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A Brief History of American Baptists


American Baptists, Southern Baptists, and all the scores of other Baptist bodies in the U.S. and around the world grew out of a common tradition begun in the early 17th century.   That tradition has emphasized the Lordship and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, believers’ baptism, the competency of all believers to be in direct relationship with God and to interpret Scripture, the influence of the Holy Spirit on individual lives and ministries, and the need for autonomous congregations free from government interference or hierarchical polity.

The origins of Baptist thought and practice can be seen in the late 16th century in English Congregationalism, which rejected the prevalent “parish” structure of church life (Church of England) where everyone in a given community was a member of a neighborhood parish and where children were baptized.  The reaction against that structure was articulated in the concept of  “the gathered church,” in which membership was voluntary and based on evidence of conversion, and where baptism (for the most part) was limited to believers.  

The earliest Baptist churches (1609-1612), although comprised of English- speaking congregants, flourished in Holland, where religious toleration was much greater than in England.  Among their leaders were John Smyth, who led the first congregation of 36 men and women, and Thomas Helwys, who returned to England in 1612 to establish the first Baptist church in England.

Today, Baptists worldwide number 43,000,000 baptized members--and a community of more than 100,000,000 people--in approximately 160,000 churches.  The greatest growth can be seen in the two-thirds worlds of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

For more information on American Baptist polity, organization and missiology:

We Are American Baptists: A People of Faith/A People in Mission

(print materials available from Office of Communication, P.O. Box 851, Valley Forge, PA 19482-0851)

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