A Very Brief Introduction to Baptist History, Then and Now
by Bruce Gourley, Executive Director, Baptist History & Heritage Society

Baptist Origins          The Reformed Debate           The Southern Baptist Controversy and Beyond


 Baptist History & Heritage Society         BaptistHistory.Com       Baptists Today         BaptistLife.Com


Those who would research Baptist history via the Internet be warned: there is an abundance of information about Baptist history, much of which comes from biased perspectives originating from personal agendas.

A old saying among Baptists notes that when two Baptists get together, three different opinions result!  This is quite evident when one reads online Baptist history resources, and the discerning reader will pay attention to biases evidenced within web sites.

History, in fact, is subject to various (and often contradictory) interpretations, and Baptist history is not exempt from the interpretive confusion. Indeed, Baptists have long been in disagreement over how they originated!

Historical Views of Baptist Origins

1.  Outgrowth of English Separatism -- The most accepted, best documented historical view of Baptist origins is that the Baptist faith originated from within the Separatist movement that arose in Europe with the goal of breaking away from the Church of England (itself a split from the Catholic Church, although it retained many of the trappings; those within the Church of England who wished to remain a part of the Church and yet purify it became known as "Puritans;" they were, in a sense, cousins to Separatists). The influence of Anabaptists upon early Baptists is considered minimal or non-existent, according to this viewpoint (Baptists obviously shared views of believer's baptism in terms of ecclesiology, but there was no actual connection between the two groups). The earliest Baptist church is traced back to 1609 in Amsterdam, with John Smyth as pastor and Thomas Helwys as a key lay leader. The group's embracing of "believer's baptism" became the defining moment that led to the establishment of this first Baptist church. Shortly thereafter, Smyth left the group, and Helwys took over the leadership, leading the church back to England in 1611. In turn, other congregations arose in the footsteps of Smyth/Helwys. Later, in 1638 a Calvinist expression of Baptists (Particular Baptists) arose, and became the first to embrace baptism by immersion. The 1609 Separatist view is widely accepted by scholars within and without Baptist life. Representative Baptist scholars include late 19th through early 21st century Baptist historians such as William H. Whitsitt, Robert G. Torbet, Winthrop S. Hudson, William G. McLoughlin, Robert A. Baker, Leon McBeth, Douglas Weaver, Walter Shurden, and Bill Leonard. Apart from Baptist life, most all religious historians also accept the 1609 theory of Baptist origins. However, in recent years as modern Calvinists Baptists strive to lay primary claim to Baptist history and identity, some Calvinist Southern Baptist historians have utilized the 1638 Particular Baptist recovery of immersion as a springboard to position Calvinism/covenant theology as the foundation of true Baptist origins and identity, in the process largely dismissing the formative influences of the 1609 Arminianist Smyth/Helwys spiritual lineage.

2.  Influence of Anabaptists -- This view holds that although Baptists originated from English Separatism, their emergence owes much to the earlier Anabaptists. According to this view, some early Baptists were influenced by some Anabaptists. The Dutch Mennonites (Anabaptists), for example, shared some similarities with General Baptists (believer's baptism, religious liberty, separation of church and state, and Arminian views of salvation, predestination and original sin). However, there were significant differences between Anabaptists and Baptists: Anabaptists tended towards extreme pacifism, communal sharing of earthly goods, refusal to take oaths, and an unorthodox optimistic view of human nature. Therefore, few Baptists today hold to this theory of Baptist origins. Representative Baptist historians include A. C. Underwood and William R. Estep. Among some contemporary Baptist scholars who emphasize the faith of the community over freedom of conscience, Anabaptist ideals have found a new resonance in terms of Baptist identity. In addition, some contemporary Southern Baptists of the fundamentalist persuasion have, in recent years, further  elevated Anabaptists within their understanding of Baptist origins.

3.  Continuation of Biblical Teachings -- Some Baptists "seek to go back beyond the Anabaptist movement to trace the continuity of Baptist forms of faith through the centuries" (Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 1987, page 56).  While advocates of this view do not claim a succession of organized Baptist churches (see below), they believe the Baptist faith and practice has existed since the time of Christ. This view is represented by some historians of earlier generations, many of whom were concerned with presenting the validity of their faith (denomination) over and above that of other denominations. Some representative writers of an earlier era include Thomas Crosby (one of the earliest Baptist historians, he wrote in the early 1700s), A.H. Newman and David Benedict.

