There are about 50 million self-professed Baptists in the United States who make up a significant portion of evangelicals in the United States and approximately one third of all Protestants in the United States; at the same time this also makes them the second largest religious grouping following Roman Catholics in the United States. About 16 million Baptists belong to congregations affiliated with Southern Baptist Convention, the largest such confederation of Baptists. More than 40% of all Baptists worldwide reside in the United States. The largest denomination among African Americans is the National Baptist Convention, with 7.5 million members, along with the smaller but more liberal Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), with over 2000 churches and a total membership of 2.5 million.
There are numerous smaller bodies, some recently organized and others with long histories, such as the Calvinistic Baptists, General Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Old Regulars, Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, and Independent Baptists. There are also Baptists operating independently or in independent congregations outside any denomination.
Baptist congregations are self-regulating and autonomous. This autonomy makes identifying a specific creed difficult, and the particular set of religious beliefs of Baptists can vary widely. Hallmarks of Baptist adherence include an emphasis on the importance of the local congregation in the governance of church affairs; a minimalist ritual with the exception of a strong emphasis on adult baptism; a service centered on biblical readings, a long sermon based on biblical passages, and the singing of hymns; and a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in theory but much diversity across congregations in terms of what that inerrancy encompasses.
Baptist Christians played a major role in seventeenth-century English religious history, and many Baptists migrated to the English colonies in that century. Baptist theological reflection informed how the colonists understood their presence in the New World, especially in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations through the preaching of Roger Williams, John Clarke, and others.
Baptists appeared in the American Colonies in the early 17th century among settlers from England. Theologically all Baptists insisted that baptism was the key ritual and should not be administered to children too young to understand the meaning. However some were Arminian holding that God's saving Grace is available to everyone, and others followed Calvinist orthodoxy, which said Grace was available only to the predestined "elect".
Roger Williams and John Clarke, his compatriot in working for religious freedom, are credited with founding the Baptist faith in North America. In 1638, Williams established the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island and Clarke was the minister in Newport, Rhode Island when it was organized as First Baptist Church in Newport in 1644. No one disputed the earlier origins of the Providence church until 1847 when the pastor of the Newport church claimed that his church was first. According to a Baptist historian who has researched the matter extensively, "There is much debate over the centuries as to whether the Providence or Newport church deserved the place of 'first' Baptist congregation in America. Exact records for both congregations are lacking." Today, almost without exception Baptist historians agree that the Providence church came first. In 1764, leading Baptist ministers the Reverend James Manning, the Reverend Isaac Backus, the Reverend Samuel Stillman, the Reverend Morgan Edwards and the Reverend John Gano established The College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, the seventh institution of higher education in the original thirteen colonies, with the specific goal of serving as a sanctuary for Baptists who were not widely welcomed at the other institutions which were closely associated with the Congregationalist churches (Harvard College, Yale College, and the College of New Jersey) and the Church of England (the Academy of Philadelphia, King's College and the College of William and Mary).
Beginning in Providence in 1636-1637, Roger Williams founded a colony in which religion and citizenship were separated. This same principle was continued in the first charter of 1644 and affirmed by the newly created colonial government in 1647. This principle was explicitly affirmed in the Charter of 1663 which John Clarke wrote and secured. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was regarded by the neighboring colonies with undisguised horror, and Massachusett Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut spent the next 100 years trying to dismember the "heretic" colony. The other colonies passed laws to outlaw Baptists and Quakers, leading to the hanging of four Quakers in Massachusetts. When Harvard's first president Henry Dunster abandoned Puritanism in favor of the Baptist faith in 1653, he provoked a controversy that highlighted two distinct approaches to dealing with dissent in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony's Puritan leaders, whose own religion was born of dissent from mainstream Church of England, generally worked for reconciliation with members who questioned matters of Puritan theology but responded much more harshly to outright rejection of Puritanism. Dunster's conflict with the colony's magistrates began when he failed to have his infant son baptized, believing, as a newly converted Baptist, that only adults should be baptized. Efforts to restore Dunster to Puritan orthodoxy failed, and his apostasy proved untenable to colony leaders who had entrusted him, in his job as Harvard's president, to uphold the colony's religious mission. Thus, he represented a threat to the stability of theocratic society. Dunster exiled himself in 1654 and moved to nearby Plymouth Colony, where he died in 1658.
Isaac (1974) analyzes the rise of the Baptist Church in Virginia, with emphasis on evangelicalism and social life. There was a sharp contrast between the austerity of the plain-living Baptists and the opulence of the Anglican planters, who controlled local government. Baptist church discipline, mistaken by the gentry for radicalism, served to ameliorate disorder. The struggle for religious toleration erupted and played out during the American Revolution, as the Baptists worked to disestablish the Anglican church. Beeman (1978) explores the conflict in one Virginia locality, showing that as population became more dense, the county court and the Anglican Church increased their authority. The Baptists protested vigorously; the resulting social disorder resulted chiefly from the ruling gentry's disregard of public need.[need quotation to verify] The vitality of the religious opposition made the conflict between 'evangelical' and 'gentry' styles a bitter one. Kroll-Smith (1984) suggests the strength of the evangelical movement's organization determined its ability to mobilize power outside the conventional authority structure.
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Though each Baptist church is autonomous, Baptists have traditionally organized into associations of like-minded churches for mutual edification, consultation, and ministerial support. The constituency of these associations is based on geographical and doctrinal criteria. Many such associations of Baptist churches have developed in the United States since Baptists first came to the continent.
Until the early 19th century these Baptist associations tended to center on a local or regional area where the constituent churches could conveniently meet. However, beginning with the spread of the Philadelphia Baptist Association beyond its original bounds and the rise of the modern missions movement, Baptists began to move towards developing national associations.
