Christians who identify as Baptist are one of the largest sects of Christianity, with at least 100 million people around the world belonging to Baptist-type churches in 2010. What is it about Baptist Christians that sets them apart from other Christians?
While there is a huge variety of different beliefs between various groups of Baptists, there are a few beliefs that most Baptists share. These are believer’s baptism (only people who understand what is happening are allowed to be baptized, not babies or infants), by complete immersion; salvation by faith alone; Scripture as the only rule of practice and faith (sola scriptura); the accountability of every individual before God (soul competence); and congregationalist church government, where each Baptist congregation governs its affairs and answers to no higher church authority. Baptists have traditionally held to the belief that faith is a matter between an individual and God, and that religious freedom is a fundamental feature of a just society. Traditionally Baptists have been free to disagree with each other over matters of belief and practice, which has led over the years to the development of different Baptist subgroups and offshoots as believers disagree and leave to found their new groups.
Although many Baptists themselves believe that their tradition extends back to the time of the foundation of Christianity and that they are most like the original Christians, most historians date the Baptist faith to the 17th century English Separatists. After the Protestant Reformation, many people believed that the Church of England did not go far enough towards religious freedom and so split from the Church of England and fled England for more tolerant locales. The earliest Baptist church, most historians agree, was founded in Amsterdam in 1609 by John Smyth, a former Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Over the years the English Separatists influenced and were influenced by the religious turmoil after the Reformation, sharing (and arguing about) ideas from other traditions and theologians like John Calvin and the Anabaptists and Mennonites of Germany. The Puritans that sailed to the New World in 1620 were a Separatist sect that had a huge impact on what would later become the United States.
Baptist-type groups settled in the British colonies of North America and played a major part in the foundations of American culture. As mentioned previously, they founded and for many years controlled Massachusetts, the cradle of the American Revolution. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were also founded by Baptist-like groups looking for freedom to practice their particular types of Christianity. Many Baptists fought in the Revolution to guarantee freedom from the control of the Church of England, and it was a letter from Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut to Thomas Jefferson that solidified the concept of separation of Church and State that is a foundation of the US legal system.
Baptist churches and groups have spread all over the world and are one of the fastest-growing religious groups worldwide. Africa especially has seen the fastest growth, even while church membership in the US and Europe continues to decline.