The Baptist Story: A Summary
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The “Baptist Story: A Summary” is taken from the book Baptist Beliefs and Heritage that is part of the Baptist Identity Series by William M. Pinson, Jr. and Doris A. Tinker with Skyler Tinker. The book alone or the entire Series which consists of nineteen leaflets and two study guides can be purchased from this website by clicking on “Store” in the header. There is no profit in the sale of materials and no royalties or commissions are paid, the money from the sale goes solely to reprint the materials. Permission is granted to download, print, and copy “The Baptist Story” provided that the source www.baptistdistinctives.org is acknowledged on the printed copy and it is indicated that the material is copyrighted by inclusion of (c).
Baptists have a wonderful story to tell. It is an exciting story, filled with heroic, sacrificial struggles against oppression and tyranny. It is a long story, winding through many centuries and cultures. It is a bloody story, highlighted with the crimson stain of martyrs. It is a bewildering story, characterized by periodic conflict among persons even though they shared basic, core convictions.
It is also a complex story, containing various answers to basic questions: Who are Baptists? When did they originate? How did they spread? Why are they organized as they are? What do they believe? In what ways are they part of the Christian movement as a whole? In what ways do they differ from other Christian denominations?
The Baptist story clearly is not a simple story.
Baptists defy simple descriptions. Baptists have been and are a diverse people. They are spread across the spectrum of practically every aspect of human life. Their churches are found throughout the world. Their history is filled with heroes and villains, martyrs and survivors, creative leaders and reactionary malcontents. Although some Baptists have led groundbreaking events in history, other Baptists have objected to any change in the status quo whatsoever.
Baptists have often been misunderstood and as a result falsely accused. For example, their unyielding commitment to the Lordship of Christ and the authority of the Bible coupled with the corollary beliefs in soul competency and the priesthood of all believers have made Baptists zealous leaders in efforts to secure responsible religious freedom for all persons, not just for themselves. As a result, some government and religious leaders have accused them of treason and heresy; some theologians and philosophers have charged them with fostering anarchy and hyper-individualism. These false accusations have resulted in fierce persecution of Baptists by those fearing the Baptist effort for freedom.
In some ways Baptist life seems a collection of contradictions. Baptist churches are doggedly autonomous, for example, holding tenaciously to congregational governance by the members of each congregation and resisting religious hierarchies. Yet, Baptists have formed many of the strongest organizations for missions, ministry, education, and benevolence in the world, all based on voluntary cooperation.
Bewilderingly diverse yet remarkably similar characterize the people called Baptists.
Baptists are indeed diverse. In a sense there are many Baptist stories. Yet, most all Baptists share basic beliefs and practices which make them a distinct denomination. These basic beliefs and practices comprise what some term the Baptist Recipe: the Bible as the sole written authority for faith and practice, the Lordship of Christ, soul competency, salvation by grace through faith alone, believer’s baptism by immersion, priesthood of all believers, regenerate church membership, two ordinances being baptism and the Lord’s Supper, congregational church governance, autonomy of churches, voluntary cooperation, religious freedom, evangelism, missions, ministry, social action, and Christian education.
Indeed, many of the ingredients in the recipe are also part of other Christian denominations, but taken as a whole the Baptist Recipe is what makes a Baptist a Baptist. The following pages tell the story of how the Baptist Recipe has been developed and expressed in Baptist life.
It is impossible to tell the whole story of Baptists in broad brush strokes on a literary canvas of only a few pages. What is offered here is only a brief summary. But hopefully these few pages will give those persons not familiar with the Baptist story an overview that will be helpful, and for those who know the story well, perhaps this account will kindle a renewed appreciation for the people called Baptists.
Groups of Christians holding certain principles dear to Baptists have existed since New Testament times. In the 1600s Baptists became known as a distinct denomination. Baptists may not agree on every aspect of their beginning, but they all agree that it is of primary importance for Baptists to incarnate the beliefs and practices of the churches described in the New Testament.
Baptists believe that the New Testament churches were comprised only of baptized believers in Christ who voluntarily joined with one another in self-governing, autonomous congregations under the Lordship of Christ and with the direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. These bodies of baptized believers were never supported by government laws or finances. They depended on the voluntary support of the members. The beliefs and practices of New Testament churches are what Baptists strive to emulate in their churches.
Within three hundred years of the beginning of the Christian movement, vast changes took place in the movement. One of the most obvious changes was that the relationship of churches and governments had altered radically. In New Testament times the churches were not supported by the government but were persecuted by government officials of the Roman Empire. The persecution varied in intensity but continued for over two hundred years.
However, by the end of the fourth century the Christian faith had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Roman emperors played a major role in determining what branch of the Christian movement would be the official one. Eventually, the government rulers recognized only one form of Christianity and persecuted those who did not embrace the official government-supported church. Thus, began the long, bloody union of church and state.
Due to various causes the established (that is the official government-supported) churches of the eastern and western parts of the Empire drifted apart. They developed different approaches to theology, worship, organization, and especially the relation to the authority of Rome and the pope. In 1054 the division was made official. Rome became the dominant center of the western portion of the state-supported churches and Constantinople that of the eastern. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church became the official religion in Western Europe.
Baptist growth initially took place in Western Europe, and that is where this summary of the Baptist story focuses.
Religious freedom was unheard of in Europe where the Roman Catholic Church was allied with the government. Dissenters, that is those who believed in a different approach to the Christian faith than that of the government-sponsored church, were considered heretics by the state-supported church and traitors by the government. They suffered frequent persecution. Thousands of men and women were imprisoned, tortured, and executed.
In the early 1500s the religious monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church was broken by the Protestant Reformation. Persons who participated in the Reformation were called Protestants because they protested certain beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
Most of the religious movements initiated by the leading reformers, such as Martin Luther (b.1483–d.1546) and John Calvin (b.1509–d.1564), continued infant baptism and maintained a close relation of church and state. Persons who disagreed with the views of those who led the Reformation were persecuted, including those who held many beliefs and practices treasured by Baptists through the years, such as believer’s baptism and religious freedom.
Some of these persecuted groups were called Anabaptists. The word Anabaptist comes from two words: “ana” meaning “again” and “baptist” meaning “to baptize.” These groups were so named because they insisted that infant baptism was not a valid New Testament form of baptism and declared that only persons who put their faith in Christ as Savior and Lord should be baptized as believers.
Thus, among the Anabaptists, a person who had experienced infant baptism and later became a believer was baptized. Many types of Anabaptists existed, but they all held in common this view of baptism.
The people who came to be known as Baptists made clear in their early confessional statements, such as the London Confession of 1644, that they were not Anabaptists. However, they indeed shared some of the basic beliefs of Anabaptists, such as that the Bible is the authority for Christian faith and practice and that a person should consciously trust in Christ as Lord and Savior before being baptized.
The Baptist denomination emerged as a clearly distinct Christian denomination in seventeenth century England.
In England the Reformation took a bit of a different turn when King Henry VIII (b.1491–d.1547) broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and established the Church of England, with himself as both the head of the government and of the church. His action threw England into internal religious and political conflict. Not only were Catholics and Protestants at war with one another but the Church of England itself became divided.
Many Englishmen remained loyal to the Church of England as it existed. Others, however, recoiled from what they considered to be non-scriptural practices within the Church of England and attempted to purify it from within; they were known as Puritans. Still others, giving up on reform from within, pulled away and formed separate congregations; they were known as Separatists. All of these groups clung to the belief in infant baptism.
Since they refused to observe the laws supporting the Church of England, both Puritans and Separatists were persecuted by the Church of England and by the king’s officials. When King James I (b.1566–d.1625) ascended the throne in 1603, he declared, “I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land.” Many refused to conform and indeed were harried out of England.
