Baptists and Their Theology

by Fisher Humphreys

It is appropriate, as they approach the four-hundredth anniversary of the founding of their denomination, for Baptists to review their theological legacy. In this article, our review will be of three-quarters of that history.

But is there anything to review? In an important book, Baptist theologian James William McClendon Jr. has argued that small-b Baptists, a group that includes the Baptists, have produced little theology. He defines theology as the discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.1 Baptists have not done much of this kind of work, McClendon says, because through much of their history they have been involved in a struggle for survival, and when they have been secure they have allowed the agenda for their theology to be set by other groups such as the eighteenth-century Reformed theologians whose major concerns were expressed in the Calvinist/Arminian controversies and the twentieth-century Fundamentalists whose major concerns were expressed in controversies with modernists about the Bible. The issues in these controversies, McClendon says, did not arise naturally from Baptists’ own identity with its origins in the radical wing of the Reformation but were borrowed by Baptists from outside their own life.

A student who is required to attain a mastery of some of the influential Baptist writers of the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries might be forgiven for thinking that there is somewhat more Baptist theology than McClendon has allowed. On the other hand, McClendon is correct to say that many of the issues on the Baptist theological agenda have been set by groups and movements outside of Baptist life, and many Baptist theologians have felt obliged to address issues raised outside of Baptist life as well as to address issues that have arisen within Baptist life. Since it is not necessarily a bad thing to address issues that originate outside one’s own group, perhaps McClendon’s initial observation might be rephrased to say that Baptist life has generated only a small percentage of the issues that Baptist theologians have felt it wise to address.

Much Baptist theology has been folk theology rather than academic theology. By folk theology is meant the theology that a community of Christian people, in this case Baptist people, hold and by which they live. By academic theology is meant the theology that is held by persons whose social place in an intellectual elite is at least as important to their work as their place within a faith community, in this case the Baptist community, if indeed they have such a place. In general, folk theology is highly internalized but not necessarily articulated, and academic theology is highly articulated but not necessarily internalized.

Academic theology was transformed dramatically by the Enlightenment and the modernity that it generated. Its principal new component is described by B. L. Hebblethwaite: “Criticism is the chief mark of modern Christian theology.”2 Even before the ascendancy of methodologically critical thinking, however, academic theology differed from folk theology in various ways. For example, attention to method is routine in academic theology but rare in folk theology. The effort to construct a system is routine in academic theology but rare in folk theology. The language of folk theology tends to be first-order language similar to the language of prayer, worship, witness, and exhortation, while the language of academic theology is usually second-order language, language in which the first order language is scrutinized.

Most Baptist theology has been folk theology, and most of the story of Baptist theology is a story of understandings of God and of God’s relations to the world that is expressed in first-order language with a minimal interest in method and system. It is the language of confessions and sermons, and its books are written mostly by pastors. Apparently there were no Baptist theologians whose principal work was done in an institution of higher education until the nineteenth century; in America, it seems that John Dagg was the first Baptist theologian who spent most of his working life in universities.

This is not to say, of course, that folk theology is thoughtless or superficial. These are hardly the qualities that come to mind in the case of John Dagg, for example. It is simply to say that for two centuries–half of the time that Baptist churches have existed–Baptist theology has been done by persons whose center of gravity was to be found in the life of the churches rather than in the life of universities.

There is one set of theological issues that has surfaced in each of the four centuries of Baptist history, namely, the issues related to Calvinism and Arminianism. The relative importance of this conversation has varied from generation to generation, but the conversation has never been fully silenced. McClendon may be right to regret that this conversation, which Baptists have adopted from non-Baptist sources, has been so prominent, but at the moment there seems to be no reason to suppose that the conversation will be either resolved or transcended in the near future. Part of our concern in this article will be to describe the shape of that conversation as well as to describe the shape of other conversations with less staying power than this one.

The Seventeenth Century

The first two Baptist theologians were John Smyth (ca. 1554–1612), who was trained in theology in a university (Cambridge), and Thomas Helwys (ca. 1550–1616), who was not. Three of their principal concerns were believer’s baptism, sectarian withdrawal from society, and religious liberty.

When Smyth and his church adopted the practice of believer’s baptism, they were responding to two impulses at once. One was the restorationist impulse, the impulse to order contemporary church life as closely as possible to the life of New Testament churches. Once Smyth and his church became convinced that only believers were baptized in New Testament churches, they were determined to imitate that practice.

