How old are the Baptists? This was the question Frank S. Mead asked in 1934 in his brief history of the Baptist movement. He replied with another question, “Well, how old are the hills? One date is as hard to determine, to pin down, as another; one beginning is as obscure as the next.”
Mead’s question points to the fact that the issue of Baptist origins is a hotly contested topic, not least among Baptists themselves. The question is important because it goes to the heart of Baptist identity yet conflicting views abound. Here are three of the most prominent theories:
This is the view that Baptists have come from a long line of true churches stretching back across the centuries to the New Testament itself. Baptists are successors, it is claimed, to various dissenting groups that have thrived on the margins of official Christianity. A popular version of this theory was published by J. M. Carroll in a pamphlet called “The Trail of Blood.” It portrays Baptists as successors not only to Bible-loving Lollards and Waldensians but also to many other dissenting and heretical groups across the centuries: the Cathari, the Paulicians, the Acephali, the Petrobrusiani and on and on.
More nuanced historians of this school claim that such groups at least exhibited Baptist principles, such as believers’ baptism by immersion, while a stricter version of this story posits an unbroken chain of true Baptist churches going all the way back to the Judean Hills and the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized, mind you, by John the “Baptist,” not by John the Presbyterian or John the Methodist, much less John the Episcopalian.
Anabaptism was a movement that arose during the early years of the 16th-century Reformation. Like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, Anabaptists broke with the Church of Rome and appealed to the Bible as the normative source for their life and belief. But they also broke with the mainline reformers on a number of important issues, including matters that would later be taken up by Baptists in the 17th century. For example, they rejected the baptism of infants, insisting that repentance and faith were prerequisites for true baptism. They also gathered themselves (often because they were forced to) into small congregations where they shared the Lord’s Supper together and practiced church discipline. Because some of the motifs articulated by the Anabaptists were later picked up and owned afresh by the Baptists, some historians have argued for a genetic connection between the two groups.
But similarity does not prove influence. The affinities between Baptists and Anabaptists can be explained by the simple fact that both groups were reading the same Bible. There were also notable differences. Most Anabaptists deliberately cut themselves off from the structures of society, refusing to bear arms, serve in the military, swear an oath or hold any civil office. While later Baptists emphasized the limitations of the power of the state, especially in matters religious, Anabaptists had a more positive view of Christian citizenship. The English Baptists of the 17th century decried the fact that they were “falsely called” Anabaptists. Because a small group of radical Anabaptists in the 1530s had taken over the city of Münster, Germany, by violence and imposed a reign of terror on its citizens, the entire Anabaptist movement was discredited. To call someone an Anabaptist in the 17th century was like calling someone an anarchist in early 20th-century Britain or a communist in 1950s America. The English Baptists did not learn their theology of baptism or their view of the church from the Anabaptists and they had no interest in claiming special kinship with them.
John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, whose launching of the Baptist movement at Amsterdam in 1609 we celebrate this year, were Puritans and Separatists before they were Baptists. Puritans were “hot gospel” Christians who wanted to carry the Reformation in England much further than Queen Elizabeth would allow. They emphasized preaching, personal conversion, and a presbyterian form of church government. The Separatists were Puritans in a hurry. They called for a reformation “without tarrying for any,” as they put it. They rejected the parish churches of England and began to organize congregations formed on the basis of a covenant embraced by every member. Each congregation elected its own officers, disciplined its own members and administered the sacraments only to committed initiates. The church covenant, however, was more than a contract. The congregation was defined Christologically, with every member of the church a “king, a priest and a prophet under Christ.”
These ideas about the church would be picked up by Baptists and incorporated into their own church covenants and confessions of faith. The Separatists also anticipated another major theme in Baptist history—a rejection of compulsion in matters religious. Their emphasis on the unforced conscience went beyond the thinking of other religious groups of the day. They denied that the civil magistrates had any legitimate authority over the covenanted company of God’s people. “To compel religion, to plant churches by power, and to force a submission to ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties belongeth not to [the civil power]…for it is the conscience and not the power of man that would drive us to seek the Lord’s Kingdom.”
