Living in Georgia means living among many Baptists. They are great neighbors, and they are no doubt our friends as well. But what do we know about the Baptists really? How are they like Catholics and how are we different? First of all, while there are about a 100 million Baptists in the world, there are over 200 different varieties of Baptists. Given that, when we speak broadly about Baptists, we cannot capture every nuance or distinction among them all. Still, most (though not all) of the Baptists we know are Southern Baptists.
Let’s look at the Protestant Reformation in stages. The first generation of the Reformation begat Lutheranism, Zwingliism, and Anglicanism. These faiths actually stayed quite close to Catholic beliefs and liturgy. The second phase of reformers tended to be more radical, and so broke away from those original Protestants. They thought the first stage of the Protestant Reformation didn’t go far enough and there needed to be more of a purification (which really was a purification from things that seemed to them to be too Roman Catholic). Baptists belong to this second generation, together with the Puritans in New England. The separatists did not all agree, and while we tend to think of Baptists as more conservative, they were considered quite radical when they first emerged. Today Baptists are considered mainstream, but they were not included in the Mainline Protestant denominations fifty years ago.
Baptists are Protestants who exist primarily in English-speaking countries. Historically they emerged in England around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were influenced by the Anabaptists and the Armenians. The Anabaptists were refugees from Germany and the Armenians were from the Netherlands. Some of them had escaped persecution on the continent. Anabaptists rejected their infant baptism and insisted that they should be re-baptized as believers. The Anabaptists suffered isolation and persecution by other Protestants sects (the Calvinists and Lutherans), but once in England they began to grow, but also soon divide. In England they also began to insist that immersion was the only valid mode of baptism (Baptists used to meet in camp-meeting areas where they could find spring-fed baptismal pools). The Anglican Protestants in England began to see these Baptist separatists (that is to say these Protestants who would not conform to their Anglican worship of the Book on Common Prayer) as problematic, but eventually the Baptists began to be more tolerated.
Another simultaneous starting point for the Baptists was here in America. A Calvinist minister, Roger Williams, with separatist ideas had fled England to New England, and when Boston exiled him for being too radical, he and some settlers established the colony of Providence, Rhode Island, where the First Baptist Church of the New World was begun in 1639. Roger Williams would eventually leave his own church, but he was nevertheless the founder of Baptists here in America. Those first Baptists in Providence built a church in 1775 with a central pulpit, columns, and a tall steeple. There was no stained glass, no statues and no religious art. It had a whitewashed interior, and crystal chandeliers. That design became the model for subsequent Baptist churches we see around us today.
When persecuted in Massachusetts, the Baptists came south to Charleston in 1665, and it was Daniel Marshall, a Connecticut Congregationalist with no formal education, who established the oldest Baptist church in Georgia in 1772 (in Kiokee near Augusta). Just before the Civil War, the Southern Baptist Convention was created. Their oldest seminary was founded in 1859 (now located in Louisville, Kentucky). Today the Southern Baptist Convention is the world’s largest Baptist sub-denomination and the largest Protestant body in the country (only the Catholic Church in America has more souls). Still, Baptists are a bit fluid, and even many of the new so-called non-denominational churches are arguably another generation of Baptists (perhaps with “cooler” audio-visuals).
Historically, Baptists rejected the Creeds, but they accepted the King James translation of the Bible, and presumed unrestricted freedom in their own personal interpretation of it (supported by neither tradition nor Magisterium). The Nicene Creed insists on one baptism for the forgiveness of sin, so if you preached about being re-baptized, it made that Creed hard to hold. Baptist congregations here and there may have rediscovered the Creeds from time to time, but their older hymns will even say things like, “My faith has found a resting place, not in device nor creed.” And since Baptists claim each individual is his/her own interpreter of Scripture, how could they compel anyone to conform to a Creed?
Baptists are congregational in structure, meaning each “parish” is really another “church” having absolute autonomy. Consequently there can be significant differences between what Baptists believe and how they worship from congregation to congregation. Most Baptists are Trinitarian (though the Unitarians emerged out of the Baptist branch of Protestantism). Most Baptists will baptize in the name of the Trinity, so the Catholic Church acknowledges those baptisms as valid. Baptists originally accepted only two “ordinances” (we call them Sacraments) which in their view were both merely symbolic: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Since they teach that it is really the belief that saves a person, they consider baptism but a subsequent formality. Their holy communion is likewise merely symbolic and generally happens only once or twice a year.
Baptists do not really have a liturgical tradition. They would not, for example, follow the lectionary (whereas some other Protestant denominations do). Baptists do not celebrate Christian holidays outside of Easter, and to some extent Christmas, at least on the nearest weekend, though in recent generations they have become more cognizant of liturgical seasons like Advent and will even have some kind of worship service on Christmas Eve. Baptist worship is largely singing and preaching. There is no monolithic ritual book for Baptists, though in years past they would have had hymnals. They had quite a heritage of singing hymns, sharing much of the same hymnody of other Protestants. Here again, the Baptist norm is somewhat in flux. If the old hymnals were once a standard source of some doctrinal unity in worship, many Baptists today are no longer tied to even that tradition.
