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The Baptists are a loose grouping of different Protestant Christian denominations and individual churches in the United States, the United Kingdom and worldwide. Their primary theological connection is their belief that baptism is unnecessary for salvation, and that baptisms happen only once the individual is old enough to understand their commitment to God. Beyond that, individual baptist groups share little.
Historians trace the earliest Baptist church back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with John Smyth as its pastor. Smythe is rare among religious founders in that he died waiting to join another religion, the Mennonites.
Because the term "Baptist" is so general, and because there is no single association or alliance, it is difficult to estimate how many Baptists there are in the world. It is estimated that there are 45-50 million baptists in the Baptist World Alliance, but that alliance does not include the single biggest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Attempts to add up the various self-identified "Baptist" churches leads to numbers in the 100 millions, making Baptists one of the largest Protestant denominations. Some Baptists do not regard themselves as Protestant.
Types of Baptists
Since there is no single Baptist origination or synod, theological and social views range from nearly liberal to extremely conservative. The largest (and best known) denomination within the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention, formed in the early 1850s from a regional split with northern baptists due to disagreements over slavery. The American Baptist Association is a somewhat more moderate Baptist denomination. Smaller denominations include the largely black National Baptist Convention, the fundamentalist Bible Baptist Fellowship, the Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists, the Calvinist Primitive Baptists, Regular Baptists, and, also significant, the fundamentalist, unaffiliated independent Baptist movements which think all the other Baptists are too "liberal"; there is even the Westboro Baptist Church. The lack of cohesion among, and animosity between, Baptist groups is the subject of a widely-told joke.
In England, the first Baptist Church was founded in 1612. For a long time, the movement was divided between General Baptists (who believed Jesus died for everyone) and Calvinist-influenced Particular Baptists (sorry, elect only), although in the 19th century. these differences lessened. Since its foundation in 1891 from General and Particular groups, the dominant body has been the Baptist Union of Great Britain, informally known under the brand name Baptists Together; it is primarily active in England and Wales (not northern parts of Great Britain). The Baptist Union is opposed to gay marriage, and while it accepts celibate gay clergy, it regards "homosexual genital practice" as gross misconduct for ministers.
Baptist churches became active in Scotland in the 18th century. The Baptist Union of Scotland is the umbrella body in Scotland, although it has no real power or doctrinal authority, and individual churches are free to do more or less what they like; it was founded in 1869 as a union of the more and less Calvinist strains of Baptism. Most Scottish Baptist churches are in the mainstream of Christianity with song and music in worship, a belief in free will against predestination, a commitment to ecumenicalism, and doctrinal vagueness. The Scottish Baptist College is based in the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley.
One belief that unites Baptists is the idea that baptism should happen only when an individual is old enough to profess his/her faith openly and sincerely. Though there is no single agreed upon age, traditions generally follow the idea of a rite of passage into adulthood, during puberty.
Baptists follow all mainstream Christianity in accepting monotheism, the virgin birth, the trinity, atonement of sins through Jesus's death and resurrection, and final judgement. Baptists do not believe in creeds, only in confessions of faith, with the primary principal preventing any orthodox or liturgical authority other than the individual church. From the 1970s onward, there has been a general trend towards biblical supremacy and Biblical literalism. That is to say, all actions (especially religious ones) must have their direct roots in the Bible. It is not enough to say "the Bible does not prohibit infant baptism," but to show that the Bible exclusively addressed adult baptism.
Baptists believe that all religion is a matter directly between God and the individual. In theory, no Baptist can be excommunicated from the church in any way, though they might be shunned by individual members. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, for example, cannot be excommunicated, though many may shun him. The WBC seems to have gone right on ahead anyhow.
One of the earliest baptist preachers, John Smyth, believed true prayer came spontaneously from the heart as song, forbidding anyone from sinning by reading the Bible in church. This sentiment continues in many Baptist churches today.
In the media
- See O Brother Where Art Thou? (Coen & Coen) for a particularly stirring trip "down to the riverside", along with many other great songs and general hilarity.
- In Matewan (a good film about striking West Virginia miners), the two churches in town are "the Missionary folks, they's the hard-shell Baptists, and there's the Free Will folks, which is your soft-shell Baptists."
- The People vs. Larry Flynt has two good Baptist students at Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist College breaking the news to the good reverend that Falwell has been parodied in an issue of Hustler. The question is, what were these two good Baptist boys doing with an issue of Hustler?
- Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty is a moderate Baptist group supporting the traditional Baptist separation of church and state, and countering "culture warriors" who want to rewrite America's history as a "Christian nation". While not secularist, some good material.
- Gourley, Bruce. "A Very Brief Introduction to Baptist History, Then and Now." The Baptist Observer.
- See the Wikipedia article on List of founders of religious traditions.
- Baptist churches
- The Baptists: Our Beliefs and Practices
- Emo Philips - Golden Gate Bridge
- Baptist Churches, BBC Religions, 2009-06-25
- See the Wikipedia article on Baptists Together.
- Baptists Together and Registration of Buildings for Same-Sex Marriage, Baptists Together, 2016
- Ministerial Recognition Rules, Baptists Together, October 2019
- History, Scottish Baptist College, accessed 12 Feb 2020
- Lee, Jason (2003). The Theology of John Smyth: Puritan, Separatist, Baptist, Mennonite. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0-86554-760-2.