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Baptist churches are part of a Christian movement often regarded as an Evangelical, Protestant denomination. Baptists emphasize a believer's baptism by full immersion, which is performed after a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. A congregational governance system gives autonomy to individual local Baptist churches, which are sometimes associated in organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Historically, Baptists have also played a key role in the idea of separation of church and state. In the late 1990s, there were about 43 million Baptists worldwide with about 33 million in the United States.



Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority, resulting in a wide range of beliefs from one Baptist church to another. However, Baptist distinctives are beliefs that are common to all Baptist churches. Some of these distinctives are shared with almost all other post-reformational churches while other distinctives are only shared with a few.

Most Baptist churches believe in using musical instruments during their worship service. Bands and/or choirs can often be found within a Baptist church.

Baptist churches are also fast becoming the leading denomination building "mega-churches." These churches can seat thousands at once and can have sports fields, gyms, cafes, book stores and libraries. It is widely debated whether or not these mega-churches are really promoting the word of God, or just providing a fun, family-oriented atmosphere.

Baptist distinctives acronym

This acronym is used by some Baptist churches as a summary of the distinctives or distinguishing beliefs of Baptists.

  • Biblical authority
  • Autonomy of the local church
  • Priesthood of the believer
  • Two ordinances (Believer's Baptism and Communion)
  • Individual soul liberty
  • Separation of Church and State
  • Two offices of the church (Pastor and Deacon)

Believer's baptism

Believer's baptism is an ordinance performed after a person professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and is symbolic of the cleansing or remission of their sins. In the Baptist demonination, baptism plays no role in salvation and is simply an outward expression of the inward change that has already taken place. Baptists emphasize baptism by full immersion, which follows the method used by John the Baptist. This usually consists of lowering the candidate in water backwards, while a pastor invokes the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19. This mode of baptism is also preferred for its parallel imagery to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. A few Baptist churches allow for baptism by sprinkling as an alternative mode for the disabled or elderly. Some Baptist churches will recognize baptisms performed in other orthodox Christian churches that were not performed on infants. Baptism is also seen as a public identification of the person with Christianity and that particular church and is used as a criterion for membership in Baptist churches.

Through the influence of Anabaptist teachings, Baptists reject the practice of infant baptism or pedobaptism because they believe parents cannot make a decision of salvation for an infant. Only a person who has reached an "Age of accountability" is eligible for baptism. This is not a specific age, but rather the age at which God determines that person is accountable for their sins. Jesus began to visibly do the work of God at the age of 12 and somewhere around there is the typical "Age of Accountability". Children and other people who are not mentally or emotionally capable of discerning their sins are not held accountable for their sins and are considered to be in a state of grace. All Baptists practice believer's baptism, but some do not hold the concept of an "Age of Accountability".

Most Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Restorationist and non-denominational churches share a similar understanding of baptism.


Congregationalist church governance gives autonomy to individual local churches in areas of policy, polity and doctrine. Baptist churches are not under the direct administrative control of any other body, such as a national council, or a leader such as a bishop or pope. Administration, leadership and doctrine are decided democratically by the lay members of each individual church, which accounts for the variation of beliefs from one Baptist church to another.

John Wyclif and the Lollards who followed him and Huldrych Zwingli were strong influences in the early development of the idea of congregationalism. In a manner typical of other congregationalists, many cooperative associations of Baptists have arisen. The largest of these in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention. The second largest is the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., which is also America's second largest predominantly African-American denomination. There are hundreds of Baptist conventions and many Baptist churches do not fall into any of them. In addition, there are sometimes very strong disputes even within conventions, which are often divided between Christian fundamentalists and moderates.

Other congregationalist churches include Anabaptists, Pentecostal, Congregationalist Churches, the United Church of Christ and many non-denominational churches.

Separation of Church and State

Baptists have played an important role in the struggle for freedom of religion and separation of church and state in England, the United States, and other countries, including many who were imprisoned and even died for their faith. Some important figures in this struggle were John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Edward Wightman, Leonard Busher , Roger Williams (who was a Baptist for a short period but became a seeker), John Clarke, Isaac Backus , and John Leland.

