Our Baptist Heritage I


Our Baptist Heritage I

April 19th, 1964 @ 8:15 AM

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.
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Dr. W.A. Criswell

Isaiah 51:1-2

4-19-64    8:15 a.m.


On the radio you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled Our Baptist Heritage.

Not long ago there was a revival meeting held in this church in the Junior Division, and it was entitled "A Jubilee Revival."  I felt when the announcement was made of the name of the revival that practically all of our people had no idea why it was called "A Jubilee Revival."  I have always felt that our people and especially these who are unacquainted with us have no idea of the history of the witness of our denomination in the world.  We are almost totally ignorant of our background, of our martyrs, of the great sacrifices that have been paid by our people that we might enjoy the marvelous blessings and favor of God upon our nation and upon us personally, even at this precious hour.

Now the reason it is called a Jubilee this year; this coming month there will be a celebration in Atlantic City, New Jersey of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the organization of our Baptist Convention in the United States.  And I thought in keeping with this tremendous year that I would prepare several sermons, at least four, on the story of our martyrs, and of our churches, and of our witness in the earth.  And this morning’s message is the first one.  I am going back at the beginning and trace it all the way up to this present hour. 

In the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah, you will find the Hebrew prophet calling his people back to a remembrance from whence they came.  Isaiah 51:1, 2:

Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.

Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you:


How typical of the old prophet to call his people to a remembrance of their forefathers; "The rock from whence they were hewn, and the hole of the pit from whence they were digged."

You will notice that the Book of Acts has no formal conclusion.  It stops in the midst of the story, the Holy Spirit thereby indicating to us that the Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit has no ending until finally God calls us home in heaven.  And the story of the ministration of the Spirit of grace in this world did not conclude with the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, but it went on to the next century, and it went on the next century, and it went on the next century, and it continues on to this present hour.

So when the pastor pauses to speak of these things, he’s doing no other thing than continuing the recounting of the marvelous history of grace beyond the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Acts.  For God lives today as He lived yesterday, as He lived a century before that, and God is working today as He did the century before ours.  And to trace the favor and blessing of God is something altogether in keeping with this text.  "Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and from the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged."

Now as we begin this story we are not seeking a history of any race, or of any nation, or of any organization, but we are tracing a people who are characterized by certain principles and apostolic practices.  Sometimes they were crushed.  Sometimes they were drowned out of sight.  Sometimes they perished in their own blood.  But others arose by different names in different places, dedicated to the same apostolic principles.

Our name of Baptists has been used only for the last several hundreds of years.  Before that we were known as Anabaptists and before that by many other names.  These names for the most part are nicknames given to us by the world.  Like the epithet in the name John, John the Baptist; John the Baptist given to him by people who saw what he did, or as the name Christian given to the disciples at Antioch by a scorning, scoffing, pagan population.  Or, as you find in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Acts, the sect of the Nazarenes, the word used by Tertullus, the great lawyer who stood before Felix to castigate and to indict the apostle Paul. 

But we’re not following a name, or an organization, for the true churches of Jesus Christ have been known by several names, and their historical continuity is almost impossible to trace out, drowned in the flood, drowned in the fire, drowned in blood.  But a New Testament church is one that is built according to the revealed Word of God, and you could start a New Testament church today on a lonely island in a far out way corner of the Pacific, and it would be a true New Testament church if it followed the pattern that we find in the Word of God.

Now there are five great principles that always characterize a true New Testament church.  The first: its authority is the Holy Scriptures.  At first the Word of God was oral, then it was written down by Mark, then by Matthew and Luke, then by John.  Then from the beginning the instant the epistles of the apostles were recognized by the churches as authoritative, and a New Testament church is always one guided in faith and practice by the holy Scriptures.

Second: a New Testament church is one where every believer is a priest for himself.  The priesthood of every believer, that is he has right of access to God for himself.  He can go to God for himself.  He can pray to God for himself.  He can listen to the answer of God in his soul for himself. 

The third great principle lies in a regenerate church membership: an ekklesia, a called-out body out of the perishing world, a local organization that has its own officers and elects its own leaders.

Four: the fourth great principle lies in its officers, and its order, and in its ordinances.  In each instance they are two.  There is a God appointed poimen, translated pastor; presbuteros, translated elder; episkopos, translated bishop but all three in the New Testament referring to the same office.  Then there is the office of diakonos, "deacon," servant.  Then it has two ordinances; the initial ordinance of baptism and the continuing ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.