John Smyth (c.1570–c.1612), a Cambridge-educated Separatist pastor, took his little flock to Amsterdam, Holland, by 1607, where more religious freedom existed than in England. His studies of the Bible led him to embrace many beliefs like those held by Baptists today, such as believer’s baptism with its rejection of infant baptism, salvation by grace through faith alone and not by sacraments, the Lord’s Supper as symbolic, and religious freedom with its corollary of the separation of church and state.
Smyth baptized himself and then the members of the congregation in late 1608 or early 1609. In so doing he established what is generally recognized as the first English speaking Baptist church of so-called modern times.
The confession of beliefs that Smyth developed for the church in Amsterdam was filled with scripture references. The availability of the Bible in English was a major factor in the beginning of Baptist churches in England. For centuries the Bible was not available to people in general. Until the development of printing in the 1400s, copies of the Bible were rare, each one having to be written by hand.
Some manuscripts of the Bible were available in Greek and Hebrew, the languages in which the Bible was originally written, but most were in Latin, the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. People in the population as a whole could not read Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, but the scholars in the Church could. When John Wycliffe (c.1328–d.1384), William Tyndale (c.1495–d.1536), and Miles Coverdale (c.1488–d.1569) translated the Bible into English, people could read the Bible for themselves.
The Baptists in England were severely persecuted.
Many persons, including Baptists, came to believe strongly that the government-established church, the Church of England, did not interpret the Bible correctly. One of these was Thomas Helwys (c.1556–c.1616), a well-educated member of the Smyth congregation. He took a group of persons back to England from Holland. By 1612 he had started a Baptist church at Spitalfields, a section of London.
Helwys wrote a book entitled A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity in which he advocated religious freedom and challenged the authority of the king over the religious lives of his subjects. In the book Helwys penned a personal inscription to King James, the ruling monarch who as such was also head of the Church of England. Helwys declared that the king had no authority over the spiritual lives of his subjects. The king responded by arresting and imprisoning Helwys. He died in prison, a martyr for holding faithfully to the Baptist conviction that only Christ is Lord of the churches.
The Baptist light did not go out with Helwys’ death. Baptists soon formed additional churches in England; many more followed. These Baptists are known as General Baptists; they believed that salvation was available by grace to all who believed in Christ as Lord and Savior.
Another group of Baptists known as Particular Baptists came into being in the 1630s; they believed that salvation was available only to those persons who were predestined to be saved by the grace of Christ. Both of these groups insisted that salvation was only by the grace of God and not by the works of man.
The early Baptists in England, both the General and the Particular, suffered severe persecution from the Church of England and the government of England. For many years the law required all citizens aged sixteen and over to attend the Church of England and to worship according to the liturgy of that Church. Baptist meetings for worship were illegal. Persons preaching without official approval of the government were considered to be criminals. Baptists continued to meet for worship and to preach. They argued for complete religious liberty for all and were willing to suffer persecution for their convictions.
As a result, many Baptists were imprisoned in England. One of those was John Bunyan (b.1628–d.1688), the author of the classic book Pilgrim’s Progress, written while in prison. By his own account Bunyan’s early years were godless, but his first marriage at Elsto in 1650 to a poor but godly woman resulted in his conversion, baptism, and commitment to preach. They moved to Bedford in 1655. Her death in 1658 left him with four children, one of whom was blind. He continued to preach, and in 1660, the same year that he married his second wife, Elizabeth, he was arrested for preaching. The law required that worship services be conducted only in conformity with the established Church of England. To stop preaching would be to violate his conscience, so he continued to preach in violation of the law. As a result, he suffered imprisonment for twelve years. His wife Elizabeth’s frequent appeals for his release were refused by the authorities in spite of the fact that she was left in poverty to care for their children. He never abandoned his commitment to obey God, not man. He was freed only after Charles II (b.1630–d.1685)issued the Declaration of Religious Indulgence in 1672.
The degree of religious freedom changed from time to time. Finally, by 1688 Baptists and other dissenters were tolerated by the laws of England, severe persecution ceased, and Baptist churches and members multiplied. However, only toleration, not complete religious freedom, existed. The Church of England still received favored status and was supported by taxation.
Immersion became the accepted mode of baptism by Baptists.
In 1644 the Particular Baptists issued a confession of faith (not a creed, but a summary of their doctrines) in which they advocated believer’s baptism by immersion. Heretofore, baptism of believers by pouring or sprinkling had been the mode. In this statement of faith, each point was buttressed by reference to scripture passages because of the Baptist belief that the Bible is the sole written authority for Christian faith and practice. The word “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek word in the New Testament which means to dip or immerse.
This confession of faith was influential, and Baptists of all kinds began to practice immersion. Thus, they came to be known as Baptists or Baptizers. During the early years of Baptists in England, the churches were called by a variety of names, such as “The Churches of Christ in London, Baptized,” “The Baptizing Churches,” and “Churches of the Baptized Way.” By the 1800s the term “Baptist Church” in reference to local congregations had become common, and baptism of believers by immersion had become the Baptist way even in the face of difficulties associated with it.
The term “Baptist” was at first a form of ridicule aimed at Baptists by those who disagreed with the practice of believer’s baptism by immersion. However, as is sometimes the case, the taunting term became a badge of honor, worn unashamedly by the baptizers.
English Baptists have provided strong leaders.
Baptists in England have produced leaders who have helped to shape the Baptist story. For example, William Carey (b.1761–d.1834) is often termed “The Father of Modern Missions” because of the role he played in developing the first Baptist mission effort. In 1792 he was a young pastor of a small Baptist church and helped support his family as a cobbler. As he cobbled, he prayerfully pondered a map of the world. His study of the Bible and of the world’s population convicted him that all people everywhere needed to hear the gospel.
He preached a sermon to that effect in a Baptist associational meeting and appealed to his fellow Baptists to launch an effort to share the gospel throughout the world. The sermon is referred to by historians as the “deathless sermon” because it initiated a movement that has continued to live in spite of huge difficulties. It was preached from the text of Isaiah 54:2 and had only two points: Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.
Although at first Carey’s appeal was rejected, a few pastors decided to join him in his convictions and established the first Baptist organization for missions, popularly known as the Baptist Missionary Society. The leaders of the Society asked Carey and John Thomas (b.1757–d.1801), a medical doctor, to be the first missionaries sent by the Society. They were to go to India. Carey’s wife Dorothy (c.1756–d.1807), who was pregnant, at first declined to undertake the journey. However, after further consideration and the birth of the baby, named Jabez, she decided to join Carey and Thomas with the provision that her sister Catherine accompany them. Booking passage proved difficult. The East India Company controlled entry into areas of India under British domination and was opposed to entry of anyone the Company believed would diminish profits by creating controversy among the Indian people, and this included the missionaries.
When British ships were unavailable, a Dutch ship finally agreed to take the group which consisted of William and Dorothy Carey, their four young children, including the baby, Dorothy’s sister, and Thomas. They sailed in June of 1793 and arrived in Calcutta in November. Their five-month voyage took them past the shores of Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia.
Immediately, they encountered huge problems. Thomas’ ineptness in handling the group’s finances left the Carey family destitute, and funds from the Missionary Society did not arrive for many months. Carey had to find secular employment. The British and the East India Company authorities harassed them. Most Europeans scorned their efforts. They had to live in an area infested with cobras, fierce tigers, and malaria. The hardships of a strange culture and climate led to the death of their five-year-old son, Peter, and eventually robbed Dorothy of her sanity; she died in 1807, never regaining her sanity. Carey married Charlotte Rumohr (b.1761–d.1821) in 1808, who was an excellent helpmate in the mission work; after her death in 1821, he married Grace Hughes (b.1778–d.1835), a great comfort to Carey in his later years.
