The ABC/USA is the corporate expression of approximately 1.5 million Baptists in North America, with its greatest numerical strength in the Northeast, Midwest and West.
Founded in 1907 as the Northern Baptist Convention, it changed its name to the American Baptist Convention in 1950 and in 1972 changed it again to the American Baptist Churches in the USA as part of a process of denominational reorganization. Its national denominational offices were centralized in Valley Forge, Penn., in 1963, having previously been in Philadelphia and New York City.
Although its full organization as a denomination was relatively late (1907), its history and roots are among the longest and deepest among Baptists in the United States.
American Baptists observe a direct lineage from English Baptists in the early 17th century, and also recognize the influence of Dutch Mennonites, the Brethren and other Reformation-era groups.
In North America their origins are traced, symbolically at least, to Roger Williams who fled persecution from the Congregational Puritan church in Massachusetts and joined a small group of Baptists who had settled in Providence, R.I. Williams gained a charter for the colony there from England and developed it as a refuge for religious freedom. He was assisted by John Clarke and a small group of Baptists who settled in Newport, R.I., about the same time.
Under Williams’ influence these Baptists articulated a philosophy of “separation of church and state,” “soul liberty,” the “priesthood of every believer” and a commitment to religious liberty, which continue to be strongly advocated by American Baptists.
Shortly after this period, Baptist congregations were established in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania primarily by continuing migration from Britain. Later, migration and missions led Baptists into Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere.
Baptists in southern New Jersey and in southeastern Pennsylvania developed an early organizational form which later became known as the Philadelphia Association. Their practice of regular regional gatherings of congregations or their representatives established the earliest form of denominational self-awareness among Baptists, and proved to be the basis for the “associational principle”—a strong influence on later organizational developments.
In Southeastern New England in the mid-18th century, Isaac Backus led Baptists in the formation of similar associational organizations focused on the particular need to oppose taxation of Baptists for support of the “standing” or state church, especially in Massachusetts. Shaped by these experiences, New Englander John Leland brought their influence to Virginia.
American Baptists have long supported missions. They consider Adoniram Judson their pioneer and example. A second stage of their organizational development resulted from the need to support Judson and his colleagues in India and Burma.
The Triennial Conventions, beginning in 1814 became the seed for longer term denominational organization.
Following the withdrawal of Southern Baptists from the Triennial Convention in 1845 to establish their own mission organization and denomination, Baptists in the North and West continued to support and to work through the several boards for publication, mission and evangelism established by these conventions. It was out of this tradition that the Northern (later American) Baptist denomination was more centrally created in 1907.
American Baptists have strongly advocated education. American Baptist colleges, universities and seminaries were among the earliest in their respective regions. During the 20th century most of these achieved total independence and few maintain more than a historical or fraternal connection to the denomination.
Likewise, American Baptist educators and theologians influenced Baptist life: Francis Wayland contributed to the Baptist understanding of individualism, Edward T. Hiscox’s writings shaped church organization and life and Walter Rauschenbusch enabled the “Social Gospel” to promote both personal and social transformation. At mid-century, Martin Luther King Jr. was educated in an American Baptist seminary, and he maintained ties to the ABC.
Dedicated laypersons among American Baptists have also contributed to North American culture and perspectives. Around 1900, such famous wealthy Americans as Kraft, Colgate and, especially, Rockefeller were examples of active American Baptists who supported Baptist churches and institutions and, more broadly, shaped the tradition of philanthropy in the United States.
In politics, Charles Evans Hughes (jurist), Harold Stassen (framer of the United Nations Charter and politician) and several present-day leaders of Congress represented American Baptists in national leadership roles.
The “Fundamentalist-Modernist” controversies of the early part of the 20th century caused a number of conservative ABC churches to withdraw from the convention in the 1940s. One result is that American Baptists have enjoyed relative theological harmony and have generally been characterized as tolerant and respectful of differences, although cultural change has recently caused intense controversy over several issues.
Contemporary American Baptists maintain strong mission programs in North America and around the world. They are organized into regional associations and boards which govern the mission and other program boards. These are represented on a General Board which sets policy for the national organization. American Baptists are currently engaged in an active evangelization program focused on establishing thousands of new churches over the next decade.
Everett C. Goodwin is senior minister of the Scarsdale Community Baptist Church in Scarsdale, N.Y. He holds degrees from the University of Chicago, Andover Newton Theological School and Brown University. He has pastored congregations from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C., where two U.S. presidents worshipped in the congregation he served.
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Baptists in the Balance: The Tension Between Freedom and Responsibility
The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches