Baptist Tradition

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Baptist Tradition

Baptists trace their beginnings to the early seventeenth century and a group of English Separatist Puritans who administered believers' baptism to one another while in exile in Amsterdam. These General or Arminian Baptists returned to England and formed the first Baptist church there in 1612. Arminians in theology, they affirmed free will, general atonement, prevenient grace, and the possibility of "falling from grace." During the 1630s groups of Particular or Calvinist Baptists began in London, stressing total depravity, limited atonement, the unconditional election of some persons for salvation, and the perseverance of the redeemed. Both Baptist groups practiced baptism by affusion or pouring until the 1640s, when total immersion became the normative form. Their early confessions of faith stressed biblical authority, freedom of conscience, a believers' church, baptism by immersion, congregational polity, local church autonomy, associational cooperation, and religious liberty. Indeed, they were probably the first in England to call for complete religious liberty for heretic and atheist alike. All Baptists practice two "ordinances" or sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Some Baptist groups such as the Free Will or Primitive Baptists also practice foot washing as another ordinance.

The Puritan dissenter Roger Williams (1603–1683) founded the first Baptist church in America at Providence, Rhode Island, in about 1638–1639. The movement expanded throughout the colonies, not without significant persecution from religious establishments in New England and Virginia. Divisions developed over theology and practice, creating numerous subgroups including the Calvinistic Regular Baptists, the more revivalistic Separate Baptists, Seventh-Day Baptists, Six-Principle Baptists, and others. A national foreign missionary society—the Triennial Convention—began in 1814. A home missionary society was formed in 1832. In 1845 the Triennial Convention split over slavery, a division that produced the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.), and the Southern Baptist Convention. African-American Baptist groups developed during the mid-nineteenth century, as did a Baptist presence among German, Swedish, Norwegian, and other ethnic groups. Disputes over election, predestination, and missionaries led to the formation of highly Calvinistic groups such as the Primitive and the Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists.

Controversy has been and remains a hallmark of Baptist life. Throughout the twentieth century, Baptists confronted numerous debates and divisions, many of which mirrored controversies in the broader American culture. In the North, Baptists contributed to the Social Gospel movement through the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918). Many Baptists worked to establish settlement houses and other responses to poverty. In the 1920s northern Baptists divided over fundamentalist/modernist debates about the nature of the Bible, the role of modern science, and the use of creeds. These theological tensions continued throughout the century. In the South, issues of race, segregation, and civil rights confronted Baptists, black and white, often creating tension and division. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), and many of the other civil rights leaders were Baptist ministers. African-American Baptist churches such as Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama; and Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, also served as centers for civil rights rallies and demonstrations. In August 1963 four little girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, an act that became a defining moment for the civil rights movement in the South.

African-American denominations also experienced division, even schism. In 1961 the Progressive National Baptist Convention was formed from a split with the National Baptist Convention, Inc., in a battle over denominational governance. In 1999 Henry Lyons, Florida pastor and president of the National Baptist Convention, Inc., was found guilty of financial irregularities in his use of denominational funds, actions that divided the convention between his supporters and his critics. At century's end, African-American Baptist churches retained a significant role in their communities while confronting significant social problems such as the incarceration of large numbers of black men and the absence of males in many African-American families.

The Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant body, claiming some 17 million members, experienced significant divisions during the last twenty years of the century. In 1979 a coalition composed of fundamentalists instigated a process of electing a series of convention presidents who would use their appointive powers to move denominational boards more to the right. The fundamentalists asserted that the convention was moving toward liberalism in its schools, literature, and leadership, thus requiring a "course correction." They were particularly concerned that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy (a belief that the original manuscripts of the Bible are without error in every matter they discuss) be established as the primary theory of biblical inspiration for churches, ministers, schools, and agencies. Moderates asserted their theological conservatism but resisted what they believed to be a "takeover" movement by the fundamentalists. The moderates affirmed belief in biblical inspiration but refused to make inerrancy theories normative for all churches and denominational employees. By 1990 fundamentalists gained control of the national convention, creating major changes in denominational personnel and programs. State and regional divisions extended the controversy, with state Baptist conventions in Virginia and Texas controlled by the moderates, while Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina were controlled by the fundamentalists. Fragmentation led to the formation of new moderate-based organizations such as the Alliance of Baptists (1986) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (1991). Many Baptist colleges and universities redefined their relationship with the state Baptist conventions, eschewing denominational control and establishing self-perpetuating trustee boards. More than ten new theological institutions—seminaries, divinity schools, and Baptist houses—were founded during the 1990s. These included Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia; Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University; and McAffee School of Theology at Mercer University. North Carolina schools included Campbell University Divinity School, Christopher White Divinity School at Gardner Webb University, and Wake Forest University Divinity School. Baptist houses were organized at Duke Divinity School, Candler School of Theology, and Texas Christian University.

