Baptists are a group of Christians who began in England in the early 1600s. They emerged from the English Separatist movement of the seventeenth century as dissenters from the Church of England, with some influence from the continental Anabaptists. Beginning as a small and despised group, Baptists now number 43 million baptized believers (2001) worldwide. With almost 34 million members in North America, Baptists now constitute the single largest Protestant denomination of Christians in the United States.

Baptists come in many varieties and traditions with many significant differences among them. A core value of Baptist life is the voluntary approach to matters of faith. Derivative of this voluntary approach are some of Baptists’ commonly held beliefs: believer’s baptism by immersion, local church independence, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and the authority of scripture for faith and practice. Most, but not all, Baptists are nonliturgical in worship and nonsacramental in their view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A fervent commitment to evangelism and missions has characterized many Baptists for the last two hundred years.

—  Walter Shurden

Baptists trace their origins to several points, depending upon questions of theology, polity and ethnicity. The first people to be properly called “Baptist” emerged from a Puritan/Separatist community in England about 1606. They fled to the Netherlands where they lived in the midst of a Mennonite community. They developed a view of the atonement that Christ died for all and were called “General” Baptists. Their early leaders included John Smyth, Thomas Helwys and John Murton. A second group was to come from among English Congregationalist or Independents in the 1640s. This family was Calvinistic and believed that Christ died only for the Elect. They became known as “Particular Baptists.” In the 1650s yet another group of Baptists emerged from Christians who held the Sabbath to be holy. They were called Seventh Day Baptists.” So far, it would appear that the first Baptists came from England. This does not explain however, how some slaves on a plantation in Tidewater Virginia came Baptists in the 1740s. They did so with only a preacher and a sense of fidelity to the bible’s teachings. The Black Baptist movement has its origins in that tradition. Still, other stories could be written of people who, while studying their bibles, or in response to someone’s witness, arrived at a Baptist understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Baptists, therefore, enjoy a wide series of “origins,” the earliest coming from England.

— William Brackney

Although Protestant Christians with Baptist principles existed as early as 1609, the name “Baptists” has been used only since the 1640s. Prior to the 1640s, they were variously called “brethren,” “brethren of the baptized way,” “baptized churches,” or derogatorily as “Anabaptists.” Baptists chose the name Baptists because it characterized their preference for believer’s baptism. The name also derived from the practice of immersing baptismal candidates and was often assigned to Baptists by opponents who ridiculed their practice of immersion. Not until the eighteenth century did Baptists widely use this name to describe themselves. Because believer’s baptism (as opposed to infant baptism) is absolutely central to Baptist convictions, it is easy to understand why Baptists have kept this name for centuries.

— Charles DeWeese

The Baptist movement began as part of the English Reformation in the early seventeenth century. From that small beginning, a denominational tradition was born and spread throughout England to Wales and Scotland. By the end of the seventeenth century, all three types of English Baptists could be found in the American colonies. In 1800 the Baptist movement was essentially an English-speaking, Anglo-American religious tradition. The exception to this was the emerging Black Baptist community, first identified in the slave congregations of the southern American colonies and later in free churches in the northern U.S. and Jamaica. Major missionary witness took place in the nineteenth century from England, Scotland, and the United States Baptists and the denomination expanded to Africa, Europe, India, Burma, China, Latin America. In the twentieth century, through indigenous movements and missions, Baptists can be found in virtually every nation on earth. Their numerical strength is in the United States, Britain and Asia, with growth occurring in Africa and Latin America. There are over 35 million Baptist worldwide.

–William Brackney

Baptists in America, especially, are a broad based and diverse group of faithful people. Therefore, Baptists can be found as participant — and often as leaders — in virtually every field of life as well as in their own religious affairs. John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were early Baptist “founders” in England. Roger Williams is often viewed as the symbolic founder of Baptists in the American Colonies. Isaac Backus was a prominent early New England Baptist. William Carey was an early English Baptist missionary who went to India. He helped inspire Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice who were the first Baptist missionaries who went out from America. Henry Dunster, one of Harvard’s early Presidents, was a Baptist. Francis Wayland and William Rainey Harper, Presidents of Brown University and the University of Chicago, were prominent Baptist educators. Russell H. Conwell who founded Temple University was a Baptist.

