Baptists emerged around 1609-12 as part of England’s‘Old Dissent’, which separated from the Church of England as the Reformation progressed, to reconstruct churches on New Testament patterns, shedding many practices that had accrued over the centuries. Taking Scripture as sole authority and guide, interpreted in the light of the Holy Spirit, dissenters formed ‘Three Denominations’: Presbyterians and Independents (Congregationalists), with shared Calvinism but different government, and then Baptists, going further by adopting believers’ baptism as a logical development for ‘godly’ communities. Those not conforming to the state church were persecuted through the 17th century, then ‘tolerated’ as second-class citizens with restricted rights from 1689 into the 19th century.
Baptists cherished the autonomy of local covenanted communities under God, whilst also seeing value in working with fellow churches in interdependence. Independent interpretation, unsurprisingly, led to variety in theology and practice among those otherwise sharing Baptist congregational ecclesiology and believers’ baptism. Ev angelism was always important to some Baptists, but from the late 18th century shared Evangelicalism crossed former boundaries, encouraging Baptists to work both together and with other Christians to promote various causes, not least the abolition of slavery and the Sunday School movement. In the 1890s the two main Baptist groups amalgamated, resulting in a Union where Baptists with a spectrum of specific understandings work together.
The first Baptists wanted religious liberty to be free to worship God as they saw fit, not as prescribed by the Establishment of Church and State. To their credit, they argued that this freedom must apply to all, including those of other faiths (they knew and specified Judaism and Islam). Soon they extended their advocacy to other freedoms. At their best, Baptists are strong advocates for human rights.
Baptists maintain their early principles: the Bible as primary guide to faith and action; the priesthood of all believers, not needing intermediaries to approach God (setting some apart as ministers but not as priests); the need to share the gospel; the competence of the local church to take decisions and act independently, while glad to work with other churches; the advocacy of religious liberty and other human rights.
Baptists today are a large, diverse community worldwide. Some have emerged from missionary effort, others by independent Bible study. As in England, those in the Baptist World Alliance share enough fundamental understandings to recognize and rejoice that they belong to one another in Christ.