In spite of tragedies and obstacles, Carey established Baptist work which during his more than forty years of missionary service developed into a successful multifaceted ministry. He translated the Bible into many native languages, preached in the language of the native people, baptized converts, helped to start churches, established a college, championed moral reform, and developed an agricultural program that benefited India.
Initially, only a trickle of others followed Carey’s missionary lead, but soon the missionary zeal increased until a veritable flood of Baptists spread the gospel around the world. Many of these also experienced terrible hardships, but they persisted. Carey’s Bible-based vision, his willingness to sacrifice to bring it to reality, and the establishment of an organization for missions was a major turning point in the Baptist story.
Many other English Baptists helped to mold the Baptist denomination. John Clifford (b.1836–d.1923), who was elected as the first president of the Baptist World Alliance at the initial meeting in London in 1905, as a pastor was active in efforts for religious freedom and social justice. Charles H. Spurgeon (b.1834–d.1892), a pastor in London of a huge church and perhaps the most widely known preacher of his time, was often called “The Prince of Preachers.” Spurgeon’s sermons were printed and widely distributed. He started a school to train pastors. Alexander Maclaren (b.1826–d.1910), who became famous for his expository preaching, was twice president of the British Baptist Union and presided over the first meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905.
Baptists in America
Baptist beginnings in America, as in England, came in the midst of religious persecution and controversy. In the early 1600s colonists from England began to settle in America. Both Puritans and Separatists were among the leaders who colonized the territory that came to be known as New England. Among these was Roger Williams (c.1603–d.1683), a young Cambridge-educated Puritan who arrived in the Boston area in 1631, having become a Separatist. A brilliant student of the Bible, he was considered a troublemaker almost from the beginning of his arrival.
For one thing, Williams believed that the Native Americans should be compensated for their land rather than allowing settlers to confiscate the land. Also, Williams believed and taught views on the relation of church and state that differed greatly from those of the governing authorities.
He taught that on the basis of the New Testament people should be free to worship according to the dictate of conscience, not the dictate of the government. He insisted that governments ought not enforce religious beliefs and practices. He was embroiled in controversy with the official authorities for holding these views. Finally, Williams was tried and convicted by the ruling authorities of sedition and heresy and sentenced to be banished back to England.
Before the sentence could be carried out, he left the colony and traveled south in the winter of 1635–36. He left Mary (b.1609–d.1676), his wife, and their children behind until he found a safe place for them to live.
The earliest Baptist churches in America were organized in Rhode Island.
Befriended by Indians, Williams survived a harsh winter and settled in what is today Rhode Island. His family joined him there. He purchased a tract of land from the Narragansett Indians, established the town of Providence, and founded the Providence Plantation with the first government in history to practice religious freedom and separation of church and state. The area eventually became the colony and then the state of Rhode Island.
Williams’ study of the Bible led him to repudiate not only the union of church and state but also his baptism as an infant. He came to the conviction that believer’s baptism was biblically correct. Some persons who had also come to live in Providence shared Williams’ convictions about baptism. One of these was Ezekiel Holliman (b.1586–d.1659). A genealogy of Holliman’s family contains the following account: “1639. He baptized Roger Williams and was thereupon baptized by him, both being among the twelve original members of that church in Providence.” These baptized believers constituted what is considered to be the first Baptist church in the New World. Williams came to believe that no church completely embodied the New Testament standard. Therefore, he left the Baptist church he had helped to start and never joined another. However, his relation with the Baptists remained cordial, and he maintained his strong convictions about religious freedom.
John Clarke (b.1609–d.1676), a friend and neighbor of Williams, was a medical doctor and pastor. He had also left Massachusetts due to religious intolerance there. He started a Baptist church in Newport, near where Williams and others had constituted a Baptist church. Clarke became a leader in the growing Baptist movement in the area. After years of petition to the English government, he and Williams finally received a charter from the government guaranteeing religious freedom in the colony of Rhode Island.
Baptists in America suffered persecution
for two hundred years.
Such freedom did not exist in most of the areas to the north and south of Rhode Island. For example, in Massachusetts Baptists were severely persecuted. Baptists and other dissenters were often fined, imprisoned, and sometimes publicly flogged—beaten until bloody. Such was the case with Obadiah Holmes (c.1606–d.1682).
Holmes was a member of the Baptist church in Newport pastored by John Clarke. Clarke, in the book Ill Newes From New-England, told of a visit to Massachusetts in 1651 by himself, Holmes, and another member of the church, John Crandall. They lodged in the home of William Witter, also a baptized believer. On the Lord’s Day, Clarke conducted a private worship service in Witter’s home. Government officials burst into the house, disrupted the service, and apprehended the three men from Newport. They were taken to Boston, jailed, and convicted without trial. The charges against them, among other things, were conducting a worship service in violation of the law in Massachusetts and denying “the lawfullness of Baptizing of Infants.” Fines were levied on all three to be paid or they would “be well whipt.” Friends paid the fines of Clarke and Crandall, and after several days in prison they were released.
Holmes, however, refused to accept payment of his fine. As a result, his sentence to “be well whipt” was carried out. He was stripped naked to the waist, tied to a post in public, and lashed thirty times by an experienced executioner with a heavy three-corded whip, his bare back gashed ninety times, shredded into a mass of bloody flesh. He refused anything to ease the pain before the beating and prayed that God would give him strength to bear the blows and not cry out in pain but rather to testify of God’s faithfulness. Of this experience Holmes wrote [original spelling]: “And as the man began to lay the stroaks upon my back, I said to the people, though my Flesh should fail, and my Spirit should fail, yet God would not fail; so it pleased the Lord to come in, and so to fill my heart and tongue as a vesell full, and with audible voice I brake forth, praying unto the Lord not to lay this Sin to their charge, and telling the people, That now I found he did not fail me and therefore now I should trust him for ever who failed me not.”
Holmes described what occurred after the terrible beating: “When he had loosed me from the Post, having joyfullnesse in my heart, and cheerfulness in my countenance, as the Spectators observed, I told the Magistrates, you have struck me as with Roses.” He declared that God eased his pain during the brutal beating so that he could bear a faithful witness. The ghastly wounds required weeks of painful healing.
He rejoiced that he had been able to be a faithful witness, writing, “Now thus it hath pleased the Father of Mercies so to dispose of the matter, that my Bonds and Imprisonments have been no hinderance to the Gospel, for before my return, some submitted to the Lord, and were baptized, and divers were put upon the way of enquiry….”
The courage of Holmes and the brutality of the government authorities indeed made a profound impression on many people. For example, Henry Dunster (b.1609–d.1659), the first president of Harvard University, was impressed by the Baptist courage in the face of persecution. He studied the Baptist views and adopted the Baptist concept of believer’s baptism and thus rejected infant baptism. He refused to have his infant son baptized, and the leaders of the established state-supported church, which insisted on infant baptism, removed Dunster from the presidency of Harvard in 1654.
In the face of government hostility, Baptists continued to preach and start churches. In 1665 Baptists dared to begin a church in Boston in the heart of the Puritan establishment. At first they met secretly in homes, but in 1679 they constructed a simple building in which to worship.
One Sunday in 1680 the worshippers found the doors nailed shut by order of the General Court with the following notice posted:
All persons are to take notice that by order of the Court the doors of this house are shut up and that they are inhibited to hold any meeting therein or to open the doors thereof, without license from Authority, til the General Court take further order as they will answer the contrary at their peril, dated in Boston 8th March, 1680, by order of the Council.
Undaunted, the Baptists met outside in the cold and rain. Boston’s First Baptist Church’s history states, “But the following Sunday, inexplicably, the doors were found open and they were never again closed by the authorities.”
The contrast between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Providence Plantation, that is Rhode Island, was great indeed.
