Baptist historian Bruce Gourley outlines four main views of Baptist origins: (1) The modern scholarly consensus that the movement traces its origin to the 17th century via the
English Separatists, (2) the view that it was an outgrowth of Anabaptist traditions, (3) the perpetuity view which assumes that the Baptist faith and practice has existed since the time of Christ, and (4) the successionist view, or "
Baptist successionism", which argues that Baptist churches actually existed in an unbroken chain since the time of Christ.
English separatist view
John Smyth founded the first Baptist church in 1609 in Amsterdam, Dutch Republic
Modern Baptist churches trace their history to the
English Separatist movement in the 1600s, the century after the rise of the original Protestant denominations.
 This view of Baptist origins has the most historical support and is the most widely accepted.
 Adherents to this position consider the influence of Anabaptists upon early Baptists to be minimal.
 It was a time of considerable political and religious turmoil. Both individuals and churches were willing to give up their theological roots if they became convinced that a more biblical "truth" had been discovered.
Protestant Reformation, the
Church of England (Anglicans) separated from the
Roman Catholic Church. There were some Christians who were not content with the achievements of the mainstream Protestant Reformation.
 There also were Christians who were disappointed that the Church of England had not made corrections of what some considered to be errors and abuses. Of those most critical of the Church's direction, some chose to stay and try to make constructive changes from within the Anglican Church. They became known as "
Puritans" and are described by Gourley as cousins of the English Separatists. Others decided they must leave the Church because of their dissatisfaction and became known as the Separatists.
Historians trace the earliest Baptist church back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with
John Smyth as its pastor.
 Three years earlier, while a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, he had broken his ties with the Church of England. Reared in the Church of England, he became "Puritan, English Separatist, and then a Baptist Separatist," and ended his days working with the Mennonites. He began meeting in England with 60–70 English Separatists, in the face of "great danger."
 The persecution of religious nonconformists in England led Smyth to go into exile in
Amsterdam with fellow Separatists from the congregation he had gathered in Lincolnshire, separate from the established church (Anglican). Smyth and his lay supporter,
Thomas Helwys, together with those they led, broke with the other English exiles because Smyth and Helwys were convinced they should be baptized as believers. In 1609 Smyth first baptized himself and then baptized the others.
In 1609, while still there, Smyth wrote a tract titled "The Character of the Beast," or "The False Constitution of the Church." In it he expressed two propositions: first, infants are not to be baptized; and second, "Antichristians converted are to be admitted into the true Church by baptism." Hence, his conviction was that a scriptural church should consist only of regenerate believers who have been baptized on a personal confession of faith. He rejected the Separatist movement's doctrine of infant baptism (
 Shortly thereafter, Smyth left the group, and layman Thomas Helwys took over the leadership, leading the church back to England in 1611.
 Ultimately, Smyth became committed to believers' baptism as the only biblical baptism. He was convinced on the basis of his interpretation of Scripture that infants would not be damned should they die in infancy.
Smyth, convinced that his self-baptism was invalid, applied with the
Mennonites for membership. He died while waiting for membership, and some of his followers became Mennonites. Thomas Helwys and others kept their baptism and their Baptist commitments. The modern Baptist denomination is an outgrowth of Smyth's movement.
 Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist when they were called that by opponents in derision. McBeth writes that as late as the 18th century, many Baptists referred to themselves as "the Christians commonly—though falsely—called Anabaptists."
Another milestone in the early development of Baptist doctrine was in 1638 with
John Spilsbury, a Calvinistic minister who helped to promote the strict practice of believer's
baptism by immersion.
 According to Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "Spilsbury's cogent arguments for a gathered, disciplined congregation of believers baptized by immersion as constituting the New Testament church gave expression to and built on insights that had emerged within separatism, advanced in the life of John Smyth and the suffering congregation of Thomas Helwys, and matured in Particular Baptists."
Anabaptist influence view
Print from Anglican theologian
's book, "The Dippers Dipt, or, The Anabaptists Duck'd and Plung'd Over Head and Ears, at a Disputation in Southwark", published in 1645.
A minority view is that early 17th century Baptists were influenced by (but not directly connected to) continental
 According to this view, the General Baptists shared similarities with Dutch Waterlander Mennonites (one of many Anabaptist groups) including believer's baptism only, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and
Arminian views of salvation, predestination and original sin. Representative writers including A.C. Underwood and William R. Estep. Gourley wrote that among some contemporary Baptist scholars who emphasize the faith of the community over soul liberty, the Anabaptist influence theory is making a comeback.
However, the relations between Baptists and Anabaptists were early strained. In 1624, the then five existing Baptist churches of London issued a condemnation of the Anabaptists. Furthermore, the original group associated with Smyth and popularly believed to be the first Baptists broke with the Waterlander Mennonite Anabaptists after a brief period of association in the Netherlands.
Perpetuity and succession view
Prior to the 20th century, some Baptist historians wrote from the perspective that Baptists had existed since the time of Christ. However, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions rejecting this view in 1859. Proponents of the Baptist successionist or perpetuity view consider the Baptist movement to have existed independently from
Roman Catholicism and prior to the
The perpetuity view is often identified with
The Trail of Blood, a booklet of five lectures by J.M. Carrol published in 1931.
 Other Baptist writers who advocate the successionist theory of Baptist origins are
John T. Christian,
Thomas Crosby, G. H. Orchard, J. M. Cramp, William Cathcart, Adam Taylor and D. B. Ray
 This view was also held by English Baptist preacher,
 as well as
Jesse Mercer, the namesake of Mercer University.
Baptist origins in the United Kingdom
A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity
. For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone, even for those he disagreed with.
Thomas Helwys established a Baptist congregation in London, consisting of congregants from Smyth's church. A number of other Baptist churches sprang up, and they became known as the General Baptists. The Particular Baptists were established when a group of Calvinist Separatists adopted believers' Baptism. The Particular Baptists consisted of seven churches by 1644 and had created a confession of faith called the First London Confession of Faith.
Baptist origins in North America
Roger Williams and
John Clarke, his compatriot and coworker for religious freedom, are variously credited as founding the earliest Baptist church in North America.
 In 1639, Williams established a Baptist church in
Providence, Rhode Island, and Clarke began a Baptist church in
Newport, Rhode Island. According to a Baptist historian who has researched the matter extensively, "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first' Baptist congregation in America. Exact records for both congregations are lacking."
Great Awakening energized the Baptist movement, and the Baptist community experienced spectacular growth. Baptists became the largest Christian community in many southern states, including among the black population.
Baptist missionary work in Canada began in the British colony of
Nova Scotia (present day Nova Scotia and
New Brunswick) in the 1760s. The first official record of a Baptist church in Canada was that of the Horton Baptist Church (now Wolfville) in Wolfville, Nova Scotia on 29 October 1778. The church was established with the assistance of the
New Light evangelist
Henry Alline. Many of Alline's followers, after his death, would convert and strengthen the Baptist presence in the Atlantic region.
 Two major groups of Baptists formed the basis of the churches in the Maritimes. These were referred to as Regular Baptist (Calvinistic in their doctrine) and Free Will Baptists.
In May 1845, the Baptist congregations in the United States split over slavery and missions. The
Home Mission Society prevented slaveholders from being appointed as missionaries.
 The split created the
Southern Baptist Convention, while the northern congregations formed their own umbrella organization now called the
American Baptist Churches USA (ABC-USA). The
Methodist Episcopal Church, South had recently separated over the issue of slavery, and southern
Presbyterians would do so shortly thereafter.