A Brief Look At Baptist History
Baptists traditionally trace their origins to various groups of Christians in England who initially were trying to bring reformation to the Church of England in the early 1600s. One group trying to bring reform within the English church were called Congregationalists. This group questioned the viability of having the church governed by the state, but welcomed the protection of the church by the state through legislation and the financial support of the church by the state through taxation. They also rejected the Church of Englands belief that everyone in a given geographical parish were automatically members of the church. Congregationalists believed that only those who could testify to their own Christian experience should be members of a local congregation.
Another group of Christians that initially sought reform of the English church were called Separatists. Like the Congregationalists, Separatists believed that church membership should be given only to those who could testify to their own Christian experience. Like the Congregationalists, Separatists believed that the church should not be governed by the state. However, Separatists differed in two dramatic ways from Congregationalists. First, they believed that local congregations should be completely separate from governmental control, and should receive neither financial support nor any other overt protections from the government. Second they rejected infant baptism stating that only believers should be baptized and be allowed to become members of a local church.
It is from the combination of these two strands of thought that Baptists would eventually emerge on the scene in the early 1600s. One early advocate of this combined Separatist/Congregational thought was Pastor John Smyth an Anglican Priest. He was originally the founder of a separatist congregation in Amsterdam, but through his leadership the congregation evolved into a congregation that reflected the influence of both separatist and congregational thinking. Smyth is largely recognized as one of the founding fathers of the Baptist body of faith. Another early pioneer of Baptist thought was Thomas Helwys. Influenced by Smyth and later baptized by him, Helwys would eventually become pastor of the first recognized Baptist congregation in England. Helwys, was also greatly influenced by the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius and his strong beliefs on free will. As Helwys brought leadership to this new movement he added to the Baptist evolutionary process by also becoming a strong advocate of free will and by advocating that Christs death on the cross was sufficient to save all human beings.
In time there arose more and more local congregations that combined the beliefs of the Separatists and the Congregationalists. Beliefs in these congregations continued to evolve as baptism in these congregations now was carried out only by immersion. By the year 1640 these congregations were commonly being referred to as Baptist Churches because of their strong beliefs about baptism.
While the church of England was slowly giving birth to Baptist congregations in England, the church of England in the new world (America) was also experiencing a similar evolution. Roger Williams an ordained Anglican priest was one of many clergymen in the new world who were also strongly influenced by Separatist and Congregational beliefs and practices. In 1629, Williams formally disavowed the church of England stating that it was a false church and in time he would start his own congregation in Providence. It was this congregation that is largely recognized as the first Baptist congregation in the new world. But others would quickly follow. John Clarke a pastor and physician would become the founder of the second Baptist congregation in the new world. Clarkes congregation was birthed in Newport Rhode Island in the year 1644. As settlers moved west and south through the colonies, as revivals took place, more and more Baptist congregations were born in the new world. In the year 1700, there were only 24 Baptist churches organized in the new world consisting of about 830 members, but by the end of the century, Baptists had grown to be the largest organized church in American. As a body of faith Baptist denominations and local churches are still growing today. Currently those who call themselves Baptist make up the second largest body of believers in the United States.
As Baptists congregations sought to strengthen their mission outreach they have joined together in voluntary associations and conventions with other Baptist congregations to do ministry. For example in 1845 Baptists congregations in the south would join together in a voluntary union to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Today this convention in the United States is the largest union of Baptist churches with a membership of over 16 million members. In 1895 black Baptist congregations finding expanding life of their own after emancipation would come together to form the National Baptist Convention of America. In 1907 Baptist congregations in the north would also come together to form the Northern Baptist Convention, later in 1950 this Convention would become the American Baptist Convention. As the American Baptist Convention continued to evolve and grow, in the year 1972 once again it would change its name becoming the American Baptist Churches in the USA.