Strange (but Real) Baptists: An Exercise in Diversity

Strange (but Real) Baptists: An Exercise in Diversity July 1, 2013

Strange (but Real) Baptists: An Exercise in Diversity

Americans are woefully ignorant about religion. Most claim to be religious or spiritual in some sense but they know little to nothing about various religious groups that are all around them. Very few people understand Baptists. Okay, maybe that’s expecting too much. “Understanding Baptists” may take a lifetime. I’m not sure I can claim that! But what I mean is very few people realize how diverse Baptists are. There is no one person or group that speaks for all Baptists—that would go against the very nature of being Baptist. And yet I meet people who think there must be a Baptist headquarters somewhere. Even the local newspaper, in this metro area packed with Baptists, occasionally refers to “the Baptist church” even when it is referring to all Baptists generally. I have tried to inform them that no such thing exists. One can speak rightly of “The United Methodist Church,” but one cannot speak rightly of any Baptist group using the word “The” followed by “Church” except the local Baptist congregation (as in “The Baptist church on the corner”). Baptist denominations are always only voluntary associations, conventions, conferences, of local Baptist congregations and have no authority over them (except to expel them in which case the local congregation keeps everything and can simply join another Baptist group).

Like many other movements and religious-spiritual groups “Baptists” are a centered set, not a bounded set. We (I include myself as a Baptist) are a group without borders or boundaries. If someone thinks there are boundaries around “Baptists,” I’d like to know what it is. When they mention it (or them) I simply ask “Who says?” There’s no magisterium to say; there’s no Baptist pope to say; there’s no Baptist headquarters to say. As a religious type Baptists have a history and all we can do is talk about certain historical commitments common to most Baptists and then admit there are always exceptions. Of course, someone might say of the exceptions “Well, they’re not true Baptists.” But they can’t make that stick. All they can really mean, at best, is “In my opinion that group of so-called Baptists have wandered so far away from anything historically recognizable as ‘Baptist’ that I don’t consider them Baptists.” I will say that about some groups of Baptists, but I can’t enforce it. Nobody can. After saying that, I still have to admit that if they call themselves “Baptists,” given the peculiar history and character of Baptists, they are.

So let me illustrate with three groups of Baptists about which few people are aware—including most Baptists. Even most Baptists scholars, scholars of Baptists, aren’t aware of them. But they should be.

First, Christianity Today recently reported on a Baptist denomination (if any Baptist groups can be called that this one can!) in the former Soviet republic of Georgia (not the state of Georgia in the U.S.). It’s called the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and mimics the Eastern Orthodox in some theology, church leadership (bishops) and worship (incense and icons). (See the on line article “The Baptist Bearing Robes and Incense” dated June 22, 2013. “Google” it!) Fascinating.

Second, a group of Baptists in the Caribbean (especially Trinidad and Tobago) is called “Spiritual Baptists.” It exists in organized form in New York as The Spiritual Baptist Archdiocese of New York. All one has to do to see diversity among Baptists is “Google” this group and/or watch some of their worship services and ceremonies on Youtube. According to some scholars who have studied them, at least some of their churches have incorporated communication with the dead into their services—not séances per se but the pastor receiving greetings from recently deceased members and passing them on to the congregation. Rumors of syncretism abound about this group of Baptists and especially rumors about the blending of Orisha beliefs and practices with their Christianity.

Third, there exists in the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S. a “sub-denomination” of Baptists called “No-Hellers” by some observers. See scholar Howard Dorgan’s book In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 1997). These are “Regular Baptists” who do not believe in hell—fundamentalist universalists! They have entire congregations that together constitute a network although there is no headquarters as such.

There are at least “57 Varieties” of Baptists in the U.S. alone and hundreds more around the world. What do they all have in common beyond the word “Baptist” (and in some cases even that’s missing!)? Well, that’s hard to say. So far as I know, however, all 1) practice believer baptism and not infant baptism, 2) deny that water baptism is necessary for salvation but make it a condition of full church membership, and 3) emphasize religious liberty. Historically, all trace their roots back in one way or another to the first Baptist congregations in England (that sojourned in Holland for a time) in 1610/1611 if not further back to the radical Reformers, the Anabaptists.

So what lesson does this teach? We should be wary of generalizing about any religious group; there is likely to be more diversity than we suspect if it is old and large. Baptists are among the most diverse of Protestant groups. Baptists of all people should learn to acknowledge diversity.

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