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Church History

I.  Introduction:

 Tonight we want to look at Baptist history.  I would like to begin by making a distinction between a history of beliefs (or Baptist distinctives) and a history of the denomination.  A history of the Baptist denomination, particularly Southern Baptists in America, would stretch back only to the early 1800s.  Yet, before we get to that point, we must consider the history of certain Baptist distinctives.  These distinctives include: believers baptism, regenerate church membership, justification by faith alone, inerrancy and authority of Scripture, priesthood of believers, religious freedom (soul competency), and autonomous congregational church government.  In looking at the development of these disnctives in a particular group, or groups, one must go back further into history than just the Triennial Convention of 1814.  Thus, we understand the history of the Baptists to begin earlier than just the19th century.  I must offer a caution at this point: although we do believe these distinctives to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we do not agree with those who argue that the history of the Baptists can be traced back throughout Church history to the early Church and the Apostles.  Rather, we understand our connection with the Protestant Reformers and many of the truths that they sought to recover, while recognizing the places where we differ from them (for example with believersí baptism).  For this reason, I want to begin by looking at the influence of the Anabaptists on Baptist history.

II.  Early Beginnings

 A.  Some will begin Baptist history with the Anabaptists.  We considered the Anabaptists a couple of weeks ago when we were looking at the Swiss Reformation.  The Anabaptists have a complex history within themselves.  Yet, for our purposes here, I want to simply consider some of their general beliefs and their connection with Baptist distinctives.  For example, the Anabaptists held to believersí baptism and were persecuted greatly for this belief.  They also emphasized regenerate church membership and a separation of Church and State.  So in some ways we do see a connection with the Anabaptists and certain Baptist distinctives.  However, it must be noted that many Anabaptist beliefs do not coincide with Baptists beliefs.  These differences include pacifism, serving in the government, and points of Christology.  Due to these differences it is hard to connect Anabaptist history and Baptist history too closely.

 B.  A more direct beginning of Baptist history comes with two other groups: the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists.  We must deal with them individually, beginning with the General Baptists.  The name that is usually connected with the General Baptists is John Smyth.  Smyth fled England in 1607 because of persecution and went to the Netherlands.  He wanted to start a pure church that consisted of only believers and thus came to accept the position of believersí baptism.  In 1609 he formed what could be considered the first Baptist church by baptizing himself as a believer and then baptizing the rest of the founding members.  Smyth would later reject this baptism and many from the Church would follow him.  However, some did not follow Smyth and rather returned to England with a man named Thomas Helwys to form the first Baptist church on English soil.  This group became known as the General Baptists because of what they believed about Christís atonement, namely that it applied generally to all people alike.  This group would continue on only to later fall into heresy and eventually to disband.  

 The second group was the Particular Baptists.  This group also arose in England about thirty years after the General Baptists.  They were distinguished from the earlier group due to their views on the atonement.  They held that Christís atonement applied particularly to the elect, thus, the distinction between the Particular and General Baptists.  Other differences between the groups did exist, but it is their view of the atonement that is reflected in their name.  A group of seven Baptist churches in England gathered and issued what came to be known as the 1st London Confession in 1644.  This statement was very reformed and highly Calvinistic.  The Particular Baptists grew in London and remained true to their Calvinistic beliefs (at times, some would say, to a fault).  Some notable Particular Baptists are John Gill (1697-1771), Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), William Carey (1761-1834), and Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), who all had extensive impact as Baptist ministers and missionaries.

 C.  At this point, we need to shift our discussion to the history of Baptists in America.  The most prominent figure of early Baptist history in America is Roger Williams.  Williams came to Boston in 1631.  He had been a minister in the Anglican Church, but due to disagreements with them decided to come to America.  In America, he was against the idea of the Stateís rule in Church matters, which gave him a bad reputation with the Puritans and the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  This only led to more radical action on Williamsí part and eventually his banishment from the Colony.  He moved to Rhode Island and founded Providence.  In 1639, Williams was baptized as a believer and he formed the first Baptist Church in America in Providence.  Yet, due to his longing for a pure church and his radical ideas, Williams soon left the Church and renounced all churches.  He spent the remainder of his days ministering to any that he could and never joined another Church.  

