Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John (d.1612)

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SMITH or SMYTH, JOHN (d. 1612), the Se-baptist and reputed father of the English general baptists, was, according to the principal authorities, matriculated as a sizar of Christ's College, Cambridge, on 26 Nov. 1571, graduated B.A. in 1575–6, was afterwards elected a fellow of his college, and commenced M.A. in 1579 (Cooper, Athenæ Cantabr. iii. 38; Dexter, True Story of John Smyth, p. 1). Francis Johnson (1562–1618) [q. v.] is said to have been at one time his tutor (Young, Chron. of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1844, p. 450). But Johnson was not matriculated as a pensioner at Christ's College until April 1579. The suggestion that the Se-baptist was the John Smith of Christ's College who commenced M.A. in 1593 does not seem well supported (Arber, Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1897, p. 131). Smyth was ordained a clergyman by William Wickham, bishop of Lincoln between 1584 and 1595. In a sermon ad clerum preached by him on Ash Wednesday 1585–6 Smyth advocated a judaical observance of the Sabbath. He was consequently cited before the vice-chancellor of the university and heads of colleges, and in the end he undertook to interpret his opinion of such things as had been by him doubtfully and uncertainly delivered, more clearly, in another sermon ad clerum, first submitting it to the vice-chancellor for his approval (Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, ii. 415). The Se-baptist must not be identified, as has been alleged, with the clergyman named Smith who was confined for eleven months in the Marshalsea in 1597; the Christian name of that divine was William. The Se-baptist was preacher or lecturer in the city of Lincoln from 1603 to 1605. During the latter year he separated from the established church after nine months of doubt and study. According to his own account, he held at Coventry, with Masters Dod, Hildersham, and Barbon, a conference ‘about withdrawing from true Churches, Ministers, and Worship corrupted.’ In 1606 he established a congregation of separatists at Gainsborough. This church or congregation was not organised on the lines of the ‘Holy Discipline,’ but upon original principles. Its pastor held that Scripture knew of but one class of elders, in opposition to the ‘Holy Discipline’ theory of the three separate offices of pastor, teacher, and elder. Smyth was known to William Brewster [q. v.], and the ‘gathered church’ meeting at Brewster's residence, Scrooby Manor, Nottinghamshire, was formed on lines suggested by Smyth.

In or about 1608 Smyth, with his wife and children and his congregation, left Gainsborough and went to Amsterdam, where they joined Francis Johnson [q. v.] and Henry Ainsworth [q. v.], who had been his tutor. His arrival produced further dissension in the already agitated English congregation at that place. Smyth imbibed with avidity the doctrines held by the Dutch remonstrants, and, throwing off the Calvinistic doctrines, embraced Arminianism. At the same time his peculiar sentiments on baptism, with his practice, procured for him the appellation of the Se-baptist, because at a solemn religious service, held probably in October 1608, he performed the rite of baptism upon himself and afterwards baptised others, to the number of about forty. His opinions, which frequently and rapidly changed, involved him in controversy with Joseph Hall (afterwards bishop), Henry Ainsworth, Richard Bernard, John Robinson, Richard Clifton, John Paget, and Francis Jessop. He was a fearless and an able, though by no means a courteous, disputant. He styled the ‘ancient exiled church’ at Amsterdam the ‘ancient brethren of the separation,’ and his own community he called ‘the brethren of the separation of the second English church at Amsterdam.’

A few months after he had baptised himself, Smyth moved on to another plane of thought and action, first suspecting, and then affirming, that they had all been in error in holding the right to baptise and—in his own phrase—to church themselves. Further modification of his theological views accompanied and exaggerated this difficulty, which soon constrained the majority of the new church to excommunicate Smyth and twenty or thirty who thought with him. Smyth and his excluded friends sought admission into a church of the Mennonites, who, however, refused to receive them. Thereupon he and his little congregation took refuge in a room at the back of the ‘great cake-house’ or bakery belonging to Jan Munter. Meanwhile, some time after his arrival at Amsterdam he began to practise physic. He died there of consumption in August 1612, and on 1 Sept. was buried in the Nieuwekerke. On 20 Jan. 1615 what remained of his company was admitted into one of the Mennonite churches. For a short time a separate English service was held by them in the cake-house, but they soon became absorbed among the Dutch, leaving no trace in history of separate existence.

