Baptists in North America

Bill J. Leonard

in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III

Published in print May 2017 | ISBN: 9780199683710
Published online May 2017 | e-ISBN: 9780191823923 | DOI:

Series: Oxford History Of Dissenting Traditions

Baptists in North America

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Baptists in nineteenth-century North America were known as eager proselytizers. They were evangelistic, committed to the idea of a believers’ church in which believers’ baptism was the norm for church membership and for the most part fervent revivalists. Baptist numbers soared in the early nineteenth-century United States though at the cost of generating much internal dissent, while in Canada New Light preachers such as Henry Alline were influential, but often had to make headway against an Anglican establishment. The Baptist commitment to freedom of conscience and gathered congregations had been hardened over the centuries by the experience of persecution and that meant that they were loath to qualify the freedom of individual congregations. The chapter concentrates on exposing the numerous divisions in the Baptist family, the most basic of which was the disagreement over the nature of the atonement, which separated General (Arminian) from Particular (Calvinist) Baptists. Revivals induced further divisions between Regular Baptists who were reserved about them and Separate Baptists who saw dramatic conversions and fervent outbursts as external signs of inward grace. Calvinistic Baptists took a dim view of efforts to induce conversions as laying too much trust in human agency. Though enthusiasm for missions gripped American and Canadian Baptists alike, there were those who feared that missionary societies would erode congregational autonomy. Dissent over slavery and abolition constituted the biggest single division in North American Baptist life. Southern Baptists developed biblical defences of slavery and were annoyed at attempts to keep slaveholders out of missionary work. As a result they formed a separate denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1845. Baptists had been successful in converting black slaves and black Baptists such as the northerner Nathaniel Paul were outspoken abolitionists. In the South after the Civil War, though, blacks marched out of white denominations to form associations of their own, often with white encouragement. Finally, not the least cause of internal dissent were disputes over ecclesiology, with J.M. Graves and J.R. Pendleton, the founders of Old Landmarkism, insisting with renewed radicalism on denominational autonomy. The chapter suggests that by the end of the century, Baptists embodied the tensions in Dissenting traditions. Their dissent in the public square intensified the possibility of internal disagreement, even schism, their tradition of Christian democracy proving salvifically liberating but ecclesiastically messy. While they stood for liberty and religious equality, they were active in anti-Catholic politics and in seeking to extend state activism in society through the Social Gospel movement.

Keywords: abolitionism; Henry Alline; General Baptists; J.R. Graves; Old Landmarkism; New Light Baptists; Nathaniel Paul; J.M. Pendleton; Particular Baptists; Regular Baptists; Separate Baptists; Southern Baptist Convention

Chapter.  10676 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Christian Theology

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