The concept of baptism can be traced back to theological literature found within the Bible, and information provided to Christian followers by the founding fathers of Christianity. Baptism plays a significant role in Christians’ life as it symbolizes their commitment to the religion and God, the willingness to abide by certain religious rules, and the importance of fellowship. Individuals such as Baptist John Murton can be considered influential in the continued practice of baptism among Christians today. His works advocated for the freedom of worship. He also fought against the persecution of people due to their religious beliefs and practices. While the modern world is characterized by the existence of numerous religious groups that practice adult baptism, these practices can be traced back to individuals such as John Murton who advocated for them and used scripture to justify its practice against antichristian individuals and groups.
John Murton is believed to have been born in Gainsborough in 1583 and moved to Holland when he was about twenty years old, in 1608. He married Jane Hodgkin in Amsterdam on 23 August 1608. Although much is not known about his early life, his marriage certificate indicated his birth year and Gainsborough as the place where he was born. Murton was one of the founders of the Baptist church. He worked with John Smyth, and Thomas Helwys in spreading the gospel about the importance and freedom of religion. Since deviation from the main religious groups that existed in England was not accepted during this period and those who broke this law were persecuted, Murton, Smyth, and Helwys fled to Holland in 1608. In Holland, Murton took up the role of a furrier to sustain himself. Murton and Helwys returned to Gainsborough in 1609 and returned to the Baptist congregation that they had left before fleeing to Holland. Their congregation in Gainsborough was referred to as General Baptists because they believed that Jesus died for everyone and whoever repented their sins would be saved (Andrews, 2011). This formed his religious belief.
Murton was re-baptized in Amsterdam by Smyth, which solidified his faith as a Baptist. He later on sided with Helwys after the division of the church in 1610 and became his assistant. By 1613, Murton, Helwys, and other religion advocates had been captured and resided in Newgate Prison. After spending some time in prison, Helwys died and Murton took up the leadership of the Baptist church (Lee, 2003). He died between 1625 and 1626 (Dexter, 1881). He spent the last days of his life preaching about what it meant to be a true Christian and issues related to baptism.
John Murton believed that a true church comprised of Baptist believers who had confessed their faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to people who went to any church and assumed that they automatically became Christians. He believed that the kind of church that people attended, their reason for going to church, and the stimulus used to get people to go to church was crucial in a Christian’s life as they determined whether the people would be compliant or not. John Murton believed that people should only be baptized after they had repented their sins and understood what it meant to be a Christian (Durso, 2007). This explained why he was against the practices seen in churches where children were baptized shortly after their birth.
His other theological concepts also revolved around the belief that infants were innocent and thus did not need to be baptized to redeem them from their sins. He also believed that God did not speak to infants and did not require them to work or do anything specific towards promoting his work or spreading His word, which explained why they did not need baptism. According to Murton, baptism was essential to adults as they had sinned and breached God’s laws. As such, he did not view the baptism conducted by the Catholic Church or that of the Church of England as being related to Christ’s baptism. He shared his belief with other Baptists, which led to the development of more churches that supported the practice of baptizing people once they were adults and had repented their sins (Durso, 2007). He also argued against individuals such as William Perkins who considered him unbaptized because he had been baptized by Helwys instead of a priest (Burgess, 2009). According to him, Christian who had been baptized and repented their sins could spread the word of God, lead them to repentance, and baptize them.
Murton also argued that most biblically educated people were not necessarily those that held the highest academic qualification. He argued that every Christian receives the Holy Spirit, who guides Christians in understanding the Bible and interpreting the message contained in the Bible. His argument of issues related to the Holy Spirit was linked to the idea of baptism as Christians were supposed to receive the Holy Spirit after repenting their sins and being baptized. His belief that the Holy Spirit was not a private gift given to Christians based on their education levels differed from that of the Church of England and the State who wanted to control what people believed to ensure that the business of the temporal and churches ran smoothly (Durso, 2007). Murton believed that academic knowledge was not enough to help people understand the message in the Bible.
According to Murton, the education that the Anglican ministers received about Christianity had turned them into ignorant and hypocritical people who only focused on persecuting others based on the sections of the Bible that favored them and their interpretation of the Bible. He accused the Anglican leaders of teaching people to abhor the Catholics while at the same time preventing people from practicing the act of baptizing adults, which they had learnt from the Bible (Durso, 2007). Murton viewed baptism as an act of declaring one’s faith in Christ and denouncing the ways of the world.
Importance to Baptist History
John Murton made significant contributions to the development of the baptism ideology and movement that emerged in the 1610s in England. He promoted the Baptism movement that had been started by individuals such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. Murton’s contribution included advocating for religious tolerance in England. His influence and dedication in supporting religious movements in England were more well-rounded when compared to the actions taken by other Baptists who had focused on the same issue previously. Murton believed that it was wrong to persecute people because of their religious beliefs whether they were right or wrong as long as they were loyal to the British Empire. By advocating for the freedom of worship, he gained more followers who became dedicated to the Baptism movement (Durso, 2007). As such, he contributed to the belief in baptism among Christians and ensured that those who were baptized denounced their sinful lives and repented.
