Baptist refers to any one of several Christian groups which, for the most part, hold to theologically and socially conservative positions (though there are notable exceptions).
The largest Baptist group is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which despite its name has churches in all 50 states. The SBC is also highly influential in the social and political arenas of American life.
Baptists are descended primarily from the work of John Smyth (1554-1612) in England He fled to Holland due to persecution of the Anabaptists, of which he was part. Baptists arrived in the American colonies and became especially numerous in New England and Virginia. After 1800, the denomination grew rapidly but split in 1845 over the issue of slavery. Many slaves were Baptists and at the end of the Civil War they withdrew from white churches and set up their own network of Baptist churches.
The following acrostic backronym, spelling BAPTIST, represents a useful summary of Baptists' distinguishing beliefs; this acrostic was created by Dr. L. Duane Brown.
- Biblical authority (Matthew 24:35; 1 Peter 1:23; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)
- Autonomy of the local church (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 6:1-3)
- Priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5-9; 1 Timothy 5)
- Two ordinances (Believer's baptism and the Lord's Supper) (Acts 2:41–47; 1 Cor. 11:23-32)
- Individual soul liberty (Romans 14:5–12)
- Separation of church and state (Matthew 22:15–22)
- Two offices of the church (Pastor-elder and deacon) (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1–2)
Many Baptists consider the Bible to be inerrant and the literal word of God. Baptists are often opposed to gambling and the use of tobacco and alcoholic beverages, the latter to the point that the "wine" in The Lord's Supper will be grape juice.
With baptism, the individual acquires authority to determine matters of religion and faith for himself, or as part of a local congregation of believers. Although each Baptist is free to define his own beliefs, most denominations will have a "statement of faith" which generally agrees on major doctrines (e.g. the Virgin Birth) while allowing for differing views in other areas (e.g. how End Times prophecy will take place). The Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention is an example of such a statement; it was most recently revised in 2000.
Baptists differ from many Christian denominations doctrinally. The most obvious difference is that Baptists reject infant baptism, and instead practice "Believer's Baptism", the belief that only born-again believers, old enough to understand what it means to become a Christian, are eligible baptism candidates. In practice, children are baptized at the age of 5 to 10. This belief in "adult" baptism is also held by some other prominent Protestant churches (such as the Churches of Christ and Pentecostal denominations), although the baptism of infants is customary in such Protestant bodies as the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches.
Another distinguishing characteristic is to be found in the area of church government. Baptists believe that Christ and only Christ is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23); there is no "Pope" or ruling board that has authority over any individual Baptist church. Each local church is autonomous and accountable only to Christ, who is its Head. Finally, Baptists have always stood by the belief that the church should not be state controlled.
Some Baptists believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the only true word of God in the English language. This is because they believe other versions, such as the New International Version, are based on corrupted manuscripts, and some verses are reworded in a way that changes the meaning or are omitted altogether. This teaching is generally limited to the Independent Baptist movement.
Although Baptists organized within a denomination will have a "headquarters" facility, it generally exists solely to foster and assist evangelical work both at home and abroad; it will not dictate doctrine or policy (unlike Catholicism, Orthodox, or many mainline denominations).
The most well known Baptist denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which despite its name has congregations in every state. It is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Since its founding in 1845, the SBC has grown to over 16 million members in more than 42,000 churches in the United States. The SBC sponsors about 5,000 home missionaries serving the United States, Canada, Guam and the Caribbean, as well as another 5,000 foreign missionaries at work in 153 countries.
More African-Americans belong to the National Baptist Convention, with 7.5 million members, than to any other church body. Others are members of the smaller but more liberal Progressive National Baptist Convention, which has over 2000 churches and a total membership of 2.5 million.
There are numerous smaller bodies, usually with long histories, such as the Calvinistic Baptists, General Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Old Regulars, Two Seeders, Free Will Baptists, Landmarkeans (named after landmarks of doctrine), and Seventh Day Baptists (a very small group that, like the Seventh Day Adventists, holds to Saturday worship as Biblical).
The Baptist Bible Union was started in 1923 by prominent Fundamentalists including W. B. Riley, pastor of First Baptist Church, Minneapolis, T. T. Shields, Canadian Baptist pastor, and J. Frank Norris, of First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Riley said the Union was founded to give "open, determined opposition to menacing modernism" in the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions. The union was of "inspirational character" for those who sought to purge liberalism from Baptist denominations.
