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Thursday, 7 February 2013
The History of the Baptist Church

The following is a paper that was written following a study of the Baptist Church and its roots. I hope it will prove to be helpful to you as you learn a little about the history of the Baptists.


With thousands of Baptist churches in America with differing names and creeds, it causes on to wonder how they got so diversified and if they share a common beginning. From Southern Baptists, to American Baptists, to Northern Baptists, to Free Will Baptists, to Independent Baptists, the list of Churches that claim the name Baptist seems to have no end.  In the 21st century there are numerous groups who claim the name Baptist, the purpose of this paper will be to attempt to look back and discover a common origin shared by each of them and from that common origin how they become so diverse.

The first thing that needs to be established is the question "what does it mean for a church or an individual to say they are Baptist?" Though there are many different definitions of what a Baptist is, Dr. Herbert Samworth  says that a Baptist is one who holds to the following four distinctives: 1. The Baptism of Believers by immersion, 2. The acknowledgement of two offices that of pastor and deacon, 3. That the churches are indigenous, 4. The separation of church and state.[1] Others claim that the things that make a Baptist a Baptist are more numerous and list them as follows: 1. the Lordship of Jesus Christ, 2. the Bible as the sole written authority for faith and practice, 3. soul competency, 4. salvation from sin and eternal death to forgiveness and eternal life only by faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior who is the grace gift of God, 5. the priesthood of each believer and of all believers in Christ, 6. believer's baptism, 7. baptism and the Lord's Supper as wonderfully symbolic but not essential for salvation, 8. church membership composed only of persons who have been born again, 9. religious freedom and its corollary, the separation of church and state.[2]

What seems to become evident as one begins to study the different beliefs of the many different Baptist groups and churches is that they all do not have the same beliefs.  However, there are a few things that most of them seem to hold in common. The present day Baptists hold a high view of Scripture. They believe in baptism by immersion. They do not practice infant baptism. They believe in voluntary church membership and that only by those who have made a profession of faith. However, there are some beliefs that they hold in contrast to each other. From style of worship, to specific standards of living, to theological beliefs, Baptist churches are very diverse in their beliefs and practices. It seems that the presence of so many different beliefs may very well be the reason for so many different flavors of Baptists. Because each church is seen as indigenous it may be that this possibility for individuality could be the cause of there being so many differing thoughts.

The first Baptist church in America was a General Baptist Church and was established in Providence, Rhode Island around 1637.[3] Most sources that are available seem to agree that this was the first of the organized Baptist churches. They later formed into a conference. The early formation of this group included most of the Baptist churches that were in existence at that time. From those who followed Calvinism to those who Leaned toward Arminianism, it seemed that the group was comprised of churches of both theological backgrounds. This group was formed mainly for the purpose of furthering educational and missionary endeavors.[4] The diversity of the make-up of this group would seem to make it impossible for it to continue long-term. The different beliefs that were present would soon find sufficient grounds to divide into other groups. And history tells us that that's exactly what they did. It seems that this was the closest that the Baptists have ever come to being under the same umbrella. The coming years would prove to bring multiple divisions that would give birth to many other groups.

This early church was claimed later by the American Baptists also known as Northern Baptists. However, historic references claim that the American Baptists merely inherited another group which was the offspring of the first church.[5] That group was called Six Principle Baptists (also known as English General Baptists and old Free Will Baptists).[6] This church was started by a pastor by the name of roger Williams.[7]

Roger Williams was a very interesting individual who would prove to play a large role in the beginning of the Baptists in America. He fled England because of the corruption and un-Scriptural practices of the Established Church. [8] It didn't take him long to discover that the long arm of the established church reached across the waters as well. When arriving at Boston "he was called to preach at Salem, but he could not commune with the church at Boston, established on the principles of the church of England..".[9] After a few years of trying to coexist with the existing churches in New England he was banished and called to repent of his objection to the church's un- Scriptural actions, he and his family left the colonies and headed out of their jurisdiction.[10] Williams ended his journey in a place he called Providence.[11] It was here on March 7, 1638 that he and eighteen other men would establish what is commonly referred to as the first Baptist church ever started in America.[12] Williams, though not a member of the Particular Baptists was ardently against the practices of the established church. He rejected their teaching of infant baptism and practice of the "state church". As he was involved in establishing the early documents for the future state of Rhode Island the document stated: " Every man, who submits peaceable to civil government in this colony, shall worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, unmolested."[13] Mr. Williams was keenly aware of the hostility that he had experienced while in England because he did not hold to the state church's teachings, and wanted to ensure that a land would be established where men could worship God according to the Scriptures and not based upon the dictates of men. It is said that he believed, "that the princes of Europe had no right whatever to dispose of the possessions of the American Indians; and secondly, that civil rulers as such had no authority from God to regulate or control the affairs of religion."[14] Each of these convictions are distinctively Baptist. There is no doubt that Mr. Williams was Baptist. He would remain in the Providence Church for a "few years" until he returned to England to secure a charter for Rhode Island.[15]