And then the fifth great principle: it is a church that disavows an alignment with state government and state taxation.  It is a free church.  A New Testament church never looks to police coerciveness or the power of taxation to support its work and its ministry. 

These are the five great principles of a New Testament church.  And always you will find them in God’s disciples through the years; the authority of the Scripture, the priesthood of every believer, a regenerate church membership, the officers two, the ordinances two, and free and independent from the coercive power of the state.  Now I wish had hours even for this introductory message.  Just as rapidly as we can and with our minds as sharp as it is possible for our Lord to make them, let us listen now as we begin.

The story of these people, I have said, is difficult to trace, written in their own blood.  First it is difficult to trace because they were forced to burn up their own documents, their own literature, lest it being found they were brought into greater calamity.  And second, the hand that bore the sword to smite these people is the same hand that also bore the torch to burn up their literature.  The ashes of our martyrs were mixed with the literature of their books, and we know them for the most part from their enemies who maligned them, and who misrepresented them, and who cursed them, and who murdered them. 

The story begins with John the Baptist.  He stands at the head of that great noble band of Baptist martyrs.  His threefold ministry: one, he came preaching that by right of birth or inheritance or the flesh, no man could see the face of God but that every man had to repent for himself.  He had to turn for himself, and he had to accept the Messiah for himself.  And he came and preached saying, "Repent ye, turn ye:  for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" [Matthew 3:2].  And he was sent to point out the Messiah.  The great word of John the Baptist was Jesus, Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God" [John 1:29].   And [second], he had an ordinance from heaven [John 1:33]:  the first time one man ever took another man and baptized him, laid him in a watery grave and raised him out of that watery grave, was when John the Baptist did it in the Jordan River.  The first time one man ever took another man and baptized him – washed him – was when John the Baptist did it in the Jordan River.  And third, he paid for his witness to truth in his martyrdom.  In the cruel castle of Machaerus on the other side of the Dead Sea, a martyr to the truth that he bore, he lay in his own blood, and his head was brought on a charger before the desolate wife of a vacillating king.  The man that he introduced was the Son of God, the Savior of the world.  He was baptized in the Jordan River, and He was baptized in His own blood.  And the disciples that He left behind followed after that same martyrdom of the great forerunner, John the Baptist, and of their Lord Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The Lord said to His disciples upon an occasion when they asked one to sit on His right hand and the other on His left, He said, "Can you drink the cup I drink of?  And can you be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"  And they said, "We can."  And the Lord said to them, "Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink.  And ye shall indeed be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with" [Mark 10:37-39].  That is, they should face the same baptism of blood, and of tears, and of agony, and of martyrdom that John the Baptist knew and that the Son of God knew on the cross. 

Then the little church, then the little church was lost into a world, into a sea of paganism.  And it fell immediately into martyrdom, into fierce persecution, into the fire and into the flood.  Foxe’s Book of Martyrs names ten great imperial persecutions.  When I saw that in the Book of Martyrs, I remembered the Word of God to the martyred church of Smyrna in the second chapter of the Book of the Revelation, "And ye shall have tribulation ten days" [Revelation 2:10].  Foxe’s Book of Martyrs names ten great imperial Roman persecutions, fierce beyond compare.  I refer to just five of them, the Neronian, and the Domitian, and the Trajan, and the Decian, and the Diocletian. 

In the Neronian persecution, Nero, when he saw Rome burning and the populace were beginning to charge him with it, as though he were clearing out the city for his golden palace.  In order to avert suspicion from himself, Nero said, "The Christians did it.  The Christians did it!"  And they burned the Christians and persecuted the Christians in the city of Rome in 64 AD.  And from there, the persecution spread out to the provinces.  And it was in that persecution in 68 AD that the apostle Paul was beheaded – because he was a Roman citizen, not crucified – he was beheaded.  Simon Peter was crucified according to the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, "signifying by what death he should glorify God" by the stretching out of his hands [John 21:18-19].  Paul was beheaded because he was a Roman citizen on the Ostian Way between Rome and the mouth of the Tiber at the Mediterranean Sea.  That’s the Neronian persecution, the first one.

