Baptists are typically considered Protestants. Some Baptists reject that association (see Origins and Questions of labelling subsections below). Most Baptist churches choose to associate with denominational groups that provide support without control. The largest Baptist association is the Southern Baptist Convention but there are many other baptist associations.
Both Roger Williams and his compatriot in working for religious freedom, Dr. John Clarke, are variously credited as founding the earliest Baptist church in America. In 1639, Williams established a Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, and Clarke began a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. According to a Baptist historian who has researched the matter extensively, "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first' Baptist congregation in America. Exact records for both congregations are lacking.
The Baptists number over 110 million worldwide in more than 220,000 congregations, and are considered the largest world communion of evangelical Protestants, with an estimated 38 million members in North America. Large populations of Baptists also exist in Asia, Africa and Latin America, notably in India (2.4 million), Nigeria (2.5 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (1.9 million), and Brazil (1.7 million).
According to a poll in the 1990s, about one in five Christians in the United States claims to be a Baptist. U.S. Baptists are represented in more than fifty separate groups. Ninety-two percent of Baptists are found in five of those bodies — the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC); National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; (NBCA); American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC); and Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI).
Only those people who are baptized members of a local Baptist church are included in the total number of Baptists. Most Baptist churches do not have an age restriction on membership, but will not accept as a member a child who is considered too young to fully understand and make a profession of faith of their own volition and comprehension. In such cases, the pastor and parents usually meet together with the child to verify the child's comprehension of the decision to follow Jesus. There are instances where persons make a profession of faith but fail to follow through with believers' baptism. In such cases they are considered saved but not church members until baptized. Although most churches require you to be baptized to become a member of the church or, alternatively, to transfer membership from a church of like faith, they believe that being baptized will not save you, it is only the outward showing of the washing away of the consequences of the sin nature through the acceptance of the sacrificial death and shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ. If children and unbaptized congregants were counted, world Baptists might number over 150 million.
Some churches, especially in the UK, do not require members to have been baptised as a believer, as long as they have made an adult declaration of faith - for example, been confirmed in the Anglican church, or become communicant members as Presbyterians. In these cases, believers would usually transfer their memberships from their previous churches. This allows people who have grown up in one tradition, but now feel settled in their local Baptist church, to fully take part in the day to day life of the church, voting at meetings, etc. It is also possible, but unusual, to be baptised without becoming a church member immediately.
Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority. Therefore, beliefs are not totally consistent from one Baptist church to another, especially beliefs that may be considered minor. However, on major theological issues, Baptist distinctive beliefs are held in common among almost all Baptist churches.
Baptists share orthodox Christian beliefs with most other moderate or conservative Christian denominations. These would include beliefs about one God; the virgin birth; miracles; atonement through the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus; the Trinity (the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, together with God the Father); the need for salvation (through belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God, his death and resurrection, and confession of Christ as Lord); grace; the Kingdom of God; last things (Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth, the dead will be raised, and Christ will judge everyone in righteousness); and evangelism and missions. Some historically significant Baptist doctrinal documents include the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1742 Philadelphia Baptist Confession, the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith, the Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message, and written church "covenants" which some individual Baptist churches adopt as a statement of their faith and beliefs.
Baptists generally believe in the literal Second Coming of Christ at which time God will sit in judgment and divide humanity between the saved and the lost (the Great White Throne judgment ) and Christ will sit in judgment of the believers (the Judgment Seat of Christ ), rewarding them for things done while alive, knowing that works will not get someone to Heaven. Beliefs among Baptists regarding the "end times" include amillennialism, dispensationalism, and historic premillennialism, with views such as postmillennialism and preterism receiving some support.
Most Baptist traditions believe in the "Four Freedoms" articulated by Baptist historian Walter B. Shurden:
The polity of autonomy is closely related to the polity of congregational governance. Just as each Baptist priest with soul competency is equal to all other Baptists in a church, so each church is equal to every other church. No church or ecclesiastical organization has authority over a Baptist church. Churches can properly relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary cooperation, never by any sort of coercion. Furthermore, this Baptist polity calls for freedom from governmental control.
Because of the importance of the priesthood of every believer, the centrality of the freedom of conscience and thought in Baptist theology, and due to the congregational style of church governance, doctrine varies greatly between one Baptist church and another (and among individual Baptists) especially on the following issues:
A majority of Baptists worship on Sunday, in contrast with the Old Testament tradition of a Saturday Sabbath, and instead following the New Testament tradition that the disciples met on the first day of the week. As would be expected amongst any people who hold to freedom of conscience, there have historically been a small number of Baptists who have held to some form of Sabbatarian doctrine.
There is a small fringe group known as the Seventh Day Baptists. Some attempt to trace their origins to earlier Anabaptist or pre-Reformation sects however most acknowledge that the denomination was established in the early seventeenth century in England. Seventh Day Baptists may be either General or Particular Baptists but they are united in their observance of their day of worship on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Although the degree to which they observe the Sabbath varies from person to person, from congregation to congregation, there is a consensus within their circles that none should judge the spirituality of another's personal practices.
As with all major denominational groups, Baptists have not escaped theological, cultural and political controversy. Baptists have historically been sensitive to the introduction of theological error (from their perspective) into their groups.
There are two main views about the origins of the Baptists: Baptist origins in the 16th and 17th centuries and Baptist perpetuity.