Which of these views is correct? I agree with B. R. White, Leon McBeth and other historians who trace the historical origins of the Baptist movement to the Puritan and Separatist dissenters. But the other two views should not be dismissed out of hand. While it is futile (and unnecessary) to trace an unbroken linkage of Baptist churches through the ages, it is a fact that God has never left Himself without a witness. Some of those who challenged the medieval church were people of godly wisdom and biblical faith. Likewise the evangelical Anabaptists are worthy of as much admiration as we can give them. They stood for the truth as they understood it and were willing to give their lives for the sake of Christ.
But Baptists as a movement of renewal in early modern Europe grew out of the deepest impulses of the Protestant Reformation. They affirmed without hesitation what later historians would call the formal and material principles of the Reformation. The formal principle, sola Scriptura, declares that God has uniquely revealed Himself to human beings through the prophetic and apostolic witness of Holy Scripture, which declares the message of redemption in Jesus Christ. As the Baptists put it, the Bible is “our only rule of faith and practice.”
While Baptists have disagreed among themselves on many, many things—hymn singing, foot washing, the laying on of hands, the role of women in the church, the need for an educated clergy—they have invariably appealed to the same source book, the written Word of God in Holy Scripture.
Baptists have also believed in the material principle of the Reformation—justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Arminian and Calvinist Baptists have disagreed on the ordering of the divine decrees, the extent of the atonement and the perseverance of the saints, but they both sing from their hearts the words of John Newton’s great hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” This famous hymn, written by an Anglican, has been translated into many languages and is undoubtedly the favorite hymn of Baptists around the world.
Baptists are Reformational Christians but they have not hesitated to disagree with the reformers of the 16th century whenever they have found their views less than fully biblical. Joseph Ivimey (1773-1834) described the self-understanding of the early Baptists thus: They “held the genuine principles of the Reformation and pursued them to their legitimate consequences.” If we think of the Reformation of the 16th century as a Scripture-based renewal movement which aimed to restore the evangelical and biblical foundations of true Christianity, we can see the Baptist movement of the 17th century as a renewal within the renewal.
In telling the story of the Baptist movement from 1609 to 2009, I shall focus on four major themes: liberty, awakening, missions, and witness. While each of these themes courses throughout the entire history of the Baptist movement, the following four articles will focus on one of them for each of the intervening centuries.
The 17th Century: Religious Liberty
While John Smyth played a crucial role in the origins of the Baptist movement, it was his associate, Thomas Helwys, a lawyer by training, who wrote the first Baptist masterpiece. Disillusioned with his pastor’s changing theology, Helwys and some 10 other members of the Amsterdam congregation decided to return to their native country to seek the salvation of king and commoner alike, “though it were with the danger of our lives,” as Helwys put it. They returned to London and planted at Spitalfields what has rightly been called the first Baptist church on English soil. In that same year, Helwys published “A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity” addressed to King James. He reminded the king that he was a mortal man and not God and that he had no right to impose religious conformity on his subjects. These were dangerous words and Helwys was locked in Newgate prison in London, where he died several years later, leaving behind his wife, Joan, and their seven children.
The Baptist view of religious liberty was thus born out of the experience of persecution and martyrdom. This in itself did not make the Baptists unique. Oppressed sects had long argued for their right to religious toleration. What set the Baptists apart was the explicit vow of universal religious liberty for all. As Helwys put it, “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthy power to punish them.”
Differences emerge early
The Reformation debates over grace, free will and predestination impacted the development of Baptist life almost from the beginning. Helwys and his congregation are at the headwaters of the General Baptist tradition, so called because of its belief in general redemption, that Christ had died without distinction for all.
The General Baptists grew through aggressive evangelism, church planting, the development of associational structures and the promulgation of confessions of faith. The most important of these was An Orthodox Creed, published in 1679. This document sought a middle way between Calvinism and Arminianism. General Baptists practiced the laying on of hands for all baptized Christians, not merely for church leaders. The laying on of hands was controversial and never universally accepted among Baptists. It is still practiced among British Baptists today as a way of emphasizing the priesthood of all believers through which new members are set aside and commissioned to share the good news of Christ with those outside the church.
