Nestled on a remote hillside overlooking Axe Valley in Devonshire, England, is a small, nondescript church building. A few weatherworn gravestones surround it, many of them nearly toppled over. The roof has been thatched again and again, its walls have been repaired repeatedly through its many years. The Loughwood Meeting House has stood here since the late 1600’s and it represents one of the oldest surviving Baptist meeting houses in all the world. In this series which looks at The History of Christianity in 25 Objects, the Loughwood Meeting House points us to the existence and the rise of the earliest Baptists.
When the Protestant Reformation swept Europe and reached the British Isles, it was a Reformation of Christians we would recognize today as Lutheran, Anglican, Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian. It would take some time before we would begin to see a distinctly baptistic movement.
The earliest Baptist church was founded in Holland in 1608 or 1609 by an English pastor named John Smyth. Smyth had been ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1594, but soon found himself at odds with the church hierarchy. His zeal and his refusal to conform to Anglican doctrine and practice landed him in prison, marked as a Separatist.
When it became clear that he could no longer continue in Anglican fellowship, he relocated to Holland and it was here that he and his fellow congregants became convinced that believer’s baptism, as opposed to infant baptism, was the biblical mandate for Christians. Together they founded the first Baptist congregation and Smyth immediately baptized himself and the rest of his congregants. Smyth’s views would continue to evolve over the course of his life so they soon became almost unrecognizable as either Baptist or Anglican, but he did make at least two significant contributions to the history of the church: He led the way in introducing and practicing believer’s baptism and he introduced the model of having only two offices in the church—elder and deacon—which contrasted with both Catholic and Reformed practice.
Baptist beliefs soon spread far beyond Holland and it was not long before Baptists became a significant presence in England so that the first English Baptist church was founded by Thomas Helwys in 1612. We must note two important milestones in the development of Baptist doctrine.
In the early 1630’s there arose a division between the Particular Baptists and the General Baptists. Particular Baptists arose one generation after the General Baptists, out of an Independent congregation in London (sometimes called the JLJ Church after the initials of three of its early pastors, Jacob, Lathrop, and Jessey) that had been influenced by Calvinistic theology. Some of the members began to feel that they were conforming too much to the church of England; they began to think deeply about baptism and apparently became baptistic around 1633. The result was the formation of a new church that was reformed in its soteriology but baptistic in its practice, though at this time Baptists practiced sprinkling rather than immersion. They were known as Particular Baptists because they held to the doctrine of Particular Redemption. The second milestone came just 5 years later. In 1638 John Spilsbury, a London Baptist, would solidify the doctrine of baptism by immersion as a permanent fixture in Baptist theology. So now, by 1638, there was a generation of Christians we would recognize today as Reformed Baptists.
Life was not easy for the Separatists. Until the passing of the Act of Toleration in 1689 it was illegal to be outside of the Church of England, so many Baptist churches met in remote locations such as that distant, wooded hillside that overlooks Axe Valley.
Some of the earliest history of Loughwood Meeting House has been lost to the mists of time, but historians are certain that a Baptist congregation began to meet in this spot as early as 1653, as this is the date the first church book commences. The building was erected in the late 1600’s or perhaps the very early 1700’s on land donated by Protestant Huguenots who had fled Roman Catholic persecution in France.
The surviving records provide an interesting glimpse at church life. Here is how the church would worship on the Lord’s Day:
The first day’s [i.e. Sunday’s] meetings be begun (as near as may be) aboute seaven in the morninge, and soe continue for the summer season. And the tyme employed as followeth. Vizt.
- In the tryall of gifts till 9 of the clocke. And that those 2 howers be improved by way of prayer.
- From 9 in the morninge till well towards 12 in a publique exercise.
- From one till 3 of the clocke in publique exercise.
- That after the dismission of those that are nott members the church spend one hower or 2 in communicatinge their experiences; inquiring after persons absent; trying the things heard and dutys neglected.
2. That the next first day seavennight the church breake bread.
If you were to visit the building today, you would see the church as it was renovated in the 1700’s. It is plain and unadorned. Box pews line the two sides of a central aisle, a plain pulpit rises high off the floor, and a baptismal pool waits beneath the pulpit. A small, rough table holds a couple of old and worn collection plates. The building is notable only for its simplicity and its historical significance. And yet it represents the very beginning of a movement that would expand rapidly and become a key part of the Protestant church.