His theological ideologies were criticized by individuals such as John Robinson, who believed that since John Murton had not received a formal education, his intellectual capabilities were suited to manual work such as wielding a shovel as opposed to discussing theology. It is believed that Murton wrote at least two books anonymously while he was in prison. The books included Objections Answered, which is believed to have been written in 1615 and A Most Humble Supplication, written in 1620. In the book, Objections Answered, he created a dialogue between the Antichristian and Christians and responded to Antichristian’s dedication in supporting the persecution of Christians and religious communion. His book, A Most Humble Supplication, was meant to prove to the king that religious people and the Baptist church as not a threat to the state or the Church of England (Durso, 2007).
It was believed that he had written his work using milk and a stopper for his milk bottle due to the lack of pens in prison. A friend who read it by the fireplace then transcribed his work. This kind of dedication to spreading his thoughts about the Baptist church encouraged people to read his work and accept his concepts (Miller, 2012; Durso, 2007). His dedication to writing these books shows his determination to spread the gospel of Christ and disseminate any misconceptions that existed or would arise thereafter about baptism. His writing also served as reference materials for theologians who wish to understand the origin of adult baptism or write about this topic (Andrews, 2011). Theologians and Baptists who came after him used his books to understand and teach other congregations about the importance of baptizing people after repentance.
Continued Impact on Baptism Today
He wrote several books that influenced other Baptists and Christian that was interested in the Baptist movement after his death. For instance, his work influenced Baptist Roger Williams, who was his tutor in Dutch and American Indian languages. In exchange for the services Murton received from Williams, he taught Williams Hebrew and impacted his Baptism beliefs on him (Pfeiffer, 1955). In 1620, King James called parliament into session to emphasize the need to persecute people who did not follow the Catholic Church or the Church of England. In response to this Murton responded with a humble request to the king to advocate for freedom of worship and the practice of adult baptism (Miller, 2012). His actions during this time continue to encourage Christians today to stand for what they believe in and not give up on their faith.
The books that Murton wrote continue to be used as evidence to support the practice of Baptism in modern society. He is recognized as one of the earliest Baptist priests. Other Baptist priests who minister to people today derive their strength from the works of Murton and his colleagues, the challenges they went through during that time, and the actions they took to support what they believed. Murton’s actions and his books have united baptism churches globally through the belief of adult baptism. Although there are numerous denominations within the Baptist church, they still share the practice of baptizing people after repentance.
Churches that practice water baptism today can be traced to the leadership of individuals who were taught either by Murton and his colleagues or members of his congregation in the Gainsborough church. Today, people view baptism as admission into the community or fellowship of believers or the act of becoming a child of God, and an heir to His kingdom. Much more attention is given to baptism among individuals who have repented their sins as a sacramental initiation. Christians are taught the importance of baptism before going through this process. They are made to understand that baptism relates to the acceptance of the responsibility to a Christ advocate as well as a member of the church. Leaders who wish to serve in Christian ministries in churches that believe in this form of baptism are also required to repent their sins and go through baptism before they can take up a leadership position (Smith, 1999). After Baptism, Christians are encouraged to use the Bible for guidance and fellowship with other Christians to promote their growth and understanding of God’s intention for their lives.
The Baptist churches that existed during the time of Murton and his colleagues gave rise to modern Baptist churches. Over time, the practice of baptism became universal among people from different parts of the world. In the Christian religion, the Baptism church is one of the well-known denominations, whose belief was named after the act of baptism. The belief that people should only be baptized after repenting their sins is similar to concepts drawn from the Bible and Jesus Christ’s baptism. While this practiced received opposition from leaders of the Catholic Church during Murton’s time, its practice has been solidified today in many churches. Murton’s role in baptism cannot be overlooked, as he was dedicated to ensuring that people were allowed to read and interpret the Bible’s concept of Baptism based on their understanding. The books he wrote, discussions he held, and the people he ministered to about baptism after repentance are part of the reason why this practice is still common in the modern world.
Andrews, H. (2011). The Church’s One Foundation: Church and Bible Themes. Xlibris Corporation.
Burgess, W. H. (2009). John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers: A Study of His Life and Times. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Dexter, H. M. (1881). The true story of John Smyth, the Se-baptist as told by himself and his contemporaries [&c.]. With collections towards a bibliography of the first two generations of the Baptist controversy. Oxford University.
Durso, K. E. (2007). No Armor for the Back: Baptist Prison Writings, 1600s-1700s. Mercer University Press.
Lee, J. K. (2003). The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite. Mercer University Press.
Miller, N. P. (2012). The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State. Oxford University Press.
Pfeiffer, R. H. (1955). The Teaching of Hebrew in Colonial America. The Jewish Quarterly Review, 45(4), 363-373. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1452938?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A24b8614ff4ff173c7c553d5b364d8f3f&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
Smith, K. S. (1999). Priesthood in the Modern World: A Reader. Rowman & Littlefield.