The most gifted theologian among the General Baptists was Thomas Grantham (1634-1692) who was imprisoned himself for fifteen months. Grantham wrote a letter to King Charles II in which he described the harsh treatment the Baptists had experienced:
Oh King! We have been much abused as we pass in the street and as we sit in our houses: being threatened to be hanged, if but heard praying to the Lord in our families, and disturbed in our so waiting upon God by uncivil beatings at our doors and sounding of horns; yea, we have been stoned, when going to our meetings; the windows of the place where we have met struck down with stones; yea, taken as evil-doers, and imprisoned when peaceably meeting together to worship the Most High, in the use of His most precious ordinances.
The other major stream of Baptist life—the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists—grew out of a church established at London in 1616. Henry Jacob was succeeded as pastor by John Lathrop in 1624 and later by Henry Jessey (1638). Around this time, a new issue arose within this congregation. The question was by what mode should baptism be administered? Richard Blunt had become convinced that the New Testament pattern of baptism required the believer to be immersed or dipped into the water, corresponding to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. He cited both Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 as biblical support for this view. Blunt immersed a certain Mr. Blacklock who, in turned, baptized him in the same way. Soon baptism by immersion became the norm for both General and Particular Baptist churches, and this has remained one of the distinguishing marks among Baptists around the world to this day.
In 1644, there were seven Particular Baptist churches in London that joined together to publish the First London Confession. In this confession a biblical rationale for believers’ baptism by immersion is given:
The way and manner of the dispensing of this ordinance the Scripture holds out to be dipping or plunging the whole body under water: it being a sign, must answer the things signified, which are these: first, the washing the whole soul in the blood of Christ; secondly, that interests the saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection; thirdly, with a confirmation of our faith that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and riseth again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ on the day of the resurrection to reign with Christ.
It was during this time that the name “Baptist” came to be applied to these believers as a term of abuse. This was a radical act in England in the 1640s and the nickname “Baptist” was a way of deriding those who flocked in great multitudes “to their Jordans to be dipped,” and who “plunged over head and ears,” as the Anglican Daniel Featley put it. He also accused Baptists of baptizing men and women alike in the nude.
The first Baptist church in America was established at Providence, R.I., in 1638 by Roger Williams. Though Williams remained a Baptist for less than one year, he published a classic treatise on religious freedom, “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution”(1644). Since “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” he claimed, the civil magistrate had no authority to enforce the first half of the Ten Commandments, that is, laws regulating worship and religious belief. “We must not sell truth cheap,” Williams wrote. “No, the least drop of it for the whole world.”
Jailed, publicly whipped
Baptists in the New World were fined, imprisoned and publicly whipped because of their faith. When the Baptist preacher Obadiah Holmes was brutally whipped in the open air market in Boston, he forgave his tormentors and said to them, “You have struck me as with roses.” But for weeks, he had to lie on his knees and elbows, as it was too painful for any part of his body to touch the bed on which he tried to sleep.
The 18th Century: Spiritual Awakening
Back in England, Baptists and other dissenters gained some relief from persecution when Parliament passed the 1689 Act of Toleration. Baptists could now have their own church buildings and propagate the faith but they still faced harassment and discrimination: They could not serve in Parliament, attend university, or be a school teacher.
The 18th century was a time of spiritual decline among English Baptists though Particulars and Generals were affected in different ways. The Generals were caught up in a form of rationalistic religion that denied both the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. In fact, most General Baptists at this time were absorbed into the rising Unitarian movement. On the other hand, the Particulars, while remaining orthodox in theology, were drawn into the vortex of hyper-Calvinism. Earlier evangelical Calvinists like John Bunyan and Benjamin Keach had been ardent preachers and church planters. They preached the Gospel to everyone without distinction believing that God alone could save and draw the lost to Himself. Hyper-Calvinists, however, denied that the Gospel should be freely offered to all and taught that sinners had no duty to repent and believe. Looking back on this era, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great London pastor B.H. Carroll called “the Baptist Colossus,” said such theology had “chilled our churches to the very bone.”
