Some years ago, I am told, a young secretary in Dallas went to her bank to get some traveler's checks. "What denomination?" asked the teller. "Why, Baptist, of course!" she replied. I don't recall whether she smiled or not. It doesn't really matter. It is apparently easy for the uninformed to confuse banks and churches in Texas. Throughout the Lone Star state, as well as in small towns all over the South and Midwest, imposing Baptist churches share Main Street with impressive bank buildings. One out of every three American Protestants is a Baptist. And at least one of the other two has probably come to share some Baptist conviction.
America has been good to Baptists. The vast majority of the world's 40 million Baptists are in the United States. The Soviet Union is home for 730,000; Brazil has 650,000; and India counts over 500,000. But Baptists have been unusually productive in the United States. The reason probably lies in the way the fortunes of the nation and the denomination have been intertwined. There are almost thirty Baptist bodies in the United States today. The largest is the huge Southern Baptist Convention. The smallest, the last time I checked, was the Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit group with less than two hundred members. Most associations fall in between with about a quarter of a million members each.
In one sense Baptists, with their love for liberty, were the first Americans. They took root in the New World as radicals on the fringe of the Puritan movement. Puritans believed that the established Church of England demonstrated far too few signs of the true church of Christ. As a territorial church, the Church of England welcomed sinners in a neighborhood to worship just as readily as saints. And no one seemed to be able to tell the difference between the church and the world.
Puritans believed that the church should be congregations of saints, men and women who could testify of the grace of God in their lives. And they were willing to take their chances in a new English colony in order to make their point. That is why they came to Massachusetts by the thousands in the 1630's.
Baptists, at this point a mere handful of radicals on the fringe of the Puritan movement, agreed with the Puritan majority in their criticism of the Anglican Church, but they disagreed with New England Puritans at two important points. First, they said that church membership should be limited, not only to those families who could testify of the grace of God, but even children of believers must be denied baptism and church membership until they too could personally confess their faith in Christ. In other words, baptism must be of believers only, and by immersion of persons in water. Second, Baptists argued that God had instituted the state as well as the church, and the two were designed by God to serve two different purposes. They must not be merged as the Puritans in New England had done. The state bears the sword of justice, but fair-minded pagans can govern as justly as Christians. Let the church worship, preach and grow by voluntary means alone, freed of the state's power. Both ideas were so revolutionary that Puritans made Baptists miserable, where they could, for well over a century But the future in America lay with the Baptists, not with the Puritans and their state church.
The American Revolution secured the separation of church and state. And revivals on the advancing American frontier spread the Baptist conviction that a spiritual new birth was absolutely essential for baptism and church membership. Americans came to see that the churches could not only endure without state support; they could even thrive in the freedom to preach and win people through the power of persuasion alone. A series of evangelical revivals, beginning with the colonial Great Awakening in the 1740's, propelled Baptists from a persecuted minority in the American colonies to defenders of Protestant mores in mainstream America a century later.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, Baptists proved so successful at winning people to personal faith in Christ that they were able to erect their sanctuaries across from the court houses in the small towns of the South and Midwest. Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, Baptists and Methodists, the major revivalistic denominations, made up 70% of the Protestant population in America. The Civil War, however, changed the face of Baptists, just as it did of America. Not only did Baptists in the North separate from Baptists in the South but hundreds upon hundreds of black Baptist pastors were free for the first time to rally congregations by the power of their preaching. Few other institutions in America were open to blacks, so leadership of the black community tended to come from preachers. The names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and Leon Sullivan are sufficient to indicate that this is still true.
During the twentieth century, Baptists encountered a more complex society: ethnic diversity, sophisticated technology, sexual freedom. They discovered that masses of people in the urban and corporate centers of America consider their message a strange sound out of the past. The doctrines of personal faith in Christ, believer's baptism, and congregational government strike many urbanites as quaint bits of Americana.
Like most Protestants, Baptists, with the possible exception of a few black congregations, do not seem to fit comfortably in fast-paced cities. Their church life focuses on personal commitment to Christ and face-to-face fellowship in the congregation. But cities provide few lasting friendships. Commitments are usually self-centered and short-term. And personal contacts tend to be fleeting and superficial. Fortunately, Baptists can face the future with their past. They are no strangers to a hostile or indifferent world. Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham have shown that radio and TV can be allies in getting the good news to large numbers of people. And Baptist missionary kid Steve Green has demonstrated that contemporary music can communicate God's love as effectively as P. P. Bliss's revival songs.
Now the churches themselves must learn those old lessons of their Baptist forefathers. "How do we not only survive but actually thrive as a spiritual minority?" They must rediscover that true ministry is always much more than beautiful buildings and crushing budgets. Success in God's sight means sacrifice, spiritual discipline, care for the deprived, the nurture and training, not the entertaining, of the young, and the planting of churches among the ever-increasing minorities.
How can we view the cup of American life today? Crime, drugs, consumerism, narcissism ? as either half empty or half full. Discouragement comes easy. But one challenge is also clear: every new day is a call for new people. That ought to have a familiar ring to it. Baptists have been preaching it for a long time.