Article
Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People
Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People
David W. Bebbington
Baylor University Press, 2010
327 pp., $39.95

Buy Now
A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)
A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches (Introduction to Religion)
Robert E. Johnson
Cambridge University Press, 2010
470 pp., $32.99

Buy Now

Mark Noll


So You're a Baptist—

What might that mean?

In 2007, the Baptist World Alliance reported that there were about 53 million Baptists in the world, with about two-thirds of them located in the United States. When compared with Catholics, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, and other Christian groups that in recent decades have become thoroughly international, this concentration of the Baptists in one country is striking. Yet comparison with the situation a century earlier shows that Baptists too have been experiencing the globalization that is now standard for other Christian movements. Early in the 20th century, only 3 percent of the world's Baptists lived outside of the United States, Canada, and Britain. Today that proportion is about 30 percent.

What is the best way to take account of the world's self-described Baptists? Do they constitute a movement with any real cohesion? Or is the term "Baptist" so flexible that it designates only a loosely defined collection of heterogeneous fragments clustered haphazardly in one vaguely outlined section of the world Christian landscape?

One way to illustrate the problem of Baptist identity is simply to start listing the various groups that call themselves by that name. In the United States we have, as only a partial list,

• the famously fractious Southern Baptist Convention, whose roughly 16 million members are organized into semi-autonomous state organizations;

• at least 75 other separate Baptist denominations that serve the roughly 21 million Baptists in the United States who are not Southern Baptists and that include:

• the theologically moderate to liberal Cooperative Baptist Fellowship;

• the theologically conservative to very conservative Baptist Bible Fellowship and General Association of Regular Baptists;

• several strongly "Landmark" denominations that insist on strict local control of all aspects of church life;

• the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., and six or seven other predominately black denominations;

• the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference;

• the German-heritage North American Baptist Conference and Swedish-heritage Baptist General Conference, whose churches may or may not reflect their immigrant origins;

• several bodies of Primitive, Regular, Old Regular, and Enterprise Baptists that stress Calvinist theology and local independence;

• the National Association of Free Will Baptists and several other strongly Arminian bodies.

Outside the United States, the substantial numbers of Baptist adherents in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia are divided into streams that resemble the diversity of U.S. Baptists. And the even greater numbers in Korea, Nigeria, Russia, Nagaland (northeast India), Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are made up of groups reflecting some emphases inherited from missionaries but also some responding to local circumstances.

Answering the question—"just what is a Baptist?"—can be equally puzzling when thinking about prominent Baptist theologians or well-known Baptists in public life. Limiting the compilation to the United States and the last century, important Baptist theologians include the orthodox but very different E. Y. Mullins and A. H. Strong; modernist or progressive William Newton Clarke, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Shailer Mathews, and Harvey Cox; self-described fundamentalists J. Frank Norris and Jerry Falwell; the Social Gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch; Bible translator and missions advocate Helen Barrett Montgomery; the general evangelical leaders Bernard Ramm, Carl F. H. Henry, E. J. Carnell, and Timothy George; the post-foundationalist James McClendon; Calvinists John Piper and Albert Mohler; civil rights leaders Harold Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the southern provocateur Will Campbell.

The best-known Baptists to serve as elected American officials in the recent past have probably been Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon, a fiscal conservative and leading critic of the Vietnam War, along with two centrist Democratic presidents with radically contrasting styles, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In Canada during the 1950s and '60s, three Baptists enjoyed unusual prominence in the political sphere: John Diefenbaker, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and national prime minister; Tommy Douglas, founder of the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation that became the New Democratic Party; and Alberta's longest-serving premier, Ernest Manning, a dispensationalist radio broadcaster and head of the Social Credit Party who supported liberal, conservative, and radical policies of the sort that have rarely been combined elsewhere in North America.

Other Christian traditions also manifest great internal diversity, but Baptists seem to outdo them all. Even to Baptists who have deeply pondered the question, it can be a real puzzle to say what it means to be a Baptist. We have, thus, recent historians who stand back in some perplexity before "the bewildering range of Baptist identities." Or who conclude: "Neither can Baptists point to a single theological tradition …. Contemporary Baptists are not the product of a single cultural influence." Or who might seem to run up a white flag: "In the end … the Baptist identity, a phenomenon of the flux of history, may elude definition."

Against this council of despair, two recently published books suggest that it is possible to find a meaningful Baptist constant in shared history, common affirmations, and religious tendencies. Both Robert Johnson in his encyclopedic A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches and David Bebbington in his textbook primer Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People recognize the difficulty in isolating a common Baptist theology or social stance or programmatic consensus. But both also make a convincing case for a meaningful degree of continuity in foundational principles or persistent instincts characterizing virtually all Baptist movements.

