Recurring Themes in Baptist History

Nearly every semester, I teach a course at Southeastern Seminary titled Baptist History: Heritage, Identity, Polity. Like any subject that you study historically, Baptist history is characterized by a number of recurring themes. Some of these themes represent perennial debates among Baptists, while others speak to historical developments that continue to influence Baptists to the present day. I try to highlight these themes during the course of the semester in my lectures and in our class discussions.

While there are no doubt other themes that could be highlighted, I point to six as being particularly important. These topics come up in class again and again because, well, they come up among Baptists again and again!

1. Reform vs. Restoration: Some historians interpret Baptists as a reform movement that arose among English Protestants, while others see them as a restoration movement that sought to bypass earlier movements and return to the purity of New Testament Christianity. Furthermore, how Baptists themselves have understood their own identity as reformers or restorationists has varied at different points in history. How one approaches this issue necessarily affects his or her understanding of Baptist identity.

2. Calvinism vs. Arminianism: From their earliest days, Baptists have enjoyed no consensus on doctrines such as predestination, the extent/intent of the atonement, the relationship between divine grace and human belief, and the eternal security of those who believe. Some Baptists have been strong Calvinists, while others have been convictional Arminians. Many Baptists (including most Southern Baptists today) have attempted to argue that a position between Calvinism and Arminianism is the most biblical position. While this is an important topic that should be considered first and foremost from a biblical perspective, historically, there is no such thing as “the Baptist view” of the doctrines of grace.

3. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Membership: While all Baptists affirm believer’s baptism, there is no unanimity in terms of how baptism relates to the Lord’s Supper and church membership. Historically, most Baptists have argued that believer’s baptism is prerequisite to church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, many Baptists believe that believer’s baptism should not be prerequisite to communion. A small but growing minority of Baptists believes that believer’s baptism should not be a requirement of church membership. This spectrum of views was already present by the middle of the seventeenth century.

4. The Relationship between Church and State: Baptists have historically championed full religious liberty and church-state separation. However, Baptists have frequently disagreed about the implementation of this principle. Some Baptists want religious liberty within the context of a broadly Christian nation, while others want the state to take a secular (though not secularist) approach and remain neutral on religious matters. In America, this particular theme has been a point of tension from the 1960s onward. Some Baptists accuse the Supreme Court and sometimes legislative bodies of advocating secularism while other Baptists accuse political conservatives of rejecting, or at least downplaying, the importance of church-state separation.

5. The Centrality of Missions: From the eighteenth century onwards, missions has been arguably the defining theme in Baptist history. Nearly every theological and methodological debate among Baptists has been related in some way to the desire of Baptists to obey Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20. As much as any denomination, Baptists are a tradition defined by a high level of commitment to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. We have certainly witnessed this theme play in some of our family discussions in recent Southern Baptist life.

6. Increasing Denominationalism: As Baptists became more committed to missions, they were forced to develop increasingly elaborate denominational structures to better facilitate cooperation for the sake of missions. Sometimes, denominationalism has served as a catalyst to missionary efforts. At other times, denominational structures have arguably hindered effective missionary advance due to alleged bureaucratic expansion. For some Baptists, their denominational identity is part and parcel of their wider Baptist identity, while other Baptists see themselves as only partially—perhaps even peripherally—part of a Baptist denomination.

Again, I have little doubt there are other themes that could be highlighted, but these are the ones that stand out to me. To my thinking, it is impossible to understand Baptist history—or contemporary debates about Baptist identity, denominationalism, etc.—without some familiarity with these six recurring themes.

Martin Luther’s Rendition of “Let it Go”

Translator’s note: On August 1521, Martin Luther was called before the Diet of Worms and asked to recant of his views. After taking a night to consider what he’d do next, Luther was brought before the Diet the next day. While there, he sang the most famous ballad in Protestant history. I have transcribed it below, from the original German, and translated it into English.

My tonsured head glows white at the Diet tonight
Your reflection, could be seen
The Church has isolated me,
Cajetan was really mean

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in, Karlstadt knows I tried

Don’t let them in, don’t let them sense
You’ll go to heaven if you buy an indulgence
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know

Let it go, let it go
I’m justified by faith alone
Let it go, let it go
To act against my conscience would be wrong

I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let this Diet rage on,
The Pope never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how the Scripture
Makes works-righteousness seem dope
And the fears that once controlled me
Are the fault of the Pope

It’s time to tell them what I learned
To test the limits and hope that I don’t burn
No Popes, no bulls, no canon law
I think James is an epistle of straw

Let it go, let it go
I won’t recant what I believe
Let it go, let it go
Last night I drenched the Devil in ink

Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
My conscience captive to the Word

My writings spread to German villages all around
The peasants love me, though I’ll burn them to the ground
And one thought festers in my constipated bowels
I’m never going back,
They’ll have to kill me now

Let it go, let it go
I’ll be starting my own church
Let it go, let it go
I’ll have to hide out for some time first

Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
I’ll marry my Kate
The Pope never bothered me anyway

 

The Child of a Storm

Tonight (Sept 16, 2014) Dr. Gerald Smith presents the Drummond-Bush lecture for the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. The event will be held at the Wake Forest Baptist Church, which is located on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The title of his lecture is “‘The Child of a Storm:’ The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Dr. Smith is the Martin Luther King scholar-in-residence at the University of Kentucky.

Dr. Gerald Smith

Dr. Gerald Smith

Dr. Smith’s Tuesday night lecture is part of a two-day reflection on the role that people of faith played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 10 am in Binkley Chapel, Dr. Danny Akin will lead a panel discussion in a special “Casual Conversations” chapel. Dr. Smith will be joined by civil rights historians Dr. David Roach (of Baptist Press) and Dr. Brent Aucoin (of Southeastern Seminary). Rounding out the panel will be Mr. Clarence Henderson, who in 1960 participated in the sit-in of the whites-only Woolworth diner in Greensboro, NC. (NPR has an excellent article about importance of the sit-in and Clarence Henderson’s role can be found here: “The Woolworth Sit-In That Launched a Movement”). Make plans to join us!