In a sermon by John Winthrop (b.1588–d.1649), one of the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts, in an allusion to Matthew 5:14, he declared that the colony was to be a “city upon a hill,” an example of what he believed a society should be. However, the colony lacked religious freedom and democracy, both of which were rejected by the Puritans.
Winthrop declared that democracy was the “meanest and worst of all forms of government.” Church and state were mutually supportive in Puritan New England. Those who settled there came for their own religious freedom, but no one else’s. Persons who disagreed with the established church, such as Roger Williams and Henry Dunster, suffered at the hands of the establishment.
In contrast, John Clarke described Rhode Island as a “lively experiment,” an experiment in religious freedom. Church and state were separate, and religious freedom existed. People who were persecuted for their religious convictions in other parts of the colonies came to Rhode Island. Roger Williams in his book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution clearly set forth the foundation of freedom on which the colony of Rhode Island rested: “It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.” This wide-open welcome brought a wide variety of persons to the colony.
Some came to be free to worship according to the dictate of conscience rather than the dictate of government authorities. Many others came to be free not to worship; they came to escape religion, not to embrace it. In some colonies worship in the government-supported church was mandatory. In Rhode Island no one was required to attend or support or believe in any ecclesiastical institution whatsoever. The result was that the population was far from being homogeneous! Governing such a diverse citizenry proved to be no easy task. The colony was indeed an experiment and a lively one at that. Yet the colony prospered.
Baptists endured persecution in the southern colonies.
As Baptists began to start churches in the southern colonies, they encountered persecution, sometimes as fierce as that in New England. The first Baptist church in the South was formed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1696, and Baptist churches were started in the early 1700s in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.
In the southern colonies, Baptists in Virginia endured especially harsh treatment. The Church of England was the established state-supported church in Virginia. For daring to preach the gospel without an official permit from the government, Baptists were fined, imprisoned, and harassed.
The charge by the government authorities against the Baptist preachers was often that they were disturbing the peace. For example, in 1768 several Baptist preachers were arrested, brought before the court, and arraigned as disturbers of the peace. The lawyer who brought the official charge against them declared, “May it please your courtships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a passage of Scripture down his throat.”
The plight of the Baptists gained the sympathy of some influential Virginians. For example, Patrick Henry (b.1736–d.1799) reputedly was a defender of Baptists. Accounts indicate that on one occasion he rode over fifty miles on horseback to Fredericksburg to defend three Baptist preachers who had been arrested and charged with preaching the gospel without permission of the government authorities. After hearing the charges against the men read by the court clerk and listening to comments by the prosecuting attorney, Henry took the paper which contained the indictment and addressed the court. “May it please the court, what did I hear?” He then repeated the charge against the prisoners: “For preaching the gospel of the Son of God!” Then he slowly waved the paper three times around his head, lifted his eyes to heaven, and exclaimed, “Great God!” Henry proceeded with eloquence and passion to state the case for religious freedom. Three times he referred to the indictment as he waved it slowly around his head. Moved by the speech, the presiding magistrate exclaimed, “Sheriff, discharge those men!”
Many other Baptist preachers were also arrested, fined, banished, whipped, and jailed. They were often confined in jails for weeks, frequently in detestable circumstances. One of the persons persecuted was James Ireland (b.1748–d.1806), a young Baptist preacher who was arrested in 1769 and jailed in Culpeper, Virginia, for preaching. In his autobiography Ireland wrote about the ordeal. He recorded that hostile crowds hurled rocks, sticks, and insults at him on the way to prison. From November until April he suffered in a cold, filthy one-room jail. The frigid winds of winter blew under the ill-fitting door and through cracks in the walls.
His persecutors conspired to torment, humiliate, and even to kill him. They exploded gunpowder under the floor of the jail, filled the jail with choking fumes of burning sulfur and Indian pepper, and poisoned him. During the terrible months in prison, he preached to crowds through the iron grate in his cell window, at peril to himself and to the persons who listened. His enemies rode horses roughshod through the crowd, endangering those who had gathered to listen to Ireland. In his memoirs he indicated that these were but examples of the abuse he endured: “Thus, I have given some account of my personal sufferings, to which might be added a hundred circumstances more.” He survived all the abuse, but as a result of persecution, his health was impaired for life.
Such incidents helped to intensify the efforts of Virginia statesmen such as James Madison (b.1751–d.1836) and Thomas Jefferson (b.1743–d.1826) in behalf of religious freedom. Yet the resistance of the government-supported church in Virginia to any such efforts slowed the process.
Baptist voluntary cooperation began to develop.
In the middle colonies, Baptists experienced more religious freedom than in other areas in America. The founder of Pennsylvania was William Penn (b.1644–d.1718), a strong Quaker, and the Quaker teaching on religious freedom influenced the region. Many settlers in the middle colonies came from Wales. Some were Baptists.
The Welch Baptists brought an emphasis on evangelism, warm fellowship, fervent preaching, and congregational singing. They also were not as opposed to organizations beyond the local congregations as some other Baptists were. Not surprisingly, therefore, one of the first major moves toward cooperation among Baptists took place in Pennsylvania.
Growth of Baptists fueled a desire among some for more cooperation. As early as the 1640s, Baptists in England had formed associations for fellowship and cooperation in various endeavors. Baptists in America adopted the pattern, and in 1707 they formed the Philadelphia Baptist Association, the oldest surviving association in America.
The association was formed with five cooperating churches, all of them small, from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. By the 1750s the association extended from New England to the southern colonies. It functioned in some ways as a national body of cooperation and was influential in further cooperative endeavors.
Baptists also cooperated to found a university, the College of Rhode Island, in 1764. From the first it espoused the principles of religious freedom. In 1804 it was renamed Brown University to honor a wealthy donor. The school educated many early Baptist leaders. It also set an example for Baptists to establish numerous other schools throughout America in the years to come.
Baptists did not grow rapidly in America until the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s.
Thousands of persons experienced genuine conversion during the spiritual awakening which swept through most of the colonies during the 1730s and 1740s. At the beginning of the Awakening, less than fifty Baptist churches existed from Maine to Florida with only about a thousand members. That soon changed.
Although Baptists had little to do with initiating the Awakening, they benefited greatly from it. Many thousands of people left the government-supported churches in the colonies, finding them too cold religiously for their newfound spiritual fervor, and joined with Baptists and other denominations.
The Awakening brought about a division among Baptists. Those who embraced the Awakening became known as Separates or New Lights. Those who looked with disfavor on it, primarily because of what they considered excessive emotion, were called Regular Baptists or Old Lights. Many Separate Baptists were suspicious of education for pastors and favored informal, emotional worship. Most Regular Baptists favored education and a more formal worship style. By 1800 the two groups had reunited, but these two distinct emphases remained in Baptist life.
Baptists became known for their evangelistic zeal.
The emphasis on evangelism among the Separate Baptists began to permeate Baptist life. This in turn led to the growth in the number of Baptists and of Baptist churches. One example of the evangelistic zeal of these Baptists who were in a sense the product of the Great Awakening is the Sandy Creek Baptist Church. Organized in North Carolina by Shubal Stearns (b.1706–d.1771) in 1755, in just seventeen years this church was instrumental in helping to start forty-two churches from which came 125 additional evangelistic preachers.
The commitment to both evangelism and believer’s baptism by immersion is recorded in the journals of John Leland (b.1754–d.1841), a Baptist pastor in both New England and Virginia in the latter part of the 1700s and early part of the 1800s. His description of baptism in Virginia indicates the strong commitment of Baptists to immersion as the correct biblical mode of baptism: “I have seen ice cut more than a foot thick, and people baptized in the water, and yet I have never heard of any person taking cold, or any kind of sickness, in so doing.”
