Patterns in Denominationalism

(part of the Baptist Heritage in the 21st Century Pamphlet Series)

by Pamela R. Durso

With approximately 35 million members and over fifty distinct groups, Baptists make up the largest and the most diverse American Protestant tradition in the United States. This diversity may partly be attributed to theological differences, dissimilarities in worship styles, and the organization of churches and national bodies by dozens of ethnic Baptist groups.

Many Baptists bodies arose in America because of conflict over theological differences, with one of the major points of contention being Calvinism. Non-Calvinists, or Arminian Baptists, took the name Free Will Baptists, and the beginnings of that movement in America can be traced back to General Baptists who left John Clarke’s church in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1650s; to Paul Palmer, who formed General Baptist churches in North Carolina in the 1720s; and to Benjamin Randall, who organized a Free Will Baptist church in New Hampshire in 1780. Today there are four Free Will Baptist national bodies: the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Original Free Will Baptists, Independent Free Will Baptist Association, and Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Churches. In 2003, the largest of these bodies, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, had 2,458 churches with some 199,000 members.

Calvinist Baptists have also formed numerous bodies, including Old Time Missionary Baptists, Duck River Baptists, Enterprise Baptists, United Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Sovereign Grace Baptists, and Primitive Baptists. Many of these groups, which are mostly independent associations, are small, are located in rural areas, and do not cooperate with state or national conventions. The largest of these groups, the Primitive Baptists, have about 75,000 adherents, and in addition to holding Calvinist beliefs, historically many have been anti-mission, have rejected an educated clergy, do not have Sunday Schools or musical instruments, and practice foot washing. In more recent times, progressive Primitive Baptists, however, have become more mission minded and now endorse an educated clergy, sponsor Sunday Schools, and use musical instruments in worship.

While theological differences contributed to the formation of a large number of Baptist groups, Seventh Day Baptists formed as a result of their Saturday worship practice. In America, the first Seventh Day Baptist Church formed in 1671, and nearly 100 years later, the group organized a national body, called the General Conference. Today, this group has ninety-eight churches with approximately 4,800 members.

The organization of Baptist churches by ethnic groups exploded in the last few decades, especially among Hispanic Baptists. In 2005, about 1,200 congregations affiliate with the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas. While the majority of Hispanic Baptists continue to reside in Texas, Hispanic Baptist churches are quickly being formed in many areas of the country. For example, in North Carolina, the Hispanic population is the fastest growing ethnic group, and Baptists have responded. Today over 130 Hispanic Baptist churches have been organized in North Carolina, compared with only 88 churches in the state in 2000.

Korean Baptists have also experienced significant growth. Koreans formed their first Baptist church in the United States in Washington, D.C., on May 6, 1956. In 2006, they will celebrate their fifty years of work and ministry in the United States. Today more than 760 Korean Baptist churches and missions have been organized, including some large churches. About 1,590 people attend services each week at the Concord Korean Baptist Church in Martinez, California.

African Americans comprise the largest ethnic group of Baptists within the United States. Made up of four large national bodies and several smaller ones, this community has more than 14 million members. Most African American Baptists belong to churches that affiliate with one of the four large national African American Baptist conventions: the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (5 million members); the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. (3.5 million members); the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., (2.5 million members); and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America (2.5 million members.) In addition, African American Baptists also make up approximately 47 percent of the membership of the American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC).

Headquartered in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the ABC in 2005 is the sixth largest Baptist body in the United States, with approximately 5,800 congregations and 1.5 million members. Like most other mainline denominations, the ABC suffered declines in membership, influence, and financial support in the late twentieth century, but in the first years of the twenty-first century, the denomination experienced a 3 percent increase in membership, and since that time, the denomination’s membership numbers have stabilized. Despite these struggles, the ABC can proudly claim that it has the most racially inclusive body within Protestantism.

The largest Baptist denomination in the United States continues to be the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which has approximately 43,000 churches with 16 million members and has churches in all fifty states. The fundamentalist shift within the SBC in the last thirty years has led to the organization of new Baptist bodies, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which was founded in 1990. In 2005, the national CBF has over 1,800 partner churches, eighteen state and regional organizations, 146 global mission field personnel, and a budget of $16 million. In addition, CBF has established partnerships with thirteen theology schools and seminaries, with a combined enrollment of 1,800.

Given the increasing ethnic diversity and divisions over theology, governance, and worship styles, one may ask what unites Baptists in the United States. The answer is that Baptists continue to agree on their most important doctrine, the centrality of Jesus as Savior and Lord. They are also united around their commitments to biblical authority, regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, and local church autonomy. Despite the great disunity regarding theology, worship styles, leadership patterns, and ecumenism, these core beliefs unite Baptists.

Pamela R. Durso is Associate Executive Director-Treasurer of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Atlanta, Georgia.