The History of the Baptist Church

Baptists are one of the largest Christian denominations today. The name comes from their belief that only professing believers can go through baptism through immersion (believer’s baptism), as opposed to some other Christian churches that believe in infant baptism. This article takes a look at the history of the church.

US Religion Map

Beginnings of the General Baptists

While some Baptists will say that the roots of their church goes back to Jesus and his apostles, it is widely believed and recognized that their origins can be traced to the 16th century, right around the time of the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church, followed by the Reformation, and then the separation of other believers from the Church of England itself. Those who left the Church of England (called Separatists) and formed their own congregations did so because of their belief that the Church of England committed errors and abuses with regards to their doctrines, and argued that Jesus Christ was the head of their church, not the King and/or the Queen.

However, the division of the group didn’t stop there. A militant group was formed that called themselves the Puritans, because they believed that the Bible (and not creeds and Church tradition) was the sole authority and should be followed by people for the purity of doctrine and practice. John Smyth, the man who would become the founder of the earliest Baptist church, who was raised as a member of the Church of England who eventually became a Puritan and a Separatist.

At the beginning, he would meet up with 60 to 70 fellow English Separatists. However, because of the persecution of religious nonconformists in England, Smyth and his followers fled to Amsterdam, where he founded the first Baptist church in 1609. It was in Amsterdam that the group came in contact with Mennonites (or Anabaptists), who introduced to them the concept of believers baptism. Smyth eventually came to believe that this was the only valid form of baptism, saying that only those who have made a personal choice to be a follower of Christ can be baptized in the faith, furthermore saying that infant baptism is invalid. His beliefs led him to write a tract he called “The Character of the Beast or The False Constitution of the Church”, where he stated his propositions. Because of this mindset, he baptized himself as well as the other members of the church he founded, also in 1609. However, Smyth later on began doubting the validity of his self-baptism, and he soon left the church he founded to join the Mennonites and left the reigns to Thomas Helwys, one of his supporters. Helwys eventually led some of the old congregation back to London in 1611, and he was the one who eventually started the first Baptist church in England in 1612. Baptist practice eventually spread throughout England, and there were about 47 churches that were built in the country by 1650. Four years later, a national assembly of Baptists was held.

The Particular Baptists and the General Baptists

While there are different Baptist congregations today, the denomination’s believers are actually divided into two categories: the Particular Baptists and the General Baptists. The General Baptists, whose beliefs stem from the teachings of John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and the other early founders of the church as well as the Mennonites, believe that God’s grace is equated with love. According to their beliefs, God loves all persons and that Jesus Christ died for everyone, so those who accept the grace in their lives can enter into an eternal and loving relationship and fellowship with God, while those who reject it will effectively condemn themselves. The Particular Baptists, on the other hand, believe in predestination. Believing in John Calvin’s teachings about limited atonement, they follow the mindset that Jesus Christ only died for the people who have been predestined to be redeemed and saved. Particular Baptists are usually those who trace their line of descent from the Reformation period, although they were only officially formed a generation after the General Baptists.

The Baptist Church in the United States

The Baptist denomination also spread in the United States in the same way that it spread in England. Roger Williams and John Clarke are the ones credited for founding the first Baptist churches in North America, with Williams founding a church in Providence, Rhode Island in 1639 and Clarke one in Newport, Rhode Island. The Great Awakening during the mid-18th century saw the massive spread of the Baptist faith in the United States. Within a few years since the first two Baptist churches were founded, more emerged throughout the different states. Eventually, the Baptists became the largest Christian community, particularly in the southern states, and were also popular among the black population. However, a split soon occurred among the Baptist believers with the founding of the Southern Baptist convention, particularly with the significant differences in terms of doctrines and theology of the northern and southern Baptists. The split widened in 1845, with the congregations debating over three sensitive issues that affected the population: slavery, doctrinal integrity, and missions, with the northern congregations against the southern congregation’s owning of slaves, eventually attempting to take steps in order to prevent those who own slaves from participating in missions. Meanwhile, the southern congregations were also wary of the northern congregation’s liberalism, particularly with regard to the virgin birth, as well as the divinity of Jesus. These issues caused animosity between the northern and southern congregations. The American civil war eventually led to another split in the Baptist churches in the United States, with the black population setting up their own congregations separate from the white churches. By 1895, the National Baptist Convention was held, which was composed of 8 million, effectively making it the largest African-American religious organization, as well as coming second to the Southern Baptist Convention in terms of size.

Even today, hundreds of years since the first Baptist church was founded by exiles in Amsterdam, the Baptists remain true to their original goal, which is to proclaim and stand true to the doctrines of the Bible and to declare the faith to other people from all places and cultures.

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