The second was under Domitian.  Domitian reigned from 89 to 96 [AD], and under Domitian.  Under Domitian, the Christians began to be known as atheists and they were persecuted as atheists.  That was because they worshiped an unseen God – without image, or symbol, or altar, or any other of the accouterments we think of in modern day liturgical religion.  So they were called atheists and they were persecuted under Domitian as atheists.  And under Domitian, the sainted apostle John, pastor of the church at Ephesus, was exiled to the isle of Patmos on which he saw the glorious visions of the coming Lord [Revelation 1:1-20].

Then the next persecution was under Trajan.  Trajan reigned from 98 to 117 AD.   Under Trajan, the churches began to multiply rapidly and they were filled with great missionary and evangelistic zeal.  By the time the year 100 came, there were at least five hundred thousand Christians in the Roman Empire, in about four hundred churches.  So effective was their ministry that Pliny wrote to Trajan from his proconsulship in Bithynia saying that "the sacrifices are neglected and the temples are deserted."

Then Trajan the emperor wrote back in interdiction against the Christians, and then Pliny wrote back how he found out and searched out the Christians.  He said he would ask a suspect, "Are you a Christian?"  And if he denied it, then he commanded the suspect to cast incense on the altar before a pagan idol. And if he did it, he was allowed to go free but if he refused, Pliny says, he executed him on the spot. 

It was in those days that the great apostolic fathers lived in the church – the successors of the apostles.  Clement was pastor of the church in Rome from about 91 to 100 [AD]; he wrote the beautiful letter to the church at Corinth.  At Antioch, Ignatius was pastor of the church.  For both of these men [were] born in about 30 [AD], before Christ died.  And Ignatius, under Trajan, was condemned to be exposed to the wild beasts in a Roman arena.  Trajan, coming to the city of Antioch and seeing the vast number of Christians, had Ignatius the pastor brought before him and condemned him to death.  And we have several beautiful epistles from Ignatius. 

Polycarp was pastor at Smyrna at the same time that John wrote the Revelation.  And the angel of the church at Smyrna was Polycarp.  He was martyred under Aurelius in about 155 AD with that famous commitment of his soul to Christ, "Eighty and six years, shall I serve Him?  Shall I now deny my Master and King?"

Papias was the pastor at Hierapolis, a city just across the Lycus River from Laodicea; we have a few fragments of Papias.  By the way, Polycarp wrote a beautiful, beautiful letter to the church at Philippi which we possess today.  Those are the four apostolic fathers who heard of John, and who listened to the preaching of those apostles.

And then there are two that usually are connected with them: Justin Martyr in 120 [AD] was born at Samaria a Roman Citizen, and the other is Irenaeus who was born in and about 110 or 120 [AD] in Smyrna – and who was the disciple of John, the sainted John.  These men preachers, men of great stature and worth, sowed the Roman Empire down with the message of Jesus Christ.

Now I hasten on.  I come now to the terrible persecution under Decius.  The entire energies of the Roman Empire – in 250 AD, under Decius – the entire energies of the Roman Empire were thrown against the Christians.  And it was the announced and stated policy of the Roman Caesar to destroy the Christian faith forever. 

Then I turn to the last persecution under Diocletian in 303 AD; Diocletian’s persecution was especially directed against the Word of God.  It was published abroad throughout the Roman Empire that this sect of the Nazarene, these Christians found their fountain of life from the Holy Scriptures.  So it was the announced edict of the imperial Caesar for all of the Scriptures to be burned.  And any man who was found with the possession of a copy, he was burned or he was hanged with a copy of the Word of God around his neck.  There were more than a hundred forty-four thousand martyrs in Egypt alone.  There were more than eight hundred thousand who perished in the mines and in other places of public works. 

And Diocletian seemed to have triumphed over the Christian faith.  He had a coin struck on gold: on one side is the head of Diocletian with a laurel around his head, and on the other side is Jupiter with a thunderbolt brandished in his hand trampling upon the prostrate form of a Christian. 

Then in 324 AD, the greatest affliction that was ever brought to the church of Jesus came in the hands and in the form of Constantine.  For that Roman emperor, in 324 AD, made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.  He presided over the council of Nicaea in 325 AD – the gathering of the pastors of the churches of the Roman Empire in little Nicaea, a town in Asia Minor not far from Constantinople, his new capital.