Some see the Baptists as the descendants of the 16th century Anabaptists (which some view as a product of the Protestant Reformation and others view as a continuation of the older pre-Reformation non-Catholic churches). Johannes Warns states that the first independent Baptist Church was that at Augsburg, Germany, in about 1524. Others see the Baptists as a separation from the Church of England in the early 1600s.
Puritan separatists John Smyth and Thomas Helwys are acknowledged by numerous historians as key founders of the modern Baptist denomination. The early Baptists were divided into General Baptists who were Arminian in theology, and Particular Baptists who were Calvinistic in theology.
According to Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth, Baptists, as a distinct denomination, originated in England in a time of intense religious reform. McBeth writes, “Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England.”
The Baptist perpetuity view sees Baptists as separate from Catholicism and other religious denominations and considers that the Baptist movement predates the Catholic church and is therefore not part of the Protestant Reformation.
J. M. Carroll's The Trail of Blood booklet, published in 1931, has been a popular writing presenting the successionist view, pointing to groups such as the Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, Paulicians, Albigensians, Catharists, Waldenses, and Anabaptists, as predecessors to contemporary Baptists. Baptist historian John T. Christian writes in the introduction to his History of the Baptists: "I have throughout pursued the scientific method of investigation, and I have let the facts speak for themselves. I have no question in my own mind that there has been a historical succession of Baptists from the days of Christ to the present time. Other Baptist historians holding the perpetuity view are Thomas Armitage, G.H. Orchard, and David Benedict.
Those holding the perpetuity view of Baptist history can be basically divided into two categories: those who hold that there is a direct succession from one church to the next (most commonly identified with Landmarkism), and those who hold that while the Baptist practices and churches continued, they may have originated independently of any previously existing church.
While there is no direct evidence to support "Landmarkism" or "Successionism" in church history, the modern Baptist movement owes its theological heritage to the earlier "Frei Kirche" movement as embodied in the writings of Balthasar Hubmaier, an early Anabaptist theologian, who was martyred for his beliefs on the rite of baptism in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. No doubt, the various beliefs of Baptists can be "discovered" through independent study; however, church history does not seem to support the notion that movements began ad hoc or in a vacuum. While the Southern Baptist Convention's stand (as articulated by McBeth) is that the modern Baptist movement is a part of the larger Protestant movement, that does not automatically delete the earlier influences of others who published and advocated some or all of the distinctive views that identify modern Baptists. The Baptist movement is in the larger context of theological movements of dissent since the official birth of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Nicea.
Baptist comes from the Greek word βαπτιστής (baptistés, "baptist," also used to describe John the Baptist), which is related to the verb βαπτίζω (baptízo, "to baptize, wash, dip, immerse"), and the Latin baptista, and is in direct connection to "the baptizer," John the Baptist.
As a first name it has been used in Europe from the twelfth century also as Baptiste, Jan-Baptiste, Jean-Baptiste, John-Baptist; and in the Netherlands at least since the seventeenth century, often in combinations like Jan Baptist or Johannes Baptist. As a last name it has been used since the thirteenth century. Other variations also commonly used are Baptiste, Baptista, Battiste, Battista.
The Anabaptists in England were called Baptists as early as 1569.
Some Baptists object to the application of the labels Protestant, denomination, Evangelical and even Baptist to themselves or their churches, while others accept those labels. Due to their rejection of their congregationalist roots, many traditional Baptists (sometimes referred to as Northern Baptists) do not consider the Southern Baptist congregation (a quasi-episcopal organization) to be Baptists at all.
Some who reject the label Baptist prefer to be labelled as Christians who attend Baptist churches. Also, a recent trend (most common among megachurches and those embracing the "seeker movement") is to eliminate "Baptist" from the church name, as it is perceived to be a "barrier" to reaching persons who have negative views of Baptists, whether they be of a different church background or none. These churches typically include the word "Community" or other non-religious or denominational terms in their church name.
Conversely, others accept the label Baptist because they identify with the distinctives they consider to be uniquely Baptist. They believe those who are removing the name "Baptist" from their churches are "compromising with the world" to attract more members. However, there are other church groups that hold to the beliefs listed above, that have never been known by the label Baptist, and also believe that these beliefs are not exclusive to the Baptist denomination.
The label Protestant is rejected by some Baptists (primarily those in the Landmark movement) because in their view Baptists have existed separately since the early church days. Those holding this view maintain that Baptists have never been a part of the Roman Catholic Church, and as such, Baptists are not "protesting" against Catholicism. Further, they point out that Baptists have no direct connection to any of the Reformationists like Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli. Other Baptists accept the Protestant label as a demographic concept that describes churches who share similar theologies of sola scriptura, sola fide, the priesthood of all believers and other positions that Luther, Calvin and other traditional reformers held in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s.
The label denomination is rejected by some because of the local autonomous governance system used by Baptist churches. Being a denomination is viewed by them as having a hierarchy that substitutes for the Roman Catholic Church. Another reason for the rejection of the label is the influence of the Restoration period on Baptist churches, which emphasized a tearing down of denominational barriers. Other Baptists accept the label, feeling that it does not carry a negative connotation but rather is merely a synonym for a Christian or religious group with common beliefs, organized in a cooperative manner to spread its beliefs worldwide.
The label Evangelical is rejected by some fundamentalist Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that in their view is not fundamentalist enough, and conversely is also rejected by some liberal Baptists who consider the term to describe a theological position that in their view is too conservative. It is accepted by moderate Baptists who identify with the revival in the United States in the 1700s known as the First Great Awakening. Conversely, some Evangelicals reject the label fundamentalist, believing it to describe a theological position that they consider too extreme and legalistic.