The following articles describe who Baptists are and how they came about:
Baptists seek to root their lives on the revelation of God's truth found in the Bible. One of the most important Biblical principles for them is the priesthood of all believers - that every Christian is equal and everybody has a part to play in the service of God. As a consequence they believe that the best place to determine the will of God for each Baptist church is within that church itself (and by the whole membership together).
There is therefore no hierarchy of bishops or priests exercising authority over their members, indeed there is no central Baptist Church at all. There is a Baptist Union which enables churches to have fellowship, co-operate together, share common resources and so on, but each local church is fundamentally still self-governing and self-supporting.
Another important Biblical principle that Baptists have always emphasised is the need for personal faith. Instead of baptising babies, Baptists have reserved baptism for those who are able to make a personal confession of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. In the 16th Century when the modern Baptist movement was born, this emphasis on personal faith was perceived as a threat to the state church, to which all were expected to belong, with or without faith. In 17th Century England Baptists refused to conform and be members of the Church of England, arguing that Christ, and not the King (or Queen), was head of the church. Baptists have hence been described as Dissenters or nonconformists - they stand in the Free Church tradition.
Baptists were persecuted for their beliefs throughout the 17th Century. In the early centuries there were two streams of Baptist life, based on two different theological understandings of the death of Christ. The General Baptists believed that when Christ died on the cross he died for everyone in general; the Particular Baptists, however, believed that Christ died for the elect i.e. a particular group of people. In the late 19th Century these two streams came together to form the present Baptist Union of Great Britain, which now has the following Declaration of Principle:
The Basis of the Baptist Union is:
1. That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.
2. That Christian Baptism is the immersion in water into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of those who have professed repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ who 'died for our sins according to the Scriptures; was buried, and rose again the third day'.
3. That it is the duty of every disciple to bear personal witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to take part in the evangelisation of the world.
There is no one distinctive Baptist belief! Although probably most people think of believer's baptism as the distinguishing feature of Baptists, they are not the only Christians to practise it. Nor are they the only Christians to believe in congregational church government, the priesthood of all believers, or the separation of church and state. It is the combination of these various beliefs which make Baptists distinctive.
Religious freedom for all has always been a keystone of the Baptist way. Within Baptist churches, tolerance for differences of outlook and diversity of practice is encouraged. Externally, Baptists welcome fellowship with everyone who has personally professed faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord.
History of English Baptists
The first recognisable English Baptist church was actually a group of English exiles in Amsterdam founded in 1609 under the leadership of John Smyth on the principles of:
· baptism upon profession of repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ (therefore no infant baptism, adults only)
· must bring forth fruits worthy of repentance
· baptism and the Lord's supper do not confer or convey grace & regeneration but serve only to support & stir up repentance and faith
· no bishops or succession (i.e. authority passed on from ordained to ordinand)
· going back to foundations in the New Testament (and being true to them)
The first Baptist church on English soil was at Spitalfields (in London) in 1612 led by Thomas Helwys (an early associate of John Smyth). All this was triggered by the Reformation and both Smyth & Helwys campaigned vigorously in this environment for religious toleration & freedom, something which also was to become a lasting Baptist principle.
The 17th century was a turbulent time in Britain, including civil war. Baptists also suffered persecution with fines and imprisonments (including John Bunyon who famously wrote "Pilgrim's Progress" while in prison).
Initially there were two streams of Baptist life, based on two different theological understandings of the death of Christ. The General Baptists believed that when Christ died on the cross he died for everyone in general; the Particular Baptists, however, believed that Christ died for the elect i.e. a particular group of people. In 1891 these two streams came together to form the present Baptist Union of Great Britain (the London Baptist Association was formed in 1865).
Both types of Baptists stagnated in the 18th century, due to rigidity & narrowness of views by many on things like: no marriage allowed to non-members; opposition to congregational hymn singing and ministers should stay at one church for life. Many Particular Baptists did not believe in evangelism either (since only God knew who the elect were and could call them).
Revived gospel emphasis led to the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 - a pioneering society for evangelism. And Baptists in the UK grew significantly in the 19th Century. This was the age of the pulpit giants - Charles Haddon Spurgeon in London, for instance, and Alexander Maclaren in Manchester, drew congregations of many thousands. It was also during this era that Baptists such as John Clifford, in London, were much involved in the quest for social justice and were prominent in the fight against slavery and racism.
There were 54 Baptist congregations by 1644 and 297 by 1660. In 2004 in the Baptist Union of Great Britain there were c. 2150 churches and 150,000 members. In the Worldwide Baptist Alliance there were c. 150,000 churches and 43 million members.
Baptists have come to believe in diversity, in freedom of individual belief and expression. John Clifford summed it up as being "faithful to conscience, without being exclusive; and to insist on loyalty to Christ, without confounding it with loyalty to ourselves". Some churches have "closed" membership, only accepting people who have been baptised as adults - others accept unbaptised adults on the basis of faith alone, not wanting to deny membership to those whom God has accepted and saved, and are said to have "open" membership. Some believe baptism is a means of grace (i.e. God does something special through it), others do not, believing that full regeneration happens by faith alone and therefore baptism cannot add anything to that.