Independent Baptists (which are intentionally non-denominational) tend to be more conservative than any other of these groups (generally holding to Fundamentalist viewpoints; the label "independent Fundamentalist Baptist" is often used interchangeably). Most independent churches were created in reaction to "worldliness, modernism, apostasy and compromise" within other Baptist churches (even those which are conservative by comparison to mainline churches) and are often led by a leader with high personal popularity. They generally maintain a loose confederation of local congregations, promoting and funding independent missionaries and "church-planters, periodicals and Bible schools" (as such they rarely, if ever, work with other groups). Frequently they hold their membership to very strict standards as to attendance, personal grooming and dress, and worldly activities both inside and outside of the home.
The majority of Baptist denominations are conservative theologically. However, notable liberal Baptist denominations include American Baptist Churches USA (not to be confused with the conservative American Baptist Association), the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (the latter two being splinter groups from the SBC).
Baptists are generally considered to be Protestants. This normally means that they are "non-Catholic" Christians. When used in this sense, it is true. However, Protestant Churches are limited to Churches which separated from the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation, starting in 1517. Some Baptists (called Landmarkeans) believe that Baptist history extends all the way back to the apostolic Church. C.H. Spurgeon told the story of Baptist minister, Peter of Bruys, who suffered martyrdom in 1124.The Waldensian Confession of Faith of 1120 A.D. is allegedly Baptist in tone. Few historians agree with this historical theory, and most scholars argue that the Baptists originated in England during the 17th century.
European Baptist Federation (EBF) is a regional arm of the Baptist World Alliance. EBF has more than 800,000 Baptist members in 51 unions or conventions from Portugal to Russia. In 2009 it sponsored "Amsterdam 400," celebrating 400 years of Baptist history in Europe.
Baptists have traditionally held to a set of beliefs that have developed into the Baptist Distinctives. The eight distinctives form the acrostic BAPTISTS.
- Biblical Authority: The Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. The Bible is inspired by God and bears the absolute authority of God Himself. Baptists generally do not recite or hold to the famous creeds used in many denominations (though they may not necessarily disagree with their content), and although many Baptist denominations publish a doctrinal statement (the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message is a notable example), the statement is not binding on individual adherents or congregations (though an individual church may require it for membership, and the SBC does require adherence to the BF&M for its missionaries and employees).
- Autonomy of the Local Church: The local church is an independent body accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is autonomous, or self-governing. No religious hierarchy outside the local church may dictate a church's beliefs or practices. (To the extent a Baptist church is a denominational member, it is only for the purpose of collectively performing missionary or other religious work, and with few exceptions reserves the right to cease its cooperation at any time, and/or to work with other churches, even those outside its denomination.)
- Priesthood of the Believer: Every believer is a priest of God and may enter into His presence in prayer directly through our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. No other mediator is needed between God and people.
- Two Ordinances: The local church should practice the ordinance of baptism and the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. Foot washing is not considered an ordinance to be practiced (though notably within the Free Will Baptists it is practiced).
- Individual Soul Liberty: Every person has the liberty to choose what he believes is right in the religious realm. Religious persecution has always been opposed by Baptists. This does not, however, exempt exempt one from responsibility to the Word of God or from accountability to God Himself.
- Saved, Baptized Church Membership: Every member of a Baptist church must be saved by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and have publicly proclaimed their faith through believer's baptism. Baptism is always by immersion and is not administered to infants; it is restricted to those old enough to understand what is required for salvation. However, Baptists oppose the doctrine of baptismal regeneration as is taught in some denominations.
- Two Offices: Baptists believe there are two offices in the church, Pastor and Deacon. The separate office of Elder is not recognized except in very rare instances; usually it is considered another term for Pastor.
- Separation of Church and State: God has established both government and the church. They fulfill two separate roles in society. The Church should not control the government, and likewise the government should not control the Church. This does not mean that individual Christians are prohibited from participating and influencing government toward righteousness (as liberals attempt to define the phrase), nor does it mean that the government cannot take actions consistent with its role in protecting the lives of citizens, provided it does so non-discriminately (such as determining that a church building isn't a hazard to occupants).
The music often heard in Baptist churches tends to be uplifting and hopeful, rather than the meritative mood often set in more liberal churches. The lyrics also tend to focus on the afterlife (Heaven), putting one's life in God's hands, Christ's blood sacrifice on the cross, or the world after the return of Jesus Christ. Popular Baptist hymns include:
- "The Old Rugged Cross"
- "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"
- "Amazing Grace"
- "This Little Light of Mine"
The most common instrumentation is piano and organ, often placed on either side of the church at the front, so that each play may see the other and the choir director at the same time. If the organ console is not facing the place where the choir director stands, then a mirror will be installed so that the organist can see. Occasionally, for special events, other instruments will be brought in. These are usually classical instruments like strings, woodwinds, or brass (especially trumpet). Electric guitars, basses, and drum sets are rare, but are more common in churches that use contemporary music. Larger churches, like First Baptist Dallas and Prestonwood Baptist Church, will regularly include a small symphony orchestra with the piano and organ, but smaller churches simply use the two keyboard instruments (or may only have a piano).