In the mid-18th century, the wind of the Spirit began to stir in this valley of dry bones. Through the work of John and Charles Wesley and the remarkable preaching of George Whitefield, thousands were converted and genuine revival swept through the land. Whitefield often preached in Baptist meeting houses and many Baptists became enthusiastic supporters of the revival movement. This would have important consequences for Baptist history. Andrew Fuller and William Carey, inspired by the revival, organized the first missionary society with the expressed purpose of sending the gospel into all the world.
Baptist life in 18th-century America can be summed up in the words “Spirit” and “structure.” The emerging structures of Baptist life centered on Philadelphia Baptist Association organized in 1707. What later became the Baptist denomination really began with the organizing work of this single association whose boundaries stretched far beyond Pennsylvania. Eventually Baptist churches in seven colonies claimed membership in Philadelphia Association. From this group, a number of “daughter associations” were spawned, including Warren Baptist Association in New England (1766) and Charleston Baptist Association in the South (1751).
Cooperation brings results
Associational structures allowed Baptist congregations to work with one another, and this pattern of cooperation yielded impressive results: the establishment of educational institutions (Rhode Island College, later Brown University, was the first among Baptists in America), works of mercy and benevolence including care for orphans and the education of slaves, the printing and distribution of Bibles and other Christian literature, support for “frontier missions” among American natives and other groups, and advocacy on behalf of social and moral concerns. Isaac Backus, the great champion of religious liberty in New England, was hired as a lobbyist to plead the Baptist cause before the Continental Congress. Later his younger colleague, John Leland, would play an important role in securing the religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
In 1742, Philadelphia Association acquired the services of a young printer named Benjamin Franklin to publish the Philadelphia Baptist Confession. This document reflected the Particular Baptist theology of the Second London Confession of 1689 with which it was identical except for the addition of two new articles. One gave approval to the practice of the laying on of hands at baptism; the other supported the singing of hymns in Baptist worship. With few exceptions, hymn singing had been taboo in Baptist churches until this time. Only the God-inspired words of the Psalms were approved for public worship. In the “worship wars” of the 18th century, hymnody won out over the Psalms-only approach. Baptists became a singing, as well as a preaching, people and a stream of great Baptist hymn writers from Keach to Katherine Sutton and Anne Steele contributed to the Baptist festival of praise. The first Baptist hymnal to be published in America was Benjamin Wallin’s Evangelical Hymns and Psalms (1762).
By the mid-18th century, Baptist life had grown from small beginnings into the makings of a major denominational network. Baptist growth received a major boost by a series of religious revivals that historians referred to as the first Great Awakening. By 1804, New England had 312 Baptist churches, most of them products of the revival.
But as impressive as Baptist gains were in New England, the most phenolmenal effect of the Awakening on the Baptist movement in America took place in the South under the leadership of two of Whitefield’s converts, Shubal Starnes and Daniel Marshall. These two men and Marshall’s wife, Martha (who was Starne’s sister), spearheaded what Southern Baptists in the 1970s called a “bold mission thrust” into Virginia and North Carolina. In 1755, they organized Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Randolph County, N.C. This church began with only 16 members, but within a few years, it had grown into a congregation of 606, an impressive record of church growth even today.
Epicenter of South
In 1758, Sandy Creek Baptist Association was formed. It became the epicenter of the Separate Baptist revival in the South, spawning 42 churches and 125 ministers within 17 years. Daniel Marshall moved on to Georgia, where he founded the Kiokee Creek Baptist Church, the first Baptist congregation in that state, about 20 miles north of Augusta. “Old sister Marshall,” as Martha Marshall is called in the Kiokee Creek Baptist minutes, remained in the congregation to support her son Abraham after her husband’s death in 1784. Robert Semple described the remarkable role Martha Marshall played in the Separate Baptist movement:
Mr. Marshall had a rare felicity of finding in this lady, a Priscilla, a helper in the Gospel. In fact, it should not be concealed that his extraordinary success in the ministry, is ascribable in no small degree, to Mrs. Marshall’s unwearied, and zealous cooperation. Without the shadow of a usurped authority over the other sex, Mrs. Marshall, being a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution, has, in countless instances melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations!
