Checked content


Background Information

SOS Children volunteers helped choose articles and made other curriculum material Child sponsorship helps children one by one

Baptists are Christians who comprise a group of denominations and churches that subscribe to a doctrine that baptism should be performed only for professing believers ( believer's baptism, as opposed to infant baptism), and that it must be done by immersion (as opposed to affusion or sprinkling). Other tenets of Baptist churches include soul competency (liberty), salvation through faith alone, scripture alone as the rule of faith and practice, and the autonomy of the local congregation. Baptists recognize two ministerial offices, pastors and deacons. Baptist churches are widely considered to be Protestant churches, though some Baptists disavow this identity.

Diverse from their beginning, those identifying as Baptists today differ widely from one another in what they believe, how they worship, their attitudes toward other Christians, and their understanding of what is important in Christian discipleship.

Historians trace the earliest church labeled "Baptist" back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In accordance with his reading of the New Testament, he rejected baptism of infants and instituted baptism only of believing adults. Baptist practice spread to England, where the General Baptists considered Christ's atonement to extend to all people, while the Particular Baptists believed that it extended only to the elect. In 1638, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies. In the mid-18th century, the First Great Awakening increased Baptist growth in both New England and the South. The Second Great Awakening in the South in the early 19th century increased church membership, as did the preachers' lessening of support for abolition and manumission of slavery, which had been part of the 18th-century teachings. Baptist missionaries have spread their church to every continent.

The Baptist World Alliance reports more than 41 million members in more than 150,000 congregations. In 2002, there were over 100 million Baptists and Baptistic group members worldwide and over 33 million in North America. The largest Baptist association is the Southern Baptist Convention, with the membership of associated churches totaling more than 16 million.


Baptist Historian Bruce Gourley outlines four main views of Baptist origins: (1) The modern scholarly consensus that the movement traces its origin to the 17th century via the English Separatists, (2) the view that it was an outgrowth of Anabaptist traditions, (3) the perpetuity view which assumes that the Baptist faith and practice has existed since the time of Christ, and (4) the successionist view, or " Baptist successionism", which argues that Baptist churches actually existed in an unbroken chain since the time of Christ.

English separatist view

Modern Baptist churches trace their history to the English Separatist movement in the century after the rise of the original Protestant denominations. This view of Baptist origins has the most historical support and is the most widely accepted. Adherents to this position consider the influence of Anabaptists upon early Baptists to be minimal. It was a time of considerable political and religious turmoil. Both individuals and churches were willing to give up their theological roots if they became convinced that a more biblical "truth" had been discovered.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England (Anglicans) separated from the Roman Catholic Church. There were some Christians who were not content with the achievements of the mainstream Protestant Reformation. There also were Christians who were disappointed that the Church of England had not made corrections of what some considered to be errors and abuses. Of those most critical of the Church's direction, some chose to stay and try to make constructive changes from within the Anglican Church. They became known as "Puritans" and are described by Gourley as cousins of the English Separatists. Others decided they must leave the Church because of their dissatisfaction and became known as the Separatists.

Historians trace the earliest Baptist church back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with John Smyth as its pastor. Even prior to that, in 1606, John Smyth, a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, had broken his ties with the Church of England. Reared in the Church of England, he became "Puritan, English Separatist, and then a Baptist Separatist," and ended his days working with the Mennonites. He began meeting in England with 60–70 English Separatists, in the face of "great danger." The persecution of religious nonconformists in England led Smyth to go into exile in Amsterdam with fellow Separatists from the congregation he had gathered in Lincolnshire, separate from the established church (Anglican). Smyth and his lay supporter, Thomas Helwys, together with those they led, broke with the other English exiles because Smyth and Helways were convinced they should be baptized as believers. In 1609 Smyth first baptized himself and then baptized the others.

In 1609, while still there, Smyth wrote a tract titled "The Character of the Beast," or "The False Constitution of the Church." In it he expressed two propositions: first, infants are not to be baptized; and second, "Antichristians converted are to be admitted into the true Church by baptism." Hence, his conviction was that a scriptural church should consist only of regenerate believers who have been baptized on a personal confession of faith. He rejected the Separatist movement's doctrine of infant baptism ( paedobaptism). Shortly thereafter, Smyth left the group, and layman Thomas Helwys took over the leadership, leading the church back to England in 1611. Ultimately, Smyth became committed to believers' baptism as the only biblical baptism. He was convinced on the basis of his interpretation of Scripture that infants would not be damned should they die in infancy.

Print from Anglican theologian Daniel Featley's book, "The Dippers Dipt, or, The Anabaptists Duck'd and Plung'd Over Head and Ears, at a Disputation in Southwark", published in 1645.

