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John Smyth

John Smyth, A. M.—This zealous puritan was fellow of Christ's college, Cambridge, and a great sufferer for nonconformity. He was a popular preacher; and having, in one of his sermons before the university, maintained the unlawfulness of sports on the Lord's day, he was summoned before the vice-chancellor. During his examination, he offered to prove, that the christian sabbath ought to be observed by an abstinence from all unnecessary worldly business, and spent in works of piety and charity; though it does not appear what punishment was inflicted upon him.* A divine of his name, beneficed at Mitcham in Surrey, was a member of the presbyterian church erected at Wandsworth in that county, in the year 1572; but it is not easy to ascertain whether he was the same person. +

Mr. Smyth afterwards separated from the established church, and embraced the principles of the Brownists. In the year 1592, he was one of their leaders, and cast into prison, with many of his brethren, for their nonconformity. After being confined more than eleven months, he was called before the tribunal of the high commission, when he expressed his great surprise, that in matters of religion and conscience, his spiritual judges should censure men with imprisonment and other grievances, rather than some more christian and equitable methods. In the course of his examination, one of the commissioners asking him, whether he would go to church, he answered, that he should dissemble and play the hypocrite, if he should do it to avoid trouble; for he thought it was utterly unlawful. The commissioner then said, " Come to church and obey the queen's laws, and be a dissembler, an hypocrite, or a devil, if thou wilt."j Upon his refusal, he was sent back to the Marshalsea, some of his brethren to the Clink, and others to the Fleet; where they were shut up in close rooms, not being allowed the common liberty of the prison. Here they died like rotten sheep, some through extreme want, some from the rigour of their imprisonment, and others of infectious distempers.^ Though Mr. Smyth

* Slrype'« Annals, vol. iii. p. 341.
+ Fuller's Church Hist. b. ix. p. 103.

t Strvpe's Annals, vol. It. p. 134. $ Ibid. p. 134—13*.

survived these calamities, it does not appear at what period he was released from prison.

Previous to his total separation from the church of England, he spent nine months in studying the grounds of conformity and nonconformity;* and held a disputation with Messrs. Dod, llildcrsham, and Barhon, on the points of conformity, and the use of prescribed forms of prayer.* lie was preacher in the city of Lincoln, and afterwards beneficed at Gainsborough. In the county of Lincoln, and on the borders of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, the principles of the Brownists gained considerable ground. Two churches were formed, over one of which Mr. Smyth was chosen pastor; and over the olher Mr. Richard Clifton, who was succeeded by Mr. John Robinson.t After enduring numerous hardships and incessant persecution from the high commission, they fled from the storm, and went to Holland. Mr. Smyth und bis followers settled at Amsterdam, in the year 1606, and joined themselves to the English church at that place, of which Mr. Francis Johnson was pastor, and Mr. Henry Ainsworth teacher. It was not long, however, before a very serious breach took place. The subjects of debate, which gave rise to this division, were certain opinions very similar to those afterwards espoused by Arminius. Mr. Smyth maintained the doctrines of freewill and universal redemption ; opposed the predestination of particular persons to eternal life; as also the doctrine of original sin; and maintained that believers might fall from that grace which would have saved them, had they continued in it. He seems, indeed, to have entertained some very singular notions : as, the unlawfulness of reading the scriptures in public worship; that no translation or the Bible was the word of God; that singing the praises of God in verses, or set words, was without authority; that flight in time of persecution was unlawful; that the newcreature needed not the support of scripture and ordinances, but was above them; und that perfection was attainable in this lile.^

i Mr. Smyth differed also from his brethren on the subject of baptism. The Brownists, who denied the church of England to be a true church, maintained that her ministers acted without a divine commission; and, consequently, that

• Life of Ainsworth, p. 36.

t Cotton's Coogregalion.il Ciiuiciin, p. 7.

t Prlnce'i Citron. Hist. vol. i. p. 19, W.—Marie and Parish'* New Eng. p.«.

