Christianity: Baptist Tradition

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Christianity: Baptist Tradition

FOUNDED: 1609 c.e.


Baptists, who effectively were founded in 1609 by John Smyth, an English dissenting pastor, have become one of the world's principal forms of Protestantism. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Baptist churches spread to the United States, where they have become the largest single Protestant denomination.

Baptists adhere to the traditional tenets of the Protestant Reformation, including the primacy of grace, the need for faith, and the authority of the Bible in all questions pertaining to religion. Most Baptists also affirm the classical statements of the Christian faith, such as the early church creeds, although they reject the use of creeds as a mandatory statement of belief. An often quoted maxim in Baptist life is "No creeds but the Bible!"

Within the larger family of Baptists, there is much diversity of opinion and practice. The emphasis Baptists have long placed on individual freedom and on the absence of ecclesiastical authority have resulted in the lack of a recognized theological authority in matters of biblical interpretation. The loose structure and voluntary association of Baptist life have contributed greatly to the denomination's numbers and success, but they have also made it notoriously difficult to define who is, and who is not, a Baptist.


In 1609 John Smyth, a Cambridge graduate, rebaptized himself in the company of like-minded dissenters from the Church of England. Three years before his rebaptism, Smyth had helped form a small dissenting congregation in Gainsborough, England, and he served as their pastor. This small body of believers was formed around the principle that consenting adults could unite together to worship and serve God without a priestly intermediary. The threat of persecution from the Anglican Church prompted the group to move to Amsterdam, where a few years later Smyth performed his defiant self-baptism, apparently by affusion. Although he was not the first to do so, Smyth's act in 1609 is usually considered to be the inauguration of modern Baptist life.

Thomas Helwys, who was also rebaptized by Smyth, eventually led a small band of followers back to England in an attempt to witness to his countrymen. Often persecuted, those who returned are normally credited with founding the first Baptist church in England. Over the course of the seventeenth century, Baptists multiplied numerically but were divided theologically. The main division in English Baptist life was over the nature of the Atonement. All agreed that Christ's death on the cross atoned for human sin, but the question as to whom the Atonement was for proved controversial. The General Baptists held that the Atonement was for everyone, while the Particular Baptists held that Christ died only for an elect. Although passions on the matter eventually became less inflamed, in seventeenth century Protestantism it was a volatile issue. By the end of the 1600s there were several dozen Baptist congregations in England, with additional churches in Ireland and Wales. The great period of expansion for Baptists, however, was to come in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries across the Atlantic in America.

The explosive growth of Baptists in America cannot be understood without reference to the revivalism and religious fervor associated with the Great Awakening of the early 1700s. Although no denomination can claim ownership of the Great Awakening, Baptists benefited more than most. Not only did they grow numerically in terms of individual conversions, but many of the new congregations formed by converts in the Great Awakening also moved into some version of Baptist life as a result of these revivals. By the end of the eighteenth century, it is estimated that there were as many as 750 Baptist churches in the new nation, representing perhaps 80,000 members. It is important to note that a geographical shift was taking place at this time as well, with more and more Baptists moving to the agrarian South.

In the nineteenth century Baptist churches continued to grow in the United States, and in those years three evolutions of Baptist life proved significant. First, the missionary movement, which had begun in the late eighteenth century, continued to expand, and Baptists became, as they have remained, a major part of the effort. Second, Baptists made significant inroads among African-Americans, with separate churches generally being formed in the wake of the Civil War (1861–65). Third, in 1845 Baptists split into Northern and Southern conventions, a split that even today is very much a part of Baptist activity in the United States. The Southern Baptist Convention has become the largest Protestant group in the country, and its tenor sets the tone for much of America's Baptist life.

The nineteenth century was significant not just for Baptists in the United States but for Baptists in other parts of the world as well. From 1815 to 1900, in less than a century, Baptist churches emerged in every corner of Europe. Baptist efforts in Germany and Sweden were particularly successful, although significant Baptist communities could also be found in Russia and other eastern European countries. By the end of the twentieth century, Baptists could be found in virtually every land throughout the world.