The numbers of persons being baptized varied, of course, but Leland’s record indicates the significant growth of Baptists: “Forty, fifty, and sixty have often been baptized in a day, at one place, in Virginia, and sometimes as many as seventy-five. There are some ministers now living in Virginia, who have baptized more than two thousand persons.”
Baptisms were public, joyful events and as such were also means of evangelistic outreach. Leland wrote: “At times appointed for baptism, the people generally go singing to the water-side in grand procession: I have heard many souls declare they first were convicted, or first found pardon going to, at, or coming from the water.”
The Baptist love of singing is also indicated by Leland’s accounts: “At meetings, as soon as preaching is over, it is common to sing a number of spiritual songs; sometimes several songs are sounding at the same time, in different parts of the congregation.” And what were they singing? Leland states, regarding the famous hymn writer, “Dr. Watts is the general standard for the Baptists in Virginia; but they are not confined to him; any spiritual composition answers their purpose.”
The American Revolution (1775-1783) aided the Baptist cause.
The Great Awakening accelerated Baptist growth and influence. So did the American Revolution. Baptists were second to none in their commitment to help establish a new nation, separated from England. Part of the Baptist support was due to their inherent love of freedom, and part was due to a hope that a break with England would break the power of the government-supported churches in the colonies. Thus, Baptists fought for both civil liberty and religious freedom.
And fight they did. Baptists were wholehearted patriots. They not only supported the Revolution with their words but with their deeds, taking up arms with their fellow countrymen against the British. An example of the Baptist zeal was John Gano (b.1727–d.1804), pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York City. The First Baptist Church history states:
Because the pastor and many of its members had joined the Revolution, the British used the building as a horse stable. Gano served as chaplain to Colonel Webb, General Clinton, and later George Washington. The present building is located on the site of the ambush of Gano’s regiment as they fled after defeats on Long Island to join Washington. When the Treaty of Peace celebration took place in Newburgh, Washington called on Gano to offer the prayer of thanksgiving. Washington also requested Gano to baptize him, because he had studied the scriptures and concluded that as a believer he should be immersed.
In addition to serving as chaplains, Baptists fought side by side with soldiers who were members of churches which had oppressed Baptists. Such camaraderie against a common enemy enhanced a wider understanding of who Baptists were and what they stood for. The identification of the Baptists with the winning cause of the Revolution also gained for them added respect and attention, not only from the population as a whole but also from leaders of the new nation.
An example of this appreciation of Baptists by national leaders is a letter written in 1789 by President George Washington (b.1732–d.1799) to the Committee of the United Baptist Churches of Virginia. Washington, a lifelong member of the Anglican Church, one of the denominations that had persecuted Baptists, assured Baptists of his appreciation for them and affirmed his own commitment to religious freedom:
For you doubtless remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.
While I recollect with satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members, have been, throughout America, uniformly, and almost unanimously the firm friends to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe that they will be the faithful supporters of a free, yet efficient general government.
Baptists of all kinds yearned for religious freedom, not only for themselves but for everyone.
One by-product of the Baptist growth was their increased influence for religious freedom for all. Throughout the colonies Baptist leaders such as Isaac Backus (b.1724–d.1806) in New England and John Leland in Virginia worked for church and state to be free from one another’s control so that persons could enjoy religious freedom. In Virginia they found allies in such persons as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
In the Revolutionary War, Baptists fought to win freedom from England. But victory did not bring religious freedom. Government-supported churches continued to exist in some of the states in the new nation, and the governing documents for the nation, such as the Articles of Confederation, made no provision for religious freedom.
Baptists renewed their efforts, and along with others finally gained an increase in religious freedom with the adoption of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. James Madison, regarded as the “Father of the Constitution,” with Baptist backing, especially that of John Leland, authored and championed the adoption of the First Amendment, which was finally achieved in 1791.
However, the statement in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” applied only to the Federal Government and not to the states. Some states tenaciously maintained a government-supported church. Among these was Connecticut.
The Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, concerned that full religious freedom for which Baptists and others had paid such a high price would never be attained, in 1801 wrote President Thomas Jefferson about their concerns. He replied in a famous letter dated January 1, 1802, that set forth the clear ideal of separation of church and state. In the letter he declared:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all natural rights, convinced he had no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
The “progress of those sentiments” moved slowly. It was not until 1818 that Connecticut disestablished its state-supported church. Jefferson did not live to see the last vestiges of religious establishment done away with. He died in 1826, and it was not until 1833 in Massachusetts that the last tax-supported church was disestablished. Then America became more truly the land of religious freedom. Baptists utilized the freedom in efforts to spread the gospel throughout the new nation.
The Baptist commitment to missions developed.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Baptists had grown to over eleven hundred churches with approximately one hundred thousand members. However, they lacked any national organization. The churches were fiercely independent and suspicious of any organization that would threaten their autonomy and freedom. Congregational governance and local church autonomy were viewed as the basic New Testament pattern. When Baptist associations were formed, much was said in the organizing documents about the limits of the association’s powers as well as about its tasks. Soon this lack of national organization changed. The initial motivation for the change was missions.
In the early 1800s the missionary fervor which had engulfed the Congregational churches had an unexpected effect on the Baptists. In 1812 Ann Hasseltine Judson (b.1789–d.1826) and Adoniram Judson (b.1788–d.1850) along with Luther Rice (b.1783–d.1836), all of whom were Congregationalists, were commissioned as missionaries to India by the Congregational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The Judsons, each a very devout Christian, had been married only two weeks before they boarded the Caravan, the ship that took them on their four-month voyage from America to India.
Rice traveled on another ship, the Harmony. On their journey on separate vessels and upon arrival, the Judsons and Rice carefully studied the New Testament in order to refute the Baptist view of baptism since the Baptists under the leadership of William Carey from England were already in India. The Congregational churches practiced infant baptism.
As a result of their study of the Bible, the Judsons and Rice came to hold the Baptist view of believer’s baptism and were baptized as Baptists. Severed from their Congregational support, Rice returned to America to secure Baptist support for the Judsons, who moved from India to Burma to conduct their missionary efforts.
In Burma the Judsons encountered severe challenges. Although they shared the gospel faithfully, the response from the people was either indifference or hostility. They arrived in Burma in 1813, but it was not until 1819 that the first convert was baptized. The living conditions, climate, and disease took a terrible toll on their health. Sorrow over the death of their first child, named Roger Williams, after only eight months of life added to their difficulty.
Ann’s health finally broke under the strain, and she returned to the United States in 1822 for recovery. While in the States, she lectured and wrote extensively about missions, stirring new commitment to the cause among a widening group of persons. Her letters written both while in the United States and in Burma inspired increased support for missions.
However, her life provided the greatest inspiration. She returned to Burma in 1823 and remained at her missionary post in spite of horrible difficulties. Her husband suffered almost two years of torture and imprisonment during which time she risked life and health to minister to him. She persistently pled for his release while also caring for their infant child. Her kindness to all persons won admiration and a host of friends. Her translating of parts of the Bible into the Burmese language helped to bring many to know about Christ. Finally, the years of toil took away her health, and she died on October 24, 1826, of fever.
Adoniram continued the missionary ministry which he and Ann had initiated at great cost, including the deaths of their only two children. After Ann’s death, he married Sarah Hall Boardman (b.1803–d.1845), who was herself a wonderful helpmate and missionary. Following her death, he married Emily Chubbuck (b.1817–d.1854), who also served diligently the missionary cause. Through the many years of Judson’s service, the missionary work prospered, and the Baptist population in Burma continued to grow, becoming one of the largest in the world.
The Baptist missionary zeal led to national organizations.
The missionary efforts in Burma by the Judsons, the inspiration provided by their example and by Ann’s writings, and the appeals of Luther Rice in America for support of the missionaries helped to change Baptist life in America in remarkable ways. Baptists embraced missionary endeavors. They formed national organizations for missions.
