1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Smyth, John
SMYTH (or Smith), JOHN (c. 1570-1612), English non-conformist divine, commonly called the Se-baptist, was born about 1570, and was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he proceeded M.A. in 1593. He was probably vicar of Hutton Cranswicke in the E. Riding of Yorkshire from 1593 to 1600, when he was elected lecturer or preacher of the city of Lincoln, an office of which he was deprived in October 1602 for having " approved himself a factious man by personal preaching and that truly against divers men of good place." Two volumes of his Lincoln sermons, The Bright Morning Star (1603), an exposition of Psalm xxii., and A Pattern of True Prayer (1605), were dedicated to Lord Sheffield, who had acted as arbiter between the preacher and the corporation. While preparing these books he became connected with the Separatist movement in Scrooby and Gainsborough, joined the Gainsborough church, and became its pastor. With Thomas Helwys, John Murton (or Morton) and others, he migrated to Amsterdam at the end of 1607 to escape religious persecution, and in that city practised as a physician, and became the leader of " the second English church " (see Congregationalism). About this time he wrote his Principles and Inferences concerning the Visible Church in support of Robert Browne's theory of ecclesiastical polity, which was followed by Parallels, Censures and Observations, a reply to the Christian Advertisements of Richard Bernard (1568-1641), vicar of Worksop, a puritan who remained in the Anglican church. In 1608, too, appeared The Differences of the Churches of the Separation, in which he justified his non-communion with Johnson's church on the curious ground that it was no part of primitive and apostolic order to use a translation of scripture during worship, or at any rate to have it open before one while preaching (Christ having " closed the book " at Nazareth before His sermon). Under Mennonite influence he went farther, and by March 1609 when he published The Character of the Beast, he had become a Baptist (see Baptists, sect. II.), contending against infant baptism because (1) it has neither precept nor example in the New Testament, (2) Christ com- manded to make disciples by teaching them and then to baptize them. He and his company were then faced by the dilemma that their own infant baptism did not count, and Smyth solved the problem by first baptizing himself (hence the name Se-Baptist), probably by affusion, and then administering the rite to Helwys and the others. Afterwards with 41 others he decided that instead of baptizing himself he should have been baptized by the Mennonites, in spite of their heretical view of the Person of Christ, and applied for admission to their fellowship. They were some- what suspicious of a man who had never held one position for long, and demanded a statement of doctrines, which he gave them in twenty articles written in Latin, and in The Last Book of John Smyth, called the Retractation of his Errors, together with a con- fession of faith in 100 Propositions. A friendly Mennonite al- lowed Smyth's church to meet in his bakery, but Smyth himself died of consumption in August 1612, more than two years before the remaining members of his band, by then reduced to 31, were admitted (January 161 5) into the Mennonite communion. Helwys and Morton returned to England, and established the first English Baptist churches.
Smyth was, like the other Cambridge men of his day, especially the Separatists, the bondservant of logic, and wherever he saw " the beckoning hand of a properly constructed syllogism " he was ready to follow. Yet none of those who, in his generation, took the great step had, according to Bishop Creighton, " a finer mind or a more beautiful soul. None of them succeeded in expressing with so much reasonableness and consistency their aspirations after a spiritual system of religious belief and practice. None of them founded their opinions on so large and liberal a basis." In his last declaration he expressed his sorrow for the censures he had passed on Anglicans and Brownists alike, and wrote " All penitent and faithful Christians are brethren in the communion of the outward church, by what name soever they are known; and we salute them all with a holy kiss, being heartily grieved that we should be rent with so many sorts and schisms; and that only for matters of no moment."
See J. H. Shakespeare, Baptist and Congregational Pioneers (London, 1906); H. M. Dexter, The England and Holland of the Pilgrims (London and Boston, 1906).
(A. J. G.)
- He was never vicar of Gainsborough, and must not be confused with the John Smyth who was imprisoned in the Marshalsea in 1592.