Baptists and the Reformation

Baptists are Protestants. I know there are some Baptists out there who don’t believe we are Protestants, but their rejection of this truth betrays a bapto-centric bias and ignores history. It is one of those beliefs that my colleague Keith Harper calls “history as apologetics”–using (or misusing) history (or alleged history) to make a theological point.

The first Protestants were theological and moral dissenters who ultimately left the Catholic Church and started new movements. Most Protestants continued to embrace some form of church-state union (or at least close partnership) and, like Catholics, used the state’s power to coerce religious conformity. Lutherans and most Calvinists could be included in this group. A few Protestants, such as the Anabaptists, embraced the believer’s church model and rejected the idea of territorial churches. These “Free Church” Protestants were typically abused by the “Magisterial” Protestants who were fans of state churches.

In England, Protestants were active from at least the 1520s, though it wasn’t until the 1530s that the Church of England withdrew from the Catholic Church and embraced a cautious Protestantism. After a period of religious and political turmoil, England emerged as a Protestant nation from 1559 onwards, combining a moderately Reformed view of salvation with a moderately Catholic view of worship and the church. This compromised Protestantism, more formally known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, pleased few of those folks who wanted to see England become Geneva or Zurich with a cockney accent and afternoon tea.

Most of the “hot” Protestants in England wanted to transform the Church of England into a Presbyterian state church–we call them the puritans, though there were some early puritans who were cool with bishops. Other staunch Protestants agreed with the Calvinism of the early puritans, but rejected the Presbyterian commitment to state churches. These Separatists, so-called because they left the Church of England and formed independent congregations, were in many ways similar to the Anabaptists in their ecclesiology, though they still held to covenantal infant baptism based upon their Reformed soteriology.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, some of the Separatists came to embrace credobaptism, which they added to their prior commitments to regenerate church membership, congregational polity, local church autonomy, and religious liberty. We call these folks the Baptists. While there is some debate about what influence, if any, the Continental Anabaptists had on at least some of these Separatists, at the end of the day the first Baptists were in fact Separatists who adopted confessor’s baptism. And by the 1640s, the mode of their baptism reflected the New Testament practice of full immersion.

So Baptists are Protestants. To be specific, we are third generation Protestants who in many ways represent an attempt to reform the Reformation. In the Baptist movement, the very best of the Magisterial understanding of Scripture and salvation was combined with the very best of the Free Church understanding of the church and discipleship. The result was a new movement that represented a further reformation among some of the Reformed churches in England. These Baptists were a diverse lot, they didn’t always play nicely with one another, and some of them chased some admittedly troubling tangents, especially in the eighteenth century. But Protestants they remained, albeit a different Protestant movement than the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists of Continental Europe.

So on this Reformation Day, I’m thankful for the Protestant heritage we Baptists enjoy. We stand with Luther and Calvin on justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We stand with the Anabaptists on a believer’s church committed to radical discipleship and confessor’s baptism. We stand with all three of these groups in their commitment to the supreme authority of Scripture. And as good Protestants, we ultimately stand where we stand, not because others stand there as well, but because we believe the Spirit still speaks through His Word to guide Christ’s people on the narrow way.

Happy Reformation Day.

(Note: This is a lightly edited re-post of an essay that was first published in October 2010. Image credit here and here.)


Baptists and the American Civil War

We’re currently in the second year of a four-year, sesquicentennial remembrance of the American Civil War. Fought between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War remains the deadliest war in American history, resulting in the deaths of over 750,ooo combatants, plus an unrecorded amount of civilians. Hundreds, maybe thousands of events are being held throughout the country to commemorate, honor, and often grieve various aspects of the conflict.

It’s impossible to separate the Civil War from its religious undercurrents. Historians such as Clarence Goen and Mitchell Snay argue that the racially charged divisions between Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the 1830s and 1840s helped to pave the way for the secession of the southern states in 1861. Dozens of historians have weighed in on the religious dimensions of the war itself. Some of the more noteworthy works include studies by Mark Noll, Harry Stout, and George Rable. Stout, Randall Miller, and Charles Reagan Wilson have also edited a fine collection of essays that introduce readers to the historiography of religion and the Civil War through the late 1990s.

Bruce Gourley, executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, has created an impressive website dedicated to Baptists and the American Civil War: In Their Own Words. The website includes numerous resources, including links to primary source documents available online, an ongoing collection of “this day in Civil War history” blog entries that focus upon Baptists, and links to other Civil War resources on the web. The website is a great resource, especially for classes on the Civil War, American Christianity, or Baptist History.