The Separate Baptists paved the way for what Nathan O. Hatch has called “the democratization of American Christianity,” an approach to faith focused on common people, personal conversion, an openness to extraordinary moving of the spirit and a call to discipleship that often pulled against the prevailing norms of established religion and the elite culture of the day.
Some historians have drawn a stark contrast between the indigenous Baptist movement coming out of the Great Awakening and the older, more established churches guided by Philadelphia Association. The church life of the Regular Baptists, as Particulars came to be called in America, was exemplified by First Baptist Church, Charleston, S.C. It was marked by concern for confessional integrity; associational structures; closely reasoned, expositional sermons with doctrinal content; and a more formal style of worship. The preaching of the Separate Baptists tended to be extemporaneous, delivered with a “holy whine.” Many of them were farmer-preachers with little formal education. Before there were colleges and seminaries, young Baptist preachers prepared for the ministry by serving as an apprentice with a seasoned pastor while associations established lending libraries and educational funds to assist young ministers.
Baptist churches could get by without what Morgan Edwards called “a complete set” of church officers—one pastor, an exhorter, a catechist, two deacons, two ruling elders and a clerk. Many Baptist churches on the frontier considered themselves blessed to have a preaching service just once a month. Associations frequently encouraged such churches to meet for prayer, Scripture reading and fellowship even in the absence of a settled pastor.
Catechists were charged with training young people in the faith, a role filled by Sunday School teachers and ministers of education in many Baptist churches today. Over time, the roles of ruling elders and deacons also merged into a single office in many congregations, though some Baptist churches still have both elders and deacons. The church clerk kept records at the church meetings and sometimes led congregational singing. Depending on the literacy skills and penmanship of the clerk, these early church records are either beautifully preserved or nearly illegible.
In addition to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Separate Baptists practiced seven rites that were less common among the Regulars. These included love feasts, the laying on of hands at baptism, the washing of feet, anointing the sick with oil, the right hand of fellowship, the kiss of charity and the dedication of infants and young children, a practice called “dry christening” by their critics. When one looks at these various practices, it is hard to miss the strong incarnational overtone of these rites, including the kiss of charity. For frontier Baptists, no less than for the slaves who heard their message and enthusiastically responded to it, the Christian faith was not only rational and didactic, it was also visual, aural and tactile. But in each case, they insisted that it was biblical.
Differences between Separate and Regular Baptists were more socially and culturally based than theologically derived. With some exceptions, both Regulars and Separates accepted the basic tenents of the Philadelphia Baptist Confession, though some emphasized a stricter view of predestination than others. Edwards, pastor of First Baptist Church, Philadelphia, visited a group of Separate Baptists on the frontier and found them to be warm-hearted, orthodox believers even if they were “immethodical” in their pattern of worship.
How strict should language be?
There were also differences of opinion as to how strictly the language of any confession of faith should be enforced. When a group of Separates and Regulars merged to form the United Baptists in Virginia in 1787, they declared that confessions of faith held “the essential trues of the gospel,” but should not exert “a tyrannical power over the consciences of any.” Perhaps the best wisdom on this subject came from a Kentucky Baptist leader named S. M. Noel who drafted a “circular letter on confessions of faith” for Franklin Baptist Association in 1826. Noel said this about the scope and structure of the confession: “It should be large enough to meet the exigencies of the church by preserving her while in the wilderness, exposed to trials, in peace, purity and loyalty. And it should be small enough to find a lodgment in the heart of the weakest lamb, sound in the faith.”
The Baptist movement in America grew exponentially during the 18th century. In 1740, when the Awakening was just getting underway, there were only 60 Baptist congregations in the American colonies. By 1790, the new republic could claim 67,000 baptized believers worshiping in nearly 1,000 Baptist churches. As America moved west, so did the Baptists. By 1810, Baptists could claim more than 2,000 churches with some 125,000 members. And by 1848, when John Winebrenner published his history of all religious denominations, the number of Baptist churches had swollen to 813,911 scattered throughout America in more than 11,000 congregations. Altogether Baptists constituted nearly four percent of the entire population of the United States.
The 19th Century: The Missionary Call
The Scottish Baptist historian David Bebbington has described evangelicalism as marked by four distinguishing traits: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism (a strong emphasis on the atoning work of Christ on the cross). By this standard, Baptists are certainly evangelicals. Each of these traits was magnified in Baptist life during the 19th century.