Both books relay succinctly the often-told story of Baptist beginnings as an extension of efforts by England's most ardent Protestants to carry the Reformation to what they thought should be its logical conclusions. They agree that Baptists should be considered offshoots of the Puritan movements that insisted on scriptura sola as the sole reliable basis for faithful Christianity and the most effective source of correction for the halfway reforms in the national Church of England. A very high view of biblical authority has remained central to almost all later Baptist movements, but even more distinctly Baptist was how this loyalty to Scripture was practiced. Baptists, that is, pushed the logic of "the priesthood of all believers" beyond where most of their fellows, even most of their Puritan peers, wanted to go. In their view, a properly functioning Christianity required not just diligence in following Scripture, but the personal and intentional commitment of each church member to practice that diligence. For Baptists, common Protestant teaching about the lordship or kingship of Christ was taken to mean that no intermediate authority should stand between God and the gathering of his people to worship and serve him.

Movement from a desire for more thorough reform to the creation of distinctly Baptist churches occurred early in the 17th century. Dissenters who had already separated from the national church and fled to Holland in order to find greater religious freedom provided the spark. In 1609, John Smyth, a Cambridge-trained Separate, baptized himself and a few others and so established the first Baptist church. Although there is scant evidence of influence from Anabaptists, Smyth himself did have connections with the "Waterlanders," a group similar to Mennonites who had been practicing adult believer's baptism by the pouring of water. Smyth himself remained only briefly with the Baptist congregation he established before moving on in a further quest for the true church. More stable leaders, like Thomas Helwys, provided continuity of leadership and also brought Baptist principles back to England where the movement gradually spread.

These earliest Baptists were "General" because they believed in the potential efficacy of Christ's death for all humans. While no connections have been found between Smyth and followers of Jacob Arminius, General Baptists in the 17th century and to this day have endorsed Arminian theologies that stress the freedom of the human will. Before long, however, they were joined by "Particular" Baptists who maintained the era's standard Calvinist teaching that Christ died particularly for the elect rather than for humanity as a whole.

Within a generation from their founding, both "Generals" and "Particulars" would begin baptizing by immersion, the standard practice that has continued for Baptist churches around the world to this day. In this early period, adult baptism upon personal profession of faith was only partly a conclusion drawn from "the Bible alone." Even more, this approach to baptism represented a protest, as Mennonites and other Anabaptists also protested, against the idea of inherited or bestowed Christian identification symbolized by the traditional practice of infant baptism. To be a follower of Christ meant to commit oneself personally rather than to rely on the mediation of family, church, or a supposedly Christian society. Extensive biblical arguments for both baptism upon profession of faith and baptism by immersion soon appeared within Baptist ranks. But the broad pre-conviction underlying specifically baptismal practice was a positive vision of the self's individual responsibility under God and a negative vision of human institutions or traditions as distorting that personal relationship.

From this combination of positive and negative commitments arose the advocacy of "soul competency," "religious freedom," "the right of private judgment," and a "gathered church" that have resonated through Baptist history. Yet as both Bebbington and Johnson point out, beyond the common approach to baptism itself, these prominent Baptist principles did not lead to a common theology, common church practices, or common attitudes to social engagement.

Almost inevitably, the very principles that Baptists shared made it difficult for Baptists to agree among themselves. And so within less than a century of organized Baptist existence, differences emerged in response to a number of questions that led to the formation of separate Baptist denominations: Was the atonement universal as Generals claimed or specific as Particulars urged? Should adults who were baptized also receive the laying on of hands? Should the day for public worship be the Sabbath/seventh day (Saturday) or the first day/Resurrection (Sunday)? Should local leaders accept the validity of adult baptism done elsewhere? Should they require the re-baptism of those who had received infant baptism? Should Baptist fellowships have confessions of faith? Should churches follow Christ's command literally to wash one another's feet? Should Baptists take part in politics or hold aloof? Should conferences of Baptist churches or leaders of those conferences be given any authority within local congregations? For each of these questions, and for many more that would come later, sincere believers were able to cite biblical chapter and verse that were completely convincing to themselves but that did not convince other Baptists.

In their different treatments, Bebbington and Johnson show that "Baptist identity" has been characterized by dispositional principles combined with great theological and ecclesiastical variety growing out of the application of those principles. Drawing on their insights, one way of interpreting the past is to suggest that this combination helps explain why Baptist movements experienced unusual surges of growth when they did and also why Baptist movements have remained relatively small in most parts of the world except the United States.