Many Baptists (primarily in the Independent ranks) are opposed to modern "worldly" music inside or outside of the church even if the lyrics mention God or Jesus Christ, and some Baptist colleges like Pensacola Christian College prohibit students from listening to any music other than traditional church music or classical music. However, many moderate and left-leaning churches do accept Christian rock and some forms of secular music.
When Harvard's first president Henry Dunster abandoned Puritanism in favor of the Baptist faith in 1653, he provoked a controversy that highlighted two distinct approaches to dealing with dissent in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony's Puritan leaders, whose own religion was born of dissent from mainstream Church of England, generally worked for reconciliation with members who questioned matters of Puritan theology but responded much more harshly to outright rejection of Puritanism. Dunster's conflict with the colony's magistrates began when he failed to have his infant son baptized, believing, as a newly converted Baptist, that only adults should be baptized. Efforts to restore Dunster to Puritan orthodoxy failed, and his apostasy proved untenable to colony leaders who had entrusted him, in his job as Harvard's president, to uphold the colony's religious mission. Thus, he represented a threat to the stability of society. Dunster exiled himself in 1654 and moved to nearby Plymouth Colony, where he died in 1658.
- Jerry Falwell
- Pat Robertson (later left the Baptists for the Pentecostal movement)
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Billy Graham
- Jimmy Carter
- Bill Clinton
- Buck Hatfield
- Fred Phelps (denounced by most Baptist churches due primarily to the tactics used by his "church", which over-emphasized judgment and condemnation at the expense of showing Christian love to sinners)
- Steven Anderson
- Harrison, Paul M. Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition: A Social Case Study of the American Baptist Convention Princeton University Press, 1959.
- Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997).
- Isaac, Rhy. "Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists' Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., XXXI (July 1974), 345–68. in JSTOR
- Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion's Harvest Time (1955) online edition
- Leonard, Bill J. Baptist Ways: A History (2003), comprehensive international history
- Leonard, Bill J. Baptists in America. (2005), general survey and history by leading Southern Baptist
- Leonard, Bill J. "Independent Baptists: from Sectarian Minority to 'Moral Majority'". Church History. Volume: 56. Issue: 4. 1987. pp 504+. online edition
- Rawlyk, George. Champions of the Truth: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Maritime Baptists (1990), on Baptists in Canada.
- Spain, Rufus. At Ease in Zion: Social History of Southern Baptists, 1865-1900 (1967)
- Spangler, Jewel L. "Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia" Journal of Southern History. Volume: 67. Issue: 2. 2001. pp 243+ online edition
- Stringer, Phil. The Faithful Baptist Witness, Landmark Baptist Press, 1998.
- Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists, Judson Press, 1950.
- Underwood, A. C. A History of the English Baptists. London: Kingsgate Press, 1947.
- Wills, Gregory A. Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900, (1997) online edition
- Gavins; Raymond. The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership: Gordon Blaine Hancock, 1884–1970 Duke University Press, 1977.
- Harvey, Paul. Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865–1925 University of North Carolina Press, 1997. online edition
- Pitts, Walter F. Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora Oxford University Press, 1996.
- McBeth, H. Leon, (ed.) A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (1990), primary sources for Baptist history.
- McGlothlin, W. J. (ed.) Baptist Confessions of Faith. Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1911.
- Underhill, Edward B. (ed.). Confessions of Faith and Other Documents of the Baptist Churches of England in the 17th century. London: The Hanserd Knollys Society, 1854.
- see Strategic Information and Planning Section, 2001 Annual Church Profile Statistics: Number of Baptisms by Age Divisions (Nashville: LifeWay Christian Resources, April 22, 2002).
- Although the various Baptist denominations, such as the SBC, may decide that it will or will not accept an individual church into its group, it has no authority to replace that church's leadership nor to force it to close down.
- Why Baptists are not Protestants by Dr. Vernon C. Lyons
- Leonard (2005)
- Leonard (1987) p. 506
- Leonard (1987) p. 507
- Jarrell's Baptist Perpetuity
- Baptists are Ancient by C.H. Spurgeon appeared in the August 1868 The Sword and the Trowel.
- Baptist Churches In All Ages by Paul Goodwin and Bob Frazier
- Timothy L. Wood, "'I Spake the Truth in the Feare of God': the Puritan Management of Dissent During the Henry Dunster Controversy," Historical Journal of Massachusetts 2005 33(1): 1-19,