Some Baptists claim descent from the European Anabaptists, a movement, not a denomination, who later became Mennonites. Others claim John the Baptist as founder, but he was neither Christian nor Baptist. The first Baptist congregations of record were founded by two dissenting Anglican clergymen, John Smythe and Thomas Helwys, in The Netherlands and England respectively in the early 1600s.
The first Baptist congregation in America was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams in Rhode Island. But, due to internal conflicts, Williams moved on in six months. Wherever there are two Baptists, so the saying goes, you have three opinions — at least.
The Scots-Irish settlers who came into the Southeast after the Cherokee removal brought their Calvinist Presbyterian faith with them, but a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry was required to be educated at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey at Princeton. Geographical and financial realities excluded many young frontier men from the pulpit, but the new Baptist and Methodist denominations had no such requirement and quickly became the dominant churches on the frontier.
Two of my great grandfathers, Erasmus P. Reed, a Baptist farmer-preacher, and Francis Marion “Hoss” Roberts, a Methodist circuit rider, served various congregations in DeKalb County, Ala., in the mid-1800s.
Years before the slavery controversy divided the nation, it split the major Protestant denominations, with the exception of the Episcopalians, into Northern and Southern bodies. The Methodists and Presbyterians have since reunited, but so far the Baptists haven’t been led to do so.
Most Baptists today are conservative evangelicals and a significant number are biblical literalists, a position once used to support the South’s views on slavery. Today, some Baptists seem just as sure about what they think the Bible says about women’s place in the church as they were in 1845 about its teachings on slavery.
In 1995, to their everlasting credit, Southern Baptists renounced their racist past and apologized to African-Americans for their former defense of slavery. This year, the Southern Baptist Convention elected an African-American as its president. Will it take them another 150 years to change their policies concerning women’s place in the church?
The unmarried, celibate apostle Paul uncritically accepted the thinking and traditions of his day regarding the inferior status of women. But I know of few Baptist congregations today that heed Paul’s admonition against women speaking in church (1.Cor. 14:34-35). When it comes to obeying the literal word of the Scriptures, Baptists, like the rest of us, tend to pick and choose.
All Americans are deeply indebted to the Baptists for our religious freedoms. The Baptists of Virginia, long victims of orthodox tyranny, prodded James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” to include an anti-establishment clause in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
Baptists have always set a high standard in spreading, practicing and living the Gospel at home and abroad. But more than three decades ago, in a well-organized takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, fundamentalists and Biblical literalists began purging moderate professors and missionaries from denominational institutions. The SBC’s inimitable Cooperative Program suffered as a result.
With their unique congregational polity, however, Baptists can meet new challenges as they arise. Today, while their mainstream (Baptists vehemently deny being mainstream) Protestant brethren are losing members to the new house churches, megachurches and the unchurched, this great faith has the organizational wherewithal to survive, prevail and prosper.
George B. Reed, Jr. is retired from AT&T and a former history teacher in the Hamilton County school system. He lives in Fort Oglethorpe and can be reached at email@example.com or 706-858-3501.