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Baptists were first identified by the name General Baptists in 17th century England. They were called General Baptists because they believed in a general atonement — holding that the death of Christ made salvation possible for any persons who voluntarily exercise faith in Christ. These churches were Arminian in tendency and held the possibility of falling from grace. The earliest known church of this type was founded about 1609 in the Netherlands. Early leaders of the movement were Thomas Helwys and John Smyth (circa 1560–1612). Smyth was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1594, but received Baptist views by 1609. Helwys was a well-to-do layman. Smyth and Helwys gathered a band of believers in the Midlands, but migrated to Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1607. In 1611, Helwys led a small group back to England and established in Spitalfield what appears to have been the first General Baptist church on English soil. Smyth and Helwys were also ardent defenders of religious liberty for all people.
General Baptists slowly spread through England and into America, but they never seemed to command as vital an existence as the Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptists. In England at least, the religious revivalism of the mid 18th century changed all that. "Many of the Particular Baptists also effectively sat out of the revival, being especially sceptical of Wesley due to his Arminianism" . Wesley's Arminianism posed no problems for General Baptists. However, traditionally non-creedal, many General Baptist congregations were becoming increasingly liberal in their doctrine, obliging the more orthodox and the more evangelical among them to reconsider their allegiance during this period of revival. Before this re-organisation, the English General Baptists had begun to decline numerically due to several factors linked to non-orthodox 'Free Christianity'. Early Quaker converts were drawn from the General Baptists, and many other churches moved into Unitarianism, a tendency that was replicated on a smaller scale amongst Methodists in east Lancashire (see Rev. Joseph Cooke). Another former Methodist, Dan Taylor, managed to draw together orthodox Arminian Baptist congregations throughout Yorkshire and the east Midlands to form the New Connexion of General Baptists in 1770. By 1798 the Connexion had its own Academy, which later became the Midland Baptist College, Nottingham. By 1817 it had about 70 chapels, with notable concentrations in the industrial Midlands.
Baptist Union of Great Britain formed in 1812 did not include General Baptists. However, after the so-called 'Down Grade Controversy' resulted in the withdrawal of several Calvinistic theological conservatives like Charles Spurgeon, who were sceptical of the value of modern Biblical criticism, the path was open to greater inclusion. John Clifford, baptised in a New Connexion chapel and ordained after studying at the New Connexion's Midland Baptist College, became the President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in 1888. Under his leadership, the New Connexion merged with the Union in 1891. John Clifford became the first President of the Baptist World Alliance (1905 – 11).
A few surviving Arminian elements would remain independent, whilst a number of congregations joined together in the federal Old Baptist Union.
In America, the General Baptists also declined and were often overtaken by the churches of the Regular Baptists. Remnants were probably responsible for the rise of the Free Will Baptists in North Carolina. Other groups have risen that have an Arminian general atonement emphasis, including the General Six-Principle Baptists and the General Association of General Baptists. Today (2009), the majority of English and American Baptist churches hold a hybrid Calvinist/Arminian outlook, combining the general atonement whosoever will view of the General Baptists, with the eternal security view of the Regular/Particular Baptists.
Present day groups of General Baptists include the Free Will Baptists, General Association of General Baptists, General Six-Principle Baptists, the Old Baptist Union, and Separate Baptists, representing over half a million Baptist Christians.
- General Baptist World Headquarters (General Association of General Baptists)
- English Separatist Baptist Confessions (with links to texts)
- A Short Confession of Faith by John Smyth
- Confession of 1610 by Thomas Helwys
- The Standard Confession of 1660
- ↑ Beynon, Graham (2005) ‘The Rise and Development of the English Baptists’, ‘The Theologian’;
- A History of the Baptists, by John T. Christian
- Baptists Around the World, edited by Albert W. Wardin, Jr.
- The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, by H. Leon McBeth