4.  Succession of Baptist Churches -- This viewpoint goes beyond mere "continuation of biblical teachings" and declares that Baptist churches actually existed in an unbroken chain since the time of Christ and John the Baptist. Commonly referred to as "Landmarkism" (Baptist Successionism is a major component of "Landmark" views) or the "Trail of Blood" theory (J.M.Carroll authored a booklet by this name), this view declares that some churches that stood outside the influence of the Roman Catholic Church at various times in early and medieval history were, in actuality although not in name, Baptist churches. Refusing to embrace infant baptism, these churches rejected the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church as a Christian entity. However, many of the identified historical churches/groups that Landmarkists label as Baptist churches were heretical in regards to orthodox doctrine. Although absent of historical documentation and scholarly support, the Landmarkist view yet remains popular among certain Baptists, particular in rural areas of the South and Southwest. In addition, the ascendancy of the Internet has provided a new platform for promoting Landmarkism. The contemporary popularity of this view of Baptist history stems to some degree from a long-standing dislike of Catholics on the part of many Baptists. J. R. Graves, J. M. Pendleton and A. C. Dayton - all three 19th century Baptist leaders and writers - are the "fathers" of Landmarkism. (For more information on Landmarkism and Successionism, see James E. Tull's, High-Church Baptists in the South: The Origin, Nature and Influence of Landmarkism (available via Google Books.)


The Reformed Debate

In addition to the long-running debate over Baptist origins, a new debate is now prominent in Baptist life:  the question over whether or not Baptists (and particularly Southern Baptists) are historically Calvinistic.   The Founders Journal (see below), along with Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, champions the view that Southern Baptists have always been strict (5 point) Calvinists. While it is true that Southern Baptists have long been influenced by Calvinism, they have also been much influenced by Arminianism, which historically served to moderate Calvinism and produce a warmly evangelistic theology that existed at the formation of the SBC in 1845. Most Baptists today hold beliefs from both Calvinistic and Arminian schools of thought. The current Calvinistic debate regarding Baptist history has reached the point of directly impacting many Baptist churches throughout America. Many online Baptist history resources are from the Reformed (or Calvinist) perspective.  Also, within the past few years, some Reformed (or Calvinist) Baptists have shifted to using the milder-sounding terminology of "doctrines of grace" rather than "Calvinism."


The Southern Baptist Controversy and a Baptist Renewal Movement

The 1980s to the present have witnessed a new fundamentalist controversy (also often referred to as a "political" and / or "Bible" controversy) within the largest Baptist denomination, altering the course of Southern Baptist history, and Baptist history in general. Minority fundamentalists, now firmly in charge of the national Southern Baptist Convention, have changed the direction and nature of the Convention, resulting in unprecedented denominational decline. Striving to re-fashion Baptist history to reflect their theology, politics, and ideology, fundamentalists have caused much confusion about Baptist history among Baptist laity and the general populace. 

Whereas Baptists are historically non-creedal, the fundamentalist leaders of the SBC forced creedalism upon Southern Baptists through the implementation of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. While Baptists traditionally believed in freedom of conscience, fundamentalists reversed this course, replacing it with theological and political correctness. Whereas Baptists historically held to the truthfulness of Scripture in matters of faith, looking to Christ and the Holy Spirit as the criterion for interpreting the Bible, the fundamentalist leadership claims that looking to Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the authority for faith is a unacceptable, liberal position.  In the place of Christ-centric faith, they have positioned the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, and/or a modern interpretation of Biblical authority known as "inerrancy," as the only valid manner in which to approach Scripture.

At the state Baptist level, some traditional state Baptist conventions asserted their autonomy in distancing themselves from the creedalistic, fundamentalist SBC, refusing to enforce the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Many, however, followed the wishes of the national leadership.

The year 2004 witnessed a significant new development within the Southern Baptist Convention.  The SBC leadership defunded the Baptist World Alliance, charging (with no factual basis) the BWA as a liberal, un-American institution. In response, many state Baptist conventions and local Southern Baptist churches have since increased their support of the BWA.

In 2006, a new rupture within the Southern Baptist Convention occurred as some younger SBC agency trustees and pastors accused the older leadership of being too narrow-minded; the older leadership, in turn, considers the younger leadership as too liberal; this latest (and ongoing) skirmish demonstrates the nature of fundamentalists' quest for purity.

Today, Southern Baptist leaders search for solutions as their denomination's decline quickens. Convinced that fundamentalist theology is not to blame, many point to a lack doctrinal purity and/or too little emphasis on evangelism as the culprit.

During the course of the Southern Baptist controversy, a broader Baptist renewal movement has taken place, evidenced in the birth of a number of new entities championing historic principles and a cooperative spirit long ago abandoned by fundamentalists. The new entities include the national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organization, birthed in 1990 and evidencing the trappings of a denomination and including numerous state and regional organizations. Other moderate Baptist organizations, many of whom partner with CBF, include the Baptist Center for Ethics, Baptist Women in Ministry, Baptist History and Heritage Society, the national news journal Baptists Today, the Associated Baptist Press, Smyth & Helwys Publishers, some fifteen new Baptist seminaries / divinity schools, and other entities

For more information on current events in this ongoing struggle from a traditional Baptist perspective, visit BaptistLife.Com, Mainstream Baptists, The Baptist Standard, Baptist History and Heritage Society, Center for Baptist Studies, or Baptists Today.  To view the fundamentalist perspective, go to Baptist Press, SBC Life, or Baptist2Baptist.

A published chronology of this controversy (through the mid-1990s) can be found by clicking here.

Finally, Bruce T. Gourley's A Capsule History of Baptists provides a broader, and brief, summary of Baptist history that includes modern developments.