Back to OWR Homepage Back to Christianity Flowchart

Back to
English Speaking Protestantism

American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

Doctrines For a general discussion of Baptist theology see Baptists. While accepting the basic doctrines of Christianity, the Convention of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. embraces a wide variety of theological viewpoints, particularly with regard to questions concerning the fallibility of scripture and the need for social action. The autonomous nature of Baptist churches means that this often causes serious division.

History The first Baptist ideas in British America were held by Congregationalists who were expelled from Massachusetts for religious radicalism in the 1630s. These exiles, amongst whom were Roger Williams and John Clark, founded Rhode Island and developed ideas on similar lines to English Particular Baptists. Although persecuted in many colonies Baptist churches gradually gained in strength till they gained official tolerance in 1689. They were particularly strong in New York and Pennsylvania, where Baptist churches organised themselves into the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1707. In the 1740s a major religious revival known as the Great Awakening spread across the colonies and the Baptists started expanding rapidly, particularly in the South. The War of Independence saw much support from the anti-establishment Baptists for the Patriot cause. After independence the self governing nature of Baptist Churches meant they were ideally suited both for frontier conditions and the democratic ideals of the new nation, and by 1800 they were the largest American denomination.
By the nineteenth century the success of the Baptists throughout the United States lead to pressure for a partial abandonment of the traditional Baptist church autonomy in favour of closer co-operation amongst churches. Thus in 1818 the first Triennial Convention was held. This lead to the formation of the American Baptist Missionary Society, and soon afterwards a home missionary society and publication society. But by the 1840s these organisations became arenas for a virulent division between Northern churches, who strongly favoured the abolition of slavery, and the Southern Baptists. As a result the Southern Baptists withdrew from the national bodies in 1845 and formed a Southern Baptist Convention.
The Northern Baptist churches, anxious to preserve congregational autonomy, preserved the original organisation of three separate societies. After the Civil War they began to expand into the new western territories. It was not until 1907 that their fragmented organisation was changed and the societies were merged together with the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention. Between the wars the Northern Baptists, like many American churches, were faced by a serious controversy between those who favoured a modern liberal theology, who tended to dominate the convention, and those who wanted a return to Christian fundamentals, Fundamentalists. A substantial number of conservative churches withdrew from the convention as a result of the dispute.
In 1973 the name of the convention was changed to the American Baptist Churches in the USA. Unlike its Southern counterpart it is a far more theologically liberal body which is interested in forming links with other churches, on both a national and world-wide level, and has even discussed union with other Baptist churches. But in terms of numerical success it now lags far behind the Southern Convention, even in western areas which it has a long history, and it still faces problems from the continuing hostility between its conservative and liberal wings.

Symbols See Baptists.

Adherents There were 1,534,078 members in 1995 (World Almanac, 1995, 729).

Main Centre
 PO Box 191, Springfield, MO 65801, USA