American industrialists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists have included Baptists John D. Rockefeller, James B. Colgate and many others. Political leaders have included Presidents Harry S Truman, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and perennial Presidential candidate, Harold Stassen. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes was Baptist; Representative Adam Clayton Powell was Baptist and Jesse Jackson is a Baptist, as are Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott, Richard Gephart and many other present day and recent members of the US Senate, House of Representatives and other high government officials.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, preacher and founding pastor of New York’s Riverside Church as well as prominent contemporary religious leaders like Calvin Butts and Gardiner Taylor, once described as the “Dean of American Preachers” are Baptists. The evangelist Billy Graham is a Baptist. The journalist and television commentator Bill Moyers is Baptist as is contemporary novelist John Grishom.

Notable figures in the fields of sports, entertainment, science might also be listed. The few individuals noted here are only a tiny representation and are only singled out as of unique historical importance or because their names may be easily recognized. Notable Baptists have given their names to a great many colleges, seminaries, universities, hospitals, churches and other institutions which represent their achievements and visions. It is consistent with Baptist belief, however, to note that the most notable Baptists are often among those faithful and committed people whose names are not broadly recognized, but who are notable because of the profound effect they had by faith, example and effect on others.

–Everett Goodwin

Baptists, although a distinct denomination of Christians for four hundred years, are clearly part of the larger Christian communion. Baptists do have, however, a core group of spiritual convictions, which, if taken together, distinguishes them as a unique group.

One core Baptist conviction is the concept of a believer’s church. The basis of membership in a Baptist church is a voluntary and conscious commitment to Christ as Lord. Because the church should be composed only of believers, Baptists have opposed infant baptism, affirmed baptism by immersion for believers only, and utilized evangelism energetically as a means of encouraging belief in Christ.

A second core Baptist conviction has to do with the local church. While affirming the universal Church of Christ, Baptists believe that each local church is competent under Christ to shape is own life and ministry. Therefore, Baptists believe the affairs of each local church are in the hands of that congregation, allowing no outside ecclesiastical interference, civil intervention, or clergy domination. Most Baptist churches practice two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and these are interpreted usually as symbols rather than sacraments.

Freedom of conscience is a third cardinal Baptist conviction. The promotion of “soul liberty” has meant that Baptists have been champions of religious liberty and separation of church and state.

Finally, authority in Baptist life is rooted in the Lordship of Christ as interpreted by the local congregation and manifested explicitly in Holy Scripture, especially the New Testament. Baptists generally take a non-creedal approach to scripture.

— Walter Shurden

Baptists believe that “when Jesus came up out of the water” at his own baptism by John it implies being immersed in the water. Immersion also carries the symbolism expressed by Paul when he spoke of being “buried with Him through baptism into death and raised from the dead through the glory of God.” (Romans 6:3-6 ) An 18th century Baptist hymn writer used the term “liquid grave” to describe this meaning of immersion.

— Don Sanford

A person is baptized after he or she has decided to accept God’s gift of salvation. The decision must be made by the person accepting the gift, not by his or her parents nor by any other person or group of persons. Infants lack the maturity to make such a decision; therefore they should not be baptized.A person is baptized in order to publicly declare his or her new relationship with God and with other baptized believers. Baptism is a symbol of and an experience of grace but is not necessary for salvation.

— Eljee Bentley

Baptists have never recognized any sort of central authority or discipline. Consequently, when there is a strong difference of opinion, there is the possibility of a division of fellowship. New Baptist groups have been born over theology, ethnicity, racial differences, polity and practice, and leadership directions. Most Baptists find reasons to cooperate with each other and in North America and elsewhere can be called “convention” or “union” Baptists. But, others are resistant to cooperation and are non-aligned or “Strict” Baptists. Those who are non-aligned see little possibility or need for cooperation and the differences have often kept mainstream Baptists from pursuing conversations. For many Baptists, there is no sin in diversity; indeed it reflects the pattern of New Testament Christianity. In a very real sense, every local Baptist church can be thought of as a denomination of Christians, “knit together and complete in itself,” to use the words of an early confession.

