This Month in Our History
November 2011 – The Baptists
“How will we know it’s us if we do not know our past?” John Steinbeck wrote those words. Sometimes it’s hard even to recognize Baptists. Most of the new Baptist church starts do not even use the word Baptist in the church’s name. “Community church” seems to be the name in vogue.
Without wearing the obvious family name, it becomes a bit more of a challenge to know that “they’re us.” The essential values, the time-honored distinctives and principles become the mirror to reflect true identity. Sadly, some of the churches which wear the name of Baptist hold little resemblance to the genuine article.
What is the future of a people devoid of a family name, increasingly distant from their roots and adrift in a sea of cultural change? I believe there always will be Baptists. The Baptist writer and humorist of another century, Robert Jones Burdette, said: “If there was not a Baptist church in the world, there would nevertheless be millions of Baptists in every generation.”
As long as there are people who love freedom, value the rights of the individual, practice congregational democracy, understand soul competency and soul liberty and remain burdened to share the good news of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ—there will always be Baptists. They may be capitalized Baptists or lower-case baptists. They may not even wear the family name, but they will be Baptists none the less.
Burdette expressed his appreciation of things Baptist: “I love the beautiful symbolism of the ordinances. I love a baptism that does not have to be argued, defined or explained. I love the creed that is written nowhere save in the New Testament, which allows growth and the changes which must come with increase of light and stature without periodic revision.
“I love the simplicity of the Baptist organization. I love the Baptist recognition of the right of private judgment, the liberty of personal opinion. I love the free responsibility of one human to God, with no shadow of pope or bishop or priest or man-made creed falling between himself and his Master. That’s why I am a Baptist.”
In 1900, H. F. Sproles, a pastor in Mississippi, held high the trophy of Baptists – religious liberty – and exclaimed: “Religious liberty for all was an idea that apparently had never entered the mind of man until it was advocated, defended and exemplified by Baptists. But now in our country it is a fundamental law and not one would dare overthrow or modify it. Even the independence of individual churches is winning its way. This principle is humanitarian and popular. Men love freedom. They wish to have some voice in controlling that which they support.”
F. H. Kerfoot, Sr., a native Virginian who became head of the Home Mission Board, held up another distinctive – soul competency – and declared: “As a Baptist reads the Bible he finds that religion is altogether a matter of personal responsibility between the soul and God. It must be a matter of individual voluntariness.”
Old-time Baptists liked to quote the historian George Bancroft: “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of Baptists.” It is this hallmark of freedom in its broadest sense which is a chief characteristic of Baptist identity.
How will we know it’s us? We will know it if the church polity, if the church’s preacher, if the church’s documents allow for freedom.
“If I am a Baptist and if I am proud of it,” reasoned R. M. Dudley, a president of Georgetown College, a Kentucky Baptist school, “ I want that it shall affect me not in the way of making me narrow and bigoted and intolerant, but humble, patient, loving toward those who differ from me.” He wrote his defining statement over a century ago.
In 1873, George Boardman Taylor, a son of Virginia Baptists, a pioneer missionary and an appreciative student of Baptist history, said: “The Baptists have a future. I cannot doubt it. There’s a work for them to accomplish, a mission partially fulfilled, which they have yet to complete.”
In 1882, William E. Hatcher, the noted Baptist preacher and writer, also declared that his people had a future. “One thing we may be sure of – the future will be peopled with Baptists. [They] are bound to live; they are on the program of the ages and must be on hand to answer. The fact is they have a large contract on hand – unfinished business – and they must stay over and attend to it.”
What will theological education be like? How will the concerns of women be addressed. What threats loom for church and state matters? What will the local church be like in approaching years? What role will the denominational organizations and structure play in the future? These are questions for which inquiring minds seek answers.
Yes, the Baptists – by whatever name or no name at all will be “on hand to answer” in all coming ages. But what they will be like and whether or not we will recognize them are questions open to debate.
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