Smyth, convinced that his self-baptism was invalid, applied with the Mennonites for membership. He died while waiting for membership, and some of his followers became Mennonites. Thomas Helwys and others kept their baptism and their Baptist commitments. The modern Baptist denomination is an outgrowth of Smyth's movement. Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist when they were called that by opponents in derision. McBeth writes that as late as the 18th century, many Baptists referred to themselves as "the Christians commonly—though falsely—called Anabaptists."

Another milestone in the early development of Baptist doctrine was in 1638 with John Spilsbury, a Calvinistic minister who helped recover the practice of believer's baptism by immersion. According to Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "Spilsbury's cogent arguments for a gathered, disciplined congregation of believers baptized by immersion as constituting the New Testament church gave expression to and built on insights that had emerged within separatism, advanced in the life of John Smyth and the suffering congregation of Thomas Helwys, and matured in Particular Baptists."

Anabaptist influence view

Another view is that early seventeenth-century Baptists were influenced by continental Anabaptists. According to this view, the Dutch Mennonites (Anabaptists) shared similarities with General Baptists (believer's baptism, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and Arminian views of salvation, predestination and original sin). Representative writers include AC Underwood and William R Estep. Gorley writes that among some contemporary Baptist scholars who emphasize the faith of the community over soul liberty, the Anabaptist influence theory is making a comeback.

The relations between Baptists and Anabaptists were early strained. In 1624, the then five existing Baptist churches of London issued a condemnation of the Anabaptists.

Perpetuity view

Prior to the 20th century, Baptist historians generally wrote from the perspective that Baptists had existed since the time of Christ. Proponents of the Baptist perpetuity view consider the Baptist movement to have always been historically separate from Catholicism and in existence prior to the Protestant Reformation.

The perpetuity view is often identified with The Trail of Blood, a pamphlet by J.M. Carrol published in 1931. Other Baptist writers holding the perpetuity view are John T. Christian, Thomas Crosby, G.H. Orchard, JM Cramp, William Cathcart, Adam Taylor and DB Ray This view was also held by English Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon as well as Jesse Mercer, the namesake of Mercer University.

Baptist Origins in the UK

Historical chart of the main Protestant branches.

In 1612, Thomas Helwys established a Baptist congregation in London, consisting of congregants from Smyth's church. A number of other Baptist churches sprang up, and they became known as the General Baptists. The Particular Baptists were established when a group of Calvinist Separatists adopted believers’ Baptism.

Baptist Origins in North America

Both Roger Williams and John Clarke, his compatriot in working for religious freedom, are variously credited as founding the earliest Baptist church in North America. In 1639, Williams established a Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, and Clarke began a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. According to a Baptist historian who has researched the matter extensively, "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first' Baptist congregation in America. Exact records for both congregations are lacking."

The Great Awakening energized the Baptist movement, and the Baptist community experienced spectacular growth. Baptists became the largest Christian community in many southern states, including among the black population.

Baptist missionary work in Canada began in the British colony of Nova Scotia (current day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) in the 1760s. The first official record of a Baptist church in Canada was that of the Horton Baptist Church (now Wolfville) in Wolfville, Nova Scotia on October 29, 1778. The church was established with the assistance of the New Light evangelist Henry Alline. Many of Alline's followers, after his death, would convert and strengthen the Baptist presence in the Atlantic region. Two major groups of Baptists formed the basis of the churches in the maritimes. These were referred to as Regular Baptist (Calvinistic in their doctrine) and Free Will Baptists.

In May 1845, the Baptist congregations in the United States split over slavery and missions. The Home Mission Society prevented slaveholders from being appointed as missionaries. The split created the Southern Baptist Convention, while the northern congregations formed their own umbrella organization now called the American Baptist Churches USA (ABC-USA). The Methodist Episcopal Church, South had recently separated over the issue of slavery, and southern Presbyterians would do so shortly thereafter.

Baptist affiliations

Many Baptist churches choose to affiliate with organizational groups that provide fellowship without control. The largest such group is the Southern Baptist Convention. There also are a substantial number of smaller cooperative groups. Finally, there are Baptist churches that choose to remain autonomous and independent of any denomination, organization, or association.

In 1905, Baptists worldwide formed the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). The BWA now counts 218 Baptist conventions and unions worldwide with over 41 million members. The BWA's goals include caring for the needy, leading in world evangelism and defending human rights and religious freedom. Though it played a role in the founding of the BWA, the Southern Baptist Convention severed its affiliation with BWA in 2004.



Today, 46 million Baptists belong to churches cooperating with the Baptist World Alliance. Many Baptist groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist Bible Fellowship do not cooperate with the Alliance. Their number can add up to a total of close to 100 million adherents in the world through 211 denominations, making Baptists the largest Protestant denomination in the world.