The other impulse was to achieve a believers’ church. The Separatist churches in England had left the Church of England to achieve a more pure church, but their practice of baptizing their own children meant that their congregations continued to have members who had not made a public profession of their faith. Christians have a deep need to be part of an intentional faith community, and that was achieved on the day that Smyth baptized himself and the other members of his church.

While more moderate Puritans were concentrating upon the doctrine of salvation and, in particular, the morphology of the soul’s conversation, it was the writings of men . . . such as the Baptist followers of Thomas Helwys and the older Separatists who kept the question of the nature of the true Church alive and in print in England.3

This act represented a dramatic departure from what was being done by other English churches. However, believer’s baptism was already being practiced by the Mennonites whom Smyth and his friends knew in Amsterdam. Smyth was soon to request membership in the Mennonite community, but Thomas Helwys and some others in the church refused to do this. Why did these early Baptists not simply become Mennonites?

The answer concerns a second issue of great concern to the first Baptists, namely, how churches ought to relate to society at large. Like all separatist Puritan groups, the Baptists had withdrawn from the Church of England; because this was an illegal act, they tended not to be engaged as a group with society at large. However, in principle they had no reason not to be so engaged.

The Mennonites did. For reasons of principle they excluded civil magistrates from membership in their churches. This was one of the reasons that Helwys and other members of the church did not want to align themselves with the Mennonites. In 1611, the year that the Authorized Version of the Bible was published, Helwys and his church of about ten members decided to return to England. Before they left they published “A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam” with twenty-seven articles. Article 24 states:

Magistracie is a Holie ordinance off GOD, that every soule ought to bee subject to it. . . . Magistraets are the ministers off GOD. . . . It is a fearefull sin to speak evill off them that are in dignitie, and to dispise Government. . . . And therefore they may bee members off the Church off CHRIST, reteining their Magistracie.4

The decision of the early Baptists to be engaged with larger society has had important consequences in Baptist life ever since. Baptists first engaged society over the issue of religious freedom, and that priority has continued until the present. Perhaps the most memorable words in this regard are to be found in the inscription which Helwys wrote in the copy of his book The Mystery of Iniquity which he sent to King James:

The king is a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.5

Helwys lived faithfully what he had expressed eloquently; for in 1612, he was arrested and imprisoned in Newgate Prison, and by 1616 he had died.

Concerning these three issues–believer’s baptism, sectarianism, and religious freedom–the first Baptists were in conflict with groups outside themselves, so that we might say that their theology was apologetic in character, and much of their energy in the seventeenth century was devoted to defending these three ideas. Initially, they were in conflict with outsiders concerning Calvinism as well, but in about a quarter of a century this great matter became one of polemics rather than apologetics, that is, an intra-Baptist matter.

Given that a Calvinistic understanding of salvation dominated the separatist Puritans from whom the first Baptists arose and that Arminianism was popular at the court of King James, a king who was very unfriendly to the separatists, it is surprising that the earliest Baptists were Arminians. On the other hand, in Holland, Calvinism dominated the established church, and the dissenting Waterlander Mennonites were Arminians, which makes the stance of the early Baptists more understandable. In Holland, the Baptists presumably were aware of the theology of the Remonstrants, the followers of James Arminius, whose “Five Arminian Articles” were published in 1610 and elicited from the established church in Holland a five-point response by a famous Synod held in Dordrecht in 1618–19. In “A Short Declaration” in 1611, Helwys adopted the Arminian language concerning predestination: “GOD before the Foundation off the World hath Predestinated that all that beleeve in him shall-be saved . . . and al that beleeve not shalbee damned . . . all which he knewe before.”6 From this followed other Arminian views such as that it is possible for Christians to forfeit their salvation.

So the first Baptists were Arminians and were aware that this, like their practice of believer’s baptism, set them apart from separatist Puritans. However, sometime in the 1630s some members of separatist Puritan churches in London became convinced of the appropriateness of believer’s baptism and accepted it themselves. Unlike the first Baptists, however, these brought their Calvinism with them into Baptist life, thereby initiating a polarity in Baptist theology that has continued until today. In general, the Calvinistic Baptists grew more rapidly during the seventeenth century than did the Arminian Baptists, in part because Calvinism “was more widely acceptable to the majority of earnest Christians of the day than Arminianism.”7

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Baptists debated questions related to open membership and open communion. William Kiffin (1616–1701) of London held the majority view that membership should be restricted to baptized believers and communion should be offered only to members, and John Bunyan (1628–88) of Bedford argued for open membership and open communion. Bunyan wrote: “I do not deny, but acknowledge, that baptism is God’s ordinance; yet I have denied, that baptism was ever ordained of God to be a wall of division between the holy and the holy.”8 Even though the majority of Baptist churches have adopted Kiffin’s position, this difference, like the debate about Calvinism, has continued to occur in Baptist life.

