AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Baptists from around the world recalled the birth of their movement 400 years ago during a July 30 worship service held a few blocks from the site of what is generally recognized as the first Baptist congregation.
About 300 worshippers filled the main floor and double balconies of the Singelkerk, a Mennonite church on Amsterdam’s Singel Canal built in 1608, a year before the first Baptists met in a bakery on the Amstel River, a short distance west.
The bakery no longer exists, but leaders of the initial Baptist movement — including John Smyth and Thomas Helwys — forged close ties to the Mennonites, with whom they shared views on believers’ baptism and congregational governance. Both Smyth and Thomas are believed to have worshipped in the Singelkerk.
“Four hundred years have passed since the Baptist work began,” said Neville Callam, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), as the July 30 service began. “Now we gather in the presence of representatives from around the world to worship the child of God.”
The BWA’s General Council held its annual gathering July 27-Aug. 1 in Amsterdam.
“We are here to celebrate God’s faithfulness during those first 400 years,” said Albrecht Boerrigter, general secretary of the Union of Baptist Churches in the Netherlands. “Take what you get here and carry it with you into the future.”
A wide array of languages highlighted the service, whose program was printed in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, German and Swahili. Scripture was read in Bangla and Dutch and verses of songs were sung in French, German and Spanish. The congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer simultaneously in their own language.
A litany of thanksgiving expressed gratitude to God for the “cloud of witnesses” who have enriched the Baptist movement, from Smyth, Helwys and Menno Simons, to Roger Williams and William Carey to John Leland and Martin Luther King Jr.
“They ran the race set before them,” the readers said.
In a sermon, the BWA’s general secretary emeritus highlighted “the freedom in Christ (that) has been the theme of the Baptist movement from our beginning to the present day.”
But Denton Lotz, who retired last year as the BWA’s top executive, warned that the defense of religious freedom must change if it is to be relevant in the 21st century.
“It is incumbent upon us as a people of faith to realize that our concerns today are very different from those of 400 years ago,” Lotz said. “If we fail to take seriously the 21st century and merely continue to defend religious freedom as though we were living under King James I, then we will become irrelevant and our defense of freedom irrelevant.”
The threat today is not directed at religious practice, Lotz said, “but rather whether or not religion will be granted a fair hearing or a hearing at all. Will the public expression of religion continue to be curtailed or even allowed? Our public and state education has promoted secularism as its own religion and has indoctrinated the younger generation to believe that man can live without God and can explain the universe and history and community without faith.”
“Our goal must not be religious freedom to practice or religious freedom to express our faith,” he added. “Our goal is to be on mission with Jesus Christ…. Therefore, today and in this 400th year we honor all those men and women who by faith followed the footsteps of their master.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Dilday is associate editor of the Religious Herald.)