Rice traveled widely urging support for missions. The result was the formation in 1814 of the first national organization of Baptists, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions, better known as the Triennial Convention because it met every three years.
Soon other organizations followed, such as those for home missions and publications. State conventions were launched, the first being the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1821. Baptist women formed organizations to help support missions both by missionary education and by financial support.
Most Baptists came to believe that churches could cooperate voluntarily to form organizations for the spread of the gospel without losing their autonomy. A few Baptists continued to object to these organizations on the grounds that they were without biblical precedent, but soon missions, denominational organizations, and voluntary cooperation became major factors in Baptist life.
Baptists grew rapidly both in numbers and organizations.
Throughout the nation Baptists grew rapidly through missionary and evangelistic efforts. Throngs of persons responded to the gospel and were baptized into Baptist churches.
Baptist preachers and laypersons carried the gospel and the Baptist witness everywhere, including the western frontier. Among these were Squire Boone (b.1744–d.1815), a preacher and brother of Daniel Boone (b.1734–d.1820), who gathered believers together in Kentucky, and Thomas Lincoln (b.1778–d.1851), a Baptist deacon and father of Abraham Lincoln (b.1809–d.1865), who helped develop churches in Kentucky and Indiana.
Baptists require no formal theological training for a person to become a preacher. As a result, Baptist farmers, merchants, and others who felt called to preach did so and started churches wherever they settled. They were joined in these efforts by college and seminary-educated preachers who were equally committed to evangelism and church starting.
Baptists were known as an evangelistic people. They carried out their evangelistic zeal in various ways. Accusations of being overly zealous, even fanatical, did not dampen their efforts to share the gospel with all persons everywhere.
New churches, often more effective than older congregations in evangelism, were started in cities, towns, and rural areas. Evangelism was considered every Baptist’s responsibility and opportunity, not just that of preachers and evangelists. Churches provided training opportunities for members in how to share their faith in Christ with others.
Meetings were organized for the specific purpose of evangelism, sometimes held by individual churches and at other times by entire associations of churches. Usually termed “revival meetings” or “protracted meetings,” these events sometimes lasted for weeks, often resulting in many professions of faith and baptisms. Baptisms frequently took place outside of church buildings in ponds, rivers, creeks, and lakes, and this afforded an additional means of publicly sharing the gospel.
The dispute over slavery separated Baptists North and South resulting in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. The Southern Baptist Convention became the largest Baptist convention in the world. The American Civil War slowed growth among Baptists nationwide for awhile, but after the War growth resumed.
The earliest Black Baptist churches are generally acknowledged to be the Bluestone Church on the William Byrd plantation in Virginia (c.1758) and the Silver Bluff Baptist Church in South Carolina (c.1773). The South Carolina church was founded as the result of the evangelistic efforts of George Liele, sometimes spelled Lisle or Leile, (c.1750–c.1828), a slave, who after securing his freedom immigrated to Jamaica. In 1784 he began to preach in Jamaica, helping to develop a strong Baptist work in that country. African Americans, liberated from slavery by the Civil War in the 1860s, formed hundreds of Baptist churches and some of the largest Baptist conventions to be found.
Native Americans, responding to Baptist mission efforts, started churches. In addition, various immigrant groups, such as Germans, Swedes, and Hispanics, started Baptist churches, formed conventions, founded schools, and published materials.
Overall the Baptist growth has been phenomenal.
About eight hundred thousand Baptists in 1850 became over five million by 1900, over seventeen million by 1955, and over thirty million by 2000. The Baptist growth has been not only in numbers of members and churches but also in many other ways.
Baptist missionary organizations, publishing ventures, schools, and other entities blanketed America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Baptists established outstanding universities, seminaries, child and elder care institutions, and medical centers. They formed entities to publish newspapers and other materials and to provide information via electronic media as resources for churches and other Baptist organizations. Baptists sent thousands of missionaries throughout the nation and the world. They founded organizations to deliver ministry to the total needs of persons, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Baptists created national and regional organizations to provide support for these various efforts. They came to realize that fulfilling the Lord Jesus Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) and Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37–40) called for cooperation. Voluntary cooperation enabled Baptists to do together what no single person, church, or other entity could do alone in sharing God’s love through both word and deed.
As the Baptist denomination has grown, Baptists have continued to make major contributions in various aspects of society. They have populated the classrooms of academia and boardrooms of major corporations. They are found in the ranks as well as in the leadership of various arenas, such as business, the arts, sports, entertainment, the military, and government.
Once banned from public office, they have served as judges, governors, mayors, senators, congressmen, and presidents. Samuel “Sam” Houston (b.1793–d.1863) is an example of this. He was elected as the first president of the Republic of Texas in 1836. He was baptized November 19, 1854, into the Independence Baptist Church in Independence, Texas, while he was a United States senator, and he later served as governor of the state.
In the world of religion, Baptists have provided a veritable army of pastors, teachers, missionaries, and church leaders. They have furnished great evangelists such as Billy Graham (b.1918– ), influential authors such as Walter Rauschenbusch (b.1861–d.1918), outstanding educators such as Francis Wayland (b.1796–d.1865), visionary organizers such as Nannie Helen Burroughs (c.1879–d.1961), and courageous proponents of social justice such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (b.1929–d.1968).
A number of factors contributed to the Baptist growth.
From a tiny band of exiles nestled in Rhode Island in the 1600s, Baptists became the largest denomination in America, apart from the Roman Catholic. The Baptist growth in America did not come primarily from immigration, as much of the Roman Catholic growth did, but from robust evangelistic and missionary efforts.
Baptist church organizations and activities focused on evangelism. For example, Sunday Schools for all ages have contributed to the growth; they combine Bible study with fellowship and evangelistic outreach. Churches organized visitation programs in which members visited the homes of unchurched persons inviting them to Sunday School and worship and sharing Christ with individuals who were not Christians.
Furthermore, as previously indicated, Baptists do not require any level of formal education for their preachers and missionaries. Some Baptist churches and other entities have educational requirements, but the denomination itself does not. This enabled hundreds of farmers, merchants, and others who felt called of God but who lacked formal theological education to preach, pastor, start churches, and provide leadership. Some of these were highly educated in fields other than theology, while others had little or no formal education but had great zeal and ability. Baptists for the most part were not anti-education, as evidenced by the many Baptist schools that exist, but they did not allow formal education standards to stand in the way of sharing the gospel on the expanding frontier. This approach contributed greatly to Baptist growth and diversity.
Baptist schools and other institutions contributed to the Baptist increase. Colleges, universities, seminaries, child and elder care entities, and hospitals have aided the Baptist witness. In addition, organizations that deliver assistance in times of disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, fires, and tornadoes, expand evangelistic outreach through ministry.
Baptist expansion has also been enhanced because various basic Baptist characteristics are compatible with the spirit of the American dream. These characteristics include an emphasis on freedom, personal responsibility, and the benefit of cooperation.
With Baptist growth came increasing diversity.
Baptists have grown not only in numbers but also in variety. Baptists have formed numerous different regional and national organizations, some with a few members and others with millions. They range theologically from Free Will Baptists to Primitive Baptists. Various ethnic groups maintain conventions, such as the Hispanic Baptist Convention. Several organizations are the result of divisions, such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. from the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
Baptists vary greatly. Educationally, Baptists range from those who are illiterate to famous scholars. Economically, they include the very poor and the enormously wealthy. Politically, they encompass those considered liberal and those considered conservative. Culturally and racially, they come from scores of different groups. Even with such diversity, Baptists in America are remarkably alike in basic beliefs and practices, what is termed the Baptist Recipe.
Baptists in America are not without faults; no group is. Yet in spite of these shortcomings, Baptists in America have grown and contributed in many positive ways.