The “great missionary century,” as Baptist historian Kenneth Scott LaTourette dubbed the 19th century, began with a single sermon preached by a shoemaker-pastor in 1791. William Carey’s text was Isaiah 54:1-5, which he summarized in a phrase that became the watchword of the modern missionary movement, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
This sermon became a catalyst in the formation of the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen, later known as the Baptist Missionary Society.
Carey put forth his ideas about carrying the Gospel to the far corners of the world in a short pamphlet that became the manifesto of the missionary movement, not only among Baptists but for other evangelicals as well. It was called “An Inquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” Written by a practical man who was use to working with shoe leather, Carey encouraged his fellow Baptist to do four things: pray, plan, give, and go.
On June 13, 1793, William Carey; his wife, Dorothy; and their four children, including a nursing infant, sailed from England on a Danish ship headed for India.
A small-town pastor with only a grammar school education behind him, Carey had no credentials for missionary service except an inextinguishable conviction that God Almighty had called him to devote his life to sharing a message of Christ with others.
Yet Carey opened up what W. O. Carver called “the new epoch” of Christian missions during his remarkable 40-year ministry in India.
From his base at Serampore, Carey translated the Scriptures into Bengali and more than 30 other languages and dialects of the East, established schools and planted churches, organized the first agricultural society in India and opposed both the slave trade (which was outlawed by Parliament in 1834, the year of his death) and the horrible practice of widow-burning. He also called for “Great Commission Christians” of all denominations to work together in the task of world evangelization. In a culture of religious pluralism and syncretism, not unlike our own, Carey declared that personal faith in Jesus Christ was the only way of salvation for all peoples everywhere.
Carey was a pioneer in what we have come to call cross-cultural communication. He was willing to experiment with new methods in reaching for Christ the people to whom he had been sent. The establishment of indigenous churches and the training of native pastors were two key elements in his plan for permeating India with the Gospel.
Realizing that male missionaries would have limited access to female hearers in the Hindu and Muslim cultures, he encouraged the cultivation of “Bible women” who were often able to break through the gender barrier to share a positive witness for Christ.
Carey’s work in India generated interest and support among Baptists around the world. Mary Webb, a member of Boston’s Second Baptist Church, founded the first American woman’s missionary society in 1800. Soon similar groups were established in Baltimore; Richmond, Va.; and other cities. Webb was a remarkable organizer and guided this work for 50 years even though she was confined to a wheelchair. The prayer and mission-support work she began is carried on by Woman’s Missionary Union and other groups today.
On Feb. 19, 1812, the Judsons, a couple of newlyweds, bid a tearful farewell to their family and friends and boarded the Caravan, a three-mast brig in Salem harbor, and began the long ocean voyage from Massachusetts to India.
At sea, they devoted themselves to prayer and intensive Bible study. Pouring over the text of the Greek New Testament, they focused on the meaning of the word baptizo. Both Adoniram and Ann became convinced that this sacred rite was intended for believers only. Once in Calcutta, they made contact with Carey, and Sept. 6, 1812, they both were immersed at Calcutta in the baptistery of Carey’s lal bazaar Chapel.
Their friend Luther Rice, who had followed the Judsons to India on another ship, also became unsettled in his own views about baptism. After further study and prayer, he, too, was baptized as a believer Nov. 1, 1812. In his diary for that day, he wrote, “Was this day baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. The Lord grant that I may ever find His name to be a strong tower to which I may continually resort and find safety.”
Sent out by the Congregationalists, the Judsons and Rice now appealed to their fellow Baptists back in America. Back in 1812, the first national missions organization was formed in Boston, and two years later the Triennial Convention (so called because it met once every three years) became the first national organization of Baptists in the United States.
Rice was the great promoter of mission causes among Baptists, traveling by horse and buggy from Maine to Georgia and even across the Appalachians pleading for Baptists to give generously to missions causes. The story of the Judsons (Adoniram married three times) was told again and again in churches and prayer meetings, and the diary of first wife Ann Judson became a best-selling classic of Christian devotion.
