The modern Baptist movement began in 17th-century England. Separatists, unable to “purify” the Church of England, broke from the puritans and advocated separation from the state church (see church and state ). Among them were those who became convinced that infant baptism* was contrary to scripture. In 1607, to avoid persecution, a group led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys left Gainsborough, England, for Holland, where freedom of religion was flourishing. There, after further study of scripture, the whole congregation rejected their infant baptism and were baptized as believers in 1608. In 1611 Helwys and ten others returned to London to establish the first Baptist church on English soil.

During their stay in Holland these early Baptist believers had contact with the Mennonites,* who had also become convinced of the scriptural basis for believers’ baptism. The Mennonites and others were called Anabaptists, because they were accused of re-baptism – a charge they rejected because they did not consider infant baptism to be scriptural baptism. Thus, although not directly related to the Anabaptists, Baptists count this 17th-century movement as part of their spiritual history, and the rise of the Baptist movement must be seen in this context. With the rediscovery of the Bible through the Reformation, many former Catholic priests became even more radical than Luther in calling for reform. Seeing the danger of the union of church and state, they called for separation not only from the church but also from the state. Many, such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel of Switzerland, were persecuted, and some were killed for their convictions. Other representatives of this Nonconformist tradition of opposition to state control and infant baptism include the Waldensians of Italy, who trace their origins back to the 12th century.

Out of this small group of English Baptists, who were part of a spiritual movement for renewal, separation of church and state, believers’ baptism, and a purified, conscious adult commitment to personal belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, a worldwide movement has developed. Today there are 42 million Baptist believers in 160 countries; if one includes children and the larger community of worshippers, they would number at least 65 million more, making the Baptists one of the largest Protestant groups in the world.


Baptist beliefs

In common with Christians around the world, Baptists hold the apostolic faith as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed.* Although Baptists have many “confessions of faith”, they hesitate to sign or quote a creed* because of their great concern for the freedom of the individual. The Baptist beliefs listed here are shared by many other churches; it is the combination of them which is distinctively Baptist.

In 1612 Helwys wrote that the king of England “is but an earthly king…: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” Baptists defend religious freedom and liberty for all people in every country. The American Baptist Roger Williams wrote in the 1650s: “Man hath no power to make laws to bind conscience.” Having suffered much religious persecution, Baptists are anxious to defend the rights of all peoples and religions.

A natural corollary of religious freedom is the separation of church and state. A.C. Underwood notes that the Anabaptists, in urging complete separation of church and state, “denied the right of the state to compel belief or regulate religion and therefore exercised their own discipline over their members, by the democratic action of each congregation, and excommunicated all who were guilty of grave moral offences”. This doctrine is one of the great contributions of this tradition to church unity* and thus to the ecumenical movement; without it, governments would become entangled in trying to control efforts towards church unity.

Many of the more credal churches do not invite Christians of other traditions to their celebrations of the Lord’s supper (see communion, eucharist, intercommunion ); for Baptists the only requirement is personal faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1673 the English Baptist John Bunyan wrote: “The church of Christ hath no warrant to keep out of the communion the Christian that is discovered to be a visible saint of the word, the Christian that walketh according to his own light with God.”

One cannot speak of a single national or world Baptist church. There are thousands of Baptist congregations around the world which are gathered into conventions or unions of Baptist churches. It is the Baptist belief that the local congregation is the Body of Christ in that area, but it does not reserve the right to call itself the church of any region or country, or of the world (see local church ). Nevertheless, individual Baptist congregations form district associations, state and national conventions to enhance their missionary endeavours. The Baptist World Alliance* (BWA) is the world expression which unites Baptists in 160 countries for fellowship and witness.

Morgan Patterson has summarized the “Baptist way” in ten points: (1) the essence of the Christian faith is spiritual, personal and voluntary; (2) the scriptures are uniquely inspired and authoritative; (3) the church is composed of committed believers; (4) salvation is provided by the grace of God and is available to everyone through repentance and faith; (5) all believers are priests, with no intermediary other than Christ himself; (6) the scriptures command the observance of two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s supper, which are understood to be basically symbolic in meaning; (7) baptism is properly performed by the biblical mode of immersion; (8) the authority for the administration of the church is in the hands of the congregation; (9) religious freedom should be given to all to enable each person to respond to the leadership of the Holy Spirit; (10) the separation of church and state best guarantees liberty of conscience for every citizen.

Significant Baptists who have worked for church unity include John Bunyan, the author of, who did not want any bar to participation in the Lord’s supper. William Carey, who went to India in 1793, has been called the father of modern missions and (by Ernest Payne) the father of the ecumenical movement. As early as 1810, Carey urged an ecumenical meeting representing all Christians, although it was not until a hundred years later, at Edinburgh in 1910, that this “pleasant dream” was realized. In more recent times, Billy Graham has represented the strong Baptist concern for world evangelization; all of his meetings are interdenominational and demonstrate a strong expression of evangelical ecumenism. Martin Luther King, Jr, carried on the strong tradition of Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel. Baptists believe that the Christian mission includes a call for justice and human rights for all. Numerous other outstanding Baptists who have contributed to the world missionary movement and wider witness of the Christian church could be mentioned: Johann Oncken, John Clifford, Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lott Carey, J.H. Shakespeare, Ernest Payne and Jimmy Carter.

Baptists and unity

While eager to cooperate with other Christians in mission* and evangelism,* Baptists’ congregational polity makes them wary of structural integration (see church order ). Some Baptists are critical of the World Council of Churches as “too political”. Nevertheless, more than 20 Baptist conventions or unions are members of the WCC. While this represents only a small percentage of the 188 Baptist groups in the BWA, these 16 bodies account for about 45% of the 42 million Baptists in the world. Baptists in the WCC feel a responsibility for keeping alive the missionary concern out of which the WCC grew. It should be noted that only about 8000 of the 45,000 Protestant missionaries from the USA come from WCC member churches; many of the rest come from Baptist backgrounds.

An early theme of the ecumenical movement was “mission and unity”. Baptists represent this strain within the ecumenical movement, whether expressed in the WCC or in the evangelical ecumenical movement of the Lausanne congress (see Lausanne covenant ). Recent emphases on “mission and doctrine” sound divisive to Baptist ears. Where there is need for cooperation for evangelism and mission, Baptists will be involved. Where there is a call for structural unity or doctrinal unity, Baptists, mindful of their heritage, will be hesitant to join.


n W.H. Brackney, The Baptists , Westport CT, Greenwood, 1988 n H.L. McBeth, The Baptist Heritage , Nashville TN, Broadman, 1987 n R.A. Torbet, A History of the Baptists , rev. ed., Philadelphia, Judson, 1973.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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