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Yesterday I posted the first half of a two-part report on a Baptist World Alliance forum recounting significant moments in Baptist life through the 400 years we’ve been around. The BWA’s annual gathering is currently underway in Ede, the Netherlands. The first blog (below) dealt with three of the BWA’s six regions: Europe, the Caribbean, and the Asia/Pacific region. Today we look at Africa, Latin America, and North America.

Ademola Ishola, general secretary of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, spoke on the growth of Baptists in Africa. Despite their many differences, Africans share many of the same socio-economic realities, he said. In addition, “Africans are generally and incurably religious,” Ishola said, a trait that permeates every facet of life, and has “provided fertile soil for the Gospel to take root.”

Baptist work in Africa did not begin as intentional mission work, he said, but as freed slaves from Britain and America returned to colonize Sierra Leone (1792) and Liberia (1822). The Baptist presence had little impact on indigenous peoples, however, as the former slaves kept mainly to the new towns they founded, regarding the local Africans as inferior, Ishola said.

The migration of German and English settlers brought the Baptist witness to South Africa in the early 1800s, but the exploitation of blacks by the white settlers and the resulting system of apartheid led to sharp divisions among white and black Baptists that are just beginning to be healed, Ishola said.

The first missionary to Nigeria was Thomas Brown, sent by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1850. It was a painful irony, Ishola observed, that a convention begun because of its support for slavery “set the pace in sending missionaries to the relatives of the slaves they were still keeping.”

When most of the American missionaries returned home during the American Civil War, Ishola said, national Baptists assumed greater leadership, which led to discord when the missionaries returned. That experience revealed that national leaders who understand their context are more effective at reaching their own people, and that paternalism can be a hindrance to effective missions.

Ishola noted a more recent round of conflict when Southern Baptist missionaries withdrew from their traditional fields of work as the International Mission Board began its “New Directions” strategy that focused less on institutions and more on church planting. The loss of funding and resources for cherished ministries was painful, Ishola said, but the experience ultimately helped African Baptists grow and take more responsibility for their own future.

A lesson to be learned, Ishola emphasized, is that cooperative partnership that leads to self-sufficiency is a more effective mission strategy than paternalism that leads to dependency.

Dinorah Méndez, who teaches at Mexican Baptist Seminary, spoke about Baptist growth and issues of concern in Latin America, where Protestant mission work began with the arrival of Scotsman Diego Thompson in 1818. Beginning in Argentina, Thompson distributed Bibles throughout Latin America as an agent of the British Bible Society.

Méndez reviewed the beginnings of Baptist mission work in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, emphasizing how early Latin American Baptists had to struggle for religious liberty because of the entrenched nature of Catholicism in the area.

Following the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, the Catholicism became deeply ingrained not only in the culture, but in the government of Latin American countries. The lack of separation between church and state led to intolerance and physical persecution of minority groups such as Baptists, Méndez said.

Méndez emphasized that, while some Baptists have hopes of better relations with the Catholic Church, efforts at rapprochement are generally led by those who have not experienced Catholicism in the Latin American context, where relations with Catholics are viewed with greater distrust.

Conflict with Catholics can’t just be swept away, Méndez said: “we must keep alive an awareness of the particularities of context, and how the struggle for religious liberty continues where the Catholic church continues to dominate.”

In response to restrictive governments and Catholic domination, Baptists’ belief in free will and congregational government has fostered opportunities for freedom not experienced elsewhere, Méndez said, “an alternative model from which many democratic ideals were nurtured.”

Méndez said Neo-Pentecostalism, along with post-denominationalism, is a present threat to the Baptist churches in Latin America. In many churches, she said, Pentecostals have gained enough influence to lead congregations away from both their Baptist identity and Baptist distinctives such as the separation of church and state.

Poverty, inequality, and religious confusion add to the challenges, Méndez said. Even so, Latin American Baptists continue to grow and are becoming increasingly involved in sending out missionaries of their own.

Baptists’ 400th anniversary offers Latin American Baptists “an opportunity to recognize our history, to locate ourselves in it, and to appreciate it as valuable,” she said. Meanwhile, Baptists must hold on to important distinctives such as congregational government and separation of church and state. They must trust the authority and Lordship of Christ, she said, not just a Pentecostal-style emphasis on experiencing the Spirit. Likewise, Baptists must practice the priesthood of all believers and defend religious freedom when necessary, she said, even as they hold to the missionary imperative of going to the ends of the earth.

Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL, traced four major themes in Baptist life through the four centuries they have been present in North America.

The 17th century was marked by a struggle for liberty, George said. Though Puritans had been persecuted in England, when they came to power in New England, they set up an “ecclesiocracy” and persecuted others, whipping and even hanging those who proclaimed a gospel contrary to their own beliefs.

Roger Williams was a key figure giving voice to religious liberty, arguing in The Bloody Tenet of Persecution that civil magistrates have no authority in religious matters because “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”

The price of religious freedom is eternal vigilance, George said. Massachusetts retained an established church until 1833, and persecution continued in Virginia through the Revolutionary period.

Revival was a primary theme in the 18th century, George said. The Philadelphia Association spread its influence through many of the colonies, but the fires of revivalism were more of an indigenous movement sparked by George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, and others. “New Light Baptists” were among those to emerge from the movement. Led by Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall, their influence moved south into North Carolina, where they founded the Sandy Creek Association, and beyond.

Baptist piety of the time was a corporeal experience, George said. Common Baptist rites and rituals such as baptism by immersion, receiving communion, the laying on of hands, the right hand of fellowship, and foot washing were all “bodily expressions of faith.”

George said the 19th century was marked by the theme of mission. Many mission efforts were started, along with supportive organizations such as Women’s Mite Societies and the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Board.

As mission societies multiplied, so did challenges, George said. Landmarkism promoted a truncated and isolated form of Baptistness, while anti-missions movements “were a recrudescence of hyperCalvinism.” The issue of slavery led to division between northern and southern Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians. Yet, George said, “in that cauldron of oppression was born the seeds of revival among African Americans.”

The 20th century was marked by the theme of witness, George said, with influential voices ranging from Walter Rauschenbusch’s and Helen Barrett Montgomery’s call for social responsibility to Annie Armstrong’s and Lottie Moon’s fervent appeals for mission support, to the preaching of George Truett, Carlisle Marney, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, and many others.

Despite those clear voices, George said, “the witness not unsullied.” Tensions remain between sectarianism and ecumenism, and some Baptists still tend “to the vociferous end” of being schismatic and sectarian.

As North American Baptists face the 21st century, they face the threat of a post-denominational world “where labels have little value,” and where “the deepest divisions are not between denominations, but within denominations,” he said.

Baptists in North America must continue to struggle with the question of religion’s role in the public square and what religious liberty really means, George said – and they must also come to terms with the fact that the center of gravity of the global church has shifted from the northern to the southern hemisphere, where issues are often different.

In pondering what theme might characterize the 21st century, George said “I hope it will be humility and hope.”


[The tree-lined path in the photo at the top is in a wooded park just a short walk from where BWA is meeting at De Reehorst Hotel. The red deer in the photo above were grazing in De Hoge Veluewe, a national park just a few miles from Ede, and a good opportunity for a brief break from Baptists. Click either picture for a closer view.]

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