A Baptist Origin Story
By Diana Bridges
As a child, I was told that Baptists are not Protestants. My grandfather, a Baptist preacher, told my mother that we didn’t protest anything but had been around since there was a Church. A “scarlet thread” went from modern Baptists back to the time John the Baptist baptized Jesus. This is one of the principles of Landmarkism, a major influence on Baptist thought in the southern United States. It’s associated with teachings of James Robinson Graves, among others.
William Estep, a long-time respected church historian at Southwestern Seminary, believed Dutch Mennonites, a group from the Anabaptist tradition, influenced early Baptists. The evidence, however, shows that Baptists were dissenters who were part of the Radical Reformation. John Smyth, Anglican priest-turned-Puritan, then became a Separatist pastor, led his congregation to reject infant Baptism. He baptized himself, disbanded the congregation, and reconstituted it as a fellowship of baptized believers (Amsterdam, 1609). Smyth went on to become Mennonite, while Thomas Helwys, a co-founder of the church, parted company with him and remained Baptist, returning to England and founding the first Baptist church there. Some Baptists remained in Europe, while others sought religious freedom in the New World.
My Baptist history professor, Wayland Marler, said one of the best things about Baptists is that they were not known for persecuting others (at least in early days). Why was this so? They weren’t in charge of others and didn’t look for such control. This is especially true of Roger Williams. Like Smyth, he only remained Baptist for a short time. An Anglican on track to become a priest, he became a Puritan while at Cambridge. After coming to the New World, he became a Separatist. He lived in Plymouth among the Pilgrims and decided they weren’t Separatist enough. He also believed land shouldn’t be taken for settlers without compensation to Native Americans. He was later kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, spent 14 weeks in the wilderness, and was rescued by Narragansett people. He paid them for the land that became Rhode Island. Theologically opinionated, he had serious disagreements with Quakers but welcomed them and all other nonconformists to Rhode Island. He helped establish the first Baptist church in North America in 1638 in Providence. Williams was also a linguist who took time to learn Native American languages. He wrote the book A Key into the Language of America.
From the beginning, some Baptists were more like the Calvinistic Puritans (Particular Baptists). Others rejected Calvinism, preferring Arminianism (General Baptists). There were many offshoots of these groups. Those divisions still exist. Many Southern Baptists have been becoming more Calvinistic in recent years, though most don’t hold a candle to the Calvinism in my paternal grandmother’s Primitive Baptist congregation.
In the 19th century in England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a particular Baptist and an extremely popular preacher, became embroiled in the Downgrade Controversy, in which other unnamed Baptists were accused of heresy. The British Baptist Union survived due to the leadership of John Clifford and others. Clifford believed both evangelism and social action were necessary for faithful Christianity. He was also a founder and president of the Baptist World Alliance.
One of the greatest gifts of Baptists to the country and the world is religious liberty. Baptists such as Pastor John Leland, a friend of both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, helped ensure religious liberty and separation of Church and State made it into the Bill of Rights.
“The liberty that I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a preeminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans, and Christians.” –John Leland.
Leland was also an abolitionist.
Baptist history in America was tragically marred by slavery. In 1839 the American Baptist Foreign Mission Board declared neutrality on slavery. In 1840 the new American Baptist anti-Slavery Convention denounced slaveholding. Baptists in the South threatened to stop giving to Baptist agencies. In 1845 the Home Mission Board refused to appoint a Georgia slaveholder as a missionary. In Alabama, Baptists asked the Foreign Mission Board whether a slaveholder could be appointed as a missionary. The northern-controlled board answered no, so southerners formed a new, separate Southern Baptist Convention.
As a former Southern Baptist, this still breaks my heart. It didn’t end with the Civil War, of course. Reconstruction was viciously resisted. Creative methods, including Jim Crow laws, were instituted to suppress African Americans, including our fellow Christians and Baptists.
I’ve always taken comfort in the presence of dissenters. A notable example was Clarence Jordan, who founded Koinonia Farm, an interracial “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God,” in 1942. Jordan, a New Testament Greek scholar, had the audacity to believe that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. He and his community were persecuted for their faithfulness to God and each other.
Southern Baptist ethics professors TB Maston (at Southwestern) and Henlee Barnette (at Southern) spoke out courageously in favor of civil rights.
There were, of course, prophetic voices in African American Baptist life, but Southern Baptists mostly dismissed them.
When I think about these dissenters, I am reminded why I’m glad Baptists aren’t creedal. The problem isn’t so much what the creeds say as what they don’t. In the creeds, Jesus is born, suffers, dies, and is resurrected, but he never seems to teach, heal, or challenge the powers that be. If we’re just supposed to believe some things about Jesus, we can live whatever lives we want. If the words of Jesus matter, though, they must form our faith.
What is important to the Baptist heritage going forward?
- Religious liberty and the Separation of Church and State
- Confessionalism: not settling for a few beliefs, but grappling with the whole of scripture and the leadership of the Spirit. As we do that, it’s appropriate to look at the arc of the narrative and not cling to proof texts, but we shouldn’t ever think we’ve figured it all out.
- Understanding that the Baptist family is global
- Priesthood of every believer
The Baptist World Alliance, founded in 1905, is a fellowship of 253 conventions and unions in 130 countries and territories comprising 51 million baptized believers in 176,000 churches.
When I think of our global Baptist family, I remember Okepong, a Baptist from Nagaland in northeast India. He was a part of Woodland while a student at UTSA. I remember my friends Lina Toth, a Lithuanian Baptist scholar teaching in Scotland, and Philip Mudzidzi, a Baptist pastor in Zimbabwe. I remember Valentyna, a Baptist layperson from Ukraine who has participated in our ESL program.
Each of these and many more have been faithful to God in difficult times. We’re called to do the same. Faithfulness undercuts fundamentalism, liberalism, and other labels. Let’s do our best to be faithful to God, to our global neighbors, and to the highest values of our tradition.