Baptists

So named from their practice of baptizing only those who have made a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ, Baptists constitute one of the largest Free Church communions, with a world membership in 1971 of over thirty-one million, and a total community strength considerably higher. Twenty-seven million are to be found in the USA, and there are also substantial groups in India (633,000), Russia (550,000), Congo (450,000), Brazil (342,000), the British Isles (269,000), Burma (249,000), Canada (175,000), and Romania (120,000). They are evangelical in outlook, with a strong emphasis on the necessity of personal commitment to Christ and a personal experience of His grace, and an accompanying understanding of the Christian life in terms of personal faith and discipleship. Believer's baptism, they maintain, expresses more clearly than any alternative practice the NT teaching concerning the nature of both the Gospel and the church. It is administered in the name of the Trinity and is normally by immersion.

The soil out of which the modern Baptist movement arose was that of seventeenth-century English Separatism. Whether there were any direct links with the continental Anabaptists* of the sixteenth century is a difficult and much disputed question; some indirect Anabaptist influence, however, was probable. In 1609 John Smyth's* English Separatist congregation in exile in Amsterdam was led by a study of the NT to disband and reorganize itself, with believer's baptism as the basis of church fellowship. Smyth and most of his congregation applied to join the Mennonites, and were accepted by them in 1615, three years after Smyth's death. Meanwhile, in 1612, a small group under Thomas Helwys* returned to England, forming the first Baptist church on English soil, at Spitalfields. They were General (or Arminian) Baptists. The first Particular (or Calvinist) Baptist church came into being between 1633 and 1638, as a secession from the Independent Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church, so named from its succession of pastors. Both streams made considerable progress, especially during the Commonwealth period, and by 1660 there were between 200 and 300 Baptist churches in England and Wales, most of them in London, the Midlands, and the South.

At first the mode of baptism practiced was affusion, but from the 1640s immersion became general. From earliest times there were Baptists who believed in “mixed” or open communion. John Bunyan* was pastor of a church consisting of Baptists and paedobaptists. From the seventeenth century a few Baptists have observed the seventh day as their sabbath. Seventh Day Baptists are still to be found in America, but have virtually disappeared from England. America's earliest Baptist churches were formed in the seventeenth century, the first probably being Providence, Rhode Island (1639), in the establishment of which Roger Williams* played a leading part.

Concern at the widespread influence of Unitarian views among General Baptists during the eighteenth century led Dan Taylor (1738-1816) to organize those churches remaining orthodox and evangelical in a New Connexion, in 1770. Particular Baptists too were experiencing theological and spiritual renewal at this time. The writings of Andrew Fuller,* particularly The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1785), helped to break down the rigid and extreme Calvinism then common among them, and in 1792, spurred on by William Carey,* the ministers of the Northamptonshire Association formed the Baptist Missionary Society, Carey himself going to India as a missionary the following year. Despite strong resistance from those who came to be known as Strict Baptists,* their evangelical Calvinism gained a wide acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic.

A “General Union” of Particular Baptist ministers and churches (known since 1873 as the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland) was formed in 1813. Gradually Baptists within the Union and those of the New Connexion moved closer together, and in 1891 the two organizations merged. John Clifford (1836-1923), who played a leading part in the merger, was noted for his emphasis on evangelism and the social implications of the Gospel. His contemporary, C.H. Spurgeon,* was widely influential as a preacher, especially in London and the South. The reshaping of the Union to meet the demands of the twentieth century was largely the work of J.H. Shakespeare, its secretary from 1898 till his death in 1928. It was mainly due to his vision that the Federal Council of Evangelical Free Churches was formed in 1919, and in The Churches at the Cross Roads (1918) he pleaded for wider Christian reunion. Under his successors, M.E. Aubrey (secretary, 1928-51), E.A. Payne (1951-67), and D.S. Russell (appointed 1967), the Union has taken a full share in the British and World Councils of Churches. In 1970 there were 2,192 churches with a membership of 106,767 affiliated to the Union. There are separate unions in Scotland and Wales, with which the British Union maintains close fraternal relationships. Ireland too has its own union.

