Baptists are typically considered Protestants. Some Baptists reject that association (see Origins and Questions of labeling subsections below). Most Baptist churches choose to associate with denominational groups that provide support without control. Examples of such denominations are the Southern Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention USA, Conservative Baptist Association of America, American Baptist Churches USA, American Baptist Association (Landmark Baptists), among others.
Both Roger Williams and his compatriot in working for religious freedom, Dr. John Clarke, are variously credited as founding the earliest Baptist church in 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 Baptists number over 36 million worldwide in more than 170,000 congregations, and considered the largest world communion of evangelical Protestants, with an estimated 38.8 million members in the United States. [Baptist World Alliance statistics] Other 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).
Only those people who are baptized members of a local Baptist church are included in the total number of Baptists. Most 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" but not church members until baptized. If children and unbaptized congregants were counted, world Baptists might number over 150 million.
Some churches, especially in the UK, do not require members to have been baptised as a believer, as long as they have made an adult 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 baptised without becoming a church member immediately.
Baptist Beliefs and Principles
Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority. Therefore, beliefs are not totally consistent from one Baptist church to another, especially beliefs that may be considered minor. However, on major theological issues, Baptist distinctive beliefs are held in common among almost all Baptist churches.
Baptists share so-called "orthodox" Christian beliefs with most other moderate or conservative Christian denominations. These would include beliefs about one God; the virgin birth; miracles; atonement through the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus; the Trinity (the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, together with God the Father); 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.
Baptists generally believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ at which time God will sit in judgment and divide humanity between the saved and the lost (the Great White Throne judgment Revelation 20:11) and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers (the Judgment Seat of Christ 2 Corinthians), rewarding them for things done while alive. Beliefs among Baptists regarding the "end times" include amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving some support.
The following acrostic backronym, spelling BAPTISTS, represents a useful summary of Baptists' distinguishing beliefs:
* Biblical authority (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:23; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)
* Autonomy of the local church (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 6:1-3)
* Priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5-9; 1 Timothy 5)
* Two ordinances (believer's baptism and the Lord's Supper) (Acts 2:41–47; 1 Cor. 11:23-32)
* Individual soul liberty (Romans 14:5–12)
* Separation of Church and State (Matthew 22:15–22)
* Two offices of the church (pastor and deacon) (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1–2)
* Saved church membership (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:23–32; Colossians 1:18)
Most Baptist traditions believe in the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden:
* Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body
* Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)
* Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual
* Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the "civil corollary" of religious freedom
The polity of autonomy is closely related to the polity of congregational governance. Just as each Baptist priest with soul competency is equal to all other Baptists in a church, so each church is equal to every other church. No church or ecclesiastical organization has 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.
Beliefs that vary among Baptists
Because of the importance of the priesthood of every believer, the centrality of the freedom of conscience and thought in Baptist theology, and due to the congregational style of church governance, doctrine varies greatly between one Baptist church and another (and among individual Baptists) especially on the following issues:
* Doctrine of separation
* Hermeneutical method
* Homosexuality (See Baptist views of homosexuality)
* Ordination of women as pastor or deacon
* The translation of Scripture (See King-James-Only Movement)
* The extent to which missionary boards should be used to support missionaries
* The extent to which non-members may participate in communion services
* The nature of Law and Gospel
Theological, cultural and political controversies
As with all major denominational groups, Baptists have not escaped theological, cultural and political controversy. Baptists have historically been sensitive to the introduction of theological error (from their perspective) into their groups.
* The older Baptist associations of Europe, Canada, Australia and the northern United States have assimilated influences of different schools of thought, but not without major debate and schisms.
* In England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon fought against what he saw as challenges to his strongly conservative point of view in the Downgrade Controversy.
* As part of the continuing fundamentalist/liberal controversy within the Northern Baptist Convention, two new associations of conservative Baptists were formed—the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches in 1932 and the Conservative Baptist Association of America in 1947.
* Landmarkism, with its emphasis on ecclesiastical separation and doctrinal rigidity and its cultural foundation in the South, deterred Southern Baptists from being influenced as strongly by aberrant points of view as were the Baptists in the northern United States and other countries. Old Landmarkism held to the traditional Baptist historical consciousness that traced Baptists through dissenters—Donatists, Cathari—back to Jesus, Jordan and the "First Baptist Church" of Jerusalem. Popular Landmarkism contributed to a historical consciousness implicit in the idea that Baptists were an extension of the New Testament community, perpetuating the true church in every age.
* Beginning in the 1980s, there was a concerted effort among a determined group of theologically orthodox Southern Baptists to purge modernist theological influence from its seminaries. This highly publicized SBC Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover occasioned two schisms of theologically modernist Baptist churches: the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.
The focus of Baptist church worship services is the proclamation of the Word of God through the weekly sermon. Printed Orders of Service often are distributed to worshipers at Sunday morning services, especially in larger congregations. Contemporary services are less likely to have printed bulletins that outline the service.