The Particular Baptists issued their first confession of faith in London in 1644, two years after the civil war had begun and two years before the Westminster Confession was adopted. In 1652, the First London Confession was revised to clarify that Baptists were distinct from Quakers. In 1677, the Particular Baptists issued a second confession in London, this one modeled on the Westminster Confession in order to display the affinities that they shared with the Puritans of Westminster. In 1678, the General Baptists issued “The Orthodox Creed” for the purpose of uniting Protestants against contemporary Christological errors; the document is special because it was worded in ways that would appeal to Calvinists. In 1688–89, the Glorious Revolution occurred and in 1689, Parliament passed the Act of Toleration which was a first step toward the full religious liberty for which Baptists had argued for decades.

In the 1690s, Baptists in England engaged in a controversy concerning music in church. The first Baptists had resisted singing as yet another example of a fixed form for worship, the very thing they had left the Church of England to escape. Throughout the seventeenth century, various Baptist churches adopted music of various forms–performed by singers rather than congregations or choirs, singing of Psalms but not hymns, with and without any instrumental accompaniment. The controversy was a theological one, and it was provoked when Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) of London introduced the singing of English hymns into the regular worship services of his church. Not until the eighteenth century were Baptists prepared to sing hymns by non-Baptists, the hymns of Isaac Watts being especially attractive to them, and not until they came under the influence of the Wesleyan revivals did the General Baptists introduce congregational singing of any kind, even Psalms, into their worship services.9

In America, Roger Williams (1603–83) founded in Providence the first Baptist church in America in 1638 and made a dramatic case for religious liberty not only in his writing but by granting comprehensive religious freedom to the inhabitants of the colony of Rhode Island whose patent he secured from Parliament in 1644. John Clarke, the Baptist pastor in Newport, wrote in the charter for Rhode Island:

Your petitioners have it much in their heart . . . to hold forth a lively experiment, that a flourishing civill State may stand, yea, and best be maintain’d . . . with a full liberty in religious concernments.10

The Eighteenth Century

Given the Act of Toleration, it might be expected that Baptists would have flourished in England in the eighteenth century, but it was not to be. As James Leo Garrett has said,11 for much of the century the Particular Baptists moved toward a Calvinism so rigid that it was opposed to evangelism and missions, precisely at a time when the revival movement led by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield was helping other groups of Christians to realize the importance of evangelism and missions, and the General Baptists moved toward unorthodox expressions of the Christian faith that resulted in the loss of their Baptist identity altogether.

Yet, the story is not altogether bleak, for by the end of the century the Particular Baptists had given the church William Carey (1761–1834), a pioneer of the modern missionary movement, and Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), a pastor who defended and supported the missionary vision. These men were Calvinists who introduced practices that many had thought were incompatible with Calvinism. Moreover, the General Baptists had experienced a renewal under the leadership of Dan Taylor (1738–1816) who owed much to the Wesleyan revivals. Taylor organized a New Connexion of General Baptists which retrieved doctrinal orthodoxy for and introduced revivalistic evangelism to the General Baptists.

The eighteenth century produced Baptists’ first systematic theologian, the learned John Gill (1697–1771), who was pastor of a London church for more than half a century and who was awarded the degree of doctor of divinity by the University of Aberdeen for his work in the Hebrew language. The conventional interpretation of Gill is that he was a hyper-Calvinist, meaning that he not only taught double predestination but that he also drew from that doctrine the conclusion that the evangelistic offering of Christ to the unconverted was inappropriate. Leon McBeth adopted this interpretation of Gill when he wrote that Gill “was so jealous to maintain the sovereignty of God that he refused ‘to offer Christ’ to unregenerate sinners and taught others to make the same refusal.”12

