Who are the Baptists?

In the Christian religion, the Baptists are one of the largest Christian denominations. As indicated by their name, the primary Baptist distinctive is their practice of believer's baptism and corresponding rejection of infant baptism. 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. In the United States, the two largest Baptist organizations are the Southern Baptist Churches (SBC) and American Baptist Churches (ABC), with the former being the more conservative branch. Notable Baptists have included Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Spurgeon, John Bunyan and Billy Graham.

At the turn of the 21st century, there were about 43 million Baptists worldwide with about 33 million of those in the United States and 216,000 in Britain. There are over 850,000 Baptists in South America and 230,000 in Central America and the Caribbean.

What Do Baptists Believe?

Baptist churches tend to be evangelical in doctrine and Reformed in worship. However, Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority, so a wide range of beliefs can be seen between one Baptist church and another. Some Baptist churches use the following acronym as a summary of the common distinctives of Baptists:

Biblical authority Autonomy of the local church Priesthood of the believer Two ordinances (Believer's Baptism and Communion) Individual soul liberty Separation of Church and State Two offices of the church (Pastor and Deacon)

Believer's Baptism

Believer's baptism is an ordinance performed after a person professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and is symbolic of the cleansing or remission of their sins. In the Baptist denomination, baptism plays no role in salvation; it is rather an outward expression of the inward change that has already taken place. Baptists emphasize baptism by full immersion, which follows the method used by John the Baptist. This usually consists of lowering the candidate in water backwards, while a pastor recites the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19.

This mode of baptism is also preferred for its parallel imagery to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. A few Baptist churches allow for baptism by sprinkling as an alternative method for the disabled or elderly, and most Baptist churches will recognize adult baptisms performed in other mainstream Christian churches. Baptism is seen as a public identification of the person with Christianity and that particular church and is often used as a criterion for membership in Baptist churches.

Most Anabaptist churches, Pentecostal churches, Restorationist churches, and non-denominational churches share this understanding of baptism.

Congregational Governance

Congregationalist church governance gives autonomy to individual local churches in areas of policy, polity and doctrine. Baptist churches are not under the direct administrative control of any other body, such as a national council, or a leader such as a bishop or pope. Administration, leadership and doctrine are decided democratically by the lay members of each individual church, which accounts for the variation of beliefs from one Baptist church to another. John Wycliffe and Uldrych Zwingli were strong influences in the early development of the idea of congregationalism. In a manner typical of other congregationalists, many cooperative associations of Baptists have arisen.

Other congregationalist churches include Anabaptists, Pentecostal, Congregationalist Churches, the United Church of Christ and many non-denominational churches.

Separation of Church and State

Baptists have played an important role in the struggle for freedom of religion and separation of church and state in England, the United States, and other countries, including many who were imprisoned and even died for their faith. Some important figures in this struggle were John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Edward Wightman, Leonard Busher, Roger Williams (who was a Baptist for a short period but became a seeker), John Clarke, Isaac Backus, and John Leland.

In 1612 John Smyth wrote, "the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience". That same year, Thomas Helwys wrote that the King of England could "comaund what of man he will, and wee are to obey it," but concerning the church -- "with this Kingdom, our lord the King hath nothing to do." In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote what is believed to be the earliest Baptist treatise dealing exclusively with the subject of religious liberty.

Baptists were influential in the formation of the first civil government based on the separation of church and state in what is now Rhode Island. Anabaptists and Quakers also share a strong history in the development of separation of church and state.

The Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent a letter, dated October 7, 1801, to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern over the lack in their state constitution of explicit protection of religious liberty, and against government establishment of religion. As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might "reproach their chief Magistrate... because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ," thus establishing a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities. In their letter to the President, the Danbury Baptists also affirmed that "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty — That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals — That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor..."

Thomas Jefferson's response, dated January 1, 1802, concurs with the Danbury Baptists' views on religious liberty, and the accompanying separation of civil government from concerns of religious doctrine and practice. Quoting the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, he writes: "...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

While there is a general belief that the state should not decide what the church can believe and should not prohibit the practice of religion, Baptists do disagree among themselves as to the degree to which the church should influence the state and what exactly constitutes state prohibition of religion. These disagreements manifest themselves in issues such as whether the state should restrict gambling, the purchase of alcohol or abortion and whether the prohibition of state-sanctioned public prayer in public schools in the United States constitutes state interference in religion.

Baptist Lifestyle

Many conservative Baptists oppose gambling, alcohol, tobacco, and some prohibit dancing and movies. Especially in areas where Southern Baptists form a majority of the population, the denomination has been successful in imposing its values on the general population – "dry counties" in the South or the ban on music and dancing in the film Footloose) are examples.

Biblical Authority

Authority of the Scriptures or sola scriptura states that the Bible is the only authoritative source of God's truth and any view that cannot be directly tied to a scriptural reference is generally considered to be based on human traditions rather than God's leading. Each person is responsible before God for his or her own understanding of the bible and is encouraged to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Biblical inerrancy is also a common position held by Baptists in addition to literal interpretations of the bible and fundamentalist theologies. However, because of the variety allowed under congregational governance, many Baptist churches are neither literalist nor fundamentalist, although most do believe in biblical inerrancy. Even though it is only the Bible that is authoritative, Baptists also cite other works as illustrative of doctrine. One work which is commonly read by Baptists is the allegory Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. This is a position shared by almost all post-Reformation Christian groups, with only a few exceptions (such as Quakers).

