Baptists have a rich history of faithfulness and fruitfulness for the cause of Christ. Baptists are a distinct group with a set of theological beliefs that set them apart from other Christian groups. Unfortunately, the term “Baptist” has lost much of its distinctiveness because groups of all sorts use it, even those who no longer subscribe to the historical theological viewpoint that first distinguished the Baptists.
What distinguishes Baptists from other Christian groups? Using the word BAPTISTS as an acrostic, we can briefly describe those distinctive theological positions that Baptists have historically subscribed to:
B – Bible is the sole authority for faith and practice
A – Autonomy (self-government) of the local church: the congregation governs itself without outside influence
P – Priesthood of the believer: every believer has direct access to God; no human priests are needed
T – Two church ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper
I – Individual soul liberty: every individual must maintain his own relationship with God
S – Saved church membership: only those who have professed personal faith in Christ may be a member of a church
T – Two church offices: pastor and deacon
S – Separation of church and state
Although various denominations and groups hold one or more of these distinctives, Baptist have historically held them all.
A Brief History of the Baptists
In recounting Baptist history, two main schools of thought exist. Some claim that the Baptists trace their lineage all the way back to the early church and can be found in non-conforming groups like the Donatists, Waldensens, Albigensees, Cathari, and other European non-Catholic groups. Shortly after the Middle Ages, similar Bible-believing groups were labeled as Ana-Baptists because they re-baptized their converts. The “ana” part of the name eventually fell off but the term “Baptist” stuck. So Baptists represent a group of Bible-believing separatists who existed outside the traditional (Roman Catholic) church from the time of the Apostles until now. Many Baptists hold this viewpoint while others disagree.
The other major viewpoint is that the Baptists descend from a group of English believers who separated from the Church of England in the 1600s. Catholics and some Protestants persecuted such separatist groups. The Pilgrims who came to America were a group of this type. Nonconformists were forced to leave England under Queen Elizabeth I, and many of them fled to Amsterdam. John Smyth formed the first English-speaking Baptist church in Holland. Eventually some of these Baptists returned to England and established Baptist churches. Some of these immigrated to America. LBC would affirm this understanding of Baptist history.
The story of the Baptists in America dates back to the early 1600s. Roger Williams was the son of Anglican (Church of England) parents, but he became a nonconformist and identified himself with the Puritans, who were hated in England. He arrived in America in 1631 and started a Baptist church in Rhode Island in 1639. At this time it was illegal and dangerous to dissent from the teachings of the Anglican Church. The early Baptists suffered persecution and ridicule from all sides. But persecution did not stop expansion, and within a few decades Baptist churches had spread through the northeast and into the south. By 1776, there were about 35,000 Baptists in America. The Baptist movement has spread worldwide. Baptist churches, missionaries, evangelists, and other organizations are rooted in most countries of the world. There are nearly 35 million Baptists around the world.