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A Baptist is a Christian who subscribes to a theology which are committed to believer's baptism by immersion (as opposed to infant baptism and affusion and sprinkling) and favors the congregational model of church polity. A Baptist church is a local congregation composed of Baptist people and committed to Baptist principles. A Baptist association is a group of Baptist churches and individuals which fellowship and work together in Christian endeavors.

There is a wide variety of doctrine and practice among Baptists owing to divergent origins of the various Baptist movements as well as diverse influences on the Baptists over the years. Through the years, different Baptist groups have issued confessions of faith to express their peculiar doctrinal distinctions from other Christian denominations as well as other Baptists. Baptist groups also have been characterized by local church autonomy and a disavowal of authoritative creeds, acknowledging the Scriptures alone as the authoritative rule of faith and practice.


The term Baptist comes from the Greek word (baptistés, "baptist," also used to describe John the Baptist), which is related to the verb (baptízo, "to baptize, wash, dip, immerse"), and the Latin baptista, and is in direct connection to "the Baptizer," John the Baptist.

The term Baptist as applied to the Baptist churches is a modification of the term Anabaptist (which means rebaptizer, though the Anabaptists ever disavowed that they practiced rebaptism and baptized those who were baptized in infancy because they considered infant baptism a nullity)..

The English Anabaptists were called Baptists as early as 1569.. The name Anabaptist continued to be applied to English and American Baptists up to the 19th century at least. Into the 19th century the term Baptist was used as a general epithet for churches which denied the validity of infant baptism, including the Campbellites, Mennonites, Brethren and others which are not normally identified with modern day Baptists

Baptist associations

Most Baptist churches choose to associate with associational groups that provide fellowship without control. The largest Baptist association is the Southern Baptist Convention but there are many other Baptist associations. There are also autonomous churches that remain independent of any denomination, organization, or association.

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) is an umbrella group that embraces many Baptist associations from around the world. Though it played a role in the founding of the BWA, the Southern Baptist Convention severed its affiliation with BWA in 2004.



Baptists number over 110 million worldwide in more than 220,000 congregations and are considered the largest world communion of evangelical Protestants with an estimated 38 million members in North America. Large populations of Baptists also exist in Asia, Africa and Latin America, notably in Indiamarker (2.4 million), Nigeriamarker (2.5 million), Democratic Republic of the Congomarker (DRC) (1.9 million), and Brazilmarker (1.7 million).

According to a poll in the 1990s, about one in five Christians in the United States claims to be a Baptist. U.S. Baptists are represented in more than fifty separate groups. Ninety-two percent of Baptists are found in five of those bodies — the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC); National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; (NBCA); American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC); and Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI).


The primary external qualification for membership in a Baptist church is baptism. General Baptist churches will accept into membership people who have made a profession of faith but have not been baptized as a believer. These are included as members alongside baptized members in the statistics. Some Baptist churches do not have an age restriction on membership, but will not accept as a member a child who is considered too young to fully understand and make a profession of faith of their own volition and comprehension. In such cases, the pastor and parents usually meet together with the child to verify the child's comprehension of the decision to follow Jesus. There are instances where persons make a profession of faith but fail to follow through with believers' baptism. In such cases they are considered saved and usually eligible for membership. Baptists do not believe that baptism has anything to do with salvation. It is considered a public expression of one's inner repentance and faith.

Baptists believe that the act of baptism is a symbolic display of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. When a person who has already been saved and confessed Christ submits to scriptural baptism, he or she is publicly identifying with Christ in His death to old self, burial of past sinful thought and action, and resurrection in newness of life, to walk with Christ the remainder of their days.

Some churches, especially in the UK, do not require members to have been baptized as a believer, so long as they have made a believer's declaration of faith—for example, been confirmed in the Anglican church, or become communicant members as Presbyterians. In these cases, believers would usually transfer their memberships from their previous churches. This allows people who have grown up in one tradition, but now feel settled in their local Baptist church, to fully take part in the day to day life of the church, voting at meetings, etc. It is also possible, but unusual, to be baptized without becoming a church member immediately.

Baptist beliefs and principles

Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority (See Autonomy in BAPTIST Acrostic Below). Therefore, beliefs are not totally consistent from one Baptist church to another, especially beliefs that may be considered minor. However, on major theological issues, Baptist distinctive beliefs are held in common among almost all Baptist churches. Most Baptist churches are members of regional Associations of Baptist Churches, and as such, will subscribe to a centrally agreed Basis of Faith.

Baptists share many orthodox Christian beliefs with other Christian denominations. These would include beliefs about one God; the virgin birth; miracles; atonement through the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus; the Trinity; the need for salvation (through belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, his death and resurrection, and confession of Christ as Lord); grace; the Kingdom of God; last things (Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth, the dead will be raised, and Christ will judge everyone in righteousness); and evangelism and missions. Some historically significant Baptist doctrinal documents include the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1742 Philadelphia Baptist Confession, the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith, the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message, and written church covenants which some individual Baptist churches adopt as a statement of their faith and beliefs.