Baptists in the Appalachian region from Virginia to Alabama represented one segment of "mountain religion," with their own unique traditions and rituals. Primitive Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Union Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and other regional groups were small and less formally organized than other Baptist groups in the United States. Although these groups remain small in number, their practices, such as outdoor baptisms, memorial services, foot washing, and preaching style (manifested in the "holy whine"), have created a distinctive Baptist identity. They are also determined to retain these "primitive" (New Testament) practices in the face of modernity, mobility, and other encroachments. One of the smallest Appalachian Baptist subgroups, the "No Hellers," represented a form of Primitive Baptist Universalism, insisting that divine redemption would ultimately find all persons before they leave this world.

American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., experienced significant numerical decline during the latter twentieth century, confronting controversies over the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers, the authority of Scripture, and the governance of the denomination itself. Baptist denominations, churches, state conventions, and regional associations experienced significant divisions over issues of homosexuality, divorce, abortion, women in the ministry, and other hotly debated ethical and theological questions.

When the presidential election of 1976 brought southern Baptist Jimmy Carter to the White House, American media gave extensive attention to the nature of evangelical or "born-again" religion in politics and throughout the culture. As president, Carter continued his longtime tradition of teaching Sunday school, serving a class at First Baptist Church, Washington, D.C. During the 1990s the media gave extensive attention to the ideological diversity of many political leaders who claimed Baptist identity. These included Republicans such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, as well as Democrats such as African-American leader Jesse Jackson, Vice President Al Gore, and President Bill Clinton. Clinton's impeachment trial and related moral issues in 1998–1999 created significant discussion within the Baptist community regarding sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, and politics.

In 1979 Jerry Falwell, an independent Baptist pastor from Lynchburg, Virginia, founded the Moral Majority, a conservative religious/political organization aimed at promoting social conservatism and spiritual renewal in American life. The movement claimed significant influence in bringing conservative evangelical Christians—Baptists and others—into the political square, and in advocating such issues as prayer in schools, tuition tax credits for parochial schools, pro-life agendas, and other conservative causes. By 1989 the movement had largely disbanded, acknowledging its frustration, because changes had not occurred as hoped. The Moral Majority created divisions among Baptists, some supporting its agendas and others opposing it.

Like other American denominations, Baptists divided over the ordination of women for Christian ministry. Many Baptist groups reject it entirely; others support it strongly; still others have a mixed reaction. American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., have generally given greater affirmation to women in pastoral ministry, a tradition of female ordination dating to the nineteenth century. Baptists in the South, black and white, have been substantially divided over the issue, with a probable majority opposing the practice. Nonetheless, the autonomy of local Baptist congregations means that many congregations have chosen to ordain women. In 1963 Addie Davis became the first woman ordained in a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Many women, ordained and unordained, have served in a variety of ministerial capacities in Baptist churches, and as missionaries, professors, and denominational leaders. Placement of women as senior pastors in Baptist churches, however, generally remains the exception and not the rule.

During the latter decades of the twentieth century, many Baptist churches felt the impact of the "charismatic" movement with its emphasis on "baptism in the Holy Spirit," worship services characterized by contemporary Christian music and drama, and involvement in cross-denominational religious groups such as Promise Keepers. Many Baptist churches utilized television as a means of evangelization, syndicating worship services and other programs. "In Touch Ministries," developed by Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, was one of the most widely circulated religious television programs in the nation. While promissionary Baptists continued to support career missionaries around the world, a growing number of churches also sent out many of their own members—youth and adults—in short-term missionary service, evangelizing, building homes and churches, and providing various types of medical care.

Baptist denominations in America claim more than forty million adherents, with innumerable denominational subgroups. Contemporary Baptist bodies also reflect a variety of theological orientations—Calvinist and Arminian, liberal and fundamentalist, promission and antimission. By the end of the century some Baptists, North and South, promoted a resurgent Calvinism as the appropriate theological center of the tradition. Others sought links with broader evangelical movements, while still others advocated more liberal approaches to women's ordination, homosexual relationships, and biblical interpretation.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Appalachia, Religions of; Baptism; Fundamentalist Christianity; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Mainline Protestantism; Moral Majority; Promise Keepers; Religious Communities; Religious Right.


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Leonard, Bill J. "Independent Baptists: From Sectarian Minority to Moral Majority." Church History 56 (1987): 504–517.

McBeth, Leon. The Baptist Heritage. 1987.

Washington, James Melvin. Frustrated Fellowship:TheBlack Baptist Quest for Social Order. 1986.

Bill J. Leonard

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Baptist Tradition

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Baptist Tradition