On the other hand, Timothy George, among others, has called for a reassessment of Gill’s work. He points out that Gill’s objection to a preacher’s “offering Christ” to the unconverted arose from Gill’s belief that only the Holy Spirit can offer Christ, and he quotes Gill as encouraging young ministers to “preach the gospel of salvation to all men, and declare, that whosoever believes shall be saved: for this they are commissioned to do.” Still, George concedes that Gill may have been so preoccupied with defending the gospel from dangers on the left that he did little to stay the erosion on the right, that is, hyper-Calvinism. George summarizes his evaluation of Gill as follows:

We may justly conclude that while Gill believed in harmony with the wider Augustinian tradition, that God, to the praise of His glory, had chosen from eternity to save a certain number of persons from the lost race of humanity, he disparaged neither the means God had ordained to effect the conversion of the elect nor the evangelical mandate to proclaim the good news of God’s gracious provision to all the lost.13

Because of Gill’s immense learning and influence, it is important to identify his position, and it is likely that experts in his work will continue to debate that position. However that issue is resolved, or whether it is resolved, it is clear that some eighteenth-century Baptists accepted the view that a genuine commitment to Calvinism entailed a refusal to evangelize and that the refutation, or perhaps better, the transcending, of that view was indispensable to the health of Baptists. The struggle between these two points of view was conducted by followers of Gill and followers of Andrew Fuller, the pastor in Kettering whose views were summarized in his book The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.14

In America in the eighteenth century, Baptists continued their commitment to religious liberty by working for it in the colonies, by supporting the Revolution, and by working for it in the newly established United States. A leader in this work was Isaac Backus (1724–1806), whose Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty against the Oppression of the Present Day (1773) presented the case for the separation of church and state. The first association of Baptist churches in the New World was formed in Philadelphia in 1707; the association energetically spread the Baptist message through the colonies and to the frontiers. In 1764, the association sponsored the College of Rhode Island (Brown University), the first Baptist university in America.

Equally important to Baptists in the eighteenth century in America was the Great Awakening of which Baptists were primary beneficiaries. In 1700, there were twenty-four Baptist churches in America and fewer than a thousand members; by 1800, Baptists had become the largest denomination in the nation.15 Not only did Baptist evangelism result in many conversions, but more than a hundred Congregationalist churches became Baptist churches. This dramatic numerical growth meant that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the center of gravity in Baptist life in the world shifted from Great Britain to North America.

The awakening divided Baptists into Regulars who resisted it and Separates who embraced it. The energetic evangelism of the Separates led them to moderate their Calvinistic theological heritage:

The revivalist gravitates almost inevitably toward the idea that “whosoever will may come.” This pull, coupled with the necessarily concomitant stress on personal religious experience in “conversion,” tends to make the human initiative primary. Revivalism thus tends to lean theologically in an Arminian or even Pelagian direction with the implicit suggestion that people save themselves through choice.16

It is not only the case that beliefs shape practices; practices also shape beliefs.

The Nineteenth Century

The Calvinist-Arminian issue continued to occupy Baptists throughout the nineteenth century, but two other issues concerned them as well. One was the question of how Baptists should relate to non-Baptists, and the other was the question of how Baptists should respond to the growing influence of liberal Protestantism.

The question of relationships with non-Baptists was most urgent in the Southern United States. At the heart of the Landmark movement led by J. R. Graves (1820–93) and others was a conviction that Baptists are the only true church in a New Testament sense and that it was a compromise of that fact for Baptists to enter into relationships with non-Baptists. A subsidiary concern in the Landmark movement was that Baptists not compromise the integrity of their congregations by creating ecclesial structures that were unknown during the New Testament era and that almost certainly would rob the congregations of their rightful authorities and responsibilities. The Landmark movement had in common with the earliest Baptists a deep concern for ecclesiology, but it proceeded without any awareness of the deep commitment of the earliest Baptists to the importance of each congregation’s entering into close relations with other congregations. The Landmark movement called Baptist churches to associate with each other as little as possible, and it called them to avoid contact with non-Baptist churches entirely. It is ironic, then, that the Landmark movement may have contributed to the fact that many Baptist groups came together to form the Baptist World Alliance (1905) rather than to affiliate with the then-emerging Federal (later National) Council of Churches.

Baptists both in North America and Great Britain responded to liberal Protestantism, and their responses in both places were varied. In Britain, two pastors, John Clifford (1836–1923) and Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92), were to be found on opposite sides of the issue, with Spurgeon leading his London church, then perhaps the largest Protestant congregation in the world, out of the Baptist Union in 1887. Spurgeon and Clifford were personal friends, but Spurgeon was a Calvinist who emphasized evangelism and Clifford was an Arminian who emphasized social work. In 1891, four years after Spurgeon left the Baptist Union, the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists were united for the first time; Spurgeon died the following year.

