A Community Service Celebrating 400 Years of Baptist Heritage, 1609-2009
Robert L. Doty
This essay was originally written as a narrative for presentations celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Baptists by the Elizabethtown Area Sacred Community Choir on February 27 and March 1, 2009, at Campbellsville University and Elizabethtown Baptist Church, respectively. In addition to historical narration, these presentations included choral and hymnic selections by Baptist authors and composers, interpretative movement, and photographic displays of historic sites in Baptist history. Its presentation at Campbellsville University was given in Ransdell Chapel with the support of the University’s Baptist Heritage Series and the Robertson Worship Endowment. The narrative was not intended as a narrowly scholarly document, and is based primarily on readily available facts, with primary debt being owed to Robert G. Torbet’s A History of the Baptists, Revised Edition, 1963.
An Introductory Essay on Baptist History and Heritage
The Baptist denomination began as an historically identifiable church in the early 17th Century in England, generally understood to have dated from 1609. It had some significant connections with the Anabaptist movement, in Bohemia in particular with the followers of John Huss. Baptists were also influenced by the Mennonite churches in Holland. The early leaders of the English Baptists included John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. In America, the Baptist heritage began in 1639 with Roger Williams in Rhode Island.
The Baptists identified themselves as a believers’ church. That is: membership in the churches was restricted to those who declared that they had a personal experience of faith in Jesus Christ. They held to believers’ Baptism only. Early on, the churches organized themselves into groups or associations for fellowship and shared experiences, but they did not have any ecclesiastical structure responsible for individual congregations, neither did they have ruling elders within the church. There were ministers and deacons, but church business was democratic, with each member having equal vote. There were no priests. Baptists held and hold to the concept of the priesthood of all believers.
There are no widely accepted creedal statements or confessions of faith among Baptists. That fact arises partly from strict adherence to the concept of the Bible as the sole authority, and also from the insistence on religious freedom and strict separation of church and state. These facts may be the key to the wide diversity of people who call themselves Baptists. Even in this country there are scores of different separately identifiable Baptist groups.
A natural result of the freedom to read and interpret scripture, and to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit was that Baptists were often found in controversy with each other on all sorts of issues, including participating in war and other social issues. Theological matters were also hotly debated.
The Baptists held to complete separation of church and state, and therefore were not a sanctioned church in any country. They were often grouped with other free churchmen as dissenters.
In 1792 the first society for missions, called “Baptist Society for propagating the Gospel among the heathens,” was formed under the influence of William Carey, who, along with John Thomas, a physician, were the first volunteers for missions work in India. Carey was a cobbler by trade who studied classical languages and preached locally in Leicester. He was sent by the Missions Society to India in 1795. Shortly after the foreign missions work began, British Baptists formed missions societies to expand Baptist witness in various regions of England. For decades before this, Baptists had been concerned primarily with existing local churches. They had not been touched by the evangelical zeal of the 18th-Century Methodist movement. In the early 19th Century Baptists became very involved in Sunday School literacy work which was begun in 1780 by Robert Raikes in Manchester. New schools, Bible publication, as well as foreign missions were developed. During the century an expanded concern for social justice developed among Baptists. They developed boarding schools, prison reform work, and anti-slavery campaigns. The English had abolished slave trade in 1807. Slave ownership was finally abolished in 1833. The political reform movements of the 1832 Reform Act and the Chartist Movement were supported by Baptists whose members were mostly from the lower class.
In America the missions efforts were begun by Adoniram and Ann Judson and Luther Rice, who concentrated their work in Burma starting in 1814.
The 19th Century saw the expansion of foreign missions to China, South Asia, South America, and Africa. Mission enterprises, in addition to direct evangelism, often included education and medical services as part of the Baptist witness of the Gospel. World-wide missions work has been a major effort among Baptists ever since this beginning.
The unity of Baptists, never strong from the beginning, was complicated in the United States by growing differences between the northern and southern regions. These issues included the strategies for missions as to whether the work should be done by independent missions’ societies as is the method among churches in the American Baptist Convention, or by a denominational mission’s board as in the Southern Baptist Convention. Increasing tensions over slavery also drove a wedge between regions so that in 1845, Southerners broke away from the Triennial Convention to form the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptist Diversity – Theological and Social
Baptists’ separate identity can be narrowed to a few issues: congregational church polity, believers’ baptism, separation of church and state, and religious liberty. But Baptists may be narrowly Calvinistic or Arminian on the issue of Christ’s work of redemption. The most conservative believe in a narrow election of saints and high level of Divine control, while others believe in grace open to all and in a high level of human choice and freedom. Baptists may be very narrow or very liberal on social issues.
Some Baptist groups are comfortable with cooperative relations among local churches, other Baptist bodies, and indeed throughout the whole Christian community in this country and around the world.
Other Baptists have taken a very narrow view of the idea of sharing fellowship and shared vision with others. This view partly derived from an idea of their faithfulness to the New Testament standards for church life. This idea was also strengthened in the 19th Century by a Tennessee and upper south movement that came to be known as Old Landmarkism, which held, among other ideas, that the faithful Baptist churches could trace their continuity and heritage back to the time of Jesus.
These views still have some following in Baptist churches in the southern United States.
Education and Medical Ministries
Baptists began as a nonconformist movement in England. They were mostly drawn from the working classes. Formal education, even among the clergy, was largely a hit or miss proposition. Rules for ordination and other church leadership were not primarily based on higher theological education, but on zeal, energy, leadership skills, and a sound knowledge of the Scriptures. They would not seek higher education, which was under the control of the Anglican Church.