            The Baptists seemed to work together from the beginning in the American colonies. The focus was more on their likenesses than it was on their differences. They shared a common enemy which was the oppressive established church of England and desired earnestly to be freed from her grasp. Though there were some who traveled to the new world for financial gain, many of those who risked their lives and the lives of their families to take the long voyage across the seas did so for the purpose of finding a new freedom that they had never known before. Reference has already been made to the fact that the established church's arm reached across the ocean to the new world, however the colonists were determined as a whole, to begin a new life in a new world that would give them the opportunity to serve their Lord in a manner that seemed fitting to them.

            The unified body of Baptists in America, though very meager in its beginning, sought diligently for the opportunity to have freedom of worship. This was the tie that bound Particular and General Baptists alike. They had each seen the ugly face of religious tyranny and their hearts desire was to find a place where such a villain would no longer be. It seems that this common desire was what united the Baptists in the early years of the American colonies. There seems to have been very little competition and conflict between the Baptist groups, but instead a common desire to see the freedom to worship and serve the Lord freely. They had each experienced religious persecution from established religion and knew that they wanted something more. They also rejected any form of authority of the magistrates over man's religion.  Roger Williams best portrays the feelings of the Baptists in his position concerning the Ten Commandments, he "readily acknowledged the power of the magistrate to regulate breaches of the second table (duties to man)", "However he denied that any civil authority could regulate or punish offences against the first table."  The Baptists also shared in common the belief that the Scriptures were to be taught and followed as the rule of faith and practice in the church and not the dictates and rituals of man. They had seen the darkening effect of the dead rituals of the established churches and wanted nothing to do with them. As the reformer Martin Luther had declared years earlier "Sola Scriptura", these individuals sought to bring the church to the place where the Scriptures truly became their guide and the source of their truth.

            This spirit of unity was truly the breeding ground for the working of God in the early days of the Baptist Church in America. The distinctives that made Baptists Baptist were the very things that men began to recognize as their eyes were opened and they began to look to the Scriptures instead of tradition for their direction and practice. As Christian says, "The converts…. Were taught to throw aside tradition, and take the Word of God only as their Guide in all matters of religious faith and practice. This was in perfect coincidence with all Baptist teaching, and, as was predicted by the most sagacious among the opposers of the revival, ultimately led thousands, among whom were many ministers, to embrace our views and enter our churches."  This reference was the the Great Awakening and its effect on the Baptist churches of that day. The Church truly grew. As Dr. Samworth said, the Baptist grew in this time from 900 in the year 1700, to around 70,000 in the year 1800.  God blessed the commitment to truth and the spirit of unity shared by these people in the early days of America. However, this great unity would soon dissolve.

The break away from the established church was, for many, a last resort. They tried extensively to keep the connection with the British Church but their consciences would not let them. As is stated of Mr. Williams when he arrived in the new land, " but he could not commune with the church at Boston, established on the principles of the church of England". [16]

As Mcbeth states, "Most of the early settlers in the leading colony of Massachusetts were militant puritans, filled with godly zeal and militant intolerance for any who differed from their theocratic concepts. They succeeded in establishing the Congregational Church as the state sponsored religion of most of New England. The alliance of church and state called for religious conformity as a prerequisite to good citizenship."[17] 

Though many of these believers saw the fallacy of the church they still would struggle, many of them for years, before they could completely break with all the practices that they had learned and observed from the established church. These beliefs were often the subject of much controversy for the newly found churches. The student of these historical times can quickly see the inability to govern religion by the state. The fact that true religion must involve the will is the common stumbling block for those who want to govern religion. Those who had fled England for religious freedom often found this and other false practices that they had learned from England to be issues of serious conflict and frustration.

