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 games

Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism

In October 2009, Union University hosted a conference titled Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism. The conference was held in conjunction with the four hundredth anniversary of the Baptists. It also revisited an oft-asked question: what is the relationship between Southern Baptists and American evangelicals? You can listen to the conference audio at Union’s website.

For those who are interested, the proceedings of that conference are also now in print. Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism (B&H Academic, 2011) is a collection of essays edited by David Dockery, Ray Van Neste, and Jerry Tidwell. Between the Times contributors Danny Akin, Ed Stetzer, and yours truly spoke at the conference and contributed essays. You can see the full list of chapters and contributors below.

  1. So Many Denominations: The Rise, Decline, and Future of Denominationalism – David S. Dockery
  2. Denominationalism: Is There a Future? – Ed Stetzer
  3. Denominationalism and the Changing Religious Landscape – D. Michael Lindsay
  4. The Faith, My Faith, and the Church’s Faith – Timothy George
  5. The Future of Evangelicalism (and Southern Baptists) – Duane Litfin
  6. The Care for Souls: Reconsidering Pastoral Ministry in Southern Baptist and Evangelical Contexts – Ray Van Neste
  7. Awakenings and Their Impact on Baptists and Evangelicals: Sorting Out the Myths in the History of Missions and Evangelism – Jerry Tidwell
  8. Recovering the Gospel for the Twenty-first Century – Harry L. Poe
  9. Emergent or Emerging? Questions for Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals – Mark DeVine
  10. Reflections on 400 Years of the Baptist Movement: Who We Are, What We Believe – James A. Patterson
  11. Southern Baptists and Evangelicals: Passing on the Faith to the Next Generation – Nathan A. Finn
  12. The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention – Daniel Akin
  13. Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism – R. Albert Mohler Jr.

If you are interested in the storied history and future prospects of Southern Baptists, American evangelicalism, and/or denominationalism in general, I’d highly encourage you to pick up a copy of this important new book.