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Baptists are a group of Christian denominations, churches, and individuals who subscribe to a theology of believer's baptism (as opposed to infant baptism), salvation through faith alone, Scripture alone as the rule of faith and practice, and the autonomy of the local church. They are generally characterized by the practice of immersion (as opposed to affusion or sprinkling) and a disavowal of authoritative creeds. Baptist churches are regarded as falling within the family of Protestantism, and some churches or individuals further identify with evangelicalism or fundamentalism. 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.
Baptists number over 110 million worldwide in more than 220,000 congregations and are considered the largest world communion of Protestants. 2009 marked the 400th anniversary of the first Baptist congregation.
The term Baptist comes from the Greek word βαπτιστής (baptistés, "baptist," also used to describe John the Baptist), which is related to the verb βαπτίζω (baptízo, "to baptize, wash, dip, immerse"), and the Latin baptista.
The term Baptist as applied to Baptist churches is a modification of the term Anabaptist (which means rebaptizer), and was used into the 19th century as a general epithet for churches which denied the validity of infant baptism, including the Campbellites, Mennonites and Brethren, who are not identified with modern day Baptists. The English Anabaptists were called Baptists as early as 1569. The name Anabaptist continued to be applied to English and American Baptists, even after the American Revolution.
Baptist Historian Bruce Gourley outlines four main views of Baptist origins, including the modern scholarly consensus that the denomination traces its origin to the 17th century via the English Separatists, as well as the view that it was an outgrowth of Anabaptist traditions, the perpetuity view which assumes that the Baptist faith and practice has existed since the time of Christ, and the successionist view which argues that Baptist churches actually existed in an unbroken chain since the time of Christ.
The predominant view of Baptist origins is that Baptists came along in historical development in the century after the rise of the original Protestant denominations. 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.
This perspective on Baptist history holds that the Baptist faith originated from within the Separatist movement. Prior to the Reformation, the Church of England (Anglicans) had broken away from the Catholic Church. Then came the mainstream Protestant Reformation. 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 Separatists. Others decided they must leave the Church because of their dissatisfaction and became known as the Separatists.
This Separatist view of the origin of Baptists traces 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, Separatist, and then a Baptist Separatist," and ended his days working with the Mennonites.:p.23 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.":p.24 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 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.:p.25
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.:p.25
According to all authors cited in the present section, the modern Baptist denomination is an outgrowth of Smyth's movement. Wanting neither to be confused with nor identified with Anabaptists, Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist when they were called that by opponents in derision. McBeth writes that as late as the eighteenth century, many Baptists referred to themselves as "the Christians commonly—though falsely—called Anabaptists."
According to Gourley, this view of Baptist origins has the most historical support and is the most widely accepted view of Baptist origins. Representative writers include William H. Whitsitt, Robert G. Torbet, Winthrop S. Hudson, William G. McLoughlin and Robert A. Baker. This position considers the influence of Anabaptists upon early Baptists to be minimal.
This view holds that although Baptists originated from English Separatism, some early Baptists were influenced by some Anabaptists. According to this view, the Dutch Mennonites (Anabaptists) shared some similarities with General Baptists (believer's baptism, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and Arminian views of salvation, predestination and original sin). However, there were significant differences between Anabaptists and Baptists. Anabaptists tended towards extreme pacifism. They promoted communal sharing of earthly goods, did not practice baptism by immersion, an unorthodox optimistic view of human nature. Therefore, few Baptists hold to this theory of Baptist origins. Representative writers include A. C. 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 an anathema against the Anabaptists.. Today there is little dialogue between Anabaptist organizations (such and the Mennonite World Conference) and the Baptist bodies.
Prior to the 20th century, Baptist historians generally wrote from the perspective that Baptists had existed since the times of Christ. The Baptist perpetuity view considers the Baptist movement to have always been historically separate from Catholicism and in existence prior to the Protestant Reformation. The historians who advocate this position consider Baptists and Anabaptists as one and the same people and point out that many Reformation era historians and apologists considered the Anabaptists to pre-date the Reformation. For example, Cardinal Hosius (1504–1579), a Roman Catholic prelate of the sixteenth century, wrote,
For not so long ago I read the edict of the other prince who lamented the fate of the Anabaptists who, so we read, were pronounced heretics twelve hundred years ago and deserving of capital punishment. He wanted them to be heard and not taken as condemned without a hearing."
Baptist historian John T. Christian writes in the introduction to his History of the Baptists: "I have throughout pursued the scientific method of investigation, and I have let the facts speak for themselves. I have no question in my own mind that there has been a historical succession of Baptists from the days of Christ to the present time."
The perpetuity view is often identified with The Trail of Blood, a successionist pamphlet by J.M. Carrol published in 1931 Other Baptist writers holding the perpetuity view are Thomas Crosby, G.H. Orchard, J.M. Cramp, William Cathcart, Adam Taylor and D.B. Ray This view was also held by English Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon as well as Jesse Mercer, the namesake of Mercer University.