Baptists generally believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ. Beliefs among Baptists regarding the "end times" include amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving some support.

The following acrostic backronym, spelling BAPTIST, represents a useful summary of Baptists' distinguishing beliefs:

  • Biblical authority ( ; ; )
  • Autonomy of the local church ( ; )
  • Priesthood of all believers ( ; )
  • Two ordinances (believer's baptism and the Lord's Supper) ( ; )
  • Individual soul liberty ( )
  • Separation of Church and State ( )
  • Two offices of the church (pastor-elder and deacon) ( ; )

Most Baptist traditions believe in the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden:

  • Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body
  • Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)
  • Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual
  • Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the "civil corollary" of religious freedom

Most Baptists hold that no church or ecclesiastical organization has inherent authority over a Baptist church. Churches can properly relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary cooperation, never by any sort of coercion. Furthermore, this Baptist polity calls for freedom from governmental control.Exceptions to this local form of local governance include a few churches that submit to the leadership of a body of elders, as well as the Episcopal Baptists that have an Episcopal system.

Beliefs that vary among Baptists

Because of the importance of the priesthood of every believer, the centrality of the freedom of conscience and thought in Baptist theology, and due to the congregational style of church governance, doctrine varies greatly between one Baptist church and another (and among individual Baptists) especially on the following issues:

The Sabbath Debate

Nearly all Baptists worship on Sunday, in contrast with the Old Testament tradition of a Saturday Sabbath. As would be expected amongst any people who hold to freedom of conscience, there have historically been a small number of Baptists who have held to some form of Sabbatarian doctrine.

There is a small group known as the Seventh Day Baptists. Some trace their origins to earlier Anabaptist or pre-Reformation sects however most acknowledge that the denomination was established in the mid-seventeenth century in England. Seventh Day Baptists may be either General or Particular Baptists but they are united in their observance of their day of worship on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Although the degree to which they observe the Sabbath varies from person to person, from congregation to congregation, there is a consensus within their circles that none should judge the spirituality of another's personal practices.

In the mid-nineteenth century a Seventh Day Baptist tract eventually led to a large portion of the Adventist movement to adopt Sabbatarian teachings, eventually forming the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Theological, cultural and political controversies

As with all major denominational groups, Baptists have not escaped theological, cultural and political controversy. Baptists have historically been sensitive to the introduction of theological error (from their perspective) into their groups. The older Baptist associations of Europe, Canada, Australia and the northern United States have assimilated influences of different schools of thought, but not without major debate and schisms.

Leading up to the American Civil War, Baptists became embroiled in the controversy of slavery in the United States. North and South grew further apart in 1845 when the Baptist Church split into Northern and Southern organizations. The Southern Baptist Convention formed on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it was acceptable for Christians to own slaves. In the 20th century, the Southern Baptist Convention renounced this interpretation. Northern Baptists opposed slavery. In 1844, the Home Mission Society declared that a person could not be a missionary and still keep slaves as property. Currently American Baptist numerical strength is greatest in the former slave-holding states.

In England, Charles Haddon Spurgeon fought against what he saw as challenges to his strongly conservative point of view in the Downgrade Controversy.

As part of the continuing fundamentalist/liberal controversy within the Northern Baptist Convention, two new associations of conservative Baptists were formed—the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches in 1932 and the Conservative Baptist Association of America in 1947.

Landmarkism emphasized ecclesiastical separation and doctrinal rigidity and its cultural foundation was in the South. Old Landmarkism held to a historical consciousness that traced Baptists through dissenters—Donatists, Cathari (although it is not believed that ALL Donatists, Cathari, etc., were Baptists theologically)—back to Jesus, the Jordan Rivermarker, and the early church in Jerusalem. Popular Landmarkism contributed to a historical consciousness implicit in the idea that Baptists were an extension of the New Testament community.

Beginning in the 1980s, there was an effort by some theologically conservative Southern Baptists to purge what they viewed as modernist theological influence from its seminaries. This highly publicized SBC Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover led those opposed to the movement to create two more moderate Baptist organizations: the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.


There are two main views about the origins of the Baptists: Baptist origins in the 16th and 17th centuries and Baptist perpetuity.

Baptist belief in perpetuity

The traditional view of Baptist origins dates the Baptist churches back to New Testament times or to John the Baptist. The Baptist perpetuity view considers the Baptist movement as historically separate from Catholicism and prior to the Protestant Reformation. The historians who advocate this position consider the Baptists to be an outgrowth of the Anabaptist movement and point out that many Reformation era historians and apologists considered the Anabaptists to pre-date the Reformation.

For example, Cardinal Hosius (1504-1579), a Roman Catholic prelate of the sixteenth century, wrote, "For not so long ago I read the edict of the other prince who lamented the fate of the Anabaptists who, so we read, were pronounced heretics twelve hundred years ago and deserving of capital punishment. He wanted them to be heard and not taken as condemned without a hearing."