Baptists are present in almost all continents in big denominations. The largest number by baptized memberships are in Nigeria (3.5 million) and Congo (2 million) in Africa, India (2.5 million) and Myanmar (1 million) in Asia, USA (35 million) and Brazil (1.8 million) in the North and South America.

According to the Barna Group researchers, Baptists are the largest denominational grouping of born again Christians in the USA A 2009 ABCNEWS/Beliefnet phone poll of 1 022 adults suggests that fifteen percent of Americans identify themselves as Baptists.

A large percentage of Baptists in North America are found in five bodies—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); National Baptist Convention (NBC); National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; (NBCA); American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC); and Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI).

Qualification for membership

Membership policies vary due to the autonomy of churches, but the traditional method by which an individual becomes a member of a church is through believer's baptism, which is a public profession of faith in Jesus, followed by water baptism.

Most baptists do not believe that baptism is a requirement for salvation, but rather a public expression of one's inner repentance and faith. Therefore some churches will admit into membership persons who make a profession of faith but fail to follow through with believers' baptism.

In general, Baptist churches do not have a stated age restriction on membership, but believer's baptism requires that an individual be able to freely and earnestly profess their faith. (See Age of Accountability)

Baptist beliefs and principles

Baptists, like other Christians, are defined by doctrine—some of it common to all orthodox and evangelical groups and a portion of it importantly distinctive. Through the years, different Baptist groups have issued confessions of faith—without considering them to be creeds—to express their particular doctrinal distinctions in comparison to other Christians as well as in comparison to other Baptists. Most Baptists are evangelical in doctrine, but Baptist beliefs can vary due to the congregational governance system that gives autonomy to individual local Baptist churches. Historically, Baptists have played a key role in encouraging religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Shared doctrines would include beliefs about one God; the virgin birth; miracles; atonement for sins through the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus; the Trinity; the need for salvation (through belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, his death and resurrection, and confession of Christ as Lord); grace; the Kingdom of God; last things (Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth, the dead will be raised, and Christ will judge everyone in righteousness); and evangelism and missions. Some historically significant Baptist doctrinal documents include the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1742 Philadelphia Baptist Confession, the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith, the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message, and written church covenants which some individual Baptist churches adopt as a statement of their faith and beliefs.

Most Baptists hold that no church or ecclesiastical organization has inherent authority over a Baptist church. Churches can properly relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary cooperation, never by any sort of coercion. Furthermore, this Baptist polity calls for freedom from governmental control.

Exceptions to this local form of local governance include a few churches that submit to the leadership of a body of elders, as well as the Episcopal Baptists that have an Episcopal system.

Baptists generally believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ. Beliefs among Baptists regarding the " end times" include amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving some support.

Some additional distinctive Baptist principles held by many Baptists:

  • The supremacy of the canonical Scriptures as a norm of faith and practice. For something to become a matter of faith and practice, it is not sufficient for it to be merely consistent with and not contrary to scriptural principles. It must be something explicitly ordained through command or example in the Bible. For instance, this is why Baptists do not practice infant baptism—they say the Bible neither commands nor exemplifies infant baptism as a Christian practice. More than any other Baptist principle, this one when applied to infant baptism is said to separate Baptists from other evangelical Christians.
  • Baptists believe that faith is a matter between God and the individual ( religious freedom). To them it means the advocacy of absolute liberty of conscience.
  • Insistence on immersion as the only mode of baptism. Baptists do not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. Therefore, they do not consider it to be a sacrament, since it imparts no saving grace.

Beliefs that vary among Baptists

Since there is no hierarchical authority and each Baptist church is autonomous, there is no official set of Baptist theological beliefs. These differences exist both among associations, and even among churches within the associations.

Some doctrinal issues on which there is widespread difference among Baptists are:

  • Eschatology
  • Calvinism vs. Arminianism
  • The doctrine of separation from "the world" and whether to associate with those who are "of the world"
  • Glossolalia (speaking in tongues)
  • How the Bible should be interpreted ( hermeneutics)
  • The extent to which missionary boards should be used to support missionaries
  • The extent to which non-members may participate in the Lord's Supper services
  • Which translation of Scripture to use (see King-James-Only movement), the very nature of Gospel
  • The role of women in marriage
  • The ordination of women as deacons or pastors.
  • Whether or not to accept LGBT members/ministers and whether or not to perform gay marriage.

