The Baptist denomination is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The Baptist denomination is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.

The first Baptist congregation was established in the early years of the seventeenth century in Holland by John Smyth, an exiled minister of the Church of England. Smyth and his congregation disagreed with the Church of England on several theological points and disapproved of its Roman Catholic characteristics. In 1609, Smyth scandalously baptized himself and his congregation -- a defiant act that usurped the Church of England's authority and deviated from its teachings. Detractors of the separatist sect called them the Baptists, a label the sect rejected at first but eventually embraced. Over the course of a few centuries, the Baptists would grow into the fifth largest Christian denomination in the world. While there are more than 50 distinct subgroups within the Baptist tradition and a wide spectrum of thought on many spiritual matters, Baptists embrace a number of key theological ideas.

A Triune God

Like most other Protestant denominations, Baptists believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three distinct manifestations of a singular triune godhead. They believe that God is the only deity in existence and though he exists separately from creation, he remains deeply engaged with it. Additionally, Baptists maintain that God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent Unmoved Mover that was never created and that exists throughout eternity. In Him, they believe, exists ultimate truth, ultimate justice and infinite love. Baptists also hold the view that the Bible is the Word of God and reveals his nature to human beings, though there exists a diversity of belief in the Baptist tradition regarding how best to interpret it. (4)

In the Beginning

The sacred narrative embraced by the Baptists begins in the Garden of Eden as depicted in Genesis 1 through 3. The text states that God created the entirety of the cosmos and declared it good and he gave human beings the distinction of bearing his own image and likeness. After creation, all living things existed in a perfect and harmonious state. Human beings were also given free will, however, and when tempted by the serpent in the garden, they chose to disobey God. Through their disobedience, they severed the perfect relationship they enjoyed with God before the fall. Some Baptists accept this narrative as a literal and historical fact, while others read it as a meaningful allegory. But they agree that the perfect goodness of humanity and all of creation was tarnished and corrupted by humanity's rebellion and human beings today still endure the effects of this curse. As the Apostle Paul states in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."

Redemption Through Jesus Christ

Baptists believe that God entered humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, and through Christ's suffering and death on the cross, created a way for humankind to be restored to a proper relationship with God. They maintain that the only way for an individual to achieve salvation is to profess a faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. They reject the idea that membership of any church, good works or any other act can achieve salvation for the individual. They draw this conclusion from John 3:16, which states, "for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life."

Baptism of Believers and the Lord's Supper

The rites of baptism and the Lord's Supper are of great importance in the Baptist tradition. Baptists refer to these rituals as "ordinances" -- rather than sacraments as they are often called in other Christian traditions -- because they believe the rituals were ordained by Jesus and to perform them is simply an act of obedience. Baptists maintain that the rituals have no salvific power in and of themselves, but symbolize a salvation achieved through faith alone. Additionally, because of their adherence to the idea of a salvation achieved solely through faith, Baptists do not baptize infants and reserve the rite of baptism for adults who have made a profession of faith.

Priesthood of All Believers

Baptists embrace the concept of universal priesthood, which means that each believer is responsible directly to God, and therefore does not require a priest or minister to act as intercessory before God on his behalf. Laypersons have the ability and right to study and interpret the Bible, to evangelize and to minister to others in the name of God. Also, while ministers and deacons of the church are charged with specific leadership responsibilities, they are of equal status to the non-ordained members of the church.