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Baptists are a group of Christian denominations, churches, and individuals who subscribe to a theology of believer's baptism (as opposed to infant baptism), salvation through faith alone, Scripture alone as the rule of faith and practice, and the autonomy of the local church. They practice baptism by immersion (as opposed to affusion or sprinkling) and disavow authoritative creeds. Baptists recognize two ministerial offices, pastors and deacons. Baptist churches are widely considered to be Protestants, though some Baptists disavow this identity. Most Baptist churches or individuals identify with evangelicalism or fundamentalism while a minority embrace modernist views of Scripture.
Diverse from their beginning, those identifying as Baptists today differ widely from one another in what they believe, how they worship, their attitudes toward other Christians, and their understanding of what is important in Christian discipleship. Baptists are agreed that their belief system is based in the New Testament, "the whole New Testament, and nothing but the New Testament." The Scriptures have been the foremost formative influence on Baptist belief and behavior.
Historians trace the earliest Baptist church back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In accordance with his reading of the New Testament, he rejected baptism of infants and instituted baptism only of believing adults. Baptist practice spread to England. Here, the General Baptists considered Christ's atonement to extend to all people, while the Particular Baptists believed that it extended only to the elect. In 1639, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies. In the mid-18th century, the First Great Awakening increased Baptist growth in both New England and the South. The Second Great Awakening in the South in the early 19th century increased church membership, as did the preachers' lessening of support for abolition and manumission of slavery, which had been part of the 18th-century teachings. Baptist missionaries have spread their church to every continent.
The Baptist World Alliance reports more than 37 million members in more than 150,000 congregations. In 2002, there were over 100 million Baptists and Baptistic group members worldwide and over 33 million in North America. The largest Baptist association is the Southern Baptist Convention, with over 16 million members.
The term Baptist comes from the Greek word βαπτιστής (baptistés, "baptist," also used to describe John the Baptist), which is related to the verb βαπτίζω (baptízo, "to baptize, wash, dip, immerse"), and the Latin baptista.
The term Baptist as applied to Baptist churches is a modification of the term Anabaptist (which means rebaptizer), and was used into the 19th century as a general epithet for churches which denied the validity of infant baptism, including the Campbellites, Mennonites and Schwarzenau Brethren or German Baptists, who are not identified with modern day Baptists. The English Anabaptists were called Baptists as early as 1569. The name Anabaptist continued to be applied to English and American Baptists, even after the American Revolution.
Baptist Historian Bruce Gourley outlines four main views of Baptist origins: (1) The modern scholarly consensus that the denomination traces its origin to the 17th century via the English Separatists, (2) the view that it was an outgrowth of Anabaptist traditions, (3) the perpetuity view which assumes that the Baptist faith and practice has existed since the time of Christ, and (4) the successionist view which argues that Baptist churches actually existed in an unbroken chain since the time of Christ.
Position: The Baptist denominations originated out of the Puritan Separatist Movement in seventeenth century England.
Proponents: Norman Maring (1914–98), W. T. Whitley (1861–1947), Winthrop S. Hudson (1911–2001).
The predominant view of Baptist origins is that Baptists came along in historical development in the century after the rise of the original Protestant denominations. This view of Baptist origins has the most historical support and is the most widely accepted. Representative writers include William H. Whitsitt, Robert G. Torbet, Winthrop S. Hudson, William G. McLoughlin and Robert A. Baker. This position considers the influence of Anabaptists upon early Baptists to be minimal. It was a time of considerable political and religious turmoil. Both individuals and churches were willing to give up their theological roots if they became convinced that a more biblical "truth" had been discovered.
The Baptist faith originated from within the English Separatist movement. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England (Anglicans) had broken away from the Catholic Church. Then came the mainstream Reformation. There were some Christians who were not content with the achievements of the mainstream Protestant Reformation. There also were Christians who were disappointed that the Church of England had not made corrections of what some considered to be errors and abuses. Of those most critical of the Church's direction, some chose to stay and try to make constructive changes from within the Anglican Church. They became known as "Puritans" and are described by Gourley as cousins of the English Separatists. Others decided they must leave the Church because of their dissatisfaction and became known as the Separatists.
Historians trace the earliest Baptist church back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with John Smyth as its pastor. Even prior to that, in 1606, John Smyth, a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, had broken his ties with the Church of England. Reared in the Church of England, he became "Puritan, English Separatist, and then a Baptist Separatist," and ended his days working with the Mennonites.:23 He began meeting in England with 60–70 English Separatists, in the face of "great danger." The persecution of religious nonconformists in England led Smyth to go into exile in Amsterdam with fellow Separatists from the congregation he had gathered in Lincolnshire, separate from the established church (Anglican). Smyth and his lay supporter, Thomas Helwys, together with those they led, broke with the other English exiles because Smyth and Helways were convinced they should be baptized as believers. In 1609 Smyth first baptized himself and then baptized the others.
In 1609, while still there, Smyth wrote a tract titled "The Character of the Beast," or "The False Constitution of the Church." In it he expressed two propositions: first, infants are not to be baptized; and second, "Antichristians converted are to be admitted into the true Church by baptism.":24 Hence, his conviction was that a scriptural church should consist only of regenerate believers who have been baptized on a personal confession of faith. He rejected the Separatist movement's doctrine of infant baptism (paedobaptism). Shortly thereafter, Smyth left the group, and layman Thomas Helwys took over the leadership, leading the church back to England in 1611. Ultimately, Smyth became committed to believers' baptism as the only biblical baptism. He was convinced on the basis of his interpretation of Scripture that infants would not be damned should they die in infancy.:25
Smyth, convinced that his self-baptism was invalid, applied with the Mennonites for membership. He died while waiting for membership, and some of his followers became Mennonites. Thomas Helwys and others kept their baptism and their Baptist commitments.:25 The modern Baptist denomination is an outgrowth of Smyth's movement. Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist when they were called that by opponents in derision. McBeth writes that as late as the 18th century, many Baptists referred to themselves as "the Christians commonly—though falsely—called Anabaptists."