For 18 days last month, Malcolm Yarnell (from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and I had the privilege of taking a group of students on a study tour through England and Scotland. One of the highlights of the trip was visiting Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire, a meeting place built over 500 years ago. During the English Reformation, Protestants who stayed in the Church of England to try to purify the church of its Roman Catholic tendencies were called “Puritans.” Those who separated from the Church to form independent congregations were called—you guessed it—“Separatists.”
In the early 1600’s a Separatist congregation formed at Gainsborough Hall and met there for worship. In those days it was dangerous to be a Separatist. King James I was the head of the Church of England, and to separate from the Church was viewed by him as an act of treason. The congregation at Gainsborough decided to leave England; in the process splitting into two groups. One group went to Holland and the other group went to Belgium. The group that went to Holland was led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. While in Holland they became convinced that the New Testament taught believer’s baptism rather than infant baptism, and this group became the very first English-speaking Baptist church. They eventually returned to England, despite the threat of persecution. In fact, soon after their return, Helwys was imprisoned and there he died.
The second group decided against returning to England, and they eventually travelled to America. They made the perilous journey across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower and then formed a colony in Massachusetts. Of course, today we call them the “Pilgrims,” and every November we celebrate Thanksgiving in their honor. So Baptists and Pilgrims have their origins from the same Separatist congregation. Standing in Gainsborough Hall last month, I thanked God for our spiritual forefathers. They risked everything to follow Christ. May God give us the spiritual courage and faith to follow their example!