Baptist History and Heritage

Although not as isolated as the characters in the book Cold Mountain, I certainly had a provincial life, traveling little. I knew little about Baptists, other than the ones in my church. I read a lot; that was my sole means of journeying into other worlds.

Today, I revel in relationships with Baptists worldwide. This issue of Baptist History and Heritage includes articles about a wide array of Baptists. And our society’s 2005 annual meeting will include Baptists from three other countries and thirteen states. The best lesson I learn from such relationships is that my personal way of being Baptist must never be imposed on others. That kind of perspective teaches me the need to respect dissent, nonconformity, and liberty of conscience as priority Baptist values.

These relationships also teach me that Baptists, wherever they worship and whatever forms they take, ideally accept the Lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, the values of the Believer’s Church, religious liberty, the rights of the congregation, and the priesthood of all believers. The international flavor of the Baptist experience, with its multiple variations, has deep roots in the Baptist story. Baptist origins, by 1639, included three countries: The Netherlands, England, and America. John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and Roger Williams, respectively, the first three Baptist pastors in these countries, established an essential principle at the front end of the Baptist pilgrimage: Being Baptist is not a matter of geography; rather, it is an issue of accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and living out his teachings. That issue overrides all boundaries: cultural, ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and political.

I have just reread the first English Baptist confession of faith, “A Declaration of Faith of English People,” written by Thomas Helwys and printed in 1611. With great interest, I discovered that this confession provided a significant foundation for both common denominators and variations in Baptist life. Selections follow.

Common Denominators: The church “off CHRIST is a company off faithful people.” These people are “separated from the word by the word & Spirit off God.” These people are knit “unto the LORD, & one another, by Baptisme.” This baptism takes place “upon their owne confession of the faith … and sinnes.” The confession elevated all church members to a high and equal level. They were to come together for prayer, preaching, and all the ordinances even if “as yet they have no Officers, or that their Officers should bee in Prison, sick, or by anie other means hindered from the Church.” And the confession affirmed the authority of scripture, describing it as that “which onelie is our direction in al things whatsoever.”

Variations: Although the church of Christ is one, “yet it consisteth off divers particular congregacions, even so manie as there shallbe in the World.” Assuming individual development of these congregations, the confession asserted that “no church ought to challeng anie prerogative over anie other.” With an unimaginable prophetic edge, this 1611 confession simply assumed that Baptists would one day live in many different places and that they had the right to do things their own ways.

Read the articles in this issue of Baptist History and Heritage in a prayerful spirit. Respect the saints who comprise our history throughout the word. Rejoice in the Lord always for being part of a denomination whose best tradition favors commonalities and differences – always motivated by voluntarism, not control.

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