In their style of worship, Baptists are about as far away from Catholics as a Christian can get, and yet at present, we Catholics and Baptists have more in common morally than do Catholics and other Protestant denominations. The Catholic leadership on issues surrounding abortion, for example, has been much appreciated within some Baptists circles. But again, Baptists are constantly evolving their positions and each congregation has its own autonomy, so one cannot characterize them all as pro-life, because some congregations could be pro-choice. The notion of democracy plays a big role in their governance, as it is each congregation itself that hires and fires its own clergy.
Traditionally, Baptists insist that one is personally saved by faith alone (though they will also admit in a kind of general salvation in the case of the death of an un-baptized child). Baptists have been categorized as evangelical Christians and they tend to have a strong missionary side. They are historically suspicious of Catholics, whom they often want to try to “save.” Often their efforts might be characterized more accurately as proselytism rather than evangelization, because their mission work is often aimed more at non-Baptist Christians than it is at non-Christians. Many Baptists are also taught a doctrine of “Once Saved, Always Saved” which is a bit of Calvinism that has seeped into their belief. Calvinists believe that God chose those He wanted to save from the beginning of time, and therefore He will never let those individuals be damned. For the Baptists, that morphs into the idea that if you are really born again, you cannot be lost no matter how you subsequently live your life. However, Baptists are a moving target, so what one generation held as true may not necessarily be important to the next generation.
How many of you have been asked by a Baptist friend, “Are you saved?” For Baptists, only someone who has acknowledged his belief in Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior, and subsequently gets baptized has a valid baptism and that faith alone is what makes it valid. It is one’s subjective pre-disposition of personal faith that makes all the real difference. So a person could even get re-baptized, because he might argue that the first time he really doesn’t think, upon reflection, that it was really a believer’s baptism even though he might have said it was at the time. Keep in mind Baptists have no Sacrament of Penance, so even Baptists ministers have been known to be re-baptized from time to time (to mark some new, deeper conversion presumably).
Practically implied in their question “are you saved” is the notion that one’s personal salvation is a historical fact – that because someone personally and publically expressed his or her faith on such and such a date, therefore that person’s future salvation is assured and guaranteed. Their faith historically expressed compels the all-powerful Deity to save them no matter how they live their lives thereafter. Baptists will also use the phrase “born again” (which is another way of saying they are saved). When they and other evangelicals do so, they are actually repeating an emphasis espoused first by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination. Wesley (himself an evangelical really interested in personal conversion) understood this new birth as a profound change when God raises up the old sinner to newness of life in the Christian faith.
So how can we help our Baptist friends understand our Catholic perspective? Well, regarding “being saved,” we should tell them that for the Catholic, salvation is never in the past tense (until, that is, we’re saints in heaven). Jesus came to save us. We are being saved. My salvation is ongoing. But my sin can alienate me from God, so I have to work at my salvation. Grace (not just faith) is important to my salvation. God’s grace is free to me at my asking, but I can work within it, or I can reject it. I may believe Jesus is God, but I can also live sinfully, and as such practically live my life as if it didn’t matter what I believed. Judas believed that Jesus was the Messiah. The Devil knows that Jesus is the Messiah. Acceptance of that fact is itself not enough for salvation. So for the Catholic, living in grace is essential.
Baptists would likely be surprised to learn that Catholics actually believe in the sacraments as having power. Having rejected the priesthood and placing salvation entirely within the subjective heart of the individual, the idea that a baptism performed on an infant by a priest has any efficacious power whatsoever is all but incomprehensible in their understanding of things. So when the Catholic says that being born again means being baptized (which is the traditional understanding of that phrase), the Baptist will not understand. They would be shocked to learn our Church’s teaching on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, or that priests have sacred orders given to them through apostolic succession, or that a priest can forgive sins in the name of Jesus (even though it says so in the Bible). We must accept that there is really no sacramental life whatsoever, as we understand it, within the Baptist tradition.
Moreover, our notion of the Church is difficult at best to explain to Baptists. For them, their local congregation is the church, so our idea of a worldwide unity that is based on apostolic origins and a continuum of tradition, and that this unity transcends this world into the world beyond would be, again, incredible. This is perhaps evolving to some extent, as Baptists are more and more morphing into being “non-denominational” and opening up their occasional communion to other Protestants. In general the old, hard lines between this or that mainline form of Protestantism is just fading away not so much because folks are agreeing on doctrine, but more because they are becoming less and less doctrinal as a group.
The good news is that Baptists tend to think of themselves as pretty traditional these days, so if you can appeal to those notions, you can begin to introduce them to the idea of the Church, the sacraments, and even the great Tradition of our Faith. Maybe you can encourage them to travel to Europe or find some way to begin explaining the universality of the Catholic Faith to open up their more localized view of Christianity, and see more broadly the life of grace within the Church. Baptists have a love of Scriptures, so helping them to understand the Catholic role in compiling and keeping alive the Bible might make them see with clearer eyes that we Catholics are not in the least anti-scriptural (as many of them have been told). We Catholics could also learn something from Baptists, as Baptists tend to be much more committed to their faith and supportive of their local Church than we Catholics are. Baptists are by far more generous to their churches, and they often volunteer many hours in their congregations.
For the most part, a committed Baptist is a person who has a deep and loving faith in Jesus Christ, and if that is the case, then showing that person the Church of Jesus Christ, his bride for whom He died, could just move the Baptists past his or her prejudice against Catholicism, if not far enough to become Catholic, at least far enough to respect the Catholic Church, which would be a step in the right direction.