The modern Baptist movement arose in England (and among English exiles in the Netherlands).
Early Baptists, such as John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, proclaimed a simple evangelical faith rooted in Scripture alone and – in dramatic opposition to both the Protestants and the Catholics of their day – denied that rulers and government could dictate to the conscience of believers or enforce an official religious practice.
Here in the United States, we celebrate the memory of Roger Williams, who was recruited from England in the 1630s to pastor a congregational church in Massachusetts Bay Colony.
He became estranged from his congregation over his newfound embrace of believers´ baptism and traveled with a small group of followers to the head of Narragansett Bay, where he founded Providence Plantation, precursor of the state of Rhode Island.
There in Providence, Williams had himself baptized as a believer by one of his elders, then baptized the others himself, thus constituting the First Baptist Church of Providence, which has been continuously active since 1638.
Williams espoused absolute freedom of conscience and religious practice in Providence Plantation.
He welcomed Jews and “Musalmans” (Muslims) as well as proponents of every expression of Christian faith – while embracing personally other “radical” positions, such as the abolition of slavery and fair and equal relations with Native Americans.
Ironically, Williams´ own conscience led him to separate from his little congregation after only a few months, and he spent the rest of his long life (he lived into his 80s) wandering New England as a self-proclaimed “seeker.”
Today, more than 30 self-identified Baptist bodies exist in the United States and Canada. These Baptists are surprisingly diverse, including:
- Theologically and culturally conservative and liberal adherents
- Leaders in ecumenical Christianity and those separated on principle from churches that are not of “like faith and order”
- Calvinists and Arminians
- Founders and strong supporters of the modern global missionary movement of the last 200 years and those who reject missionary activity as a usurpation of God’s sovereignty (so-called “primitive” Baptists)
But they – we – all have some things in common.
We emphasize the personal faith relationship of each individual believer with Christ (Romans 10:8).
We affirm the unique and sufficient authority of Holy Scripture in all matters of faith and practice (Baptists generally don’t do creeds).
We celebrate believers’ baptism, according to the New Testament model (Acts 2:37-39, 8:26-40).
We affirm a “gathered church,” the body of those who have decided to follow Jesus (Acts 2:43-47).
And we practice the autonomy of the local congregation. Baptists do not have hierarchies or mandatory connections, but we do form voluntary relationships for ministry and mission beyond the local setting.
The common thread through all of these Baptist distinctives is freedom – the freedom of individuals to follow Jesus, to interpret and apply Scripture in their own lives and to voluntarily associate in congregations and larger bodies to do the Lord’s work.
To some extent, these Baptist distinctives, though grounded, as we believe, in Scripture, seem to be a reflection of central themes in American history and a reflection of the tenor of the times.
For example, given the Lordship of Christ, what truer example of democracy is there on earth than a local Baptist congregation? And the Baptist concept of “soul freedom” is a necessary presupposition for American democracy.
But given the rampant individualism of contemporary American culture, when I have attempted to proclaim and promote a “whole Gospel” in varied pastoral settings, I have often received pushback for being “too political” or too focused on activities and relationships “outside the church.”
How ironic this is in our era of high-profile Baptist apologists for the Trump administration, such as Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress.
We Baptists actively invite individuals to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Matthew 28:16-20).
At the same time, we reflect our solidarity with the human family by lifting up Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign of justice and mercy (Mark 1:14-15), and we strive to anticipate that reign in works of lovingkindness (Matthew 25:31-40) and public advocacy for reign of God values, such as welcoming the stranger (Leviticus 25:35, Matthew 25:44).
So, on Independence Day in the U.S., we acknowledge that while we love and honor our nation, our ultimate and abiding loyalty is to Christ and his reign.
As followers of Christ, we experience that we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but … are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
Not only is this “citizenship” our highest loyalty, but it is also the basis of the radical welcome that is central to the Gospel and at the same time one of the “better angels” of the American republic.
David L. Wheeler is adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as Professor of Theology and Ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”