Most Baptists affirm the central tenets of the Christian faith as the Protestant Reformation presented them. It is difficult to point to a central theological doctrine that defines Baptist identity, but any list of influential ideas that have shaped Baptist life would have to include the notion of individual and collective freedom. This overarching commitment to freedom is visible in several aspects of Baptist life. For instance, while Baptists have always had great confidence in the Bible as the revealed word of God, they have held that individual freedom of interpretation is important as well. Thus, while all are agreed that the Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and practice, not all Baptists understand various biblical passages in the same way. This has led to numerous splits at both the local and national levels.

The Baptist commitment to freedom also extends to congregations. Baptist churches are free churches, meaning that each congregation is independent and autonomous. Local churches cooperate with one another on various projects, but each church is free to participate in various Baptist associations as much or as little as it pleases. These associations are formed at the local, state, national, and even international levels. Once again, how-ever, participation on the part of a congregation, or by an individual Baptist, is entirely voluntary. There is no central theological or ecclesiastical authority in Baptist life that can compel support, financial or otherwise, from individual churches. Associations are formed on the basis of like-minded cooperation rather than through any form of coercion.

The commitment to freedom extends even to salvation. Most Baptists embrace an experiential notion of faith that trusts in a personal and individualistic encounter with the person of Christ, often called a conversion experience. There is no such thing as automatic membership in Baptist life. Only those who have accepted Christ's Atonement, symbolized by public baptism, are regarded as members of the true church, which is itself formed not at the institutional level but in the hearts and minds of individual believers.


Although there is significant variance, Baptist life is normally associated with strict codes of conduct, particularly in the realm of personal piety. Many Baptists abstain from alcohol and tobacco, though they do so more out of concern for setting a good witness for their neighbors than out of an obligation to a scriptural or theological command. Baptists promote chastity before marriage and complete faithfulness to one's spouse after marriage. Many Baptists have been at the forefront of the debate over the acceptance of homosexuality, with the majority opposing homosexual practice. Baptists are encouraged to tithe to their local congregations and to make additional financial gifts for specific offerings, usually associated with missions.


There is only one source of sacred revelation for Baptists, and that is the Bible itself. Baptists have been among the staunchest defenders of both the Old and New Testaments as authoritative sources for faith and life. Although there are numerous ministerial guidebooks and explanations of Baptist belief, none is considered even remotely sacred.


There are no sanctioned symbols for Baptists, although many churches have adopted traditional Christian images such as the cross, a dove, or a flame as part of their logo.


In addition to John Smyth (died in 1612) and Thomas Helwys (c. 1550–c. 1616), there are several influential figures in Baptist history. The clergyman Roger Williams (1603?–83), who founded Rhode Island, was, at least temporarily, a Baptist. The Englishman William Carey (1761–1834), the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, traveled to India in 1793 to begin a long career as a preacher and translator of the Bible. Lott Carey (1780–1828), born a slave in Virginia, was also a Baptist missionary who eventually served as vice president of the African nation of Liberia. The American Charlotte Moon (1840–1912) was a Baptist missionary in China who, in an act of solidarity with the Chinese to whom she ministered, starved herself during a famine.

More contemporary figures include the noted American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–68). The American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969) was a leading figure in liberal Protestantism for much of the twentieth century, although his relations with Baptists conventions were often strained because of his progressivism.


Individual Baptist theologians and pastors have been leaders in various movements that swept through Protestantism. The nineteenth-century English pastor C.H. Spurgeon (1834–92), who at one time led the largest Protestant congregation in the world, was enormously influential. He is sometimes called the "last Puritan," and annual volumes of his sermons were published. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), a German-American Baptist, was a central figure in the Social Gospel movement. For several decades the American Billy Graham (born in 1918), an important figure in modern evangelicalism, has had one of the most influential ministries in the world.

