America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, reeled this week after the Baptist General Convention of Texas voted to redirect $5 million in funding away from SBC operations. The Washington Post cited this reasoning: "As the protesters see it, the fundamentalists who have taken over leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention in the last 20 years have changed the very nature of this 150-year-old denomination, moving it away from one that values religious autonomy."

Not being a Southern Baptist, I have neither right nor reason to take a side on this issue. As a historical journalist, however, I wondered what the "very nature" of the Baptist church was 150 years ago and whether the current SBC leadership has indeed effected a significant change. I discovered that the Texans might have history on their side—but in a non-creedal, non-hierarchical denomination like the Baptists, history isn't necessarily much of an ally.

The history of the Baptist church (if such an entity can even be defined) is notoriously difficult to trace. Many people think Baptists sprang from Anabaptists, but they actually grew more directly out of pietistic, Dissenting traditions in seventeenth-century England (and, to a lesser extent, on the European Continent). Baptists name no founder other than Jesus Christ, and because they existed for many years on the persecuted fringe of society, recognize no founding institutions. Further, Baptists groups have always had a hard time gaining critical mass because they have constantly divided over issues like millennialism (pre- vs. post- vs. a-), the role of emotion and revivalism (Old Lights vs. New Lights), and slavery (Northern Baptists vs. Southern Baptists).

In Christian History issue 6 ("Baptists"), historian Edwin S. Gaustad wrote of his inability to find any record of Baptist leaders in colonial America or to identify dates worth commemorating: "Oh, we do have lots of dates: Smyth's self-baptism in 1609; Baptists in Rhode Island in 1638 or 39; the Philadelphia Association in 1707; the Triennial Convention in 1817; the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845; the National Baptist Convention in 1895 or earlier; and so on. The only problem is that to mention any one of these dates does not cause the heart to sing or the eyes to mist; it only causes the mind to wander. ... One knows neither where nor when to go to escape the crisis of identity."

Instead of pointing to people, places, and dates—unifying forces in most denominations—Baptists rely on key distinctives, including the supreme authority of the Bible, believer's baptism, local church autonomy, preaching and evangelism, and the separation of church and state. This decentralized foundation allows remarkable flexibility but offers little in the way of an absolute standard against which matters of doctrine and church policies can be measured.

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The inherent contradiction of a decentralized denomination has been with Baptists from the beginning, as seen in this 1746 quote from Benjamin Griffiths: "Each particular church has a complete power and authority from Jesus Christ to administer all gospel ordinances, provided they have sufficient, duly qualified officers ... to receive in and cast out, and also to try and ordain their own officers, and to exercise every part of gospel discipline and church government, independent of any other church or assembly whatever. Several independent churches where Providence gives them a convenient situation, may and ought for their mutual strength, counsel, and other valuable advantages, by their voluntary and free consent, to enter into an agreement and confederation."

Not surprisingly, this confederation of completely independent churches has often spent more time dividing than agreeing. In describing twentieth-century quandaries—from drinking, dancing, and dominoes to who did what to whom in the Garden of Eden—Gaustad wrote, "It is a history that Thomas Helwys or John Clarke or Isaac Backus [Baptist leaders of the 1600s and 1700s] might have some trouble recognizing and even more difficulty identifying with." But those men are no longer around, nor did they leave behind comprehensive theses, institutes, or articles to speak for them. Contemporary Baptists are free to decide what these fathers would say—and whether or not those voices even matter.

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.

Related Elsewhere

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:

Soul Crisis at the Conference on Faith and History | Academics gather asking questions like, "What does 'Christian history' actually mean?" (Oct. 27, 2000)
Case of the Missing Relic | A piece of Jesus' cross is stolen from a Toronto cathedral—or is it? (Oct. 20, 2000)
The Politicians' Patron | Is Thomas More a saintly model? (Oct. 13, 2000)
General Revelations | Reconsidering Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. (Oct. 6, 2000)
Olympia Revisited | Christianity and the Olympic Games were once competitors, but at other times have been on the same team. (Sept. 29, 2000)
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Weighty Matters | Gwen Shamblin's teachings sound an awful lot like some in the early church—and not in a good way. (Sept. 22, 2000)
In Errancy | Want to know what's wrong with the Western church? Start with a list. (Sept. 15, 2000)
"Kill Them All" | The medieval church was deadly serious about eliminating 'heretical' Cathars. (Sept. 11, 2000)
All Together Now | What qualifies as an ecumenical council anyway? (Sept. 1, 2000)
Soviets, Schism, and Sabotage | How the government manipulated division in the Russian Orthodox Church. (Aug. 18, 2000)
Sacrifice at Sea | The story that wasn't in James Cameron's Titanic. (Aug. 11, 2000)
Colonial Soul | The Cross and The Tomahawk series examines our nation's past from many perspectives. (Aug. 4, 2000)
The Fifth Evangelist | Johann Sebastian Bach was a musician "who lived the Bible." (July 28, 2000)