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 was complete in itself with or without a comfortable meetinghouse, music, or a standard form of worship. Finally, Baptists in America were loud exponents of religious liberty for all, in a land where liberation from the shackles of the past was on everyone’s mind.

Black Americans—slave and free—found the Baptist persuasion very attractive. Mostly nonliterate, the slave communities found that Baptists laid great stress upon the spoken word, and black preachers memorized large portions of Scripture, which they embellished in sermons and lessons. The freedom of Baptist worship allowed African converts to retain the style and temper of native songs and expression, and the importance of singular leadership within clans and families was the precursor to the strong pastor role in black Baptist polity. In a colonial society where deliberate attempts were made to fragment Afro-American communities, the autonomy of Baptist congregations served to unite Christians in a very intimate way. No wonder that the second largest group of Baptists in the world is presently the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., a black denomination with seven million members.

Because Baptists also emphasized evangelism and missions, their perspective became a worldwide phenomenon in the nineteenth century. From a single baptism in 1834 of Johann G. Oncken, Baptist churches cropped up in Germany, Scandinavia, France and Southern Europe by 1860. European Baptists still live with the legacy of Oncken, that indeed “every Baptist is a missionary.”

British and American Baptists concluded at the close of the eighteenth century that missionary service was an important responsibility of the churches acting together. Through voluntary societies, persons commissioned to preach the gospel, translate the Scriptures, and treat the sick were sent first to India, then Burma, China, Japan, and Africa where sturdy communities of Baptist adherents developed. Baptists even managed to penetrate Latin America where Roman Catholicism was the state church by law. The record of accomplishment on all seven continents includes not only churches of baptized believers but scores of schools, colleges, hospitals, and publishing houses.

From small and rude beginnings, the people called Baptist have grown through persecution, struggle, and misunderstanding. Their flowering is perhaps due to, as much as anything else, their sense of freedom and their specific attention to the Bible as their sole authority in matters of faith and practice.