How and when the Baptist faith started is a matter of debate. Most historians believe that modern Baptists trace their lineage to the early 17th century in England and Holland. Some Baptists -- especially Independent Baptists and Primitive Baptists -- claim that they can trace their lineage to the time of Christ. Some suggest that the Baptist faith is an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation which began in the 16th century, while others believe that it developed at the same time but separately.

The Trail of Blood

Some Baptists believe that they alone are the true "New Testament Church," believing that the Baptist faith can be traced directly to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his apostles. They further believe that the Baptist faith has existed somewhere in the world, albeit often in very small pockets, from the time of Christ until the present time. Dr. J. M. Carroll's booklet, "The Trail of Blood," is arguably the definitive work that presents this position.

Anabaptists

Some Baptist historians, such as Dr. William Estep, suggest that today's Baptists developed many of their beliefs from the Anabaptist movement that began in Switzerland during the 16th and 17th centuries. Those who support this belief point to shared historical beliefs such as the need for personal conversion, baptism --including re-baptism of those who were baptized as babies -- congregational government, and the separation of church and state. Many of those who disagree with this view acknowledge that the Anabaptist movement likely had some influence on the origin of the Baptist faith, but point to the fact that Baptists have significant differences in belief from surviving Anabaptist denominations such as the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish.

English Separatist Movement

Most historians -- including many Baptist historians -- believe that the Baptist faith developed as a branch of the 17th century Separatist movement in England. During that time, two major religious groups -- the Puritans and the Separatists -- thought that the Church of England did not distance itself enough from the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church; the Puritans worked to further reform the Church of England, while the Separatists -- including Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists -- broke off from the Church of England entirely, forming their own church organizations.

John Smythe

Those who believe Baptist history can be traced to the English Separatist movement point to John Smythe, a former Anglican priest, as the founder of the Baptist faith. Smythe emigrated to Holland with a group of English Separatists in the early 17th century. There, he was influenced by Mennonite teachings and began to preach that only those who made a confession of faith could be legitimately baptized and received into the church. Smythe and his followers later returned to England and spread the Baptist faith and message. Even those who believe that the history of the Baptist movement can be traced to the Anabaptists or the Apostles acknowledge that Smythe was influential in the spread of the Baptist faith, notes the Christianity Today website.