Some Baptist leaders were very intellectually gifted as we may recall from the life of John Bunyan, a literary genius and preacher from Bedford who had no upper level education.
In the 19th Century, Baptists in both England and America established theological colleges and universities for training of clergy and other professions. In England, colleges were developed in several cities; among them were Spurgeon’s in London, Regents Park College, Oxford, Bristol College, and Bangor College.
Similarly in America many Baptist colleges were established: Brown University, Mercer, Wake Forest, Stetson, Baylor, Georgetown (1829) and The University of Chicago, which no longer has affiliations with Baptists.
Higher education was often an issue for rural and frontier churches which needed far more pastors than were receiving theological training. Also there was a suspicion that education was likely to dull the zeal or dilute the faith of the minister. Even to this day many churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are led by untrained ministers. The Convention has no rule demanding a theological degree as a requirement in ordination. However, the American Baptist Convention does have such a rule, and allows provisional credentials for those in training.
During the last century and a half, Baptists have made significant contributions in university and theological education.
Baptists have also built many significant hospitals, and children’s homes.
The Baptist witness in Europe was virtually silenced after the oppression of the Anabaptists in the 17th Century. The 19th Century saw a significant development created by work of the Americans, British, and the Germans. Baptist witness in France began sporadically and was cemented with the return from America of a young French pastor, in about 1835, even in the face of difficulties from the state. Throughout the 19th Century Baptist work grew in central Europe, Scandinavia and in Russia.
Heroic efforts in 19th Century Europe were carried on in France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland. The Slavic and Balkan countries had a strong Baptist witness from the early 20th Century.
The spread of Baptist work has been fairly consistent. Aside from the southern United States, Baptists have been a minor religious voice in most of the world. There are more Baptists in the United States and Canada than in all the rest of the world.
The two World Wars in the 20th Century have caused considerable disruption of Baptist work in Europe, but the small voice remains strong.
A significant force in the unification of Baptist work in Europe was the 1950 inauguration of the European Baptist Theological Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, which was moved in 1996 to Prague, Czech Republic. This move, along with severing the administrative control of the Southern Baptist Convention, has served to move the power of European Baptist work further toward the east.
Baptist World Alliance
A world fellowship of Baptists was formed in 1905 in London under the leadership of John Clifford, who extended major efforts to unify Baptist mission and work around the world, especially in Europe. Mutual understanding and cooperation have been developed. These efforts were especially fruitful in the aftermath of the two World Wars. The Alliance has met periodically during the past century, the last being in Birmingham, United Kingdom in 2005.
The Alliance as of 2007 has a world-wide membership of 70,807 churches and 36,675,989 members. We should note that at present Southern Baptist Convention Churches are not formally cooperating with the Baptist World Alliance.
BWA is organized into five divisions. These are Evangelism & Education, Study and Research, Baptist World Aid, and Finance & Administration. The work of the Alliance is funded by membership and by voluntary contributions of members and concerned persons interested in Baptist witness, service, and charity.
Baptist Evangelism in the 20th Century
Baptists have had a long history of protracted evangelistic meetings, usually called revivals. During the early part of the 20th Century these meetings would have been conducted in the church or in tent meetings, sometimes with a visiting preacher or itinerant evangelist. Often a group of churches cooperated in community-wide revivals. Some of these meetings are still done, but, whereas in earlier day meetings would last for one to two weeks, the current practice typically limits meetings to three or four days.
Radio preachers came on the scene in the 1940s, including figures like Billy Graham. Later on, television became the primary outreach medium and was used for a regular programming and also to extend the range of larger crusade mass evangelism efforts. Billy Graham carried this device to it widest application. He conducted crusades around the world and preached to thousands in large arenas and was televised widely.
Some of the crusade members and leaders became well-known in their own right.
Baptists and Politics
Baptists have, since their beginnings, cherished and defended the concept of separation of church and state. Baptists emerged in a nonconformist or dissenter tradition where they were made keenly aware of the compromises of church life and actions, as well as official state actions designed to stifle religious views not in harmony with the politically dominant group.
Baptists have a history of strong moral conviction and social responsibility. However it must be admitted that the tenet of spiritual freedom and individual responsibility would tend to set Baptists into a pattern of diverging attitudes on almost any issue. Some Baptists place social justice and defense of the rights of minorities on a high level, while others think such issues should be left to secular resolution, while the church should deal with narrowly religious responsibilities.
It should be noted that several predominantly African-American Baptist groups number almost as many total members as the major ethnically diverse bodies. Racial divides have, in the past, been a contentious issue, but that is less and less so in recent times.
Recent politically conservative Baptists have taken a far more active role in partisan politics than Baptists have done historically. This trend does not seem to bode well for continuing the claim of freedom from governmental intervention and influence. Some Baptists are alarmed about the potential damage to the image of Baptists in this country and the world.
Baptists at their best can say with the great Baptist leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., “Let freedom ring.”
Baptist World Alliance: www.bwanet.org.
Hill, Samuel S., Jr. and Robert G. Torbet. Baptists North and South. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1964.
Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists. Revised ed. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1963.
A recording of the community service in Ransdell Chapel which this narrative accompanied has been placed in Montgomery Library along with a program guide. The program was under the direction of D. Sida Hodoroabă- Roberts.