Baptists have always been a fissiparous people—fighting, feuding and fussing have marked much of their history. In the 19th century, the cause of missions and Baptist unity was set back by three major theological controversies and the national crisis over slavery that led to the Civil War. The three controversies involved soteriology (characterized through Campbellism), missiology (characterized through Anti-missionism) and ecclesiology (characterized through Landmarkism).
Alexander Campbell, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, desired to “restore” the true church by returning to a literal enactment of the New Testament pattern. This led him to criticize many practices commonly used by Baptists. For example, he criticized the use of instrumental music and worship and the practice of paying ministers or calling them “Reverend” or “Doctor.” He also opposed the use of confessions of faith.
Campbell also had serious soteriological differences with the Baptists. He taught a doctrine that sounded very much like baptismal regeneration, denying the direct agency of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Baptists, shaped by the Great Awakening, insisted that “an immediate work of God’s grace in the heart” was a prerequisite for baptism and church membership. By the time of Campbell’s death in 1866, many churches had defected from the Baptist way to follow Campbell’s restorationist movement.
In some ways, this was a replay of the old debates over hyper-Calvinism that had plagued Baptists in the time of Fuller and Carey. Most Baptists affirmed (with the Bible) both the sovereignty of God in salvation and human responsibility.
Others, however, wanted to turn the biblical both/and into a logical either/or.
Led by Daniel Parker, a man of slight build with a beard streaked with tobacco stains, the anti-missionary forces opposed the open preaching of the gospel as well as Sunday Schools, the sending of missionaries and the work of seminaries (which they called “priest factories”).
It is not difficult to see why Baptists intent on winning the frontier for Christ had little sympathy for this teaching.
Most Baptists in America responded much more warmly to the approach taken by Spurgeon. He knew salvation was “all of grace,” but no one was more committed to evangelism and missions than he. On one occasion, Spurgeon is reported to have said, “Oh Lord, save all the elect and then elect some more!”
A distinctive form of Baptist successionism, Landmark theology taught that Baptist churches were the only true churches that had ever existed in the world, all others being mere human “societies” or apostate deviations from the Baptist norm.
In an age of intense denominational conflict, Landmarkism reinforced Baptist tendencies to isolation and separatism.
“Alien immersion,” open communion and “pulpit affiliation” with non-Baptist ministers were all rejected as marks of a false church.
All of this ran counter to the historic Baptist doctrine of the universal church, invisible and indivisible, the one Body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space.
Around the turn of the century, the staunchest Landmark advocates separated from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to form their own denominations, which continue to this day, largely centered in Arkansas and Texas.
The spirit of Landmarkism still lingers in Southern Baptist life today, though its grip is much less firm than it once was.
Current well-known Baptist leaders such as Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Rick Warren and Charles Stanley have set a different tone by forging a distinctively Christian witness in a wider evangelical world.
Still when the Baptist Faith and Message was revised in 1963, the only article of the new confession that was debated on the convention floor was the statement that declared the church to be the company of all the redeemed of all the ages as well as a local body of baptized believers.
The 20th Century: Witness for the Truth
At the dawn of the 20th century, Northern and Southern Baptists were nearly equal in size. The SBC had been organized in 1845 for the purpose of “eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the gospel.” In the year 1900, there was only one SBC seminary, one publishing house, two mission boards and a host of ministries affiliated with associations and state conventions.
A more unified denominational structure emerged in 1925 when the SBC adopted its first denominationwide confession of faith and a unified system for mission giving—the Cooperative Program. While Baptists in the South were uniting around a shared biblical theology and a pattern of partnership in missions activity, Baptists in the North were splitting apart in a series of church-dividing crises known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. The Baptist way in the South also had its vocal critics from the right, notably J. Frank Norris who attacked “the Baptist machine, against which he waged a kind of theological guerilla warfare. Though a force to be reckoned with, especially in Texas, by the time he died in 1952, Norris had become a kind of theological sideshow with little impact on Baptist church life.