In 1612 John Smyth wrote, "the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience". That same year, Thomas Helwys wrote that the King of England could "comaund what of man he will, and wee are to obey it," but concerning the church -- "with this Kingdom, our lord the King hath nothing to do." In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote what is believed to be the earliest Baptist treatise dealing exclusively with the subject of religious liberty.

Baptists were influential in the formation of the first civil government based on the separation of church and state in what is now Rhode Island. Anabaptists and Quakers also share a strong history in the development of separation of church and state.

The Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent a letter, dated October 7, 1801, to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern over the lack in their state constitution of explicit protection of religious liberty, and against government establishment of religion. As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might "reproach their chief Magistrate... because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ," thus establishing a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities. In their letter to the President, the Danbury Baptists also affirmed that "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor..." [1]

Thomas Jefferson's response, dated January 1, 1802, concurs with the Danbury Baptists' views on religious liberty, and the accompanying separation of civil government from concerns of religious doctrine and practice. Quoting the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, he writes: "...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State." [2]

While there is a general belief that the state should not decide what the church can believe and should not prohibit the practice of religion, Baptists do disagree among themselves as to the degree to which the church should influence the state and what exactly constitutes state prohibition of religion. These disagreements manifest themselves in issues such as whether the state should restrict gambling, the purchase of alcohol, and abortion and the question of whether the prohibition of state-sanctioned public prayer in public schools in the United States is an example of prohibition of religion. Many conservative Baptists oppose gambling, alcohol, tobacco, and some even prohibit dancing and movies. Especially in areas where Southern Baptists form a majority of the population, the denomination has been successful in imposing its values on the general population "dry counties" in the South or the ban on music and dancing in the film Footloose are examples.

Biblical authority

Authority of the Scriptures or sola scriptura states that the Bible is the only authoritative source of God's truth and any view that cannot be directly tied to a scriptural reference is generally considered to be based on human traditions rather than God's leading. Each person is responsible before God for his or her own understanding of the bible and is encouraged to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. The notion of going by the Bible as sole authority is not found in the Bible, but is taken as a presupposition, as is the canon of Scripture.

Biblical inerrancy is also a common position held by Baptists in addition to literal interpretations of the bible and fundamentalist theologies. However, because of the variety allowed under congregational governance, many Baptist churches are neither literalist nor fundamentalist, although most do believe in biblical inerrancy. Even though it is only the Bible that is authoritative, Baptists also cite other works as illustrative of doctrine. One work which is commonly read by Baptists is the allegory Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. This is a position shared by almost all post-Reformation Christian groups, with only a few exceptions (such as Quakers).

Priesthood of all believers

The Baptist position of the priesthood of believers is one column that upholds their belief in religious liberty. Priesthood of all believers removes the hierarchical layers of priests, traditions and authority so that all Christians have equal access to God's revelation of truth through the careful study of the Bible. This is a position shared by all post-reformational Christian groups.

Justification by faith

Justification by faith or sola fide states that it is by faith alone that we receive salvation and not through any works of our own. Baptists have a strong emphasis on the concept of salvation. Baptist theology teaches that humans have been contaminated by the sin of Adam and Eve's rebellion against God and that for this sin we are condemned to damnation. The theology holds that Christ died on the cross to give humans the promise of everlasting life, but that this requires that each individual accept Christ into his life and ask for forgiveness. Nevertheless, the Baptist view of soteriology runs the gamut from Calvinism to Arminianism. Justification by faith is a position shared by all post-reformational Christian groups.

Beliefs that vary among Baptists

Because of the congregational style of church governance on doctrine, doctrine on the following issues often varies greatly between one Baptist church and another.

Baptists generally believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ at which time God will sit in judgment and divide humanity between the saved and the lost (the Great White Throne judgment Book of Revelation 20:11) and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers (the Judgment Seat of Christ Second Epistle to the Corinthians 5:10), rewarding them for things done while alive. Amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism stand as the main eschatological views of Baptists, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving only scant support.

Comparisons with other denominations

Baptists share certain emphases with other groups such as evangelism and missions. While the general flavor of any denomination changes from city to city, this aspect of Baptist churches is much more prominent than in most Episcopal, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.

