Ask some Baptists today (Southern, Northern, American, independent, hard-shell, soft-shell) about their origins and they will tell you their founder was John the Baptist. But John was neither Christian nor Baptist.
Others claim they came from the European Anabaptists (“re-baptizers.”) But Anabaptists were a movement among believing Catholics, not a denomination. Never a large group, many Anabaptists eventually became Mennonites.
Today’s Baptists trace their origins to John Smythe, an Anglican clergyman who founded a dissenting congregation in The Netherlands shortly after 1600, and Thomas Helwys who organized an Arminian/Baptist church in England around 1610. These were the first congregations to call themselves Baptists.
The Roman Catholic Church traditionally baptizes infants shortly after their birth to assure them a place in heaven should they die in infancy. But many Protestants believe that baptism should take place only after the individual has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Baptist congregations flourished in the North American Colonies through both immigration and conversion. Roger Williams, a Massachusetts Colony dissenter, left the established Anglican Church over theological differences in 1638 and founded a Colony and church in Rhode Island based on the baptism of believers only, the autonomy of the individual congregation and the independence of church from government.
Williams, however, never used the term “Baptist.” He not only understood human nature, he enjoyed a healthy mistrust of human claims to understanding the will and intent of God. Williams’ colony experienced a vigorous growth that included a mix of Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious minorities. But typically Baptist, some might say, as a result of growing controversies Williams soon moved on. Over the next half century Baptists enjoyed a vigorous growth throughout the Colonies, particularly in the south.
Most of the early settlers in our part of the country were Scotts-Irish, sometimes erroneously called “Scotch Irish.” Scotch is a whiskey or a tape. “Scottish or “Scotts,” is a people or dialect. Most American Scotts were originally Presbyterians who required an education at Princeton University in New Jersey for pastoral ordination. But because most young men on the frontier who were called to preach couldn’t afford a Princeton education, they became Baptists or Methodists, denominations less demanding in formal educational.
During the U.S. Constitutional Convention Virginia Baptists, feeling persecuted by the established Anglican Church, pressured their representative, James Madison, to introduce a separation of church and state amendment into the Constitution. And for the next half century personal salvation, church-state separation and freedom of individual conscience were governing principles of the Baptist faith. But in the 1830s and ’40s many northern churches began to support the anti-slavery movement.
In reaction, southern churches, largely Baptist, contended that the Holy Scriptures, when interpreted literally, supported the institution of slavery. After all, if God tells us in the Old Testament how to buy, sell, punish and generally treat slaves and Paul admonishes slaves to obey their masters in the New Testament, God must surely approve of slavery. And today, in addition to supporting anti-abortion and other restrictions based on scripture and doctrine, certain evangelical and fundamentalist churches have openly backed individual political candidates pledged to support their agenda. Church-state separation? My! How times have changed!
And, by the way, both my fraternal grandfather and great-grandfather were Baptist ministers.