During the last two decades of the 20th century, however, the Baptist consensus in the South began to unravel. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy was the presenting cause for this renewed conflict although many other issues were also in play. The Independent Baptist movement stemming from Norris had gone its separate way as the century neared its end, and new disputes led to the formation of the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Among black Baptists, the Progressive National Convention grew out of a split in the National Baptist Convention Inc. during the era of civil rights. Many scars remain from all these battles, but Baptists today face the future with new questions and concerns. A rising generation of younger Baptist pastors and church leaders show little interest in refighting the battles of yesterday, even if they recognize the importance of such struggles.
What are the challenges we face today as we celebrate 400 years of God’s faithfulness to those deep-water Christians called Baptists? The challenges are many but I will mention briefly only five.
1. Theological integrity and spiritual vitality
Both of these are essential for a healthy Baptist future. The old canard, “theology divides, missions unite,” was never true. Without a solid biblical foundation, there is no reason to do mission. But orthopraxy (doing right) as well as orthodoxy (thinking right) are both necessary if we are to remain faithful to Christ and His gospel. We must learn to speak the truth to one another in love. Theology without love leads to legalism; spirituality without truth becomes sentimentalism.
2. Christian unity and Baptist identity
The 400th anniversary of the beginnings of the modern Baptist movement is a good time to reaffirm our commitment to those enduring principles that were won by our Baptist forbearers amidst great struggle and persecution. The price of religious liberty is eternal vigilance. Our commitment to the Bible as God’s infallible, totally truthful word is non-negotiable. If we ever lose our passion for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone everywhere, then we will become an ossified denominational relic or a small-talk discussion club. As we give thanks for the Baptist heritage, we can also reach out to all of our brothers and sisters in Christ and stand together with them against the revival of paganism and the growth of secularism in our time.
3. The Lordship of Christ
At our best, Baptists have refused to privatize the Christian faith but have declared Jesus Christ to be Lord in every arena of human life. This means that we are called to stand and work for racial justice, outreach to the poor and needy and human dignity for every person made in the image of God, including the unborn. We will also seek to preserve the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of family life in a culture of brokenness. These commitments are not made at the expense of evangelism and missions but grow out of them.
4. Global Baptists
Baptists in America are part of a worldwide family of baptized believers, many of whom are serving Christ faithfully in difficult and dangerous situations. There are many ways to affirm our solidarity with our Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, including the work of the Baptist World Alliance. Philip Jenkins and other scholars have pointed to the fact that the greatest growth among Christians, including Baptists today, is not in the Northern Hemisphere but in the global South. Many of the places and cultures to which Baptists first sent missionaries in days gone by have now become missions-sending centers with the gospel going forth to the ends of the earth. If Jesus tarries for another 100 years, when the quincentennial of the Baptist movement is celebrated, then both the Baptist landscape and the map of global Christianity will look very different than today. Perhaps Alabama will be a part of the “third world” then. In such changing times, we need a wide vision of the world and an unswerving fidelity to the Gospel.
5. Baptist witness in the public square
As we have noted, the Baptist commitment to religious liberty was shaped in the crucible of suffering and dissent, and this commitment has become a hallmark of the Baptist way. But how the Baptist witness is articulated in the public square has become a matter of contention in recent years. The alternatives range widely from strict separationism on the one hand to “Christian America” on the other. Others believe that the Christian witness should be accommodated in the public square preserving the “free expression” of religion outside the bounds of the church community but in a way that does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. Like many other controversial issues in our society today, Baptists in the future will doubtless be called on to think clearly and act wisely—with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we pray—in this matter.
The dark clouds that surround so many aspects of our culture today are not new to the Baptist story. The God who led John Smyth and Thomas Helwys to search the Scriptures to find the model of regenerate church membership; the God who inspired uneducated shoemaker William Carey to open up the world to the missionary message; the God who guided Baptist believers through the byways and divisions of controversies in the past; the God of John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram and Anne Judson, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Isaac Backus, Lottie Moon, Bill Wallace and Martha Myers—this God has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. We as Baptists can trust Him to keep His word.
In his great hymn, “Soldiers of Christ, in Truth Arrayed,” Basil Manly Jr. has given us our marching orders:
“Morning and evening, sow the seed,
God’s grace the effort shall succeed.
Seed times of tears have oft been found
With sheaves of joy and plenty crowned.”