If you’re interested in learning more about Baptists and the Civil War, you should consider attending the 2013 annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society. The conference will be held May 20-22 in Richmond, Virginia. The theme is “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time.” The keynote speakers are the distinguished historians Harry Stout, Edward Ayers, and Andrew Manis. The conference will also include dozens of shorter papers related to the conference theme. You can read more about the conference at the BH&HS website.

(Note: The image [credit] is a picture of J. William Jones, a Southern Baptist chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia, author of Christ in the Camp, and assistant corresponding secretary of the SBC Home Mission Board from 1884-1893. He was one of the most important evangelists for the “Lost Cause” mythology that dominated the post-war South into the early 20th century. You can read more about Jones in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.)

On the Importance of Local Church Histories

I recently finished reading my friend Glenn Jonas’s excellent history of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh, North Carolina. The book, titled Nurturing the Vision: First Baptist Church, Raleigh, 1812 –2012 (Mercer University Press, 2012) tells the story of one of the more influential churches among Baptists in the South. I highly recommend it for those interested in Baptist history, local church history, or the history of Raleigh. You can also watch a plenary session Jonas gave at the 2012 annual meeting of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, which was based upon the book.

Over the years, FBC Raleigh has cast a long shadow over Baptist life in this region, including such storied ministries and institutions such as the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, The Biblical Recorder, Wake Forest University, Meredith College, and Southeastern Seminary. Many of her pastors have been state and national denominational leaders. As a general rule, most of the pastors over the past century were also highly educated; many of them also served at one time or another on a seminary or college faculty. In fact, two former pastors, Sydnor Stealey and Randall Lolley, are also former presidents of Southeastern Seminary. The church’s membership has included important state and national politicians, journalists, university administrators, and key business people.

FBC Raleigh is a congregation that has been characterized by a strong commitment to denominational missions, ministry in a downtown, urban context, and moderate-to-progressive views on theology and social issues. It was among the earliest Southern Baptist churches to elect women to serve as deacons and later ordain women to vocational ministry. Since at least John Lewis’s tenure as pastor from 1960–1987, the church’s pastors have been very active in moderate Baptist life. The church is no longer affiliated with the SBC, but remains involved in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Jonas’s history is especially helpful because it situates the FBC Raleigh story in the larger stories of Southern Baptists, North Carolina Baptists, and the city of Raleigh. Local church histories haven’t always done a good job of contextualizing their stories in this way. Readers learn about all the topics you’d expect: pastors, building programs, ministry initiatives, significant milestones, etc. But historians in particular will appreciate the chapters that discuss how FBC Raleigh weathered key events such as the various wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Conservative-Moderate Controversy in the SBC.

As I was reading Nurturing the Vision, I was reflecting on a recent trend that I celebrate. In the past decade or so, a number of very good local church histories have been published. Unlike most books of this genre, these histories have been written by professional historians who are also committed Baptists. Like Jonas’s work, these histories not only tell the church’s story, but they also make an important, often underappreciated contribution to Baptist Studies. They aren’t hagiographical studies, but at the same time the books are sympathetic to their subject, which is appropriate for a work of this nature (and understandable—the authors are paid by the churches to write the histories!).

In the preface to Jonas’s book, the respected Baptist historian Walter Shurden argues, “In the future, Baptist historians probably should spend far more time on local rather than global history. The latter is almost impossible to do correctly, but the former is manageable, so helpful, and serves to correct our generalizations about our spiritual family.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s my hope that this renaissance of local church histories continues. Not nearly as many churches publish histories as was the case a generation ago, and that’s a shame. I would urge churches, especially older congregations, to consider investing the time and resources in publishing quality, well-researched histories. They will not only do a service to their own congregations, but will also do a service to historians as well. The same goes for local associations, state conventions, and various denominational ministries as well.

If you’re interested in reading some good local church histories, in addition to Nurturing the Vision, I’d recommend the following books: Greg Wills, The First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina, 1809 to 2002 (Fields, 2003); C. Douglas Weaver, Second to None: A History of Second-Ponce De Leon Baptist Church, 1854–2004 (Fields, 2004); Robert A. Baker, Paul J. Craven, and Marshall Blalock, History of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, 1682–2007, 325th Anniversary Edition (Particular Baptist Press, 2007); Scott Culclasure, In Every Good Work: A History of First Baptist Church Greensboro, North Carolina (Fields, 2009).angry racer web online