Baptists have a reputation for being a missionary people. And that activism surely flows from the radical commitment of the early Baptists to the lordship of Jesus Christ and a fresh engagement with scripture.
Peering through nearly 1,600 years of ecclesiastical layering, they rediscovered the biblical witness to the missionary God of the Old and New Testament – and his purposes for his church.
Their experience of persecution demanded a radical commitment to the cause. And with that commitment came a genuinely missionary zeal.
The journey to Amsterdam resulted in the first Baptist church in 1609, the anniversary we celebrate this year. A subsequent return to England saw the first Baptist church on English soil opening in 1611. Pilgrims sailing to America were the precursor to Baptist churches appearing there by the 1630s. And rapid growth was evident there by the mid-18th century.
That growth was particularly strong among slaves and former slaves who were drawn to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, as they were freed, their faith became the launch pad for major missionary endeavors.
In 1773, George Liele became the first African-American to be licensed as a preacher, moving to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1783, along with many others, where he established a thriving Baptist witness.
In a similar way, Prince Williams, also a freed slave from South Carolina, traveled to the Bahamas and helped establish a Baptist church, Bethel Meeting House. In Williams’ long life – he died aged 104 – he influenced many people through his preaching and leadership, and subsequently more than 160 churches were planted in the Bahamas.
David George, through his childhood friendship with George Liele, was himself converted and baptized in South Carolina and eventually traveled to Sierra Leone with 12,000 black settlers and founded the first Baptist church in that land.
Lott Carey, another freed slave, went on to pastor an 800-strong congregation in Virginia before he traveled to West Africa in 1821, establishing a ministry of church planting, health care and education before he died in 1828.
More names could be added to this roll call of honor but the significance of this migration is often underestimated. If for no other reason, we should be reminded of the potential for strong missionary currents flowing within the major people migrations we see today.
Meanwhile, in England, the challenge of William Carey to the prevailing theology of the day led to the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society (today BMS World Mission), a work that spread to the far corners of the British Empire within a generation.
This initiative was remarkable in many respects and none more so than the new model that BMS represented. Based on the joint-stock model of the East India Company, Carey and others saw that cooperation in mission would allow so much more to be done. The use of the word “society” described the commitment of individuals and churches to a common cause, a model that survives strongly to this day.
A similar model emerged later in America and encouraged the formation of various Baptist associations and conventions. The largest of these is the Southern Baptist Convention, which has more than 5,000 career missionaries today.
As a result of the emancipation of slaves and the reach of empire, Baptists in the 19th century became established in Britain, throughout the New World, in Africa and Asia. But strangely there was almost no presence in mainland Europe until Johann Gerhard Oncken, a German, was baptized in 1834 and helped form a church in Hamburg. Oncken traveled across Europe and when asked if he was a missionary, famously responded, “Jeder Baptist ein Missionar” (“Every Baptist is a missionary”).
Today, the world of Baptist missions is transformed. Baptists from Mizoram, Nigeria, Ukraine and Korea stand alongside those from the Old World and what was once called the New World. Those from Brazil are coming close to the size and influence of those from America. Mission is happening from everywhere to everywhere.
And new missionary models are being pioneered by Baptists. The support of indigenous missionaries by traditional sending agencies is hugely significant. The utilization of business as a mission model, major Baptist input into broadcasting, and bold experiments in reaching those from a Muslim background are all characteristic of a continuing missionary commitment.
Oncken was right – every Baptist is a missionary. That is how we have always understood our faith.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission, the primary mission agency for British Baptists. He is a member of the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Interchurch Cooperation, the Mission and Evangelism Workgroup, the BWAid Committee and the BWA Membership Committee. This article first appeared in Baptist World, the quarterly publication of the Baptist World Alliance.