Baptist historian John T. Christian writes in the introduction to his History of the Baptists: "I have throughout pursued the scientific method of investigation, and I have let the facts speak for themselves. I have no question in my own mind that there has been a historical succession of Baptists from the days of Christ to the present time." Other Baptist historians holding the perpetuity view are Thomas Armitage, G.H. Orchard, and David Benedict.

Baptist origins in the 16th and 17th centuries

Toward the end of the 19th century some Baptist historians concluded that the Baptists were an outgrowth of English Separatism and historically distinct from the Anabaptists, though influenced by them. This viewpoint considers English Separatists John Smyth and Thomas Helwys the key founders of the modern Baptist denomination.

The English Separatist position is currently the majority viewpoint among Baptist historians. H. Leon McBeth wrote, “Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England.” Other historians who hold this view are William Heth Whitsitt and Robert Torbet.

Both Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke, his compatriot in working for religious freedom, are variously credited as founding the earliest Baptist church in America. In 1639, Williams established a Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Islandmarker, and Clarke began a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Islandmarker. According to a Baptist historian who has researched the matter extensively, "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first' Baptist congregation in America. Exact records for both congregations are lacking."

Questions of labeling

Some Baptists object to the application of the labels Protestant, denomination, evangelical and even Baptist to themselves or their churches, while others accept those labels.

Some who reject the label Baptist prefer to be labeled as Christians who attend Baptist churches. Also, a recent trend (most common among megachurches and those embracing the "seeker movement") is to eliminate "Baptist" from the church name, as it is perceived to be a "barrier" to reaching persons who have negative views of Baptists, whether they be of a different church background or none. These churches typically include the word "Community" or other non-religious or denominational terms in their church name.

Conversely, others accept the label Baptist because they identify with the distinctives they consider to be uniquely Baptist. They believe those who are removing the name "Baptist" from their churches are "compromising with the world" to attract more members. However, there are other church groups that hold to the beliefs listed above, that have never been known by the label Baptist, and also believe that these beliefs are not exclusive to the Baptist denomination.

The label Protestant is rejected by some Baptists (primarily those in the Landmark movement) because in their view Baptists have existed separately since the early days of the Catholic Church. Those holding this view maintain that Baptists have never been a part of the Catholic Church, and as such, Baptists are not "protesting" against Catholicism. Further, they claim that Baptists have no direct connection to any of the Reformationists like Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli. Other Baptists accept the Protestant label as a demographic concept that describes churches who share similar theologies of sola scriptura, sola fide, the priesthood of all believers and other positions that Luther, Calvin and other traditional reformers held in contrast to the Catholic Church in the 1500s.

The label denomination is rejected by some because of the local autonomous governance system used by Baptist churches. Being a denomination is viewed by them as having a hierarchy that substitutes for the Catholic Church. Another reason for the rejection of the label is the influence of the Restoration period on Baptist churches, which emphasized a tearing down of denominational barriers. Other Baptists accept the label, feeling that it does not carry a negative connotation but rather is merely a synonym for a Christian or religious group with common beliefs, organized in a cooperative manner to spread its beliefs worldwide.

The label evangelical is rejected by some fundamentalist Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that in their view is not fundamentalist enough, and conversely is also rejected by some liberal Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that in their view is too conservative. It is accepted by moderate Baptists who identify with the revival in the United States in the 1700s known as the First Great Awakening. Conversely, some Evangelicals reject the label fundamentalist, believing it to describe a theological position that they consider too extreme and legalistic. However some Baptists, such as the Independent Fundamental Baptists, embrace it.

See also



  • Gavins; Raymond. The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership: Gordon Blaine Hancock, 1884–1970 Duke University Press, 1977.
  • Harrison, Paul M. Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition: A Social Case Study of the American Baptist Convention Princeton University Press, 1959.
  • Harvey, Paul. Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865–1925 University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997).
  • Isaac, Rhy. "Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists' Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., XXXI (July 1974), 345–68.
  • Leonard, Bill J. Baptist Ways: A History (2003), comprehensive international history
  • McBeth, H. Leon, (ed.) A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage (1990), primary sources for Baptist history.
  • McGlothlin, W. J. (ed.) Baptist Confessions of Faith. Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1911.
  • Pitts, Walter F. Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Rawlyk, George. Champions of the Truth: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Maritime Baptists (1990), Canada.
  • Spangler, Jewel L. "Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia" Journal of Southern History. Volume: 67. Issue: 2. 2001. pp 243+
  • Stringer, Phil. The Faithful Baptist Witness, Landmark Baptist Press, 1998.
  • Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists, Judson Press, 1950.
  • Underhill, Edward B. (ed.). Confessions of Faith and Other Documents of the Baptist Churches of England in the 17th century. London: The Hanserd Knollys Society, 1854.
  • Underwood, A. C. A History of the English Baptists. London: Kingsgate Press, 1947.
  • Wills, Gregory A. Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900, Oxford.
  • Life & Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader, New York University press. 2001. pp. 5–7. ISBN 9780814756485.

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