There have been four noteworthy eras of Baptist growth: in the 1640s and 1650s in Britain during the tumult of the English civil wars; in and after the evangelical revivals of the 1740s; in the United States after the American Revolution; and in both the United States and several parts of the non-Western world during the 20th century. In each of these eras, strong social or religious or political impulses undermined tradition and created a setting where the personal application of biblical faith answered spiritual yearning while also creating strong fellowships in unusually uncertain times. The centripetal forces that identified Baptists as Baptists were the power of Scripture and the heightened sense of individual responsibility. The centrifugal forces that created multiple Baptist movements were the varieties of scriptural interpretation and the self-confidence of individual Bible readers.

One explanation for the relative success of Baptist movements in the United States and the relatively small numbers in other parts of the world follows this same logic. In Britain, Canada, Australia, and now many non-Western regions significant Baptist communities emerged as the dispositional principles and the individual approaches to biblical authority won over a faithful loyal following. But church, social, intellectual, and political traditions of different sorts remained stronger and so worked against the main dispositions of Baptist faith.

In the United States and most recently in some parts of the non-Western world, the relation of principle to context has been different. Prevailing orders in church, state, and society have undercut the authority of traditional forms and have therefore opened up more space for the exercise of biblical faith personally appropriated and personally interpreted. In these circumstances, the broader Baptist dispositions have been reinforced by broader features of the entire society and so opened the way for significant Baptist expansion, though in a multitude of Baptist varieties.

Whether or not David Bebbington or Robert Johnson would agree with this way of interpreting Baptist history, their books provide the careful scholarship that allow others to draw such conclusions. Johnson's worldwide survey is compromised to some degree by his persistent reference to "traditioning sources" and by describing Baptist convictions and organizational activities as "dreams." As a result, his conclusions about essential points of Baptist identity are fuzzier than they need to be. Thus, he sees Baptist distinctives as including the "freedom of a local faith community to determine its own theological definitions," which is helpful. But he also concludes that "Baptist traditioning sources have an innate sense of the inadequacy of simply living a life of faith that is controlled by the rules and experiences of someone else's faith," which is obfuscating. Nonetheless, the wealth of information in this work, particularly on non-Western Baptist movements, makes it a useful study.

David Bebbington's survey is an admirably clear beginning place for anyone interested in going further with study of Baptists. Global developments are sketched rather than extensively detailed, but even in brief compass Bebbington succeeds in showing how the complexities of Baptist life in the non-Western world now both reflect complexities seen in the West and offer much that is new. His conclusion about the question of Baptist identity exemplifies the compact wisdom of his entire treatment: "Taken together, these three convictions—believer's baptism, a regenerate church membership, and the kingship of all believers—do seem fundamental to Baptist life, but even when taken together they do not form a characterization that includes all Baptists while excluding all others."

On the complicated questions of identity, it is gratifying to note that these two books represent only some of the solid scholarship that is now exploring Baptist developments on many fronts. Recent controversies within the Southern Baptist Convention have directly or indirectly prompted some of that history.[1] The100th anniversary of the Baptist World Alliance in 2005 was also a stimulus.[2] But the most serious work has been appearing in the over thirty volumes that now make up the Paternoster Press series Studies in Baptist History and Thought.[3] Several of the books in this series have come from meetings of the International Conference on Baptist Studies (ICOBS), which, beginning in Oxford in 1997, has convened a gathering every three years, with the sixth such meeting planned for Wake Forest University in July 2012. The 2003 ICOBS conference in Prague led to a book that made a special contribution to the subject of "Baptist Identities." Under that very title, it offered detailed studies on Baptist history in the United States, Canada, England, Wales, and Australia, but also in France, Germany, Latvia, Nagaland, and the Philippines.[4] The result was a measurable increase in hard-won learning, but also a measurable increase in the difficulties attending the puzzle of Baptist identity that Bebbington and Johnson address so fruitfully.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).

1. Examples might include Timothy George and David S. Dockery, eds., Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, 2nd ed. (BandH Academic, 2001); Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2002); and Bill J. Leonard, The Challenge of Being Baptist (Baylor Univ. Press, 2010).

2. See especially Richard V. Pierard, ed., Baptists Together in Christ, 1905-2005: A Hundred-Year History of the Baptist World Alliance (Baptist World Alliance, 2005).

3. Those volumes are described at authenticmedia.co.uk/search/product/productPowerSearch.jhtml?series Code=SBHT.

4. Ian M. Randall, Toivo Pilli, and Anthony R. Cross, eds., Baptist Identities: International Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster/Wipf and Stock, 2006).

Most ReadMost Shared