The first national association was the Triennial Convention, founded in the early 19th century, which met every three years. The Triennial Convention was a loose organization with the purpose of raising funds for various independent benevolent, educational and mission societies.
Over the years, other nationwide Baptist associations have originated as divisions from these two major groups. There are a few smaller associations that have never identified with any of the national organizations, as well as many Independent Baptist churches that are not part of any organization, local or national.
In the United States, there are still Baptist groups that support and actively attempt to maintain the separation of church and state. At least 14 Baptist bodies, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., and American Baptist Churches USA support financially and ideologically the mission of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. This organization tries to uphold the traditional Baptist principle of the separation of church and state. On the issue of school prayer, for instance, the Baptist Joint Committee argues that prayer is most pleasing to God when offered voluntarily, not when the government compels its observance.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States identifies and describes 31 Baptist groups or conventions in the United States. A partial list follows. (Unless otherwise noted, statistics are taken from the Baptist World Alliance website, and reflect 2006 data.)
The American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) are the descendants of the Triennial Convention. From 1907 to 1950 it was known as the Northern Baptist Convention. While its theology was rooted in the same Confessions of Faith as more traditional Baptists, as a rule the ABCUSA churches have adopted a more modernist approach to the Scriptures and are thus more tolerant of doctrinal diversity.
The primary strength of the ABCUSA is in the northeast, but it also has a strong presence throughout the midwest, the southwest, and on the west coast. They operate a number of colleges and other benevolent enterprises.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States. Its greatest numerical strength is in the south, but it has churches in every state and a strong presence in many northern and western states. The Home Mission Society gave a statement saying that a person could not be a missionary and keep his slaves as property. This caused the Home Mission Society to separate northern and southern divisions. As a result of this the Baptists in the south met in May 1845 and organized the Southern Baptist Convention.
Women began making great strides in 1872, when Henry Tupper of the Foreign Mission Board appointed Edmonia Moon for missionary service. She was the first woman to receive this honor. In 1888, the Woman's Missionary Union was instituted. Women were recognized and encouraged to form missionary circles and children's bands in churches and Sunday Schools.
Although all Southern Baptists would be viewed as conservative by those outside the tradition, from the late 1970s forward there was a well-orchestrated takeover of the SBC by a conservative/fundamentalist group who wrested control from those who have come to be call "moderates."
In 1987, some moderates left the Southern Baptist Convention and formed the Southern Baptist Alliance, which later became the Alliance of Baptists. The Alliance is associated with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a group promoting greater inclusion of LGBT people within Baptist life.
In 1991, other moderates left the SBC and established the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), a group emphasizing global missions and what it considers "historic Baptist values" such as local church autonomy, priesthood of all believers and religious liberty. Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ordains women for ministry.
Before the American Civil War, most African American Baptists were, with some notable exceptions, members of the same churches as the whites (though often relegated to a segregated status within the church). After the war they left the white churches to start separate churches and associations.
Today there are several historically African-American groups in the United States, including the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the National Baptist Convention of America, and others. A good number of African-American Baptist churches are dually aligned with a traditionally African American group and the ABCUSA, the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) was formed in 1991, largely by moderate Southern Baptists who had been disenfranchised by the concerted, well-orchestrated fundamentalist/conservative restructuring of the Southern Baptist Convention. CBF has been called a quasi-denomination since in many ways it provides many of the benefits of a convention, including ordination of women for ministry, but as yet has not declared itself a denomination. Its primary offices are located in Atlanta, Georgia.
There are a number of smaller Baptist associations in the United States which maintain a separate existence from the larger groups for doctrinal reasons. Among these are the Freewill Baptists, the General Baptists, the Primitive Baptists, the Old Regular Baptists, various associations devoted to Landmarkism, the Conservative Baptist Association, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, and many regional and local associations which do not affiliate with any national group.
Independent Baptist churches are completely independent of any association or group, though they usually maintain some sort of fellowship with like-minded churches. They share the traditional Baptist doctrinal distinctives, but they adhere to what they see as a Biblical principle of churches' individuality.
Independent Baptists believe that this approach to ministry leaves pastors and people in the church free to work as a local ministry, instead of national work, which, in their view, can be less efficient.
Independent Baptists are strictly biblicist in their theology, adhering to the traditional Baptist understanding of the Bible and of faith. The same doctrinal variations that exist within (or between) the Baptist associations exist among Independent Baptists.
Independent Baptists operate educational institutions such as:
Since the founding of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1764, Baptists have founded various institutions around the United States to assist congregants in Biblical literacy and to train clergy educated in the Bible and the original Biblical languages. Some of these schools such as Brown University and Bates College eventually became more secularized and disaffiliated themselves with their Baptist heritage, but others have maintained close bonds with their original founding groups and goals. Most Baptist churches also offer less formal Biblical education in Sunday schools, and some Baptist groups, such as churches led by John Piper offer online educational materials.
According to surveys, at least half of Americans have a negative view of the Baptist faith.
Many independent Baptist congregations are staunch fundamentalists, regarding all Baptist associations as too liberal for them to join. Many of these congregations have a history of employing evangelism techniques that critics consider too extreme and abrasive for modern American culture. Independent Baptist author and publisher Jack T. Chick, for example, distributes cartoon tracts that depict teenagers being attacked by a chainsaw-wielding Satan, the Catholic Church as an Egyptian/Babylonian inspired cult, and moderate evangelical churches that use modern Bible translations rather than the King James Version as being duped by the Catholic Church's plot to bring about the one-world religion of the Anti-Christ.
To avoid being mistakenly associated with fundamentalist groups, many moderate evangelical Baptist churches have adopted names such as "Community Church" or "Community Chapel" that leave out the denomination's name. This fits into a general trend by church planters from many denominations to de-accentuate their denomination's name.