There have been several American figures of importance for their leadership in Baptist theological history. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, John Leland (1754–1841) defended baptism by immersion and religious liberty. E.Y. Mullins (1860–1928) was a professor and the eventual president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, and he led Baptists through several controversial issues in the early part of the twentieth century. These included the battle with modernism and the Landmark controversy, which argued that a direct line could be established from the New Testament churches to modern Baptist congregations and that the New Testament sanctioned only the Baptist form of church governance. Herschel Hobbs (1907–95) was a leading figure in the production of the 1963 version of Baptist Faith and Message, an influential, though not uncontested, document in Baptist life.


Baptist churches are independent and autonomous, although they are bound together at various levels. Several local churches may form what is called an association, which can range in size from a few congregations to several hundred. There are also state and regional conventions and finally national conventions. In addition, there are international cooperatives, usually formed around particular projects or causes. Most national bodies are affiliated with the Baptist World Alliance (1905). Participation in any of these structures is entirely voluntary, with elected representatives from each church attending and voting as necessary at larger gatherings.

Diversity among Baptists

A remarkable diversity exists among Baptists along ethnic, racial, regional, and especially theological fault lines. There are literally dozens of Baptist groups, some barely larger than a single congregation and some representing thousands of churches and millions of members. They may be at odds with one another on virtually every issue on which it is possible to have a position. For instance, in the last quarter of the twentieth century the largest U.S. Baptist convention, the Southern Baptists, suffered years of controversy and an eventual split, ostensibly over the issue of scriptural inerrancy. Some churches left to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, while others simply stopped affiliating with any national body in substantive ways. And this is just one fault line among many. Baptists, then, are a remarkably diverse group. Indeed, it is often easier to see what different groups of Baptists disagree on than to find what they agree on.

Churches are normally served by one or more pastors, in some countries not necessarily ordained, and by one or more deacons. The variety in Baptist organization, however, even includes bishops in the countries of Latvia and Georgia.


Baptist churches range from converted houses and storefronts to enormous campuses with sanctuaries that seat several thousand. Most Baptists meet for worship, study, and fellowship on Sunday mornings, with other activities throughout the week. Many Baptists worldwide worship twice or more on Sunday. An architectural feature of Baptist churches that is often commented on is the centrality of the pulpit, usually, but not always, located front and center in the sanctuary and reflecting the importance of the written word in Baptist life. There are no shrines or places of historical importance that are especially revered by Baptists, although many claim an affinity for the land of Israel.


While most Baptists believe that the body is a temple for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they do not attach a special significance to the physical body as such. There are no sacred objects or totems that are unique to Baptists.


Like other Christians, Baptists celebrate Easter and Christmas, setting them aside for special worship services. Thanksgiving is also prominent in the United States, although less so for its religious than its cultural significance. There are other times of the year that are set aside for special offerings, usually for missions. Many Baptist churches also celebrate their annual homecoming, when former members of a congregation gather for worship and fellowship. Many state and national conventions are held throughout the year, although in themselves they are not considered religious events.


Baptists have no specific mode of dress, although depending upon the congregation, ministers may wear clerical robes. Even then, however, the significance of the robe is downplayed. Generally speaking, Baptists prefer modest attire.


The use of alcohol and tobacco are often frowned upon but not specifically prohibited. There are no other restrictions on diet for most Baptists.


Baptist worship services often reflect local cultural influences more than a historically transmitted pattern. Features of the service may include songs of praise, special prayers, and preaching, as well as informal fellowship and the giving of tithes and offerings. Weddings and funerals also follow local patterns. Preaching is central to most Baptist services, with opportunities to make a public profession of faith in Christ often following the sermon.


