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Baptist Churches


BAPTIST CHURCHES. The distinguishing feature of Baptist churches is their belief that a true church is a local community of faithful believers. This belief led the Baptist founders to reject infant baptism, for which they found no biblical warrant, and to insist that local congregations were subject to no supra-local ecclesiastical agency.


Baptists originated in the puritan reforming movements in the seventeenth-century Church of England that attempted to restore the primitive worship and organization of the churches described in the New Testament. A few of these reformers withdrew into small independent congregations, and in 1608 the English separatist John Smyth led one of them to Amsterdam, where he soon decided that the Bible offered no precedent for the baptism of infants and that infant baptism contradicted a true view of the church as a community of the faithful. In conversation with Dutch Anabaptists, whose origins could be traced to similar efforts at restoration in sixteenth-century Switzerland, Smyth's group also made known its dislike of the Calvinist theology held by many of its allies in re-form. In 1612 some in the congregation, under Thomas Helwys, returned to England, where their anti-Calvinist belief that Christ died for all persons (a "general" atonement) gave them the name General Baptists. In 1638, however, defectors from an independent Southwark (London) separatist congregation initiated, under the leadership of John Spilsbury, a Calvinistic Baptist church. Because of their belief that Christ died only for the elect, they became known as Particular Baptists.

Both traditions found supporters in colonial America. The Baptist congregations established by Roger Williams in 1639 in Providence, Rhode Island, and John Clarke between 1638 and 1648 in Newport, Rhode Island, adhered to a Calvinist theology. By 1652, however, General Baptist theology had a foothold in Rhode Island, and by the end of the century it had spread to the South. Often subjected to restriction and persecution by colonial authorities, both strands of the movement expanded slowly, with only about thirty-five congregations between them in 1700. In 1707, however, five Calvinist churches in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania formed the

Philadelphia Baptist Association to help coordinate the spread of the Baptist message. In 1751, Oliver Hart led the formation of a second association in Charleston, South Carolina, and others soon followed in New England and Virginia.

In 1742 the Philadelphia Association adopted what became known as the Philadelphia Confession, a statement of belief modeled after the Calvinist London Confession of 1689, which affirmed that a sovereign God granted the gift of faith and salvation only to the elect, who were foreordained to eternal life. While many Baptists objected to creeds, insisting on the sole sufficiency of Scripture, these confessional statements influenced local congregations and associations throughout the colonies.

After a surge of religious revivals that began around 1738, a Baptist theology of the church attracted adherents among former Congregationalists whose insistence on the necessity for an experience of conversion or "rebirth" led them to separate from less demanding Congregational churches. When some of these Separate Baptists migrated from New England, they carried their revivalist form of Calvinist piety into the Middle Colonies and the South. After 1755, led especially by Shubael Stearns in North Carolina, they gradually began to outnumber earlier Calvinistic Baptists, who adopted the name Regular Baptists to distinguish themselves. A smaller number of anti-Calvinist, or "free-will," Baptists established themselves in North Carolina in 1727 through the leadership of Paul Palmer and in northern New England through the preaching of the lay exhorter Benjamin Randall, who inspired the formation in New Hampshire of a Free Will Baptist Association in 1782. By 1780 the various Baptist groups had formed around 450 churches, a number exceeded only by Congregationalists with about 750 and Presbyterians with some 490.

Vigorously opposed to the colonial church establishments, eighteenth-century Baptists struggled for the separation of church and state. Prominent Baptists like John Leland in Virginia spoke out for religious freedom and "soul liberty," a term derived from Roger Williams to designate the rights of individual conscience. The gradual collapse of state religious establishments after ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 served Baptist purposes, and by 1800 they had become for a while the largest denomination in the nation, with almost twice as many adherents as the second-ranked Congregationalists.


In his Fifty Years Among the Baptists (1860), the denominational historian David Benedict recalled that in 1800 the Baptists remained a "poor and despised" people, "denounced" by more fashionable churches as "the dregs of Christendom," but that the denomination also had its share of educated leaders, who supported the creation of colleges, seminaries, tract societies, and missionary agencies. Educated leaders provided the impetus for the creation in 1814 of a General Missionary Convention, soon called the Triennial Convention, to sponsor home and foreign missions. Before long, it had allied itself with other agencies to promote publication and education.

Other Baptists, often expressing cultural resentment of the educated, opposed this organized missionary movement on the grounds that it lacked biblical warrants and that God would save the elect without the aid of human agencies. These critics had coalesced by 1832 into the Primitive (or Hard-Shell, or Anti-Missionary) Baptist movement, but their numbers remained small. Most of the Calvinistic Baptist churches preferred a moderate Calvinism of the sort promoted in the New Hampshire Confession (1833), emphasizing that belief in God's sovereignty and the doctrine of election was compatible with a proper understanding of human free agency. The majority gave strong encouragement to home and foreign missions while also supporting colleges like Brown (1764), Furman (1826), and Baylor (1845) and theological seminaries including Newton (1825) and Southern Baptist (1859).