And those pastors came to the council of Nicaea out of the Diocletian persecution.  Their hands had been cut off.  Their ears and their noses had been cut off.  In some instances their tongues had been cut out.  In other instances their eyes had been gouged out.  Some of them had been through the flame and miraculously been spared.  They were maimed and crippled, butchered and hurt through the awful Diocletian persecution.  And those were the pastors who came to the council at Nicaea. 

And Constantine presided as the head of the state.  Constantine presided over that council, and he came in with royal purple robes.  And he came in and sat himself down on the golden throne, and his purpose was to make the entire Roman Empire conform to the new state religion, Christianity.  And in order to make the new state religion – Christianity – acceptable to the vast millions of pagans in the Roman Empire, Constantine and his cohorts took the embellishments and the accouterments and the externals of the pagan faith, and amalgamated it with Christianity.  They brought over the temples.  They brought over the images and the idols.  They brought over the priests.  They brought over the vestments.  They brought over the rituals and all of the things of pagan religion and they amalgamated it.  They amalgamated it into the state religion of the Roman Empire. 

As time went on there rose a tremendous man of vast intellect by the name of Augustine.  And that mighty man – one of the greatest thinkers of all time – fell from one great heresy and apostasy into another.  It was Augustine that framed the doctrine that if a child died unbaptized, it went immediately into the fires of eternal hell; for a child to be saved, it had to be baptized.  That was the new doctrine of Augustine, and immediately, the Roman emperor made the edict that every child in the Roman Empire had to be baptized.  Then under Emperor Justinian, he took it one step further.  Justinian the emperor – Justinian made an edict that every parent with their children who were unbaptized, must immediately be baptized at once.  And thus by coercion the entire world was made conformable to this new state religion.

In those days the bishop at Rome, and the bishop at Antioch, and the bishop at Alexandria, and the bishop at Ephesus, and the bishop at Constantinople, vied with one another for the leadership of the Christian world and its state religion.  But in those days, there arose out of the Arabian desert a man by the name of Mohammed.  And Mohammed raised up a religion whose purpose was to destroy idolatry.  And the churches of the East and West were filled with idols and images, and the great sword and the conquering hordes of Mohammed were strewn against the temples filled with idolatry. 

And the Mohammedan Saracen destroyed the church in Alexandria, and it destroyed the church in Jerusalem, and it destroyed the church in Caesarea, and it destroyed the church in Antioch, and it destroyed the church in Ephesus.  And finally, the Mohammedan scourge destroyed the church in Constantinople and that left the bishop of Rome alone and without fear in the earth.  And to this day, we know him as the leader of that state-kind of amalgamated Christianity, because of the sword of the Saracen. 

Then we begin the story, the tragic story beyond which there has never been a story written in the history of the world: we begin the story of the suffering of God’s people under the awful hand of a state coercive religion.  I had prepared this morning for the first, at least ten centuries of this story of martyrdom and faithful witness of the true servants of Jesus.  But I haven’t time to speak of it.  We shall pick it up from there and carry it through at this next service.

As I labor and study and pore over these old musty books of history, ah! that I had time to tell – and I shall somewhat in future sermons and addresses.  That I had time to recount the faithfulness of God’s martyr, dying first under the heavy hand of an emperor, dying next under the heavy hand of a directed hierarchy – sealing their witness with their blood. 

The Son of God goes forth to war,

A kingly crown to gain.

His blood-red banners stream afar;

Who follows in His train?


A noble army, men and boys,

The matron and the maid,

Around the Savior’s throne rejoice,

In robes of light arrayed


They climbed the steep ascent of heaven

Through peril, toil, and pain.

O God, to us may grace be given

To follow in their train!

["The Son of God Goes Forth To War," Reginald Heber]


I am humbled before these pages that recount the martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus, who through the centuries sealed their testimony with their blood. 

O God that today we might be as devoted and as dedicated, even as the Lord God said to the martyred church at Smyrna, "Be thou faithful unto death.  I will give thee the crown of life" [Revelation 2:10].

While we sing our invitation hymn, somebody you give his heart to Jesus.  Somebody you put his life in the fellowship of the church.  As the Spirit of God shall open the door and lead in the way, make it now, make it this morning, while we stand and while we sing.