Baptists practice both baptism and Communion, the latter often called the Lord's Supper. Baptists participate in these acts out of obedience to Christ's example in the New Testament rather than from a belief that they are in any way necessary for salvation. Baptism is reserved for those who have made a profession of faith in Christ and is done not by sprinkling but by totally immersing the believer under water. Historically this has been controversial and the cause of some persecution, but Baptists have held firm to the practice, basing it on their reading of the New Testament. All Baptists observe Communion, though they differ in frequency.


Baptists are well known for their emphasis on evangelism, both through formal church and mission projects and through personal witness. Methods of evangelism have included sending missionaries to various people and groups, summer camps for children, the use of evangelical tracts distributed in public forums, revivals, and electronic media. Baptists have attracted attention for their practice of sending volunteers to major meetings and events, such as political conventions or the Olympics, to witness to those in attendance.

The evangelizing efforts of some Baptists have been controversial. In the 1990s, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention was criticized for encouraging members to target specifically the adherents of other religions for evangelization during their religious holidays and observances.


From their origins in England through their emergence as a significant presence in the New World, Baptists have been persecuted for their lack of support for the established church. Their strict separationist views on matters of church and state, their emphasis on conversion and the believer's baptism, and their practice of immersion have all at times led them to suffer persecution. In light of their history, Baptist's consistent support for religious liberty, while at times a matter of self-preservation, is also noteworthy.

Baptists have participated in ecumenical dialogue, but the lack of hierarchy makes it impossible for any one group to claim to represent all Baptists in such settings.


Although congregations may be active in local efforts, it is through networks and associations that most individual Baptists have participated in campaigns for social justice. In the United States the Baptist Peace Fellowship, for instance, is a voluntary association promoting peace and reconciliation among individuals and nations. Similarly, Baptist groups such as the Woman's Missionary Union have been active in international relief work. Baptist missionaries have been an integral part of their denomination's eyes and ears around the world, drawing attention to and promoting human rights, education, and religious freedom.


Although Baptists do not speak with one voice on these matters, many Baptists hold fairly conservative views on matters of marriage and family. Much has been made of Baptist opposition to state-sanctioned homosexual unions, for instance. In addition, in the late 1990s the Southern Baptist Convention attracted international attention when it amended the Baptist Faith and Message to include a statement declaring that a wife should submit to her husband's authority. While there has been criticism of Baptists along these lines, it has also been noted that Baptists have consistently opposed the extension of state authority into matters concerning the home.


Since no theological or church authority has the ability to speak for all Baptists, it is impossible to do more than generalize about Baptist opinion. Baptists have not taken a strict stance on birth control, although within a monogamous marriage there is little opposition to its preventative use. Although divorce continues to be decried by most Baptists, evidence suggests that the divorce rate for Baptists is not much different from that of the general population. Most Baptist groups have opposed abortion on demand, arguing that life begins at conception. The role of women in Baptist life is especially difficult to describe. Many churches do not ordain women to the ministry or to the position of deacon. Some moderate Baptist churches, however, have embraced women in the ministry.


The influence of Baptists on culture has been twofold. First, Baptists comprise a major portion of the larger evangelical audience. Evangelical authors, artists, musicians, and other performers have found a willing audience for their work, fueling what is a multimillion dollar industry, and Baptists have been a large part of that audience. Customer surveys carried out by Christian retailers in the United States estimate that Baptists make up a large share of their total customer base. Second, some Baptist groups have been critical of what they perceive as a moral decline in American culture and in Western culture generally. They have been public, and in some cases influential, critics of music, dance, art, and especially movies that they consider objectionable. In the 1990s, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney theme parks and movies for promoting what the group called antifamily messages.

Steven Jones

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity, Protestantism


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Brackney, William H. The Baptists. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

George, Timothy, and David Dockery, eds. Baptist Theologians. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990.

Goodwin, Everett C., ed. Baptists in the Balance: The Tension between Freedom and Responsibility. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1997.

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Wardin, Albert W. Baptists around the World. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1995.

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Christianity: Baptist Tradition

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Christianity: Baptist Tradition