As global Baptists celebrate 400 years of history during the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) annual gathering in Ede, the Netherlands, two special sessions highlighted significant markers of Baptist life in the BWA’s six regions.
Americans tend to be so insular that I thought it would be worthwhile to include some of their conclusions. Today’s blog will touch on Europe, the Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific regions. Tomorrow, we’ll look at major moments in Baptist life from Africa, Latin America, and North America.
Peter Morton, who teaches at Spurgeon’s College in London, illustrated key themes in European Baptist history by focusing on three figures: Thomas Helwys, Anne Steele, and Johann Oncken.
Helwys, along with John Smythe, founded the first Baptist church in 1609, in the city of Amsterdam. In 1612, Helwys returned to England with a small group of followers and founded the first Baptist church on English soil, at a place called Spitalfields. That same year he published A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, a firm defense that challenged the king’s right to interfere with an individual’s religion. Helwys was arrested and thrown into prison, where he died a few years later.
Helwys’ call for religious liberty was “no postmodern mushy of toleration” in which anything goes, Morton said. Rather, he emphasized the uniqueness of Christ, the priority of evangelism and the advantages of Baptist distinctives while arguing that no matter what one’s beliefs, it is not the role of the king or state to compel people regarding their religious conscience.
Anne Steele, an 18th century poet and hymn-writer, knew a life shaped by intense suffering, but expressed profound faith despite her pain, so that her hymns gained wide popularity in the early 19th century, Morton said. Steele’s hymns express an utter dependence on God was deeply experiential, reflecting the experiential nature of Baptist faith.
Morton also mentioned Johann Oncken, a German Baptist who was baptized April 22, 1834 and on the following day helped organize the first German Baptist church, in Hamburg. Serving as pastor, Oncken integrated evangelism and social action, offering his church’s facilities for public use and building bridges that led to a sharp decline in persecution and greater appreciation for Baptists, Morton said.
Helwys, Steele, and Oncken exhibited “key Baptist principles to which European Baptists have sought to aspire,” Morton said, citing principles of radical commitment to Christ, patient endurance under persecution, a commitment to religious freedom, trust in the scriptures as God’s word, and a passion for holistic mission.
Horace Russell, a widely published academic from Jamaica, said the impact of Baptists in the Caribbean must be understood in the contexts of slavery and migration. George Leile, a freed slave from America, came to Jamaica in 1793, and other freed slaves went as missionaries to the Bahamas, with other works following in later years.
The early missionaries came out of the experience of an evangelical revival that targeted people of African descent, Russell said, but did not leave them free to practice their faith as they wished. In 1834, slavery was abolished in Jamaica, making all slaves apprentices, though still not fully free. Russell quoted from Baptist leaders who called for greater freedom.
Baptists in Jamaica invited the British Missionary Society to assist in the work. The British shared with the Caribbeans an appreciation for an educated clergy, Russell said, and a theological college was formed in 1843 to support that goal.
A significant contribution of Caribbean Baptists has been the recognition that ministry has to do “with development of the human person as a whole,” Russell said, with church
being “a place where people could develop.”
The Caribbean emphasis on missions and the important role of women’s work continue a holistic ministry of health and salvation as two sides of the same coin, he said.
Ken Manley spoke to the development of Baptists in Asia and the Pacific, the largest of the BWA’s six regions, and home to more than half of the world’s people. Most Baptists in Asia and the Pacific trace their roots to the witness of Baptists from Britain or North America, he said, beginning in 1793 with William Carey’s arrival in India.
Currently, the greatest concentration of Baptists in Asia are in a belt extending from northeast India, across Burma and into northern Thailand, he said, with Baptists forming the dominant Christian community in some areas, such as Nagaland.
Manley surveyed the beginnings and extent of Baptist work in countries from India to Japan, China to Australia, and Korea to Fiji. He noted at several points how mission work in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Indonesia began in earnest after missionaries were forced out of China in 1949 and sought new fields of ministry.
Manley also noted the importance of indigenous leaders and spontaneous revivals that have contributed to the growth and vitality of Baptist work in Asia and the Pacific. The growth and vitality of Baptist churches in the region, who serve “in some of the poorest and most heavily populated nations on earth, with their amazing tapestry of religious beliefs and political systems, is an integral part of the global Baptist story,” he said.