For a century after Roger Williams, progress in America was slow. From 1740, however, under the influence of the Great Awakening,* the Baptist cause made considerable headway. The nineteenth century was a period of outreach in rural and frontier areas and among Indians, Negroes, and various immigrant groups, the number of Baptists increasing from 700,000 to well over four million between 1850 and 1900. By the mid-1960s there were some thirty separate groups of Baptists in the USA, the largest being the eleven-million strong Southern Baptist Convention,* two Negro conventions (see American Negro Churches) with a combined numerical strength of nearly ten million, and the American Baptist Churches* with approximately 1.5 million members. The Baptist community in the USA has produced such outstanding figures as Walter Rauschenbusch,* theologian of the Social Gospel; Martin Luther King,* Negro advocate of nonviolence and Nobel Prize winner; and Billy Graham,* world-famous evangelist.

The first Baptist church in mainland Europe was established in Hamburg in 1834 by J.G. Oncken (1800-84), whose influence was felt far beyond Germany, especially in Scandinavia and eastern Europe. Work in Australia and New Zealand also began in the nineteenth century, while the twentieth saw striking advance in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Baptists acknowledge Christ as the sole and absolute authority in all matters of faith and practice, viewing the Scriptures as the principal means by which He speaks to the church. Not surprisingly, they stress the prophetic rather than the priestly aspects of religion, and are conscious of the dangers of uniformity and invariable “official” forms in matters relating to worship, church government, and theological definition. From their earliest days they have been keen advocates of religious freedom.

Worship is largely nonliturgical, with emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Word. In addition to its minister, a Baptist church is served by deacons, elected from the membership, who share with the minister in leadership and administration, and assist him in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Probably few Baptists would be prepared to recognize infant baptism as having theological validity, though in practice most (with the notable exception of those in the Strict Baptist tradition) welcome to the Lord's Table Christians not baptized as believers, and “open membership” churches also admit them to membership. A small number of Union churches, affiliated to more than one denomination, and practicing both forms of baptism, are to be found in several countries, including England. Baptists are divided in their attitude to the ecumenical movement. Some, like British Baptists and those of the American Baptist Churches, are prepared for ecumenical involvement; others, principally those of the Southern Convention, take a more critical attitude. During the present century Baptists in China and Japan have participated in schemes of union or federation, and in 1970 Baptists joined with non-Baptists to form the Church of North India.

Baptists regard the church as a society of believers, the local church having an especially important part in their thinking. Though not committed theologically to one particular type of polity, they generally favor a congregationalist form of church government. Belief in the autonomy of the local church, however, is balanced by a belief in the necessity of fellowship and interdependence. All except the most rigidly independent churches are linked together both in regional groupings known as associations, which have been common since the seventeenth century, and in national unions or conventions. A Baptist World Alliance* was formed in 1905.

T. Crosby, The History of the English Baptists (4 vols., 1738- 40); J. Ivimey, A History of the English Baptists (4 vols., 1811-30); A. Taylor, The History of the English General Baptists (2 parts, 1818); T. Armitage, A History of the Baptists (1888); E.R. Fitch, The Baptists of Canada (1911); J.H. Rushbrooke, The Baptist Movement in the Continent of Europe (rev. ed. 1923); idem, Some Chapters in European Baptist History (1929); G. Yulle (ed.), History of the Baptists in Scotland from Pre-Reformation Times (1926); W.T. Whitley, A History of British Baptists (2nd ed. 1932); F.T. Lord, Achievement: A Short History of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792-1942 (1942); idem, Baptist World Fellowship: A Short History of the Baptist World Alliance (1955); H.W. Robinson, Baptist Principles (1945); idem, The Life and Faith of the Baptists (rev. ed. 1946); A.C. Underwood, A History of the English Baptists (1947); E.A. Payne, The Fellowship of Believers (enlarged, 1952); idem, The Baptist Union: A Short History (1959); A. Gilmore (ed.), Christian Baptism (1959); W.S. Hudson (ed.), Baptist Concepts of the Church (1959); W.L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (1959); C.C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800 (1962); N.H. Maring and W.S. Hudson, A Manual of Baptist Polity and Practice (1963); R.G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (rev. ed. 1966).