^ Life of Ainurorlh. p. 39.

every ordinance administered by them, was null and void. They were for some time, however, guilty of this inconsistency, that while they rc-ordaincd their pastors and teachers, they did not repeat their baptism. This defect was easily discovered by Mr. Smyth; whose doubts concerning the validity of baptism, as administered in the national church, paved the way for his rejecting the baptism of infants altogether. Upon further consideration of the subject, he wits led to conclude, that immersion was the true and only meaning of the word baptism; and that the ordinance should be administered to those only who appeared to believe in Jesus Christ. But the absurdity of Mr. Smyth's conduct certainly appeared in this, that, refusing to apply to the German baptists, and wanting a proper administrator, according to his views of the ordinance, he baptized himself; on which account he was stigmatized by the name of a Se-baptist. This is related as a fact by most of our historians; aiid one of them affirms, that he was baptized no less than three times.* Crosby has, however, taken great pains to vindicate him from the charge of having baptized himself; yet it does not appear that he has been very successful.t

Mr. Smyth's principles and conduct deeply involved him in public controvert, and soon drew upon him an host of opponents, the chief of whom were Messrs. Robinson, Ainsworth, Johnson, Jessop, and Clifton. The controversy commenced soon after his settlement at Amsterdam, and was carried on with too much asperity by both parties.} Many writers observe, that soon after this unhappy controversy broke out, Mr. Smyth and his followers removed from Amsterdam, and settled at Lcyden ; whereas it is extremely obvious, from the testimony of persons who lived in those times, and even in those places, that both he and his people continued at Amsterdam till the day of his deaths which happened about the close of the year 1610. The year following appeared, "A Declaration of the Faith of the English People remaining at Amsterdam, in Holland," being the remainder of Mr. Smyth's company: with an appendix, giving some account of his sickness and death.

^ \ * Paged Hercsiography, p. 66.—Neat's Puritans, vol. ii. p. 46.—Life of Ainsworth, p. SS—42.—Clark's Lives annexed to Martvrologie, p. 56. + Crosby's Hist, of Baptists, vol. i.p. 95—98. t Life of Ainsworth, p. 42.

I) Cotton's Congregational Churches, p. 7.—Prinee's Chron. Hist vol. i. p. 5i7.

A copy of this declaration is still preserved.* Soon after his death, his followers returned to England; and, as it is generally supposed, they were the first of those now called general baptists in this country. Mr. Smyth possessed good abilities, was a learned man, and an able preacher, but he often changed his opinions, even to the very close of life. This, however, was undoubtedly from conviction, as he himself declared. " To change a false religion," says he, " is commendable, and not evil; and to fall from the profession of Puritanism to Brownism, and from Brownism to true Christian baptism, is not evil or reprovable in itself, except it be proved that we fall from true religion."t

Mr. Smyth and his company were certainly very much reproached by their enemies. This, as well as their defence, we have from his own pen. " We," says he, " disclaim the errors commonly, but most slanderously imputed unto us. We are, indeed, traduced by the world as atheists, by denying the Old Testament and the Lord's day; as traitors to magistrates, in denying magistracy; and as heretics, in denying the humanity of Christ. Be it known, therefore, to all men; first, that we deny not the scriptures of the Old Testament, but, with the apostle, acknowledge them to be inspired of God; and that we have a sure word of the prophets whercunto wc ought to attend as to a light shining in a dark place; and that whatsoever was written aforetime was written for our instruction, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope.—Secondly, we acknowledge, that, according to the precedent of Christ's disciples and the primitive churches, the saints ought, upon the first day of the week, which is called the Lord's day, to assemble together to pray, prophesy, praise God, break bread, and perform other parts of spiritual communion, for the worship of God, their own mutual edification, and the preservation of true religion and piety in the church.— Thirdly, concerning magistrates, we acknowledge them to be the ordinance ot the Lord; that every soul ought to be subject unto them 5 that they are the ministers of God for our good; that we ought to pray for them that are in authority, and not speak evil of them, nor despise government, but pay tribute, custom, &c.—Finally, concerning the flesh of Christ, we do believe that Christ is the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of David, according to the prophecies of the scriptures; and that he is the son of Mary

* Crosby's Baptists, vol. i. and ii. Appen.

+ Smyth's Character of the Beast, Pref. Edit. 1610.

his mother, made of her substance, the Holy Ghost overshadowing her: also that Christ is one person in two distinct natures, the Godhead and manhood; and we detest the contrary errors."*

His Works.—1. Parallels and Censures, 1609.—2. 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. Christ, and false Baptism of Infants born after the Flesh, 1610.— 3.~~Differences of the Churches of the Separation.—4: A Dialogue of Baptism.—5. A Reply to Mr. Clifton's Christian Plea.