Controversies that have shaped Baptists

Baptists have faced many controversies in their 400-year history, controversies of the level of crises. Baptist historian Walter Shurden says the word "crisis" comes from the Greek word meaning "to decide." Shurden writes that contrary to the presumed negative view of crises, some controversies that reach a crisis level may actually be "positive and highly productive." He claims that even schism, though never ideal, has often produced positive results. In his opinion crises among Baptists each have become decision-moments that shaped their future. Some controversies that have shaped Baptists include the "missions crisis", the "slavery crisis", the "landmark crisis", and the "modernist crisis".

Missions crisis

Early in the 19th century, the rise of the modern missions movement, and the backlash against it, led to widespread and bitter controversy among the American Baptists. During this era, the American Baptists were split between missionary and anti-missionary. A substantial secession of Baptists went into the movement led by Alexander Campbell, to return to a more fundamental church.

Slavery crisis

Leading up to the American Civil War, Baptists became embroiled in the controversy over slavery in the United States. Whereas in the First Great Awakening, Methodist and Baptist preachers had opposed slavery and urged manumission, over the decades they made more of an accommodation with the institution. They worked with slaveholders in the South to urge a paternalistic institution. Both denominations made direct appeals to slaves and free blacks for conversion. The Baptists particularly allowed them active roles in congregations. By the mid-19th century, northern Baptists tended to oppose slavery. As tensions increased, in 1844 the Home Mission Society refused to appoint a slaveholder as a missionary who had been proposed by Georgia. It noted that missionaries could not take servants with them, and also that the Board did not want to appear to condone slavery.

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed by nine state conventions in 1845, founded in part on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it is acceptable for Christians to own slaves. They believed slavery was a human institution which Baptist teaching could make less harsh. Not only were many planters among its membership, but some of the denomination's prominent preachers, such as the Rev. Basil Manly, Sr., president of the University of Alabama, were planters and owned slaves (he owned 40.)

As early as the late 18th century, black Baptists began to organize separate churches, associations and mission agencies, especially in the northern states. Not only did blacks set up some independent congregations in the South before the American Civil War, freedmen quickly separated from white congregations and associations after the war. They wanted to be free of white supervision. In 1866 the Consolidated American Baptist Convention, formed from black Baptists of the South and West, helped southern associations set up black state conventions, which they did in Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky . In 1880 black state conventions united in the national Foreign Mission Convention, to support black Baptist missionary work. Two other national black conventions were formed, and in 1895 they united as the National Baptist Convention. This organization later went through its own changes, spinning off other conventions. It is the largest black religious organization and the second largest Baptist organization in the world. Relatively recent demographics show that Baptists enjoy their largest per capita presence in the Southeastern United States of America, which were slaveholding states, prior to the end of the Civil War. The Baptist faith is the predominant faith of African Americans..

On 20 June 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to adopt a resolution renouncing its racist roots and apologizing for its past defense of slavery. More than 20,000 Southern Baptists registered for the meeting in Atlanta. The resolution declared that messengers, as SBC delegates are called, "unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin" and "lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest." It offered an apology to all African-Americans for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime" and repentance for "racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously or unconsciously." Although Southern Baptists have condemned racism in the past, this was the first time the predominantly white convention had dealt specifically with the issue of slavery.

The statement sought forgiveness "from our African-American brothers and sisters" and pledged to "eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry." Currently about 500,000 members of the 15.6-million-member denomination are African Americans and another 300,000 are ethnic minorities. The resolution marked the denomination's first formal acknowledgment that racism played a role in its founding.

Landmark crisis

Southern Baptist Landmarkism sought to reset the ecclesiastical separation which had characterized the old Baptist churches, in an era when inter-denominational union meetings were the order of the day. James Robinson Graves was the primary leader of this movement and one of the most influential Baptists of the 19th century. While some Landmarkers eventually separated from the Southern Baptist Convention, the movement's influence on the Convention continued well into the 20th century. Its influence continues to affect Convention policies. In 2005 the Southern Baptist International Mission Board forbade its missionaries to receive alien immersions for baptism.

Modernist crisis

The rise of theological modernism in the latter 19th and 20th century also greatly affected Baptists. The Landmark movement, already mentioned, has been described as a reaction against incipient modernism among Southern Baptists. In England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon fought against modernistic views of the Scripture in the Downgrade Controversy.

The Northern Baptist Convention in the United States had internal conflict over modernism in the early 20th century, ultimately embracing it. Two new conservative associations were founded as a result: the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches in 1933 and the Conservative Baptist Association of America in 1947.

Following similar conflicts over modernism, the Southern Baptist Convention adhered to conservative theology as its official position. Two new Baptist groups were formed by moderate Southern Baptists who disagreed with the direction in which the Southern Baptist Convention was heading: the Alliance of Baptists in 1987 and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991. Members of both groups originally identified as Southern Baptist, but over time the groups "became permanent new families of Baptists."

Retrieved from ""