In addition to England and America, Baptists have spread throughout the world. Missionaries from England and the United States helped launch Baptist work in Africa, Asia, South America, and Australia. Immigration of Baptists from England and the United States to places without a Baptist witness further expanded the Baptist worldwide presence.
In many of the areas where the Baptist witness was established by missionaries and immigrants, the Baptists in those places have sent missionaries of their own to further spread the Baptist witness. And Baptists continue to migrate to various locations, planting churches.
Indigenous Baptist churches came into being in some places. For example, in Germany Johann Gerhard Oncken’s (b.1800–d.1884) study of the Scriptures led him to accept Baptist views. He heard about an American Baptist who was in Berlin, sought him out, and with six others was baptized in the Elbe River in 1834. Oncken’s evangelistic efforts led to the expansion of Baptists on the European continent to such an extent that he is referred to as the “Apostle of European Baptists.”
Advanced types of travel and communication have greatly facilitated the expansion of Baptists worldwide. The increase in financial resources of Baptists has enabled them to utilize these extensively.
The Baptist emphases on evangelism, missions, church planting, and ministry have contributed to the Baptist expansion.
Baptist growth has not been confined to any one area. The largest Baptist population developed in the United States, but Baptists in some other countries came to number more than a million, such as in Nigeria, India, Myanmar (previously Burma), and Brazil. All told, Baptist churches extended to more than 120 countries by the end of the twentieth century.
Baptist churches are located on every continent except Antarctica. New Baptist churches are formed every day. Baptist churches number in the tens of thousands and their members in the tens of millions. Baptists in these various places throughout the world have established not only churches but also various kinds of cooperative organizations.
These organizations go by different names, such as associations, networks, societies, conventions, fellowships, and unions, but they all have in common the idea that participation is always voluntary. In addition, Baptists have established schools, hospitals, child and elder care entities, and other types of institutions for ministry. Baptists field a huge missionary force taking the gospel to the “uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Wherever they go, Baptists advocate religious freedom for all persons.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of Baptists worldwide was estimated to be approximately fifty million. This is indeed only an estimated number. The number of Baptists is difficult to determine for several reasons. In some places, Baptists are persecuted and often do not make any information about their activities or membership public. Other Baptist groups view keeping statistics as relatively unimportant. Baptists have no central authority that can require statistics to be reported by Baptist groups around the world. Baptists count as members only those who have made public professions of faith, been baptized, and joined a church. Thus, a report that includes only members significantly underestimates the total number of persons involved in Baptist churches, such as unbaptized children of members and persons who attend faithfully but have never officially joined a Baptist church.
Baptists throughout the world relate voluntarily with one another.
Baptists cooperate throughout the world in various ways. For example, Baptists in some countries form partnerships or cooperative efforts with Baptists in other countries for church planting, evangelism, or ministry. Also, churches and associations of churches in one part of the world cooperate with similar entities in another part. Some of these cooperative efforts are formally entered into and others are very informal, but all are voluntary.
Baptist institutions in one country also cooperate with those in another. For example, Baptist medical centers in America contribute equipment and expertise to Baptist medical centers in other nations. Baptist colleges and seminaries form partnerships with similar entities in other countries.
In 1905 the Baptist World Alliance was established to help encourage cooperation and fellowship among the Baptists of the world. As with all organizations in Baptist life, the Alliance has no authority over any other Baptist entity. It serves as a conduit for Baptist aid to persons in need, as an advocate for religious freedom, and as a source of encouragement and fellowship for Baptists worldwide.
An evidence of Baptist growth worldwide is the various places from which Baptist World Alliance presidents have come. These include Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Liberia, South Korea, and the United States. The countries where the BWA World Congress has met also indicate the worldwide Baptist growth. These include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and the United States.
Key Characteristics of Baptists
Baptists are clearly a diverse people. Amidst this vast diversity, a kind of uniformity also exists. It is not an imposed or organizational uniformity but rather one derived from certain commonly held beliefs.
The authority of the Bible and the Lordship of Christ form bedrock Baptist convictions.
Baptism only of believers in Christ after their conversion and by immersion is often cited as the distinguishing characteristic of Baptists. While it certainly distinguishes Baptists from most of the rest of the Christian family, believer’s baptism by immersion actually rests on other basic convictions. Among these are a steadfast commitment to the Bible as the sole written authority for faith and practice and a passionate belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Coupled with these is an unwavering devotion to freedom. The unyielding insistence on the authority of the Bible, the Lordship of Christ, and responsible freedom serve as the basis for other Baptist emphases.
Since Christ is Lord, all persons ought to be free to find and follow his will. Since the Bible is the authority for faith and practice, all persons ought to be free to read, interpret, and apply the teachings of the Bible.
In turn these convictions lead to other Baptist beliefs and practices, such as salvation only by grace through repentance and a personal response of faith in Christ, soul competency and the priesthood of all believers, believer’s baptism by immersion, regenerate church membership, governance of autonomous congregations by their members, voluntary cooperation, evangelism, missions, efforts to correct wrongs in the social order, Christian education, and ministry to the total needs of persons in Christ’s name.
Baptists have insisted that all of these function best where there is religious freedom and a friendly separation of church and state. As John Leland, a Baptist pastor who helped lead the struggle for religious freedom in America, wrote in The Rights of Conscience Inalienable:
Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.
Because Baptists have held fast to these convictions and have defied laws regulating religious practices, they have suffered ridicule and persecution by governmental and religious authorities. What has been the response by Baptists to this persecution? Frank S. Mead (b.1898–d.1982), a Methodist historian, stated about Baptists, “Never once in their bitter, bloody history have they struck back at their persecutors or persecuted any other for his faith.”
The Baptist emphasis on freedom includes responsibility and accountability.
Herschel Hobbs (b.1907–d.1995), noted Baptist pastor and theologian, concerning Baptist freedom, wrote, “This does not mean that Baptists believe that one can believe just anything and be a Christian or a Baptist. The competency of the soul in religion entails the authority of the Scriptures and the lordship of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, Baptist freedom is to be responsible freedom.
Christ as Lord calls for responsible discipleship, for obedience to his will, for evangelistic witness, for missionary outreach, and for ministry and service to others. The Bible teaches that those who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord are to give evidence of that belief, not by isolated pietism but by being part of a worshipping, witnessing, loving, serving community of fellow believers.
Accountable freedom is especially evident in Baptist church life.
For Baptists the word “church” relates primarily to local congregations of baptized believers. Each church is autonomous and free from outside control.
Baptist church life embodies accountable freedom. Baptists insist that church membership ought to be freely entered into, never coerced. The members of a church ought to be free to govern the church under the Lordship of Christ apart from any outside human interference.
Freedom characterizes Baptist financial support of a church. Although Baptists teach that tithes and offerings are the biblical method for church support, the denomination does not mandate any financial standard or method of giving. Individual church members decide what, when, and how they will give. Receiving tithes and offerings is part of Baptist worship services; persons are encouraged to give, but no one is required to do so.
Furthermore, churches are free to determine how much will be given by the church to denominational causes. No assessments are levied on individuals or churches by the denomination.
These freedoms, as are all others in Baptist life, are to be exercised with accountability, abiding by the teachings of the Bible and the direction of the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Christ, the Head of the church.
Worship by Baptists exemplifies freedom.
Baptists herald the importance of individual, family, and church worship and insist that such worship ought to be free from government or denominational control or interference.
Baptists believe that corporate worship by congregations is a vital ingredient in the life of every Christian and church. The Baptist denomination does not prescribe worship patterns for churches. The Bible is the authority for faith and practice for Baptists, and the Bible does not contain a prescribed form for worship. However, it does indicate that certain practices were present in worship by New Testament churches, the pattern for Baptist church life. These practices included scripture reading, preaching, praying, singing, receiving offerings, and appeals for persons to make decisions. Looking to the Bible for guidance, each autonomous church through congregational governance is free to choose the way it uses these elements in worship.