— William Brackney

The term “evangelical” applies to those Christians who hold to the authority of Scripture, the deity and Lordship of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the imperative of sharing the gospel. The term came into popular usage in the early nineteenth century and includes several denominational traditions. Baptists held to evangelical views before “evangelicals” emerged as such. They have had deep affinities with those evangelicals who accept Baptists on doctrinal grounds. However, a major point of division between Baptists and evangelicals has been the strict Baptist requirement that believers only are baptized. The Landmarkist Movement is said to have kept Baptists out of the early development of American evangelicalism. Increasingly in the twentieth century, Baptists have found common cause with evangelicals and are considered by most to be “evangelical” if not “Evangelical”, meaning they hold to evangelical views but are not part of formally organized Evangelicalism, which can take on the appearances of a separate denomination. Within several Baptist groups there may be found persons variously described as “mainstream evangelicals,” “conservative evangelicals,” “progressive evangelicals,” and “liberal evangelicals.”

— William Brackney

Yes. Baptists today trace their origins most directly to a group of English reformers, particularly the “Puritans,” in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In general these reformers were “protesting” what they saw as corruption and faithlessness in the long established “official” church of the time. These early Baptists were also influenced by the beliefs of the Mennonites and other “grass roots reform” movements on the European continent. The word “Protestant” thus generally describes the wide variety of new Christian churches and groups that emerged from this intense period of religious reform often called the “Protestant Reformation.” Most Baptist scholars and the majority of Baptists agree that Baptists are, in this historic sense, “Protestant.”

Some Baptists, however, maintain that a spirit of reform and faithful resistance to established church traditions had always been present in the Christian church. This spirit was seen even before the Protestant Reformation in such early reformers as the Waldensians and the Moravians, in the individual example of people like Balthazar Hubmaier in Germany, and in the intensely committed faith of groups like the Hutterites and the Brethren. In that sense, many Baptists maintain their origin is earlier than any one historic episode.

— Everett Goodwin

Baptists, other Christians, and Jews affirm that all are made in the image of God; therefore able to respond to God: response able, responsible, and if responsible, free. (Gen. 1:26-27).Believers come directly to God; one mediator between God and all humankind (I Tim. 2:5). God wants free followers and no other kind (Gal. 5:1).If anyone’s religious freedom is denied, everyone’s religious liberty is endangered (Acts 5:29). Baptists have taken seriously Jesus’ words about the separation of church and state (Matt. 22:15-22). Overwhelmingly, Baptists believe in religious liberty and its essential corollary, the separation of church and state.

— James Dunn

Some people consider themselves born-Baptists, especially if they are the next in a succession of generations of family members who have identified themselves as Baptist. When surveys are taken of religious affiliation, a high percentage of respondents check the box for “Baptist” whether there is a formal relationship with the denomination or not.Technically, though, becoming Baptist involves a process and a conscious choice to accept some commonly-held beliefs. Believers usually “join a church” by “walking the aisle” during the closing hymn of a worship service. They present themselves before the congregation as candidates for baptism or as previously-baptized believers who want to “move their letter” to another church. This public profession of faith is made by children and adults. Ideally children discuss their feelings and makethis decision with parents and pastors at an age that is considered appropriate to those involved. Church members are asked to show support of the candidates by “a show of hands” or a verbal “Aye” or “Amen” and baptism is planned at a later date.

— Susan Broome

Yes. The word “Christian” has been used for nearly 2000 years to describe those who follow the teachings, example and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth, a resident of Nazareth near Galilee in the north of Israel. His teachings and ministry ultimately led to his crucifixion in Jerusalem about the year 30 AD. Most of those called Christians affirm that Jesus’ life did not end in physical death, and that in some important way he was raised from the dead to continue his ministry, that he empowered his disciples and followers to minister in his name, and that the same spirit which gave him vital spiritual life, empowers those who follow him. Christians of different perspectives often disagree or debate many things. However, all Christians affirm in some very specific way that Jesus was the Son of God, or the Christ. Baptists are among those who affirm Jesus in this way as Christ and are therefore Christians.

