Where Did Baptists Come From?
As far as I have found, there are basically two different views of Baptist history taken by Baptists:
1. Baptists have existed as a group for about 400 years, originating in England and Holland. This view is taken by Leon McBeth in his book "The Baptist Heritage; Four Centuries of Baptist Witness", and many other modern Baptist historians. Henry Vedder basically takes this position in his book, "A Short History of the Baptists", although he does admit that is only because it of the clearer history that begins there. Usually one who holds this position will trace the Baptist Distinctives back through the centuries back to the Early Church. It seems to me that their position is that Baptist beliefs can all be traced back to the Apostles, but that it wasn't until the 1600's that groups began to adopt them all into their faith and practice.
2. Baptists have existed in a clear line of succession all the way back to the Early Church at Jerusalem. While groups weren't known by the name "Baptist", they are presented with this view as holding all or most of the Baptist Distinctives at some point. This view is usually attacked as being "Landmarkism" for it being such a bold statement of the supremacy of the Baptist teachings. In short, this view states that Baptists, or "Baptistic" groups with different names, are the holders of the true teachings of the Bible and have existed under one name or another since the beginning of the Church Age.
There are a few other views that are very similar to these two which may be taken by non-Baptists. Some historians may take a position similar to View #1, giving the Baptists a four hundred year history but denying that their principle beliefs trace back to the Early Church. Others hold that the Baptists were just an extension of the Anabaptists of Switzerland and Germany which date back to around the Reformation.
I contend that Baptists, or at least groups very close to holding all Baptists beliefs, have existed from the earliest days of the church. We know that every Baptist Distinctive was taught as truth by various church leaders in the first few centuries after Christ. However, many of the leaders of the Early Church are not on record as to holding all of the Baptist Distinctives. I have a few theories about why we don't have more records about the beliefs of the Early Church:
1. The lack of hard copies of the Scripture available in the early days of the Church would lead to partial or incomplete knowledge of doctrine. The medium of choice for writing during the time of the Apostles was papyrus, which was very fragile and deteriorated quickly in humid environments. Later, parchment made of animal skin came into use and it held up much better than papyrus. But it was not just what the Bible was written on that mattered, it was also the method of copying the Scripture. All scripture was copied by hand, which was time consuming and expensive. Also, the canon of Scripture was not settled until years after the last book, Revelation, was written so books of the New Testament were often distributed individually. Therefore, a person may have only had a few books of the Bible to study from.
2. You must consider also that many of these congregations were probably quite small and poor. These types of Churches were not in the shape to do much writing or distributing of ideas. Even if someone had written say a doctrinal textbook, it would be plagued by the same problem as discussed in the previous point.
3. The persecutions by pagan governments and other religious groups, including the Catholics, that were directed at these independent congregations would limit what we know about these groups. Their writings would have been destroyed, and the histories written by their enemies would be slanted by their prejudice.
Regardless, I believe that these independent congregations resisted the growing centralization of church government that led to the Roman Catholic church. These most likely would not be represented at the over-rated "councils" on doctrine and practice. These would have simply continued practicing their beliefs regardless of what went on at Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Nicea, or wherever else.
These groups passed on their beliefs and influenced new movements and leaders. Groups like the Donatists, Novations, Paulicians, and Waldenses carried on these beliefs with their independent congregations, and passed on the core beliefs that the Baptists hold today. Much as been written about this "Trail of Blood", as J.M. Carroll put it. I prefer to call it the "Trail of Truth", a trail of groups and doctrines that traces the Baptists of today to the Apostles and the Early Church.