The somewhat shadowy claim popularly advanced in Smith's behalf to be the father of the English general baptists appears to rest on his authorship of some of the earliest expositions of general baptist principles that were printed in England. The titles of his published works are: 1. ‘A True Description out of the Word of God of the Visible Church,’ 1589; reprinted in Allison's ‘Confutation,’ in Lawne's ‘Brownism turned the inside outward’ (1603), in Wall's ‘More Work for the Dean’ (1681), and separately 1641, 4to. 2. ‘The Bright Morning Star, or the Resolution and Exposition of the Twenty-second Psalm; preached publicly in four sermons at Lincoln,’ Cambridge (John Legat), 1603, 8vo. 3. ‘A Patterne of True Prayer. A learned and comfortable Exposition or Commentarie upon the Lords Prayer,’ London, 1605 and 1624, 8vo, 452 pages. Dedicated to Edmund Sheffield, lord Sheffield (afterwards Earl of Mulgrave). Apparently every copy of the first edition has disappeared. 4. ‘The Differences of the Churches of the Separation: containing a Description of the Leitourgie & Ministerie of the Visible Church,’ 1608, 4to. 5. ‘Parallels, Censures, Observations, appertaining to Three several Writings: (1) “A Letter to Mr. Richard Bernard, by John Smyth;” (2) “A Book entituled The Separatists Schism, published by Mr. Bernard;” (3) “An Answer to the Separatists Schism,” by Mr. H. Ainsworth,’ London, 1609, 4to. 6. ‘The Character of the Beast, or the False Constitution of the Church discovered in certain passages betwixt Mr. R. Clifton and John Smyth concerning true Christian Baptism of New Creatures or New-born Babes in Christ: and False Baptism of Infants born after the Flesh. Referred to two propositions: (1) That Infants are not to be baptised; (2) That Antichristians converted are to be admitted into the True Church by Baptism,’ 1609, 4to. 7. ‘A Reply to Mr. R. Clyfton's “Christian Plea,”’ 1610.

In the library of York Minster there is a tract without title or date, and believed to be unique, containing ‘The last book of John Smith, called the Retractation of his Errors and the Confirmation of the Truth;’ and ‘The Life and Death of John Smith,’ by Thomas Pigott; as well as John Smyth's ‘Confession of Faith,’ in one hundred propositions. The last was replied to by John Robinson of Leyden, in his ‘Survey of the “Confessions of Faith.”’ The whole tract was reprinted in Robert Barclay's ‘Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth,’ London (1876, pp. 117 and 118).

[Arber's Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, 1897, p. 630; Bodleian Catalogue, iii. 498; Brook's Puritans, ii. 195; Crosby's Hist. of the English Baptists, i. 91–9, 265–71, Appendix, p. 67; Dexter's True Story of J. Smyth, the Se-Baptist, Boston, 1881; Bernard on Ruth, ed. Grosart; Bishop Hall's Works (Pratt), vii. 171; Hanbury's Hist. Memorials of the Independents; Howell's State Trials, xxii. 709; Hunter's Founders of New Plymouth, pp. 32 seq. 160; Ivimey's Hist. of the English Baptists, i. 113–122, ii. 503–5; Neal's Puritans, i. 302, 349, 422; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. vi. 529; Strype's Annals, iii. 341, iv. 134 fol.; Taylor's General Baptists, i. 65 seq.; Watt's Bibl. Brit. under ‘Smith;’ Wilson's Dissenting Churches, i. 21, 28 seq.]

T. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.254
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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70 i 5 Smith, John (d. 1612): for Brooks's read Brook's