In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….ok lets skip a few thousand years and get right into the thick of Christian history. Now once again this is not a complete historical view and nor will I attempt to cover every major thing. Anyways, we are going to go all the way up to the 1800’s. Now the Baptist church was already in existence here so I am not going to be covering the initial founding. Anyways ,The United States of America had been charted in 1776 and by now people are moving west across the country. Because of persecution from tyrants who had taken over the church in Europe, many people came to America hoping to escape it. What you must understand is from about the time of Constantine to then, the church and government had been intertwined. It meant that if anyone had a different view then the denomination that was in power, then they would be prosecuted by the government. But America was different. The government would run separate from the church. In fact, Thomas Jefferson gave his now famous “separation of church and state” speech in a Baptist church to the great applause of the congregation. Since the government was in charge of political affairs, the church in America was left to personal affairs. Because of the charge for westward expansion in America, many people were moving further away from cities and church gatherings. A few men noticed this and felt a huge passion for these people. The men I am talking about are John Edwards (not the presidential candidate) and Whitefield. They began setting up tents out the rural areas and preaching. Because of their obedience to God’s calling, The Great Awakening or The Great Revival occurred in America. People from all over began accepting for themselves a personal Christianity. The Great Awakening marked a strong turning point in American Protestantism. From then on out, the personal relationship with God was the most important aspect of Christianity. This applies to most American protestant churches but Baptists especially are concerned with a personal relationship.
We are going to make a couple more quick stops on our way through history. The civil war marked a great turn in Baptist history. While the separation of church and state is an ideal that most Baptists uphold, they never meant for it to mean the elimination of church from the state. This is evident with the civil war. The church in America was split just as the nation. And so the formation of two Baptist denominations occurred because of the rift in America. The Southern Baptist churches formed the Southern Baptist Convention while the Northern Baptist Churches formed the American Baptist denomination. The churches were mainly split over the issue of slavery and loyalty to their perspective governments. You will notice that even today, the two denominations church government for lack of a better word, look like the two American governments. The Southern Baptist Convention operates much like the confederate government. In the Con Government, the states had all the power and were bound together loosely by a convention or a desire to work together. Southern Baptist Churches work much the same way. Each church is its own boss and they work together in a convention.
Ok the next stop is the early 1900’s. Something began sweeping across all American denominations. It had already started in Europe many years prior but it was now entering in the USA. This thing was liberalism. Now this isn’t the same thing that conservatives today call liberal but it is the roots of it. A thing called high criticism began appearing in seminaries and colleges. You will notice that a whole lot of colleges including Harvard started out as Christian colleges but today are no longer that way. Liberalism is a lot of the fault. Higher criticism is basically the movement to critique a writings background and sources. It is a desire to find out who wrote what and if what written was accurate. While that might not seem like a bad thing, when it is combined with naturalism it is horrible. Basically, this form of liberalism said that supernatural things cant happen so many of the miracles in the bible are either not true or can be explained by some natural phenomenon. Without going too much further into the nuts and bolts of liberalism, lets just say that it devalued the Bible and did not believe it to be inerrant or true. One backlash to this was the rise of fundamentalists. Now these were not the people you think of when you think of that word today but they were the founding fathers of those people so to speak.
Our last stop through history is the 70’s and 80’s. Oh the days of bellbottoms, punk rock, and new wave. Liberalism had spread by then to include every major denomination including Southern Baptists. Now most individual churches were just now beginning to accept the idea of liberalism but all of the seminaries had already taken a hold of it. Now what takes place in the Southern Baptist Convention is one of much debate and controversy but basically a few people decided to take matters into their own hands. They began fighting back the wave of liberalism. Many of the liberal professors were tossed out and conservatism was on the rise. By the early 80’s the Southern Baptist Convention had went from one of the most liberal denominations to one of the most conservative.
Ok that concludes our tour of history. Now I am going to try and explain what all of that meant for Baptists and for our current landscape. Beginning with the protestant reformation and up to the great awakening, Baptists began with the idea of a personal religion. One that is not ran by the government, but by the people. It is very similar to our U.S. government. Each Baptist church is its own boss. The church people are free to decide what they believe. They are free to decide what color they want to the building to be. They are free to decide who will be their pastor. Because each church is free to decide, it means that if you were able to be at four different Baptist churches on Sunday, you would probably get four different church services. Now with all these differences, what is it that Baptists believe? Well this is where the conventions come in handy. See Baptists believe in the universal church and Christians working together, so most Baptists churches belong to a convention or union. These conventions are held together by churches with common beliefs and goals. The civil war caused a large division. And liberalism also had the same affect. Today there are many independent Baptist churches. And these are the offspring of the fundamentalists. They are independent because they did not want to belong to the liberal conventions. The funny thing is that some independent Baptist churches formed a convention called….you guessed it… The Independent Baptist Church Convention. I explained a little about what happened with the Southern Baptist Convention and its return to conservatism to explain why there are even more conventions other than the southern Baptist, American Baptist, or Independent. Most of the liberals that were ousted from the Southern Baptist joined or created the General Baptist Convention. Ok so what does all this mean? It means that there are buttload of Baptist churches, each one striving to serve God. Is this a perfect system? No. There are no perfect systems. One of the things I find odd, is that Jesus did not give us a church government. He did not lay out plans for what each church should look like. So every church system created is mans attempt to create something. And each one is flawed. But each one also has its strengths. The Baptist church flourishes in spite of or because of its weaknesses. The Southern Baptist Convention (which I am apart of ) has many flaws and stuff that just gets on my nerves, but it is also a strong convention that strives to be built firmly on God’s word and to reach the world. The SBC sends the most missionaries abroad of any denomination in America. It is the largest denomination in America. I am glad to be a part of it. Besides with a name like Spurgeon, I couldn’t help but be Baptist. (For those that do not know, Charles Hadden Spurgeon, one of my great great great great uncles, was one of the most famous Baptist preachers. You can buy any number of his books at the book store and also about a million books about him at the Christian book store. He is also buried in the Westminster Abby. )