 Another notable figure of early Baptist history in America is Isaac Backus.  Backusí mother was a Baptist and was imprisoned for not paying the tax for the state Congregational church.  In response to this, Isaac Backus became one of the most influential figures in the fight for religious freedom in America.  Backus continued to fight for religious freedom in America for the next 50 years as a Baptist minister.  He, along with many others, thought it wrong for people to be taxed to pay for a state church to which they did not belong. 
 The impact of both Great Awakenings was tremendous for Baptists in America.  As we noted, the Baptist churches grew significantly during both of these revivals in America.  Many Particular Baptist churches had been formed by those coming from England.  During the early years they would labor for unity, signing a revised version of the 2nd London Confession, known as the Philadelphia Confession, in 1742 and would remain faithful to their reformed tradition.

III.  Formation of a Denomination

 A.  By the beginning of the 19th Century many Baptist churches were beginning to join forces.  The Great Century of missions had already begun and many churches wanted to be a part of evangelizing the world.  Thus, in 1814, the first Triennial Convention was called in Philadelphia.  Their main purpose was to join together to help send missionaries around the world.  They would meet every 3 years, thus the name, and were able to send many missionaries from the very beginning of their formation.  This is considered the official beginning of the Denomination of Baptists in America. 

 B.  Yet, the issue of slavery was a continuing problem within the denomination.  As slavery grew in the South, it simply declined in the North (mostly for financial reasons).  Many groups, from North and South, formed to protest slavery and called for the denomination to take a stand.  After a couple of significant events, the issue came to a head in 1845.  Leaders in the South called a meeting in Augusta, Georgia.  They were frustrated by the fact that the national missionary agency was refusing to send missionaries who owned slaves.  They also felt as if the Baptists in the North were not supporting home missions in the South.  Ultimately, they decided to split from the North and form their own Convention.  The result was the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention.  As you can see, this is not a bright spot in Baptist History.  Yet, the fact that our own Convention was formed primarily over the issue of slavery is not really debatable.  All we can do is recognize the error and admit the mistake.  The Convention officially did this in 1997.

IV.  Recent History

 A.  From the very beginnings of the Baptist denomination in America there has been a strong emphasis on missions.  Throughout the years this has continued to be the case.  One is hard pressed to even consider Baptist history in America without paying close attention to their mission activity.  Baptists have sent numerous missionaries over the years and with the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board they continue to be committed to the goal of reaching the nations with the gospel.  Indeed, this is something for us to be thankful for and committed to in the years to come.

 B.  One other issue of recent history is the Conservative Resurgence.  Indeed this has a long history by itself, so I just want to summarize here.  Due to a long history of liberal professors in our seminaries, many began to notice that our denomination was moving towards the liberal end of the spectrum.  The particular issue was the inerrancy of Scripture.  This controversy took a serious turn in the 1979 convention when Adrian Rogers was selected as the president of the convention.  Basically the thought was that if we can elect a conservative president then they can begin to move the seminaries and other institutions towards conservative views by their appointments.  Thus, from that point on the conservatives fought hard to ensure that a conservative president would be elected.  For the most part, their plan succeeded.  And as we have seen over the past few years, many of the schools and seminaries have returned to a more conservative view.  Many have great disgust for the resurgence because they feel as if the conservatives simply used the political process to manipulate the convention.  Some say that the controversy is over, and to some degree this may be true.  Yet, listening to Al Mohler a few years ago I remember him commenting that it only takes one generation to move away from conservative views.  Thus, we, as a local church, must labor to fight for doctrinal purity in our own church, in the state convention, and also in the SBC. 

V.  What can we learn?

 A.  First, we must be open and honest with our history.  We cannot ignore the fact that the SBC was primarily formed over the issue of slavery.  Likewise, we cannot deny that different opinions and thoughts have been held by Baptists historically.  However, none of this means that we are to be ashamed of the history of Baptists in general.  Yes we must be willing to recognize and repent for our mistakes, but that does not mean that we also ignore the positive side of Baptist history.  If we can realize that we have made mistakes, this will serve to keep us humble in our own day as we labor to teach and defend the truth of the gospel in our churches.

 B.  Second, we need to build upon what our denominational leaders have fought and labored for in the past.  As we noted throughout this semester, we must labor to continue the labor of fighting for the purity of the Church.  We do not believe that only Baptists make up the Universal Church.  We understand that the Lord will have people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.  Yet, this does not mean that laboring for doctrinal purity and unity within our denomination is a fruitless battle.  We must labor for the purity of the Bride of Christ throughout the world.  I think this begins by fighting in our own church and our own denomination.  May we indeed labor for these things in our own day.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 20 September 2007 )

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