Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.
The Baptist Soul
Historic Baptist identity faces unparalleled challenges today. Chiseled out of persecution in the 1600s, that identity emerged from and survived incredible odds. Because of Roger Williams's views about freedom, the General Court of Massachusetts banished him from that colony in 1635 soon before he founded the first Baptist church in America. The state church in Massachusetts publicly arrested, tried, imprisoned, and whipped Baptist pastor Obadiah Holmes in 1651. Other Baptists suffered severe consequences for their faith.
How, one might ask, could Baptist identity today possibly be more at risk than that? Then, external forces worked against the Baptist spirit. Even so, Baptists hung together, unquestioningly endured the physical pain inflicted on them, and fought until their dying days for positive principles that shaped the early Baptist story in America. Today, numerous and dangerous internal factors puncture the Baptist soul. Consider the following:
1. Baptizing three- and four-year-olds counters believer's baptism.
2. Creedalizing confessions of faith contradicts voluntarism.
3. Stifling dissent violates liberty of conscience.
4. Advancing civil religion negates separation of church and state.
5. Failing to educate new Christians neutralizes a regenerate church membership.
6. Applying excessive Calvinism harms missions and evangelism.
7. Exaggerating pastoral authority downplays the priesthood of all believers.
8. Exalting biblical inerrancy works against the Lordship of Christ.
Why do Baptists do these things to one another and to their historic ideals--especially since those convictions were hammered out on the anvil of personal sacrifice in the 1600s? Is it apathy? The need to control? The urge to make church statistics look better? Inadequate theological education? Personality conflict and/or disorder? Aberrations in leadership styles? The failure of denominational publishing houses to inject Baptist heritage into curriculum? The belief that being Baptist does not matter much anymore? Or a mixture of these and/or other reasons?
Where is the prophetic voice in Baptist life today? Using Scripture, Roger Williams challenged the very fabric of New England religion with its "forced rape" of the faith of Indians, its requirement that infants be baptized, and its blatant intolerance of other expressions of spirituality, including that of Baptists. Like the Prophet Amos, he applied the word of the Lord to critical situations in which misguided forces of church and state manipulated others for personal and corporate good and denied them their God-given freedom.
Perhaps it's time to revisit the Baptist soul. Roger Williams was not some deranged individual who had nothing to do but play games with the state church of New England in the 1630s and 1640s. He stood that state church on its ears by undermining the entire thrust of New England religion--especially its emphasis on infant baptism, its intolerance for religious diversity, and its merging of church and state. He strongly influenced American civilization, preceding even John Locke, the Enlightenment, and the Bill of Rights with his rock-solid emphasis on the role of freedom in religion for all people. And Williams refused to back down at any point even though the state church fought him tooth and toenail for years. Bold, persevering, absolutely determined--that was Roger Williams.
That's the Baptist soul. That's the Baptist spirit. That's the heart of Baptist identity. Radicality, serious commitment to the claims of Christ, and hearty defense of what is biblically right lie at the center of the Baptist dream. Those are the centers of action where Baptists have had their finest hours. That's the Roger Williams/Obadiah Holmes way of being Baptist and the way of hundreds of Colonial Baptists, lay and ordained.
It's time for Baptist pastors to study the Bible and Baptist history in concert, to resurrect the dominant emphasis on liberty in both, and to proclaim such freedom with prophetic urgency.
It's time for Baptist historians to jump off the fences of neutrality into the trenches of advocacy.
It's time for Baptist theologians to study the theology of the founders of the Baptist experience, explore the cracks in creedalism, and reconstruct positive patterns of confessionalism.
Some readers may conclude that this liberty-thrusted article abandons the responsibility side of Baptist life. I understand the importance of accountability. I have written one book on Baptist church covenants, another on the responsibilities of church membership, and many articles on church discipline and regenerate church membership. Granted, these are critical concerns of the Baptist story. But I am 100 percent convinced that the foremost contributions of Baptists to world civilization lie in the realm of defending freedom in faith for everyone.
Oppression of freedom runs rampant in the Baptist experience today. Who, in God's name, cares? Do you care? Does your church care? I mean really care? A time has come for Baptists to rethink their values. That kind of thought, done with intensive reflection, could help lead us and our churches to hammer out new priorities--biblical, historical, theological, and practical. It's time to take a new look at Roger Williams, John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and other Colonial Baptists who subjected themselves to potential martyrdom defending the soul of Baptists.
Charles W. Deweese is executive director-treasurer, Baptist History and Heritage Society, Brentwood, Tennessee.
The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, 1400 Coleman Avenue, Macon, GA 31207 Phone (478) 301-5457