Roger Williams established the first Baptist church in America around 1638, in the Providence, Rhode Island, region. Williams and John Clarke had founded Rhode Island as a bastion of religious freedom. Baptists believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, in baptism for believers, in the individual's ability to have a personal relationship with God and to interpret the Bible, and the autonomy of the local church. Some of these beliefs were at odds with the more authoritarian Puritan Church that held power in New England at that time. During the same time period, Clarke also established a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island.
Both men had left Massachusetts because they felt there was too much mingling of church and state affairs. Baptists have always been fiercely independent and committed to the autonomy of the local church. These characteristics led to the division of the church into Southern and Northern Baptists, which eventually changed its name to American Baptist.
New England did not accept the Baptists, so they gradually moved into New Jersey and Philadelphia. They formed the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1707, a body that "honored the autonomy of constituent churches, but served as councils for ordination, and a means of disciplining ministers and settling congregational disputes," according to "American Baptists, a Brief History," an article on the American Baptist Church's website. Missionary work was always a central feature of the Baptist faith because of their belief in evangelism and the individual's God-given ability to choose Christ upon hearing the message of salvation. During the years leading up to the Civil War, a rift appeared between Baptists in the Southern Confederate states and the Northern Union states concerning slavery.
The Baptists had formed a Home Mission Society to facilitate outreach to Native Americans and others in the U.S., and a Foreign Mission Society to reach out to people in other nations. Missionaries had to be appointed by the appropriate society before they could serve. Two Southern states, Georgia and Alabama, attempted to get the societies to appoint slaveholders from their states as missionaries but were turned down. Shortly after that, the church split. The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845.
The Southern Baptist Convention is more conservative in its beliefs than the American Baptist Church. The Southern Baptists teach that the Bible is without error, that "all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy," and the American Baptist Church teaches that the Bible is "the divinely inspired word of God that serves as the final written authority for living out the Christian faith." The Southern Baptists teach that everyone must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior or face an eternity in Hell; the American Baptists teach that people are "called to radical personal discipleship in Christ Jesus" but do not directly say they must accept Christ in order to be saved. The Southern Baptists do not allow women to become clergy and condemn same-sex relationships, while American Baptists have women clergy members and allow churches within their association to be "welcoming" communities, which means accepting of gay people and same-sex couples.
Southern Baptists and American Baptists share many common core beliefs. Both Baptist groups celebrate two sacraments, which they refer to as ordinances. They celebrate Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper, as a symbol of Jesus' sacrificial death and their belief in his resurrection. Baptists also celebrate believers' baptism. Only those old enough to understand the faith and to make the choice to accept it are baptized. They are immersed in water, or dunked underneath and brought out, as a symbol of being resurrected to a new life in Christ. Both Baptist churches believe in the value of evangelism and mission in order to "make disciples of all nations."
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