Ask Baptists — Southern, Northern, American, independent, hard-shell, soft-shell et. al. — about their origins and some will say their founder was John the Baptist. But John was neither Christian nor Baptist. And some seminaries teach that Baptists are descended from the European Anabaptists (re-baptizers). But the Anabaptists were a movement, not a denomination. And most of them 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 on record to have called themselves Baptists.
The Roman Catholic and some Protestant Churches traditionally baptize infants shortly after their birth to assure them a place in heaven should they die in infancy. But most Baptists believe that baptism should take place only after the individual has had a spiritual conversion and has accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Baptist congregations flourished in the early American Colonies through both immigration and conversion. Roger Williams, a Massachusetts Colony dissenting Anglican, left the established Church 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 complete independence from government.
But Williams’ followers never used the term “Baptist.” He also had an uncanny understanding of human nature and 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 Baptizers, Quakers, Jews and other religious minorities. Typically Baptist, 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 to the American South were Scotts-Irish, sometimes called “Scotch-Irish.” But Scotch is a whiskey or a tape and “Scottish” or “Scotts,” is a people or dialect. Most Scotts were 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 had neither the time nor money for a degree from Princeton, many became Baptists, a denomination requiring less formal education.
During the U.S. Constitutional Convention, Virginia Baptists, feeling persecuted by the established Episcopal Church, pressured their representative James Madison to introduce a separation of church and state provision into the Constitution. Personal salvation, church-state separation, and baptism of believers only were the defining principles of the Baptist faith back then as they are today.
In the 1830s and ’40s many northern churches began to support the antislavery movement. In reaction, many southern churches contended that the Holy Scriptures, when interpreted literally, supported the institution of slavery. If God tells us in the Old Testament how to buy, sell, punish and treat slaves and the Apostle Paul admonished slaves to obey their masters in the New Testament, God must surely approve of slavery, right? But after over 150 years, to their everlasting credit, the Southern Baptist Convention finally apologized to African Americans for its former racist pronouncements on slavery and segregation. Will it take them another 150 years to apologize to women for denying them an equal role in the church?