Early Developments

Two distinct sub-traditions emerged during the earliest decades of the Baptist tradition, and they are still represented today. These reflected two different theological understandings of the saving work of Jesus Christ and its application to the lives of people. Some Baptists held a Calvinist understanding of the work of Christ and salvation. This perspective included the beliefs that God elects (chooses) some people for salvation, and that, correspondingly, Christ died to provide salvation for these people only, not for all human beings.

With other Christian traditions, Baptists refer to the saving work of Christ as the atonement, indicating that it is on the basis of the work of Christ that human beings can be reconciled to God. And, the common term for this Calvinistic understanding of the atonement is particular atonement, indicating that Christ's death was on behalf of particular people, namely those chosen by God. Consequently, Baptists who hold to this understanding of the atonement are often referred to as Particular Baptists. In the United States, they have also been known as Regular Baptists.

Other Baptists held to another major Christian understanding of Christ's work and salvation, known as Arminian theology. This entails the belief that Christ died for all human beings, and that God elects or chooses people for salvation based on whether or not they personally trust in Christ for their salvation. Because, in this view, Christ is seen as dying for all human beings, this view of the atonement is often referred to as general (or universal), and Baptists who held this view came to be known as General Baptists. They have also been referred to as Free-Will Baptists, reflecting another component of Arminian theology.

Some of these churches do, however, reflect one or another historically-conditioned set of differences within the Baptist tradition. For example, along with Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians, divisions over slavery and the American Civil War became embodied in divisions within the Baptist tradition. In 1845, the General Missionary Convention (also known as the Triennial Convention) divided over the issue of slavery, resulting in the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Missionary Union. Additional regional differences, and subsequently organizational and theological differences, have been such that this organizational division within the Baptist tradition continues today.

Closely related to this division was the emergence of significant numbers of African American churches and associations during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. Baptist churches of exclusively African American membership existed as early as the 1770s, but, perhaps not surprisingly, the number of such churches dramatically increased, in both the northern and southern United States, in the century following the Civil War. One of the first African American fellowships of Baptist churches was the National Baptist Convention, founded in 1895.

Clearly, it was divisions over the slavery of African Americans and the Civil War that led to the largest number of ethnically-identified Baptist churches and associations, namely African American churches. However, there have also been ethnically-identified Baptist churches among Germans, Swedes, Japanese, Latinos, Koreans, and other people-groups in North America.

In addition to the diversity described above, there are other variations, many of them with smaller constituencies, within the Baptist tradition. One sub-tradition includes an emphasis on Sabbath observance, Seventh Day Baptists. Primitive Baptist churches arose in the early 19th century. They draw upon the theology of the Particular Baptist sub-tradition, but hold to a more rigid and extreme form of Calvinism, especially with regard to predestination. In the mid-19th-century a movement known as Landmarkism arose, and continues in some measure today, with a radical view of the autonomy and independence of local congregations and of the local character of baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Study Questions:
     1.     How did Calvin’s work influence some Baptist traditions?
     2.     Describe Arminian theology. How did it lead to the denomination of “Free-Will Baptists”?
     3.     How do Particular Baptists differ in their understanding of the atonement?
     4.     How did slavery influence the demographics of the Baptist Church?

Back to Religion Library