- Baptists constitute one of the largest Free Church movements within the Protestant community. Their theological origins can be traced back to Anabaptists/Mennonites of the early Reformation, but their history really begins as a small fringe of the Puritan movement in 17th-century England.Puritanism arose early in the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603). Elizabeth had imposed the via media (middle way) on the Church of England as a compromise between what she perceived to be the best of Roman Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism, appointing bishops to govern the state church. In reaction, many Protestants who would accept nothing less than complete reform set up their own independent movements to pursue the goal of a "purified" church (hence the name Puritans). The largest group favored Presby-terianism - the leadership of the church by elders (presbyters). Another group advocated Congregationalism, which favored a church built of autonomous congregations. One radical faction of Puritans advocated complete separation from the state; the church, they believed, should be composed only of adults who made a profession of faith and were subsequently baptized.The first person to publicly advocate this position was John Smyth (c. 1570-1612), a graduate of Cambridge and an Anglican priest. After his views got him into trouble in England, he founded a Baptist church in the Netherlands (1609). Thomas Helwys, who was with smyth in Holland, established the first Baptist church in England three years later. These churches were not Calvinist in doctrine. They agreed with Jacob Arminius that Christ's death had atoned for everyone's sins, not just those of the elect; furthermore, everyone was free to believe in Christ. The smyth and Hel-wys congregations are generally looked upon as the parents of the General or Free Will Baptists.The Calvinist Baptists, on the other hand, grew out of a separatist Calvinist congregation founded in 1616 by Henry Jacob in the southwark section of London. Sometime in the next two decades, the congregation split over the issue of infant baptism. It appears that a church of Calvinist faith practicing adult baptism was operating in London by 1634. It was called a Particular Baptist church for its belief that Christ offered a particular atonement, that is, he died just for the elect, who were predestined to believe in him. The label Baptist was coined by critics of the movement, but by the late 17th century believers were calling themselves by that name.Both the General and Particular Baptists came to believe that baptism should be by immersion. This was an English innovation; their Mennonite associates in Holland generally baptized by sprinkling or pouring.Quite early in their history, General Baptists began to form regional associations for fellowship between congregations; in 1654 they created a National Assembly with limited authority over local congregations. The assembly experienced a schism in 1699 over the unitarian views of some leaders (denying the deity of Christ and hence the Trinity). The more conservative believers formed the General Baptist Association. A reunion occurred in 1731, but General Baptists were in decline until Dan Taylor (1738-1816), a convert from Methodism (which held similar theological views), brought new life to the movement, helping to found the New Connection of General Baptists in 1770, which absorbed many General Baptist churches (others moving into the unitarian fold).Particular Baptists were much slower in creating national organs, although they were able to unite over doctrinal issues. In 1644, seven Particular Baptist congregations in the London area published an initial Confession of Faith. By 1677, after the movement had spread throughout England, a second London Confession was printed, anonymously. Immediately following the Act of Toleration of 1689, some 107 congregations gathered to formally adopt the Confession of 1677. It has become the most popular statement worldwide of the Calvinist Baptist position.The emergence of a hard-line Calvinist (sometimes called hyper-Calvinist) minority got in the way of any further unity. These Baptists understood God's election to mean they should not address the Gospel to anyone outside the church, who might not be of the elect. Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) revived the evangelistic impulse among Particular Baptists, which eventually led to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society (1792). The enthusiasm generated by the missionary endeavor led in 1813 to the formation of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the first national organization of Particular Baptists.over the 19th century, Particular and General Baptists cooperated on a growing number of endeavors; in 1891, they merged, and the Baptist Union continued as the agency of both. Meanwhile, through the Baptist Missionary Society, the movement had been carried worldwide, especially throughout the British Empire.The Baptist movement in North America goes back to Roger Williams, the New England dissenter. Williams adopted Baptist views after leaving Massachusetts and founding his separatist colony in Providence, Rhode island. The first Baptist church in what became the United States was established there in 1639. Though Williams remained a Baptist for only a short time, the church continued under other pastors.A second Baptist congregation, in Newport, Rhode island, emerged among the followers of Anne Hutchinson, who first set up a church in Newport in 1639. Hutchinson withdrew two years later in a doctrinal dispute - she argued for the authority of the inner light, while fellow Massachusetts exile John Clarke stressed the authority of Scripture. Through the 1640s, Clarke's church became distinctly Baptist in faith and practice; it split along Particular-General lines in the 1660s, with one group leaving to found the first General Baptist Church in America.In 1688, Elias Keach formed a Baptist church in an irish suburb of Philadelphia. An earlierPennsylvania Baptist congregation did not survive. Keach became the major evangelist for the Baptist cause in the region for the next generation. Baptists appeared in South Carolina about this time, though evidence is sparse. Recorded Baptist history in the South begins when a group from Maine moved to Charleston around 1696.Both General and Particular Baptists drew strength from the First Great Awakening in the 1740s, sparked largely by the preaching of George Whitefield. As the revival proceeded, the growing Particular Baptist community divided into Regular Baptists, many from Congregational backgrounds, who rejected the emotional displays characteristic of the revival meetings, and Separate Baptists, who embraced the revivals. Isaac Backus (1724-1806) emerged as the leading spokesperson of the Separate Baptists. General Baptists tended to divide into Free-Will Baptists and Six-Principle Baptists; the latter emphasized the six principles they found in Hebrews 6: 1-2.in the 19th century, both General and Particular Baptists, who had already formed a number of regional associations, moved toward national association. Foreign missionary zeal was the catalyst among Particular Baptists, especially following the conversion of two Congregationalist missionaries to the Baptist faith. in 1814, one of the missionaries returned to America and organized the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in America. Subsequently, a publishing unit and a Home Missionary Society were created. What became the American Baptist Churches U.S.A. developed when these three organizations began meeting jointly in the 1820s. in 1845, the Baptists split over the slavery issue, and the Southern churches formed the Southern Baptist Convention, whose central offices would assume most of the functions of those agencies that remained in the hands of the Northern Baptists. By the last half of the 20th century, the Southern Baptist Convention had become the largest Protestant body in North America.Almost all the 50-plus Baptist denominations in America are outgrowths of either the American Baptist Churches U.S.A. or the Southern Baptist Convention. Several of those emerged as a result of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. Older groups include the Primitive Baptists, who emerged in the 1820s in opposition to the organizations then being formed. Even earlier, in the 17th century, a few Baptists in New England had accepted SABbatarianism and formed a Seventh-day Baptist fellowship.The great majority of Baptist churches worldwide can trace their existence to either the Baptist Missionary Society of Britain or the two major Baptist fellowships headquartered in the United States. German Baptists, inheritors of a different tradition, were responsible for the spread of Baptist churches through eastern Europe and the lands of the former Soviet Union.Most Baptist churches worldwide are members of the Baptist World Alliance.Further reading:■ W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1969)■ H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, Tenn.: Broad-man Press, 1987)■ Albert W. Wardin, ed., Baptists Around the World: A Comprehensive Handbook (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1995).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.