            The Williams Church was soon joined by another church started by John Clarke. This Church, established sometime around 1640 .[18] This church, like the Providence church suffered division as a result of differing beliefs. Some of these divides were the result of types of Baptism, General or Particular atonement, those who wanted to follow the Quakers, etc. The early church in America seemed to have a rocky beginning.

It has been said that a good philosophy in church building is to divide and conquer. The meaning of this statement is that when a group had grown to a certain point it should be split and two growing groups would be formed. However,  the Baptists in America seemed to experience some division but it wasn't always for the purpose of conquering. Though the people who made up these churches loved the Lord and wanted to freely worship Him, the many differing beliefs that they shared caused frequent turmoil and division. Despite their very obvious Baptist distinctives, these groups were still in the process of forming into the different groups of Baptists that exist in America today.  Though the purpose of this writing is not the investigate the theology of the General Baptists in comparison with the Particular Baptists, it would prove beneficial to define exactly what the main distinctions were between the groups. Once this is done it will be informative to see what they each have in common.

            The names General and Particular signify what would be seen as the beginning of these groups differences in the theological realm. The General Baptists believed in a for all men. "They believed that men had the freedom to believe in Christ; that whoever will believe may be saved; that none are predestined to damnation; that the saved may renounce their faith and thus lose their salvation; and that all the local churches make up only one church."[19] Their beliefs were largely influenced by a Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius.[20] These believers understood the teaching of Scripture to be that men had the "Free Will" to choose to believe the Gospel. They understood the Gospel to be given to everyone (every creature) and that no one was predetermined to eternal torment in hell. Their understanding of the Scriptures was that if a man entered into eternal damnation it would be because he rejected the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Their beliefs ran consistently throughout their theology to the end of the believers life. Just as the individual has the freedom to choose Christ they also believe that this individual has freedom to choose to turn away from Christ. Their understanding of Scripture was that a person is saved by faith and thus he is kept by faith until the end. Thus, their understanding is that a person must exercise personal faith to be saved and must continue to believe to remain in a saving relationship with Christ. They have confidence in the power of God to keep them, and are secure in their relationship with Christ, however they understand the teaching of Scripture to be that it is possible for them to turn away. Thus, despite much misunderstanding, they did believe in salvation by faith, they just believed in the necessity to continue in faith to experience final salvation in heaven.

            The Particular Baptists were influenced by the theologian John Calvin. They believed in a Particular Atonement. This meant that they held "that Christ died only for the elect."[21] Thus they believed that Christ paid only for some sins when He died on the cross. He paid only for those whom God had elected to believe. The obvious outcome of this belief system would be what they termed eternal security, seeing the individual was elected to believe by God and thus would have no choice but to continue to believe. They didn't believe that man had a free will in believing and that he didn't have a free will in choosing to continue to believe. An interesting observation is that the Particular Baptists seemed to take the theology of the Church of England to a large extent. McBeth says, "the semi-separtists who later became the Particular Baptists accepted the Church of England as in some sense a true church, despite its many problems and imperfections."[22] According to McBeth's historical account, the Particular Baptists took the theology of the established church where the General Baptists seemed to entirely break from the established church and its teachings.

            Though there were some very major differences, these two groups shared some things in common as well. They both rejected infant baptism which was the practice of the established church. They each believed that the Church should be separate from the state. Thus men should have soul liberty to practice religion and it not be forced upon men by the government. They agreed on the baptism of believers only and none others. Thus the Baptist church was very diversified in its beginnings and yet very alike in many of its beliefs as well.