— Everett Goodwin

Historically, Baptists of all kinds are firm believers in the Trinity. All the confessions of faith plus the vast majority of Baptist pastors and leaders have affirmed the Holy Trinity. There have been notable examples of Baptists who have developed anti-trinitarian views, like Robert Robinson, William Vidler, Elhanan Winchester, Asa Messer, Crawford H. Toy, and minor figures, but the churches quickly shunned their position and they either left the Baptist family or modified their positions. Of the persons of the Trinity, Baptists have a strong doctrine of the Lordship of Christ and a less clear understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit. God the Father is understood as Creator and sovereign of the universe.

— William Brackney

The vast majority of Baptists today worship on Sunday, the first day of the week continuing in the tradition dating back to the early days of the Christian Church with its rejection of Jewish legalism and celebration of the Resurrection. However, there are some Baptists who from about 1650 in their Bible study believed that the seventh day of the week as commanded by God in the Ten Commandments and practiced by Christ and the New Testament Church is still valid and ought to be observed.

— Don Sanford

Some scholars describe today as a post-denominational age. Many Protestant Christians do rotate among churches of various denominations. They do not join a Baptist church or remain in a Baptist church simply because parents and grandparents did. They often choose churches that meets the needs of their children or youth, churches that worship in a certain way, or churches that meet certain socioeconomic expectations. However, being Baptist still matters-it matters a great deal. For many, being Baptist best represents the impulses towards freedom and accountability reflected in the teachings of Jesus; it also best matches the general patterns of New Testament Christianity. Good Baptists, however, do not belittle other denominations. Instead, they recognize that much good resides in all Christian traditions.

— Charles DeWeese

Many Baptists struggle with the term “ecumenical” because it has twentieth century connotations that relate to undesirable relationships. There can be no doubt that many Baptists over their almost four centuries of history, have cooperated with other Christians. In the seventeenth century, English Baptists made common cause with other Reformed Christians in their writing of confessions of faith. General and Particular Baptists in England stood together in the Orthodox creed and Seventh Day pastors often preached in First Day churches. Baptists joined Quakers, Congregationalists, Unitarians and Presbyterians in early eighteenth century England to address their concerns for political ands social issues as the “Three Dissenting Denominations.” In the American colonies Baptist cooperated with Congregationalist and New Light revivalists. Later camp meetings were common with Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church and Methodists. On special holidays like Thanksgiving or Days of fasting and prayer, Baptists have joined other Christians in worship at the local and regional levels.

Beginning in the later nineteenth century, Baptists in Britain, the United States, Canada began to cooperate with other denominations in the Evangelical Alliance, mission organizations and eventually in the establishment of councils of churches. The Northern Baptist Convention was for instance a charter member of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA when it was established in 1913. Likewise, Baptists in the former Soviet Union were partners with Pentecostals and Mennonites during the Soviet era. In Germany, Hungary, and Poland, to name some countries, Baptists are full members of national ecumenical bodies. The Baptist World Alliance has become a venue for Baptist cooperation. The Alliance has engaged in “theological conversations with the Roman Catholic Church, Lutherans. Reformed Churches, Mennonites, Eastern Orthodox Patriarchiate, and the Church of England. Members of the BWA staff attend meetings of world Christian organizations like the World Council of Churches. Within the Baptist family there are historic mergers like that between the Northern Baptists and the Freewill Baptists in 1911 and discussions with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Churches, as well as those who want no relationship with other Christians at all. These Baptists have often been referred to as “Landmarkist” Baptists and populate the American South and Southwest. For many years the Southern Baptist Convention was involved in ecumenical discussions, but in the 1990s has withdrawn from involvements to maintain the integrity of their Baptist witness. Baptists are found on boards and membership rosters of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, World Vision, bible societies, and educational institutions and publications like Christianity Today and Christian Century.