The worship service generally consists of a sermon preceded by a time of worship through singing. Prayers are offered intermittently throughout the service and an offering is usually taken sometime during the service. An "invitation" is usually offered after the sermon to allow public response to the message by confession of faith, request for baptism or church membership, or the expression of an intention to walk more closely with the Lord.
The music in Baptist churches varies from traditional hymns, to southern gospel, to the more contemporary modern worship styles.
Baptist churches are careful to emphasize that worship is not limited to the Sunday gathering, but is a lifestyle of love and service to Christ and dedication to God's truth as revealed in the Scriptures. Most Baptist churches expect the members to carry the message of the gospel into the world among their family and friends.
There are two main views about the origins of the Baptists: Baptist Perpetuity and Baptist Origins in the 17th century.
Baptist origins in the 17th century
According to Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth, Baptists, as a distinct denomination, originated in England in a time of intense religious reform. McBeth writes, “Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England.”
Some see the Baptists as the descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists (which some view as a product of the Protestant Reformation and others view as a continuation of the older pre-Reformation non-Catholic churches) and others see them as a separation from the Church of England in the 1600s.
The Baptist perpetuity view (also known as Baptist succession) holds that the church founded by Christ in Jerusalem was Baptist in character and that like churches have had perpetual existence from the days of Christ to the present. This view is theologically based on Matthew 16:18 (See Aramaic language and Greek translation thereof, in this passage Jesus is speaking to Cephas translated Peter, meaning "rock") "And I say unto thee thou art Cephas (Peter) and upon this Cephas (Peter) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," as well as Jesus' commission and promise to be with His followers as they carried on his ministry, "even unto the end of the world."
The Baptist perpetuity view sees Baptists as separate from Catholicism and other religious denominations and considers, that since the Baptist movement predates the Catholic church, it is not part of the Protestant Reformation.
Baptist historian John T. Christian states the Baptist perpetuity view 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."
Those holding the perpetuity view of Baptist history can be basically divided into two categories: those who hold that there is a direct succession from one church to the next (most commonly identified with Landmarkism), and those who hold that while the Baptist practices and churches continued, they may have originated independently of any previously existing church.
J. M. Carroll's The Trail of Blood booklet, written in 1931, has been a popular writing presenting the successionist view, pointing to groups such as the Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, Paulicians, Albigensians, Catharists, Waldenses, and Anabaptists, as predecessors to contemporary Baptists. John T. Christian published a more scholarly history of the Baptists from a perpetuity perspective Other Baptist historians holding the perpetuity view are Thomas Armitage, G.H. Orchard, and David Benedict.
The American Baptist Association, the Baptist Missionary Association of America, and the Baptist Bible Fellowship are the groups most commonly identified with the perpetuity view today, though large numbers may be found in many Baptist groups who hold to this view of Baptist origins.
Questions of labeling
Some Baptists object to the application of the labels Protestant, denomination, Evangelical and even Baptist to themselves or their churches, while others accept those labels.
Some who reject the label Baptist prefer to be labeled as Christians who attend Baptist churches. Also, a recent trend (most common among megachurches and those embracing the "seeker movement") is to eliminate "Baptist" from the church name, as it is perceived to be a "barrier" to reaching persons who have negative views of Baptists, whether they be of a different church background or none. These churches typically include the word "Community" or other non-religious or denominational terms in their church name.
Conversely, others accept the label Baptist because they identify with the distinctives they consider to be uniquely Baptist. They believe those who are removing the name "Baptist" from their churches are "compromising with the world" to attract more members. However, there are other church groups that hold to the beliefs listed above, that have never been known by the label Baptist, and also believe that these beliefs are not exclusive to the Baptist denomination.
The label Protestant is rejected by some Baptists (primarily those in the Landmark movement) because in their view Baptists have existed separately since the early church days. Those holding this view maintain that Baptists have never been a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and as such are not "protesting" against Catholicism. Further, they point out that Baptists have no direct connection to any of the Reformationists like Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli. Other Baptists accept the Protestant label as a demographic concept that describes churches who share similar theologies of sola scriptura, sola fide, the priesthood of all believers and other positions that Luther, Calvin and other traditional reformers held in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s.
The label denomination is rejected by some because of the local autonomous governance system used by Baptist churches. Being a denomination is viewed by them as having a hierarchy that substitutes for the Roman Catholic Church. Another reason for the rejection of the label is the influence of the Restoration period on Baptist churches, which emphasized a tearing down of denominational barriers. Other Baptists accept the label, feeling that it does not carry a negative connotation but rather is merely a synonym for a Christian or religious group with common beliefs, organized in a cooperative manner to spread its beliefs worldwide.
The label Evangelical is rejected by some fundamentalist Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that in their view is not fundamentalist enough, and conversely is also rejected by some liberal Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that in their view is too conservative. It is accepted by moderate Baptists who identify with the revival in the United States in the 1700s known as the First Great Awakening. Conversely, some Evangelicals reject the label fundamentalist, believing it to describe a theological position that they consider too extreme and legalistic.