            The division came into the picture through a few different catalysts. As Dr. Samworth pointed out in his lectures, the divide occurred in a three-fold manner. First, it came through the anti-missionary movement in the 1820's. This was the result of some of the pastors who felt it unnecessary to support foreign missionaries to perform fulltime ministry. The second cause of the division stemmed from what would become the Campbellite movement. This group followed the teaching of Alexander Campbell. He believed that faith was more intellectual that a commitment. The rise of this movement caused some division among Baptists. The third great cause of division in early Baptists was what would ultimately be one of the great influencers of the civil war. It was a question of whether slavery was acceptable, and more specifically could a minister own slaves. Many of the Baptists felt that it was wrong to own slaved and others felt that slavery was an acceptable practice.[23]

            These controversies were the beginning of the division of the Baptists however, they were by no means the last of such divisions. The Baptist have divided down through history over so many different issues that it would be impossible for one paper to include all of them. From specific secondary theological beliefs, to personalities, to practices; the Baptists have divided over almost everything. The atmosphere of the day seems to almost spiritualize divisiveness as some kind of godly trait. It seems as if the church should focus on its differences instead of its similarities. There is no doubt cause to be always alert and aware of ones beliefs and practices, but the idea of division being the first solution to every disagreement is without a doubt an unbiblical mindset.

            The early Baptist church in America was a way more unified group than the Baptists of today. They unified along the lines of what they had in common instead of focusing on the minute differences that each held. The Baptists of today could learn a lot from their example. Dr. Samworth, makes mention of the great influence the Baptists had on early America and Christianity as a whole, and one could but wonder what kind of influence they could have again if they could be united in their fight against the devil and his world system. [24] Sadly, unlike the unified front that the early American Baptists had, the Baptist Church of today is in many ways, a house divided.


Works Cited

Benedict, David. "The Cause of Roger Williams Banishment." In A general history of the            Baptist denomination in America, and other parts of the world,, . Boston: Printed   by Lincoln & Edmands, no. 53, Cornhill, for the author, 1813.

Crowe, Dr. David. "The Spirit of Roger Williams." Advancing In Missions, January 1,     2000, Copied pdf.

McBeth, Leon. "Baptist Beginnings in New England." In The Baptist heritage, .    Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1987.

Newman, Albert Henry. A history of the Baptist churches in the United States. 1894.        Reprint, New York: Christian Literature, 1898. Copied pdf.

Pinson Jr., Wm. . "Baptist Distinctives." Baptist Distinctive       (accessed July 21, 2014).

Samworth, Herbert. (2014, July 08). Lecture 3. [Video File]. Retrieved from       

Wikimedia Foundation. "Triennial Convention." Wikipedia.    (accessed July 21, 2014)


[1]  Samworth, Herbert. (2014, July 08). Lecture 3. [Video File]. Retrieved from


[2] Pinson Jr., Wm. . "Baptist Distinctives." Baptist Distinctives. (accessed July 21, 2014).


[3]  McBeth, Leon. "Baptist Beginnings in New England." In The Baptist heritage, . Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1987. 130.


[4]  Wikimedia Foundation. "Triennial Convention." Wikipedia. (accessed July 21, 2014)


[5]  Crowe, Dr. David. "The Spirit of Roger Williams." Advancing In Missions, January 1, 2000, 4. Copied pdf.


[6]  Ibid.


[7]  McBeth, 130.


[8]   Newman, Albert Henry. A history of the Baptist churches in the United States. 1894. Reprint, New York: Christian Literature, 1898. Pg. 237. Copied pdf.


[9] Ibid.     


[10] Ibid. 238.


[11] Ibid. 239.


[12] Ibid. 244.


[13] Ibid. 247.


[14] Benedict, David. "The Cause of Roger Williams Banishment." In A general history of the Baptist denomination in America, and other parts of the world,, . Boston: Printed by Lincoln & Edmands, no. 53, Cornhill, for the author, 1813.


[15] Newman. 255.

[16] Newman, Albert Henry. A history of the Baptist churches in the United States. 1894. Reprint, New York: Christian Literature, 1898. Pg. 237. Copied pdf.


[17] McBeth, Leon. "Baptist Beginnings in New England." In The Baptist heritage, . Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1987. 124.


[18] Ibid 138.

[19] McBeth, Leon. "Baptist Beginnings." In The Baptist Heritage, . Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1987. 32.


[20] Ibid. 21.

[21] Ibid. 39.


[22] Ibid.

[23] Dr. Herbert Samworth. Lecture 18,  ED 545ex Baptist Distinctives and History of the Church. Can be found at:


[24] Dr. Herbert Samworth. Lecture 15,  ED 545ex Baptist Distinctives and History of the Church. Can be found at:

Posted on 02/07/2013 12:59 PM by Pastor Tim
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