— William Brackney

Baptist polity is organized on the foundation of the local congregation. In the ordinary senses of the terms, Baptists have no synods, presbyteries, or bishops. Congregations are gathered by the Holy Spirit and mutually internally accountable. Only on a voluntary basis are congregations accountable for certain matters to each other. Historically these accountabilities include confessions of faith, ordination of leaders, and mission tasks. Baptist organizations like associations, societies, unions, conventions, and the Baptist World Alliance are only advisory and voluntary. They may deliberate and debate but their decisions are binding only upon those involved and not upon congregations. Baptist churches send “messengers” or “delegates” to such meetings in order to “report” back on the issues and discussions. As one Baptist put it, “No one represents a congregation.”

— William Brackney

The predominant theological character of Baptists across their four centuries has been in the “Reformed” tradition among Reformation and Post-Reformation categories. Baptists in early seventeenth century England were close to the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith and much of the character of that confession is seen in the First and Second London Confessions, and the Philadelphia and New Hampshire Confessions of Faith. Some Baptists have held very strictly to five point Calvinism, while others have not affirmed so strongly the doctrines of perseverance of saints or reprobation. Some Baptists, like Old School or Primitive Baptists, refer to “sovereign grace doctrines” and hold tenaciously to five or even six principle Calvinism, including double predestination. Since the late eighteenth century and the ministry of Baptists like Andrew Fuller and Robert Hall, Jr., plus the impact of revivalism, most Baptists prefer to hold fast to the sovereignty of God and human depravity, while also affirming the grace of God to allow human freedom of choice with respect to the offer of salvation and ethical decisions. Most Baptists now hold to a general view of the atonement, meaning that Christ died for all humankind.

— William Brackney

Baptists have a very high view of the Bible. Specifically they believe it is “the inspired written record of God’s revelation to men,” as one scholar phrased it. Baptists believe the Bible is the only authoritative source of religious truth, knowledge and experience. In general, all Baptists turn to the Bible to guide their understanding of religious doctrine, practices in the local church, human relationships, relationships between churches and between the church and the social context in which Baptists live, and, of course, worship and daily living. Baptist reliance on the Bible is emphasized because Baptists do not believe in the ultimate authority of institutions, even religious institutions, traditions, significant individuals or other sources.

Baptists also frequently disagree about what is the best interpretation of the Bible. This is because Baptists place great reliance upon the privilege of individual interpretation. Modern Baptists, therefore, frequently (and loudly!) dispute the way the Bible was revealed, the precise way its truth is expressed, and how that truth is applied in practical living. But all of such disagreements are simply an example of the extreme importance the Bible has in Baptist faith and life. Baptists are “people of the book,” and therefore Bible study and reflection is central to Baptist teaching. preaching, and worship, and every Baptist is encouraged to read and study the Bible’s contents.

— Everett Goodwin

“I don’t believe in organized religion; that is why I am a Baptist!” This old joke actually expresses a profound truth about Baptists: Baptists have a wide variety of organizational styles, and most Baptists seem to be uneasy about their own style of organization. The reason for this goes to the deep commitment to personal freedom held by most Baptists. and to the general principle that there is no real biblical precedent for organization beyond the local church. Baptists belong to a local congregation which, by definition as Baptist, is autonomous, independent and governed by consent of all its members. Most Baptist churches have at least one official board, often called by the biblical name “Diaconate” or Board of Deacons. Most Baptist churches also have Pastors which are “called” to their position by vote of the congregation. Some churches by commitment or practice rely on the Pastor or the Deacons or some other board or committee to make most practical decisions. But Baptists believe that matters of fundamental importance must be jointly decided all the members of the congregation. Beyond the local, individual church, many Baptist churches develop linkages with other Baptists in order to better sponsor and encourage outreach and missions, or to provide resources, or to arrange for education or other common concerns. These gatherings of Baptists were historically called “associations” — but today are more generally called denominations or fellowships.

— Everett Goodwin