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."
in English-speaking countries
Many Baptist churches choose to associate with associational groups that provide fellowship without control. The largest Baptist association is the Southern Baptist Convention, but there are many other Baptist associations. There are also autonomous churches that remain independent of any denomination, organization, or association.
In 1905, Baptists worldwide formed the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). The BWA now counts over 200 Baptist conventions and unions worldwide with over 37 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.
According to the Barna Group researchers, Baptists are the largest denominational grouping of born again Christians in the U.S. Barna defines Born again Christians as "people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior." A 2009 ABCNEWS/Beliefnet phone poll of 1,022 adults suggests that fifteen percent of Americans identify themselves as Baptists.
Besides North America and Europe, large populations of Baptists also exist in Asia, Africa and Latin America, notably in India (2.4 million), Nigeria (2.5 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (1.9 million), and Brazil (1.7 million).
According to a poll in the 1990s, about one in five Christians in the United States claims to be a Baptist. U.S. Baptists are represented in more than fifty separate groups. Ninety-two percent of Baptists are found in five of those bodies—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC); National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; (NBCA); American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC); and Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI).
The primary external qualification for membership in a Baptist church is baptism. General Baptist churches will accept into membership people who have made a profession of faith but have not been baptized as a believer. These are included as members alongside baptized members in the statistics. Some Baptist churches do not have an age restriction on membership, but will not accept as a member a child who is considered too young to fully understand and make a profession of faith of their own volition and comprehension. In such cases, the pastor and parents usually meet together with the child to verify the child's comprehension of the decision to follow Jesus. There are instances where persons make a profession of faith but fail to follow through with believers' baptism. In such cases they are considered saved and usually eligible for membership. Baptists do not believe that baptism has anything to do with salvation. It is considered a public expression of one's inner repentance and faith.
Baptists believe that the act of baptism is a symbolic display of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. When a person who has already been saved and confessed Christ submits to scriptural baptism, he or she is publicly identifying with Christ in His death to old self, burial of past sinful thought and action, and resurrection in newness of life, to walk with Christ the remainder of their days.
Some churches, especially in the UK, do not require members to have been baptized as a believer, so long as they have made a believer's declaration of faith—for example, been confirmed in the Anglican church, or become communicant members as Presbyterians. In these cases, believers would usually transfer their memberships from their previous churches. This allows people who have grown up in one tradition, but now feel settled in their local Baptist church, to fully take part in the day to day life of the church, voting at meetings, etc. It is also possible, but unusual, to be baptized without becoming a church member immediately.
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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 through the death for sins, 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 include the following::p.2
Most Baptist traditions believe in the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden:
Since there is no hierarchical authority and each Baptist church is autonomous, there is no official set of Baptist theological beliefs. Baptists have fractured into numerous divisions, sects, and groups. Although they agree on many things, their differences are enough to keep them apart. Despite some common doctrines and practices which characterize the greater part of Baptists, there are many beliefs and practices which vary from church to church and among associations. Some doctrinal issues on which there is widespread difference among Baptists are eschatology, Calvinism and 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 from the pulpit and in Bible classes (see King-James-Only movement), the very nature of Gospel, the role of women in marriage, and the ordination of women as deacons or pastors.
Some of the smaller Baptist groups are devoted to some peculiar traditional practice or doctrine. Some Primitive Baptists practice the laying on of hands after baptism and footwashing, as do some Freewill Baptists. The Seventh Day Baptists insist biblical worship should be conducted on the traditional Sabbath (Saturday) rather than on Sunday. Landmarkism holds to strict closed communion wherein only the members of the church can participate in the Lord's Supper. On the other hand, some Baptists have embraced modernistic trends, such as The Alliance of Baptists which officially affirms homosexual relationships
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 which have shaped Baptists are:
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.
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 declared that a slave owner could not be a missionary under its patronage.
The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845, founded on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it is acceptable for Christians to own slaves. The Southern Baptist Convention voted June 20, 1995, 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." The SBC was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, by Baptists in the South seceding from the national Triennial Convention of Baptists after that body decreed it would not appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Currently about 500,000 members of the 15.6-million-member denomination are African-Americans and another 300,000 are ethnic minorities. The racism resolution marked the denomination's first formal acknowledgment that racism played a role in its founding.
As early as the late 1700s black Baptists began to organize separate churches, associations and mission agencies, especially in the northern states. Many of the slaves were forced to remain members of the same churches with the whites up until the American Civil War. After emancipation, black Baptists generally separated from the white Baptists, as they wanted to establish their own institutions outside white supervision. Currently American Baptist numerical strength is greatest in the former slaveholding states. The Baptist faith is the predominant faith of African Americans.
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.
The rise of theological modernism in the latter 19th and 20th century also greatly affected the 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 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. People with other ideas formed two new Baptist denominations: Alliance of Baptists in 1987 and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991.