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.online games

Announcement: International Conference on Baptist Studies VII

Since 1997, an international and multi-denominational group of scholars interested in Baptist history and thought have been gathering for a major conference every three years. Following six previous International Conferences on Baptist Studies (ICOBS) in both North America and Europe, including one hosted by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2012, the seventh ICOBS will gather next summer at Luther King House in Manchester, England, which is the home of the Northern Baptist Learning Community. The conference will be held July 15-18, 2015.

Past conferences have taken the history of the Baptists throughout the world as their subject matter, and participation has been open to all, both as speakers and attenders. The theme for next year’s ICOBS is “Baptists and Revival.” A number of Baptist scholars from many different nations and denominational traditions will be delivering plenary addresses based upon the theme. Professors, graduate students, and others are invited to propose short papers of up to 25 minutes related to the conference.

ICOBS has produced significant scholarly contributions to the field of Baptist Studies. Papers from most of the previous conferences have been published as books in the series Studies in Baptist History and Thought with Paternoster Press (UK) and Wipf & Stock (USA). Those books include the following titles:

In addition to the aforementioned books, a forthcoming volume, edited by Doug Weaver of Baylor University, is due to be published in early 2015. That book will include papers from the 2012 ICOBS that met at Southeastern.

For more information about ICOBS 2015, check out the general announcement on my personal website. If you are interested in Baptist Studies (or, for that matter, the history of revival), I hope you will consider attending this important conference. If you have any questions about ICOBS, please feel free to email me.

Pastoral Wisdom from Abraham Booth

boothAbraham Booth (1734-1806) was a longtime London pastor and leader among the British Particular Baptists in the 18th century. Among his most famous books were The Reign of GraceThe Death of Legal Hope, and An Apology for the Baptists. You can find these works (and most of Booth’s writings) in the three-volume Select Works of Abraham Booth, which can be purchased at a very affordable price through Reformation Heritage Books. (Unfortunately, this edition is published as flimsy paperbacks.) Particular Baptist Press is issuing a new hardback multi-volume collection of Booth’s works, which is edited by Michael Haykin. Volume I has already been published.

In 1784, Booth preached an ordination sermon for a young pastor named Thomas Hopkins. The title was “Pastoral Cautions” and the text was 1 Timothy 4:16: “Take heed to thyself.” The sermon was soon printed and circulated among Baptists all over England. Among the pastors who were positively influenced by the printed sermon were Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Sutcliff, and John Ryland Jr. These men were the key leaders in the evangelical renewal of Particular Baptists and the launching of the modern mission movement in the English-speaking world.

In the sermon, Booth outlined ten pastoral cautions that are just as applicable to our contemporary context as they were 200 years ago.

  1. “Take heed to yourself, then, with regard to the reality of true godliness, and the state of religion in your own soul”
  2. “Take heed to yourself, lest you mistake an increase of gifts for a growth in grace”
  3. “Take heed that your pastoral office prove not a snare to your soul, lifting you up with pride and self-importance”
  4. “Take heed to yourself, respecting your temper and conduct in general”
  5. “I will now adopt the words of our Lord, and say, Take heed and beware of covetousness”
  6. “Take heed, I will venture to ask, take heed to your Second-Self in the person of your wife”
  7. “Take heed to yourself, with regard to the diligent improvement of your talents and opportunities, in the whole course of your ministry”
  8. “Take heed to yourself, respecting the motives by which you are influenced in all your endeavours to obtain useful knowledge”
  9. “Take heed of yourself, with regard to that success, and those discouragements, which may attend your ministry”
  10. “Once more: Take heed that you pay an habitual regard to divine influence; as that without which you cannot either enjoy a holy liberty in your work, or have any reason to expect success”

I would heartily recommend that every pastor, seminarian, and missionary read the full text of this sermon, which is available in Michael & Alison Haykin, eds., The Works of Abraham Booth, Volume 1: Confession of Faith & Sermons (Particular Baptist Press, 2006), pp. 57-84.

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