The Bible is central in Baptist worship. The denomination does not determine for corporate worship the translations of the Bible to use, what place in the service the Bible is to be read publicly, what scripture passages to read, or who is to read the Bible publicly. A biblical sermon is a major part of a Baptist worship service, and the preacher, not the denomination, chooses the topic, theme, text, and type of sermon.
Prayer is basic to all Baptist worship services. Again, freedom prevails. The denomination does not prescribe who is to lead in public prayer, the content of the prayer, or places in the order of worship for prayer.
Music also plays a significant role in Baptist worship services. Churches are free to use whatever music and musical instruments they choose. There are no denominational directives for music in worship.
The two ordinances of Baptist churches, believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are conducted as part of a worship service. For Baptists each of these is very important, but not necessary for salvation. As important as these are, there are no denominational requirements for how they are to be conducted. Each church is free to determine how, when, and where the ordinances are to be administered.
Appeals for decisions are also included in Baptist worship services, such as for the unsaved to trust in Jesus as personal Savior and for the unchurched to become church members. Many churches include a time in the service for individuals to make such decisions public; others have a time and a place set aside to provide counsel for persons interested in making such decisions. The denomination does not dictate the nature of these appeals. The response to these appeals is to be voluntary and free.
Clearly, the Baptist emphasis on freedom leads to great variety in corporate worship. The day, time, length, content, order, and leadership for congregational worship are determined by the church and not by any directive of the denomination. Some worship services are informal; others are formal. Such variety does not lead to worship anarchy, however, because Baptists endeavor to follow the New Testament directive that “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (I Corinthians 14:40 NIV).
The organizational pattern of Baptist churches demonstrates freedom.
Baptist church freedom is seen in the various ways that Baptist congregations are organized. The Baptist commitment to the autonomy of local churches and congregational governance has resulted in many different organizational patterns. There are no officially prescribed rules by the Baptist denomination for congregational organization. Some churches are highly structured, while others have little formal structure.
Baptists use an assortment of names for leaders in local congregations. For example, various titles are used for the person who is called by the church to be the primary preacher and teacher, such as pastor, elder, and even bishop (though rarely); for many years the preferred title in the United States was elder, but pastor became more and more preferred. Most Baptist theologians consider that the New Testament uses the titles pastor, elder, and bishop to refer to various aspects of the same office.
Whatever title is used, the person is chosen by the members of the local congregation and not assigned by some denominational entity outside of the church. Furthermore, the person does not serve as a mediator between members of the congregation and God. Each Baptist is a priest and relates directly to God, exercising his or her soul competency under the Lordship of Christ and with the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Baptist organizations beyond local congregations also evidence freedom.
The Baptist emphasis on freedom and rejection of any human authority to dictate religious faith or practice has resulted in multiple expressions in the organizational life of Baptists beyond local congregations. A denomination is a group of persons who hold a common set of beliefs, practices, and values. A denomination usually develops various organizations based on those beliefs.
In addition to local congregations of believers, these organizations among Baptists include associations, societies, unions, fellowships, and conventions as well as institutions of various kinds for evangelism, education, missions, ministry, publications, and health care. There are no denominationally dictated patterns of organization or names for these various organizations. Furthermore, local churches are free to associate or not associate with any of these organizations, and none of the organizations has any authority over local churches.
Baptist freedom is also evident in the titles for leaders and officers of the various denominational organizations. There are no prescribed denominational titles, and each entity can choose whatever title it prefers. These titles vary according to the nature of the organization, the function of the leader, and tradition.
For institutions such as schools, child and elder care entities, and hospitals, common titles are superintendent and president. For organizations such as associations and conventions, common titles are director, executive director, director of missions, president, general secretary, and corresponding secretary. All of these positions, whatever the title, have in common that the person has no authority over local congregations; each church is autonomous and self-governing.
Baptist freedom is expressed in the various ways Baptist churches and other organizations relate to non-Baptist groups.
The Baptist denomination does not dictate how Baptist entities relate to non-Baptist religious organizations, such as local ministerial alliances and state, national, and worldwide ecumenical bodies such as the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. Some Baptists associate closely with such groups, while others do not.
Most Baptist churches and organizations cooperate with non-Baptists on certain specific causes, such as efforts to promote religious freedom. Many Baptist groups cooperate with other religious bodies as well as with secular organizations in various matters, such as social action and disaster relief.
The nature and results of the Baptist emphasis on freedom have shaped the denomination.
Freedom is also evident in the various controversies that are part of the Baptist story. Baptists have experienced many controversies, often leading to division and the formation of new churches, organizations, and institutions. One of the reasons that controversy in Baptist life often results in such division is that there is no human authority in the denomination that has the power to settle disputes or render a final verdict when differences erupt. The Bible is the authority for Baptist faith and practice.
When differences arise, Baptists appeal to the Bible as the basis for their convictions, not to any human creed or denominational pronouncement because Baptists are free to interpret and apply the Bible for themselves. There is no official interpretation which all Baptists must accept. In case of conflicting interpretations, there is no human authority to dictate which interpretation is correct.
The Baptist emphasis on freedom does not mean that a person can believe just anything and still be considered a Baptist since Baptists have certain basic beliefs that define what it means to be a Baptist. For example, Baptists would defend the freedom of a person to believe that baptism is essential for salvation but would indicate that such belief would render the person outside the Baptist fold since a basic Baptist conviction is that salvation is only by grace through repentance and faith and not by works or sacraments.
Baptist freedom has resulted in vast and continuing diversity, and yet Baptists are amazingly alike. Thus, Baptists are characterized by unity and diversity which do not rest on structure but rather on the beliefs and practices that they treasure. With all of their differences, Baptists share basic convictions. These beliefs and practices, taken as a whole, make Baptists a distinct family of Christians. The Baptist Identity Series sets forth these beliefs and practices which comprise the Baptist Recipe.
The Baptist Recipe is truly remarkable. A careful examination of the recipe reveals a marvelous balance and wholeness. For example, the emphasis on individual, personal response to the gospel is balanced by an emphasis on the community of believer priests in the loving fellowship of churches. And the ingredients in the recipe are bound together in a wholeness by love as each relates to God’s love and is a means of sharing God’s love.
The Baptist story is indeed a wonderful story. It is an inspiring story, filled with examples of dedication and courage, often in the face of painful persecution.
It is an ever expanding story. Baptist commitment to evangelism and missions, based on obedience to Christ and on love for all persons, has resulted in an increasing number of Baptist Christians and churches. The Baptist denomination has grown to be one of the largest parts of the total Christian family.
It is an increasingly diverse story. As the Baptist family of Christians grows, it includes an increasing variety of persons; the family is enriched by the insights, emphases, and worship styles they bring.
Baptists function in a multitude of ways caring for hurting persons. Individual Baptists, churches, associations, conventions, societies, fellowships, networks, unions, and institutions meet spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and social needs.
Baptists have developed a wide variety of organizations, but the congregations of baptized believers remain the bedrock of the Baptist denominational structure. These churches differ in size, location, ministries, worship styles, and facilities. Pastoral leadership varies from full-time to part-time, from those with seminary degrees to those with little formal education. While diverse, these churches share a common commitment to basic Baptist beliefs.
Challenges and difficulties have been numerous in the past, and as the future unfolds, no doubt others await the Baptist family of Christians. As Baptists in the past have encountered and overcome these with God’s help, persons in the days ahead will surely do likewise, and Baptists will continue to help fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Great Commission
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'”
Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)
The Great Commandment
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)