Priesthood of All Believers

The Baptist position of the priesthood of believers is one column that upholds their belief in religious liberty. Priesthood of all believers removes the hierarchical layers of priests, traditions and authority so that all Christians have equal access to God's revelation of truth through the careful study of the Bible. This is a position shared by all post-reformational Christian groups.

Justification by Faith

The doctrine of justification by faith states that it is by faith alone that we receive salvation and not through any works of our own. Baptists place a strong emphasis on the concept of salvation. Baptist theology teaches that humans have been contaminated by the sin of Adam and Eve's rebellion against God and that for this sin we are condemned to damnation. The theology holds that Christ died on the cross to give humans the promise of everlasting life, but that this requires that each individual accept Christ into his life and ask for forgiveness. Nevertheless, the Baptist view of soteriology runs the gamut from Calvinism to Arminianism. Justification by faith is a position shared by all post-reformational Christian groups.

Variations in Baptist Belief and Practice

Because of the congregational style of church governance on doctrine, doctrine often varies significantly between one Baptist church and another, especially in the following areas:

  • Calvinism vs. Arminianism
  • nature of Law and Gospel
  • ordination of women
  • homosexuality
  • eschatology (end times)

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 Book of Revelation 20:11) and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers (the Judgment Seat of Christ Second Epistle to the Corinthians 5:10), rewarding them for things done while alive. Amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism stand as the main eschatological views of Baptists, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving only scant support.

History of the Baptists

Many Baptists trace their denomination's origins to the early church, a period when the church consisted of committed believers who were baptized upon confession of faith as adults. Baptist beginnings have also been traced to medieval sects who protested against prevailing baptismal theory and practice, and to the Anabaptists of the Continental Reformation, especially in Zurich.

The Anabaptists (spiritual ancestors of the Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites) share emphasized believer's baptism and religious freedom and were probably influential in the development of Baptist characteristics. However, some Anabaptists differed from the Baptists on many other issues such as pacifism and the communal sharing of material goods.

The origins of the Baptists are most commonly traced to John Smyth and the Separatists. In 1609, John Smyth, led a group of separatists to the Netherlands to start the General Baptist Church with an Arminian theology. In 1616, Henry Jacob led a group of Puritans in England with a Calvinist theology to form a congregational church that would eventually become the Particular Baptists in 1638 under John Spilsbury.

Both groups had members who sailed to America as pilgrims to avoid religious persecution in England and Europe and who started Baptist churches in the early colonies. The Particular and General Baptists would disagree over Arminianism and Calvinism until the formation of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in the 1800s under Andrew Fuller and William Carey for the purpose of missions.

Baptist Churches were established in the American colonies from the mid-17th century. In 1639, Roger Williams founded a church on Baptist principles in Providence, Rhode Island, and this is usually regarded as the beginning of American Baptist history. Also established in the 17th century was a small group known as the Seventh Day Baptists, who required rest and worship on Saturday based on the fourth commandment.

In the 18th century, many of the General Baptist Churches in England were influenced by the Unitarians and ultimately ceased to insist on believer's baptism. However, Dan Taylor (1738-1816) formed a "New Connection" in 1770 that maintained Baptist principles and later united with the Baptist mainstream. The Baptist Missionary Society was founded by Particular Baptists in 1792, which would have a profound impact on the future of the Baptists. The Baptist revival in England inspired the Baptist Churches of America, leading to widespread missionary zeal and growth of the movement across America as the frontier extended. The Baptists became the largest religious group in many of the southern states; today, two-thirds of the members of Black Churches of the USA are Baptists.

In the 19th century, Baptist churches continued their rapid growth, and from their ranks came such great preachers as Charles Spurgeon, Robert Hall, Alexander Maclaren and John Clifford. In Britain, the Baptist Union was formed in 1813. Notable in its development was J.H. Shakespeare, who was secretary for over 25 years (1898-1924). The Baptist movement in Scotland was furthered by Archibald McLean (1733-1812), who strongly emphasized emulating the New Testament pattern in doctrine and practice. The "Scotch Baptists" were one of the sources of the Disciples of Christ movement.

In 1834, a Baptist church was formed in Hamburg under J.C. Oncken, and from there came an extensive Baptist movement in contentiental Europe and among Slavic-speaking people. Baptists were persecuted by Tsarist Russia and suffered from the restrictions on religious freedom under the Soviet regime, but their numbers have grown significantly in recent years (to about 548,000 in 1988). Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the countries of the former USSR.

In the 20th century, Baptist missionaries have established churches throughout Asia, Africa and South America. In 1905, the Baptist World Alliance was formed for the purpose of international Baptist cooperation. Its headquarters is in McLean, Virginia.

  1. "Baptists." F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford UP, 1997), pp. 154-55.
  2. "Baptist." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2005. <>.
  3. "Baptist." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service <>.

Doctrinal Statements

  • Doctrinal Statement of American Baptist Association
  • Doctrinal Statement of Baptist Missionary Association of America
  • Basic Beliefs of Southern Baptist Convention

Other Links

  • Alliance of Baptists
  • American Baptist Churches USA
  • American Baptist Historical Society
  • Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
  • Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada
  • General Association of Regular Baptist Churches
  • Seventh Day Baptist General Conference
  • Southern Baptist Convention