Baptist is a term describing individuals belonging to a Baptist church or a Baptist denomination. The faith takes its name from the conviction that followers of Jesus Christ are commanded to be immersed in water as a public display of their faith. The term Baptist has its origins with the anabaptists of the 16th century. Baptists emphasize a believer's baptism by full immersion, which is performed after a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A congregational governance system gives autonomy to individual local Baptist churches, which are sometimes associated in organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Historically, Baptists have also played a key role in the idea of separation of church and state. In the late 1990s, there were about 43 million Baptists worldwide with about 33 million in the United States.
Baptists believe in a church composed only of regenerated or converted individuals—that is, persons who have had a personal experience of the Christian religion. The theological term is a gathered church: Individuals join voluntarily following repentance from sin and affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This is in contrast to a state church, in which all who are born within a given geographical territory and receive the sacraments become members automatically, or a church in which infants who are baptized are considered members. Baptists’ conviction regarding regenerate membership, even more than their belief in believers’ baptism by immersion, led to their early persecution.
The Baptist emphasis on believers’ baptism, by immersion rather than by sprinkling or affusion, implies sufficient maturity to make a religious decision and is a specific rejection of infant baptism. Baptists feel that infants have no comprehension of repentance and faith; consequently, they reserve the ordinance until a time of understanding (usually early teenage years and after), when joining the church will be by personal choice and therefore more meaningful. Furthermore, Baptists believe that no biblical precedent exists for the baptism of infants. The mode of immersion is employed because it most closely follows the example of Jesus when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and because it corresponds symbolically with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as well as with the Pauline symbolism of the “death” of the old, selfish nature and the “resurrection” of the new, unselfish individual. Baptists do not, however, consider baptism a sacrament through which special grace is received; rather, they view it as an ordinance whereby one makes public confession of a faith already received. In addition to the ordinance of baptism, Baptists also observe the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, or communion; many congregations do so on the first Sunday of each month. They interpret this as a memorial experience.
The principles Baptists are guidelines for the interpretation of Christian faith that distinguish Baptists from other denominations. They are:
- The authority of scripture.
- The competence of the individual.
- The free inquiry and free interpretation of scripture.
- Salvation by grace.
- The Church as a voluntary association of believers.
- The two ordinances: baptism of the regenerated and Lord’s Supper.
- Freedom of religion.
The first English Baptist church arose in Amsterdam from among the Separatists and centred about John Smyth, a graduate of Cambridge. Although Baptists had existed in the American colonies since the seventeenth century, it was the Great Awakening that galvanized them into a powerful, proselytizing force. Along with the Methodists, the Baptists became by the early years of the nineteenth century the principal Protestant denomination in the southern and western United States. Baptists differed from other Protestant groups by offering baptism (by immersion) only to those who had undergone a conversion experience; infants were, therefore, excluded from the sacrament, an issue that generated enormous controversy with other Christians.
- Landers, John (1987) (in portuguese). Teologia dos Princípios Batistas [Theology of the Baptist Principles] (2nd ed.). Rio de Janeiro: JUERP. CDD 286.001.
- Latourette, Kenneth Scott (1997). A History of Christianity:Reformation to the Present. 2. Peabody, MA: Prince Press. p. 818. ISBN 1-56563-329-6.