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Who Are Baptists? A Historical Perspective

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No Christian tradition spends more energy categorizing and debating its “distinctives” than Baptists. Sorting out what makes a Baptist Baptist is a cottage industry among Baptist historians, myself included.

No Christian tradition spends more energy categorizing and debating its “distinctives” than Baptists. Sorting out what makes a Baptist Baptist is a cottage industry among Baptist historians, myself included.

Baptists are descendants of Anglican Puritan Separatists. Anglicans separated from papal authority at the Reformation (1500s); Puritans were Anglicans seeking to purify their church of vestiges of Roman Catholicism; and Separate Puritans were those who separated from the Anglican Church, believing it was unreformable.

The original Baptists were Separatist Puritans who, in contact with Anabaptists, did church in the early seventeenth century in a way that came to be known as Baptist.  Some of these original congregations held a Calvinist theology. Some did not. All were Baptist. Through the following centuries, other groups in other places who accepted or developed the Baptist way also took the Baptist name.

The earliest Baptists and their legitimate heirs stand within the Christian, Western, Protestant lineage of Christian faith, along with Quakers, Congregationalists Presbyterians and others.

Baptists confess a trinitarian faith; they believe the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice; and they affirm equal access to God for all persons. Such traits help define Baptists as Christians and Protestants, but they do little to reveal what makes them Baptist.

Baptists are “definitionally challenged” and diverse partly because no supreme leader, no hierarchical or representative institution, and no written document is the final judge of authentic Baptist identity. To say, “All Baptists believe . . .” is to step on thin ice.

No one speaks for all Baptists. As the proliferation of Baptist confessions attest, Baptists value statements of faith, but Baptists also historically reject any ONE statement of faith as the criterion for authenticity for other Baptists.

The means used overshadow the conclusions reached in the Baptist world.  Within the limits of the larger Christian tradition, Baptists are distinguished more by the process of their theologizing than by its product, whether Calvinist or Liberation or some other.

The original Baptist process rests on freedom to obey Christ directly.  Embattled dissenters, believing authentic faith to be a voluntary matter between the believer and God, claimed liberty to follow Christ apart from crown, bishop and majority opinion.  Baptists, then and now, are Christians resolutely determined to remain free to form Christian communities of voluntary believers who obey God without outside interference.  Therefore,
1.       Baptists support religious liberty for all, so that each may accept Christ willingly and without coercion.
2.       Baptists support the separation of church and state, lest the state mediate the terms for acceptable faith.
3.       Baptists keep church governance local in nature, so each congregation remains free to pursue its particular mission and ministry, steering its own course in cooperating with other organizations, secular and ecclesiastical.
4.       Baptists govern their congregations by democratic methods in order to preserve the freedom of each member of the body to speak on equal terms with other members as they corporately seek God’s guidance.
5.       Baptists baptize only those capable of personal accountability in their faith commitment, ruling out infant baptism.

A Christian congregation is Baptist to the extent it demonstrates these distinctive traits. Who are Baptists? Baptists are those who seek freedom to obey God directly and form their structures and processes accordingly.

Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, a graduate school of Mercer University. A Baptist by choice, Loyd is executive secretary/treasurer of the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society. You can contact him at allen_wl@mercer.edu.
For more read The Baptist Style for a New Century!