Far more serious were divisions over slavery, racial difference, and region. When the Executive Board of the Home Mission Society of the Triennial Convention refused to appoint slaveholding missionaries, southerners created the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. White discrimination had long intensified the desire of African Americans to form their own congregations—like the church at Silver Bluff across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, founded around 1773—and by 1865 black Baptists had created more than 200 churches. After an influx of new members following the Civil War, the black churches organized the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention in 1880 and the National Baptist Convention in 1895. In 1907, moreover, the predominantly white churches of the North combined several independent agencies to form the Northern Baptist Convention (renamed in 1973 as the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.). These divisions endured into the twenty-first century.

One further nineteenth-century division helped shape the ethos of Baptist churches in the South. In 1851, James R. Graves in Tennessee began to argue that Baptists represented an unbroken succession of visible churches since the time of John the Baptist and Christ, that they were the only true churches, that they alone administered baptism properly, and that their members could not join in church fellowship with other Christians, including other Baptists who did not accept these truths. This Landmark Baptist movement (so named from the title of a book promoting it) influenced many local churches in the South and helped give rise in 1905 to the Baptist General Association, enlarged and reorganized in 1924 into a group that became known as the American Baptist Association, which also represented a protest by several church leaders in the Southwest against the authority of the Southern Baptist Convention.

By the early twentieth century, however, influential Baptists in the North, like William Newton Clarke at Colgate Theological Seminary, joined in the effort to re-state Protestant theology in the light of modern thought, while others, like Walter Rauschenbusch of Rochester Theological Seminary, promoted a "social gospel" that called for justice for the poor. These revisionist currents gradually influenced some of the churches of the Northern Baptist Convention, but they also evoked reactions by fundamentalists, who formed such counter organizations as the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (1932) and the Conservative Baptist Association (1947), along with thousands of independent Baptist congregations. The mood of reaction eventually shook even the conservative Southern Baptist Convention when fundamentalists, claiming to find liberalism in Baptist colleges, seminaries, and agencies, and also disturbed by the ordination of women, began in 1979 a successful takeover of the convention, which had led by 1987 to a gradual withdrawal of many moderates.

Although few in the Baptist churches accepted the social gospel, by 1908 Baptist denominations began to create new agencies and commissions to address public affairs. The effort proved divisive. Baptists could agree about the evils of alcohol abuse, gambling, and other vices, but they moved in different directions on social policies. When the Christian Life Commission (CLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention affirmed the Supreme Court's rulings on racial integration and school prayer, southern social conservatives objected, and when the CLC refused to condemn the Court's 1973 ruling on abortion, the conservatives organized a movement that by 1987 had transformed the CLC into an agency dedicated to a legal ban on all abortion. The civil rights movement also divided Baptists, even in the black churches, which provided strong lay and clerical leadership in the battle for racial equality. The opposition of the leaders of the National Baptist Convention to the social activism of the Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. led in 1961 to the formation of a separate Progressive National Baptist Convention.

Despite the internal ferment, Baptists remained the largest Protestant grouping in the nation. By 2001, the twenty-seven largest Baptist denominations reported an approximate membership of 28 million, but by then Baptists had organized themselves into more than sixty supra-local entities and close to 95,000 independent congregations, so the total membership was undoubtedly larger. The largest group was the Southern Baptist Convention, which claimed more than 15 million members and set much of the tone for southern Protestantism. As a whole, however, Baptists represent a diversity of theological and social views. Few generalizations can apply to all of them. They generally prefer simplicity in worship, with no fixed ritual formularies. They insist on the authority of Scripture as the source of their norms, and most do not regard the historic confessional statements as compulsory. And although in practice they grant considerable authority to centralized agencies, including the state and national convention organizations, they continue to affirm an ideal of the church as a local autonomous congregation of faithful Christians.


Benedict, David. Fifty Years Among the Baptists. New York: Sheldon, 1860.

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

Leonard, Bill J. God's Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990.

Lumpkin, William L., ed. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1959. Contains documents and commentary.

McBeth, H. Leon, ed. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1987.

McLoughlin, William G. New England Dissent, 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sobel, Mechal. Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. "The Antimission Movement in the Jacksonian South: A Study in Regional Folk Culture." Journal of Southern History 36 (1970): 501–529.

E. BrooksHolifield

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Creationism ; Fundamentalism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Social Gospel .

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Baptist Churches

Baptist Churches. Christian denomination. Baptists form one of the largest Protestant bodies with a worldwide membership of over 40 million, plus a greater number of adherents. Its beginnings can be traced among the Anabaptists, and to the ministry of the English Puritan John Smyth (c.1554–1612), and his fellow separatist exiles, who made believers’ baptism the basis of their gathered church fellowship in Amsterdam. In England a Baptist ‘General Union’, formed in 1813, was gradually transformed into the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland (1873).

Concerned, since the publication of Helwys's Mystery of Iniquity (1612), about religious liberty, some early 17th-cent. Baptists sought freedom in America. Roger Williams began Baptist work at Rhode Island in 1639 which, after early difficulties, spread rapidly throughout the USA, largely inspired by the mid-18th-cent. Great Awakening in New England. The majority of their present congregations belong to either the ‘American Baptist Churches in the USA’ with 1.6 million members in 1983, the Southern Baptist Convention with 13.9 million, and two (largely black) National Conventions with a combined membership of 10.3 million. Additional smaller bodies provide a total Baptist membership in the USA of 26.7 million.

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