People Called Baptists
Baptists can trace their history back to the 1600s in England during a time when individuals and groups were seeking political and religious freedom. Many of these early British Baptists came to America in the seventeenth century, settling mainly in New England, amidst the Puritans who had themselves fled England because of religious persecution.
Baptists soon discovered, however, that those once persecuted (the Puritans) could themselves become the persecutors. Thus, certain Baptist leaders - Roger Williams, John Clark, and others - ran afoul of New England law which demanded the baptizing of infants and acceptance of the state church. As a result, Baptist growth was curtailed in New England with the majority of these "dissenters" moving into the middle colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In 1707, the first Baptist association in America was formed in Philadelphia, later giving birth to a type of national Baptist convention.
Early Baptist work was difficult. There were few churches, even fewer Bibles, and almost no religious literature. Most Baptist preachers were of an itinerate nature and virtually none of them could have been considered "full time" ministers.
Religious freedom to a Baptist means not only freedom from state control and the legal right to worship but also freedom of local congregations, associations, state and national conventions. In a very real sense, no one Baptist can speak on matters of religion for another Baptist. (Needless to say, no association or convention can speak for a local church or its members.)
In addition to an insistence on freedom, Baptists have for the most part been a very cooperative people. As Robert C. Torbert points out in A History of Baptists (page 72) "...from the beginning Baptists were not 'Independent'; they always sought fellowship between the different churches, and they were very successful in arranging for permanent organizations." Baptist cooperation, therefore, is based on the voluntary support of missions, education, and benevolences rather than on the demands of creedal statements and articles of faith.
Baptists are also held together by certain general doctrines:
- Acceptance of the Bible as a source of faith and guide for church procedure as well as a standard for personal life;
- Necessity for a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, followed by baptism by immersion as a symbol of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection;
- Strong belief in the priesthood of all believers and the right of every individual to approach God for himself and to interpret Scripture for himself;
- Strong belief in the work of the Holy Spirit as he directs believer into a fuller understanding of the Bible and God's will;
- Strong belief in the autonomy of the local church as a group of voluntarily associated believers who come together regularly for worship, Christian nurture, a religious education, mission support; and
- A similar belief in autonomy for all areas of Baptist life beyond the local church, that is, associations, state and national conventions, and international organizations (e.g., Baptist World Alliance).
Most Baptist churches, as they were organized, adopted some statement of faith - such as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith or the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. The important point is that it is the local church, not the district association or state or national convention, which adopts the statement of faith.
True to Baptist heritage and New Testament belief, the local church is where matters of doctrine and church practice are to be discussed, debated, and adopted. The Southern Baptist Convention, in 1925 and again in 1963 and 2000, adopted a statement of faith as a general expression of belief of the majority of the messengers attending those three conventions. Many churches, pastors and missionaries have chosen to follow the 1963 statement.
Adapted from Baptist State Convention of North Carolina at work in the 1970s, by W. Perry Crouch, 1974.