The Pacifism of the Anabaptists and the Quakers is not an ideal held by most Baptists. The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America was organized in 1984 to promote peace, justice, and non-violence, but it does not speak for all Baptists that accept the ideal of pacifism.


There are several views about the origins of Baptists within the Baptist church.


Landmarkism is the belief that Baptist churches and traditions have preceded the Catholic Church and have been around since the time of John the Baptist and Christ. Proponents believe that Baptist traditions have been passed down through a succession of visible congregations of Christians that were Baptist in doctrine and practice, but not necessarily in name.

This succession grants Baptist churches the status of being unstained and separate from what they see as the corruptions of Catholicism and other denominations. It also allows for the view that Baptists predate the Catholic church and is therefore not part of the reformation or the protestant movement. Alexander Campbell of the Restoration Movement was a strong promoter of this idea.

Historically the evidence is too weak to either prove or disprove this belief. It can be shown however that churches holding many of the Baptist beliefs existed prior to the reformation (thus they are not Protestant) and that there is no known point of origin if their claim is not correct. While this theory of Baptist origins is quite popular among some Baptists, there is historical evidence that indicates that these "anonymous" Baptist churches existed prior to the reformation. There is neither enough evidence to prove this theory, nor is there enough evidence to disprove it historically. However, many Landmarkers use the words of Jesus when he said, "...the gates of hell shall not prevail against [the church]" to prove it theologically.


Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites) did share many teachings of the early Baptists, such as the believer's baptism and religious freedom. They were probably influential in the development of Baptist characteristics. While their names suggest some connection, some Anabaptists differed from the Baptists on many other issues such as pacifism and the communal sharing of material goods.

It is difficult to say how much influence the Anabaptists had on the actual formation of Baptist churches. One of the strongest relationships between the two groups happened when John Smyth's General Baptists attempted but failed to merge with the Mennonites.

The term Anabaptist is one that was given to a broad category of churches that "rebaptized" former members of other churches that did not share their beliefs. The "rebaptism" may have been for a person who had been baptized as an infant or had been baptized as an adult in a church that the Anabaptist church did not recognize as a church.


The view that suggests that Baptists were originally separatists in the Puritan reaction to perceived corruptions in the Church of England in the 1600s. In 1609, John Smyth, led a group of separatists to the Netherlands to start the General Baptist church with an Arminian theology. In 1616, Henry Jacob led a group of Puritans in England with a Calvinist theology to form a congregational church that would eventually become the Particular Baptists in 1638 under John Spilsbury . Both groups had members who sailed to America as pilgrims to avoid religious persecution in England and Europe and who started Baptist churches in the early colonies. The Particular and General Baptists would disagree over Arminianism and Calvinism until the formation of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in the 1800s under Andrew Fuller and William Carey for the purpose of missions. American Baptists soon followed suit.
See also: 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith

Questions of Labeling

Some Baptists object to such labels as Protestant, denomination, Evangelical and even Baptist to them or their churches, while others accept those labels.

Those who reject the label Baptist prefer to be labeled as "Christians who attend Baptist churches." Conversely, others accept Baptist because they identify with the distinctives they consider to be uniquely Baptist.

The name Protestant is rejected by some because Baptists do not have a direct connection to Luther, Calvin or the Roman Catholic Church. They do not feel that they are protesting anything and Landmark Baptists believe they pre-date the Roman Catholic Church. Other Baptists accept the Protestant as a demographic concept that describes churches that share similar theologies of sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers and other positions that Luther, Calvin and traditional reformers held in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s.

The label denomination is rejected by some because of the congregational governance system used by Baptist churches. Being a denomination is viewed as having a hierarchy that substitutes for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Another reason for the rejection of the label is the influence of the Restoration period, which emphasized a tearing down of denominational barriers, on Baptist churches. 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.

The label Evangelical is rejected by some fundamentalist Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that is not fundamentalist enough. It is rejected by some liberal Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that 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.

Famous Baptists

See also

Some Baptist Doctrinal Statements

Other resources

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