Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Despite a persistent claim that Baptists can trace their heritage to the New Testament period, scholars place Baptist origins in the English Separatist movement of the 1600s. Early Baptists earned a reputation as advocates for religious freedom; their leaders were frequently jailed but not often silenced. The movement grew, and by 1650 there were three main branches under the Baptist label: General Baptists, who proclaimed a universal opportunity for salvation; Particular Baptists, who preached an atonement limited to certain groups; and the Seventh Day Baptists, distinguished by their insistence upon the keeping of the Sabbath. The three groups were united by their belief in baptism only for adult believers and in their defense of religious liberty. Later, they demanded baptism by immersion (Torbet 1963).


Baptist history is filled with controversy, the result of regional, doctrinal, and personality conflicts (Shurden 1972), and the label covers a variety of organizations. Of at least 27 different Baptist groups or denominations (Mead 1990), three may be selected for special mention: Southern Baptists, Northern (American) Baptists, and National Baptists.

Baptist work began and grew initially in the northern states, where coordination of missionary activity and publication was left in the hands of separate societies. There was no overall governing structure for religious activity until the establishment of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 in response to the slavery issue (Torbet 1963).

Growth among Southern Baptists was consistent. In 1845, the 351,951 members included 130,000 blacks, who left shortly after the Civil War; by 1990, there were more than 15 million Southern Baptists located in all 50 states (Torbet 1963, Jacquet 1991). Today, the SBC is the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States.

Southern Baptists have traditionally emphasized evangelism and are theologically conservative, decidedly more so in recent years. In 1963, the SBC adopted the Baptist Faith and Message as a (noncreedal) guide to the beliefs of the Convention. Since 1979, when a conservative-fundamentalist coalition began to dominate the group's meetings, this document has been used to define eligibility for appointment to committees and employment in SBC agencies (Ammerman 1990). In 1995, a plan for reorganizing and centralizing the SBC was put forth.

When the southern churches left to form the SBC, Northern Baptists continued their efforts under three societies: the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the American Baptist Missionary Union (later changed to the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society), and the American Baptist Publication Society. These separate corporations competed for funds but often met together. Eventually they merged to form the Northern Baptist Convention (1907); the name was changed to the American Baptist Convention in 1950 (now American Baptist Churches of the USA).

American Baptists have pursued activities similar to the SBC, but since 1963 have moved toward a more connectional church organization. Also, they are typically less conservative theologically, and consequently more open to ecumenical initiatives, being affiliated with both the National and the World Council of Churches (Brackney 1988). The northern convention has been less evangelistic than its southern counterpart and is now only about one-eighth the size of the SBC (Jacquet 1991). Also, since the 1960s, white membership in the ABC has declined by about one-third, while African American membership has almost doubled (Green and Light 1993).

Relations between the ABC and the SBC have not been harmonious. SBC home missionaries have moved aggressively into northern states and established local churches, associations, and state conventions, creating resentment among northern Baptists (Brackney 1988). A major cooperative effort, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, fell victim to fundamentalist tendencies when the SBC withdrew its support in 1988 (Ammerman 1990).

By the end of the Civil War, there were perhaps a million black Baptists in the South. Freed from slavery, they sought to establish their own institutions. In 1895, three groups met in Atlanta to form the National Baptist Convention of America. A dispute over adoption of the charter in 1915 led to a split and formation of the National Baptist Convention, USA (Torbet 1963). These two organizations account for about one-third of all church membership among African Americans.

During the days of segregation, National Baptists contributed significantly to the moral uplift, spiritual comfort, and material progress of their members. More recently, they have become more active politically, recapturing some membership losses of the 1950s and 1960s (Nelsen and Nelsen 1975). Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Jesse Jackson were National Baptist ministers.

The organization of National Baptist bodies has paralleled that of the white groups, but they are more Calvinistic in their theology and are more oriented to social issues than Southern Baptists (Mead 1990). All three major bodies recognize different levels of organization that are in principle independent from one another (Brackney 1988).

Social Organization

Despite numerous histories of Baptists, until recently social scientists have been rather inattentive. Nevertheless, significant studies do exist in the areas of church growth, denominational polity, race and gender, and—cutting across the others—the fundamentalist controversy since 1979.

Southern Baptists have long been considered among the most successful of denominations in terms of church growth. Jones (1979) has shown that between 1900 and 1977, most growth occurred in the South but that the highest percentage gains were outside the South. Furthermore, much of the growth came from new churches. Hadaway (1990), using data from the 1980s, found that new churches are more efficient in producing new members than older churches; the result of adding no new churches to the SBC during the period would have been to cut growth rates in half. Nevertheless, both Jones (1979) and Finke (1994) demonstrate that the average size of SBC churches has increased dramatically over time.

