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American Baptist Churches

Fourth largest of a dozen major and scores of minor Baptist denominations in the USA, with over 6,000 congregations. From 1950 to 1972 the group was known as the American Baptist Convention, and from 1907 to 1950 as the Northern Baptist Convention. Before 1907 the congregations were joined only in local and state associations and were served on the national level by specialized agencies, the most important of which were the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (founded 1814), the publication society (1824), and the home mission society (1832). By the close of the nineteenth century, the American Baptist membership and ministry was reluctantly but effectively confined chiefly to the northern and western states. For the ABC, the twentieth century has brought three major developments: considerable theological diversification; increased organizational coordination; and resulting loss of the overwhelming predominance it had long held among Baptists outside the South.

Northern Baptists in the twenties shared in the modernist-fundamentalist controversies, and tension has continued on various fronts. Conservative seminaries were formed near the older, changing schools. Northern Baptist Seminary began in 1913; Eastern started in 1925 near Crozer in the Philadelphia area; and a seminary began in Covina, California, in 1944 even though there was already one in the state, at Berkeley. Extremists on both sides have left the convention over the years, but the ABC still includes probably a greater diversity of theologies with strength than any other American denomination. This diversity is on fundamental issues such as the deity and the second coming of Christ.

Financial pressures and desires for efficiency led many to seek the formation of the convention in 1907 and even greater coordination of the various districts and specialized agencies. Conservatives tended to distrust such moves because theological liberals and moderates effectively controlled most of the denominational machinery and were able to repel the major attempts to wrest it from them in the annual conventions of 1922 and 1946.

Unlike the Baptist groups in the South, the ABC has always been comparatively small. Only in Maine and West Virginia have Baptists been as much as ten percent of the churchgoing population. In the Midwest and West the approximately 2,500 American Baptist congregations are now greatly outnumbered by Southern Baptist* congregations (3,400 outside the South), and former ABC-linked groups including the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (1,400), Conservative Baptist Association (1,100), Baptist General Conference (600), and North American Baptist General Conference (300).

Although other Baptist denominations, including some that withdrew from the SBC, have shown greater growth rates, the American Baptists did unite most Arminian-rooted northern congregations beginning in 1910, in recent years have increased black participation in their activities, and have gained some congregations from the South. The ABC and many of its members have made important contributions to the ecumenical movement, though not participating in the Consultation on Church Union. Burma, China, Haiti, India, Japan, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Thailand, and Zaire are some of the countries where ABC missionaries and funds have played a significant role in developing Protestantism.

P.M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition: A Social Case Study of the American Baptist Convention (1959); R.G. Torbett, A History of the Baptists (rev. ed., 1963); D.C. Woolley, Baptist Advance: The Achievement of the Baptists of North America for a Century and a Half (1964).