The Baptist movement was born in the midst of the ferment and evolution of the English Church in the seventeenth century. Originally a collection of hole-in-the wall dissenters who were easily confused with Seekers, Ranters, Quakers, and political anarchists, Baptists rose to positions of prominence and respectability by 1700 in England and Wales. Along the way their leaders made major contributions to the theory and practice of religious liberty and the theology of the believers’ church. The principle ordinance of their faith, adult baptism by immersion, became the symbol for a people who dared to take the Bible seriously and specifically.

The Baptist faith soon spread to other lands by individuals and entire congregations. In America Baptists at first encountered persecution and yet thrived in an unusual way. In fulfillment of their legacy, 25 million Baptists live in the United States, as of 1985, of the 45 million Baptists worldwide. There are important reasons for this success.

Baptist principles were especially well adapted to the American experience. In a frontier society, qualities such as individualism and self-government were important. Baptist preachers stressed individual accountability before God and the responsibility of congregations of believers to Jesus Christ, the head of the church. Church decisions were made by group consent, and churches could be organized wherever a small band of believers agreed to meet regularly. In a society where there were few educational opportunities for a learned ministry, Baptists placed high value upon a personal call to the ministry and evidence of the gifts of preaching and teaching. While clusters of churches did form associations, every congregation with its pastor as bishop ...

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