First Baptist, Second Baptist, American Baptist, Southern Baptist, General Baptist, Independent Baptist, Primitive Baptist – the list goes on and on. Just who are these groups, and where did they all come from? Do they believe the same things or get along with each other? Depending on whom you ask, the Baptist church can be the oldest of all traditions, or a newcomer hanging on the coattails of the Reformation. It can be the standard-bearer of old-time, orthodox doctrine or the breeding ground of heresy. The truth is that the answer depends on whether you are examining a particular group or the fundamental doctrines of that group. Each Baptist group can trace its history to a particular starting point as an organization, but the roots go back to the very beginning of the Christian faith.
Tracking down the origins of the Baptist Church in general is an exercise in ancient church history. From the days of the apostles, there was one Church of Jesus Christ, with a single body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The various local churches preached repentance and confession of sins, along with baptism by immersion as an outward sign of the new life in Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Under the authority of the apostles themselves as to doctrine, each church was independently governed by the leaders God placed in them. There was neither denominational hierarchy, nor distinction of “us/them” within the various churches. In fact, Paul soundly rebuked the Corinthians for such divisions (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). When disputes over sound doctrine arose, the apostles declared God’s teaching based on the words of the Lord and the Old Testament Scriptures. For at least 100 years, this model remained the standard for all churches. Thus, the characteristics that defined the earliest churches are the same that most Baptist churches identify with today.
Starting around A.D. 250, with the intense persecutions under Emperor Decius, a gradual change began to take place as the bishops (pastors) of certain notable churches assumed a hierarchical authority over the churches in their regions (e.g., the church of Rome). While many churches surrendered themselves to this new structure, there was a substantial number of dissenting churches who refused to come under the growing authority of the bishops. These dissenting churches were first called “Puritans” and are known to have had an influence as far as France in the 3rd century. As the organized church gradually adopted new practices and doctrines, the dissenting churches maintained their historical positions. The consistent testimony of the church for its first 400 years was to administer baptism to only those who first made a profession of faith in Christ. Starting in A.D. 401, with the fifth Council of Carthage, the churches under the rule of Rome began teaching and practicing infant baptism. As a result, the separatist churches began re-baptizing those who made professions of faith after having been baptized in the official church. At this time, the Roman Empire encouraged their bishops to actively oppose the dissenting churches, and even passed laws condemning them to death. The re-baptizers became known as Anabaptists, though the churches in various regions of the empire were also known by other names, such as Novatianists, Donatists, Albigenses, and Waldenses.
These Anabaptist congregations grew and prospered throughout the Holy Roman Empire, even though they were almost universally persecuted by the Catholic Church. By the Reformation, Martin Luther’s assistants complained that the Baptists in Bohemia and Moravia were so prevalent, they were like weeds. When John Calvin’s teachings became commonly known, many of the Waldenses united with the reformed church. Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonites, organized the scattered community of Dutch Baptist churches in 1536. From this point on, the various Anabaptist churches gradually lost their ancient names and assumed the name “Baptist,” though they retained their historic independence and self-rule. The first English Baptist church was founded in 1612 by Thomas Helwys and John Murton, who had come under the influence of the Dutch Puritans in Amsterdam. This group became known as General Baptists, for their Arminian belief in general atonement. Another English Baptist church was formed after a schism from Henry Jacob’s congregation in London in 1633. This group held a Calvinistic theology of particular atonement and became the main influence in the English Particular Baptist movement.
The first Baptist church in America was founded by Roger Williams in 1638. During the colonial and federal periods, the Baptist churches prospered and spread, while being only loosely organized as a fellowship. The first clear national organization was the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in 1814. This was called by Luther Rice to address the need of raising funds and workers to carry out the missionary mandate in foreign countries. Some Baptist churches resisted this missionary emphasis and became known as Primitive Baptists. When the Civil War broke out, the Baptists in the North and the South broke their fellowship and formed separate denominations. Today, there are at least 65 different Baptist associations or denominations in the United States. Some retain a strict autonomy for the local church, while others have more of a denominational structure. Some have very conservative views of doctrine and practice, while others are quite progressive and liberal. Even within some groups there is a wide divergence of practice, so it is hard to pin down exactly what they believe.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a denomination comprised of over 16 million members in over 42,000 churches in the United States. Individual church membership is typically a matter of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior and submitting to believer’s baptism by immersion. The SBC is considered to be an evangelistic, mission-minded church with a generally conservative doctrine which focuses on the fact that Jesus died for our sin, was buried, and then rose from the grave and ascended to heaven. Unlike some other denominations, the churches in the SBC generally identify themselves as independent, autonomous congregations which have voluntarily joined together for mutual support.
The American Baptist Church, USA, has roughly 1.3 million members and was formerly known as the Northern Baptist Convention, which formed after the split with the Southern Baptists. A key distinctive of the American Baptists is the freedom of the individual churches to have differing beliefs. The denomination’s unity is based on functional cooperation rather than doctrinal agreement. This practice led to a split in 1932, which resulted in the formation of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The GARBC holds a conservative doctrine and emphasizes evangelism and missionary work.
The name “Baptist” has come to mean many things to many people, and so can sometimes cause confusion. As with any other church, the name above the door isn’t as important as what is taught within. As we examine any church, we would do well to follow the example of the Berean believers in Acts 17:11, who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (KJV).