Among Baptists, the denominational body has no power to control the local church. Denominational leaders are given tasks to perform but lack formal authority to accomplish them. In a classic study of American Baptist polity, Harrison (1959) has shown how this situation forces the denominational executives to operate according to rational-pragmatic principles of leadership. Using case study materials, Ingram (1980, 1981) argued that this model applies also to the local church, where the pastor lacks formal authority over the congregation. Nevertheless, Wood (1970) demonstrated that churches with congregational polity tend to take weaker stands on civil rights issues (see also Campbell and Pettigrew 1959).

Various researchers have studied the neglect of prophetic ministry among Southern Baptists. A pioneering study by Eighmy (1972) argued that the churches reflected the surrounding culture rather than challenging it. More recently, Rosenberg (1989) has shown that Baptists are both numerically dominant and hold positions of political power in many parts of the South yet do little to eliminate racism from the region. Former SBC editor Walker Knight (in Ammerman 1993) documented the reluctance of the denomination to deal with racial problems, but in 1995 the SBC adopted a resolution apologizing and asking forgiveness for their history of racial prejudice and discrimination. National Baptists have been more active in addressing social problems, especially minority issues (Nelsen and Nelsen 1975).

American Baptists clearly have been more open to women in ministry than have Southern Baptists (Carroll et al. 1983, Lehman 1985). By 1991, there were some 800 ordained women in the SBC but only 38 local church pastors, a much smaller proportion than in most mainline denominations (Anders and Metcalf-Whittaker in Ammerman 1993).

The fundamentalist controversy stimulated social science interests in the SBC. A five-year project resulted in Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention in which Ammerman (1990) documented the dissatisfaction of Baptists with their agencies. Dissatisfaction was associated with a number of social factors, especially amount and type of education. More significantly, Ammerman showed that although fundamentalists were not a majority in the SBC, they gained control by attaching their agenda to the inerrancy of the Bible, a position endorsed by 85% of her survey respondents. The difficulty experienced by denominational moderates in explaining and defending their views contributed to fundamentalist success.

Ammerman's edited collection of articles Southern Baptists Observed: Multiple Perspectives on a Changing Denomination (1993) demonstrated both the scope of the conflict and the uncertain future of the denomination. In that volume, political scientist James Guth supplemented Ammerman's earlier findings by showing that it was not clear whether theological or political conservatism was more important among those who favored the fundamentalist agenda.

Larry Ingram


N. T. Ammerman, Baptist Battles (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990)

N. T. Ammerman (ed.), Southern Baptists Observed (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993)

W. H. Brackney, The Baptists (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1988)

E. Q. Campbell and T. F. Pettigrew, "Racial and Moral Crisis," American Journal of Sociology 64(1959):509-516

J. W. Carroll et al., Women of the Cloth (San Francisco: Harper, 1983)

J. L. Eighmy, Churches in Cultural Captivity (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1972)

R. Finke, "The Quiet Transformation," Review of Religious Research 36(1994):3-22

N. M. Green and P. W. Light, "Growth and Decline in an Inclusive Denomination," Church and Denominational Growth , ed. D. A. Roozen and C. K. Hadaway (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993): 112-126

C. K. Hadaway, "The Impact of New Church Development on Southern Baptist Growth," Review of Religious Research 31(1990):370-379

P. M. Harrison, Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959)

L. C. Ingram, "Notes on Pastoral Power in the Congregational Tradition," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19(1980):40-48

L. C. Ingram, "Leadership, Democracy, and Religion," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(1981):119-129

C. H. Jacquet, Jr., Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991)

P. B. Jones, "An Explanation of the Statistical Growth of the Southern Baptist Convention," Understanding Church Growth and Decline , ed. D. R. Hoge and D. A. Roozen (New York: Pilgrim, 1979): 160-178

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Women Clergy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1985)

F. S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations , 9th ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990)

H. M. Nelsen and A. K. Nelsen, Black Church in the Sixties (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1975)

E. M. Rosenberg, The Southern Baptists (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989)

W. B. Shurden, Not a Silent People (Nashville: Broadman, 1972)

R. G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists , rev. ed. (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1963)

J. R. Wood, "Authority and Controversial Policy," American Sociological Review 35(1970):1057-1069.

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