harrison, Browne attempted to set up a Congregational church in Norwich, with immigrant Dutch wool workers among his target audience.

In 1581 he was arrested for preaching without a licence (he had applied for one then torn it up), and later moved the congregation to Holland itself on the advice of his relative William Cecil.

In 1583 two former members of the Norwich congregation were alas tried and hanged for selling Browne’s writings, and Browne then tried to set up in Edinburgh – where he was again arrested.

Cecil later facilitated Browne’s reconciliation with the Church of England, and Browne recanted, becoming a school headmaster in Southwark and living to a ripe old age. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Andrew Aguecheek comments: “I would as lief be a Brownist as a politician.”

Bryanites (Bible Christian Church)

The Bible Christian Connection was founded in 1815 in Devon by one William O’Bryan and his 22 converts. O’Bryan was born William Bryant (but was keen to link to his Irish roots) in Cornwall in 1778, and became a keen Wesleyan preacher, spreading the word to wild corners of Devon and Cornwall previously untamed by Methodism.

His ardent and undisciplined approach led to him going it alone, but within a year he had 18 ministers and 1500 members on his side, with teams of both male and female itinerant preachers spreading the word further west to the Isles of Scilly and indeed to America.

In 1829 his despotic approach (including acquiring all church property in his own name) was rejected by them, however, and once again he went off on his own.

The movement itself continued to thrive, and by 1882 there were 300 ministers and 34,000 members, though in the US and Canada they later became absorbed by the United Methodists.

A similar process later occurred in Australia and Britain. O’Bryan continued to spread his message in America, and died in New York in 1868.