Among Baptists in North America, the crisis with liberal Protestantism was not to occur until the twentieth century. It is natural to assume that this was the case because liberal Protestantism did not gain adherents as quickly in North America as it did in Great Britain, but another possible explanation is that the intense commitment of North American Baptists to revivalistic forms of evangelism and to evangelistic missionary work on the America frontier as well as abroad was a cement strong enough to hold together Baptists who responded differently to the issues generated by liberal Protestantism.

Baptist institutions of higher education flourished in North America in the nineteenth century and provided opportunities for the discipline of systematic theology to flourish. Of many fine men who practiced the discipline during this period, John L. Dagg and James P. Boyce in the South and A. H. Strong and William Newton Clarke in the North will be mentioned.

John L. Dagg (1794–1884) was a Virginian who overcame extraordinary problems–a limited education, near-blindness, and being crippled–to become a great pastor in Philadelphia and elsewhere and then an educator both in Alabama and as president at Mercer University in Georgia. He was a convinced Calvinist of an evangelical kind who wrote a winsome English prose. Apparently his Manual of Theology (1857) was the first systematic theology by a Baptist in America.

James P. Boyce (1827–88) was educated at Brown University under Francis Wayland, whose evangelical sermons contributed to Boyce’s conversion, and at Princeton Theological Seminary under Charles Hodge who led Boyce to appreciate Calvinistic theology. Boyce became a pastor, then a university professor, and finally the founder and first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught theology from 1859 until his death in 1888. Throughout his ministry Boyce insisted on the importance of theological education for all ministers. In a preface, he described his Abstract of Systematic Theology, published the year before his death, as follows: “This volume is published the rather as a practical text book, for the study of the system of doctrine taught in the Word of God, than as a contribution to theological science.”

Like Boyce, A. H. Strong (1836–1921) was both a seminary president and a professor of theology; he taught for more than forty years at Rochester Theological Seminary. His Systematic Theology is the most comprehensive by a Baptist author ever published; it first appeared in 1876 and went through eight editions and more than thirty printings. Among its other distinctions are that it includes numerous quotations from other writers. Strong’s was a mediating theology in which he retained his theological heritage while embracing as much as he thought wise of newer scientific, philosophical, historical, and theological ideas. He generally avoided polemics, but near the end of his life he became concerned about the deleterious effects of liberalism on missions work and wrote a polemical book about the subject.

William Newton Clarke (1841–1912) embraced theological liberalism, and his Outline of Christian Theology (1898) was the first systematic theology by a liberal Protestant and the most widely influential. Among the attractions of this book are its brevity and its author’s determination to translate technical theological terms into ordinary language.


The story of Baptists and their theology is in many ways an attractive one. To the larger society, Baptists have contributed their awareness that full religious liberty for all citizens entails a separation of church and state, and to the larger church in the world Baptists have contributed the practice of believer’s baptism as a way of achieving an intentional faith community, the believers’ church.

The first three centuries of Baptist theology left seven questions for the later centuries.

• What is a true church?

• How ought a true church to relate to the wider society?

•How ought a true church to relate to the world-view of the wider society when that world-view methodically omits any references to God in its descriptions of reality?

• How ought a true church to worship God?

• How ought a true church to relate to other churches?

• How do you implement a separation of church and state in order to provide maximal religious liberty for all citizens?

•Has God, who presumably has the sovereign power to do so, determined all things, or has God rather created a world that includes freedom and contingency with which God then works providentially and redemptively?


Fisher Humphreys is professor of divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.

1. James William McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 23.

2. B. L. Hebblethwaite, The Problems of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 17–18.

3. B. R. White, The English Separatist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 168.

4. In William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Chicago: Judson Press, 1959), 122–23.

5. Baptist History and Heritage 8, no.1 (January 1973): cover.

6. Lumpkin, 118.

7. Barrington E. [sic] White, “The English Particular Baptists and the Great Rebellion, 1640–1660” in Baptist History and Heritage 9, no. 1 (January 1974): 17.

8. Quoted by Harry L. Poe in “John Bunyan” in Timothy George and David S. Dockery, ed., Baptist Theologians (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1990), 39.

9. Floyd Patterson, “Music, Baptist” in Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists 2:932–34.

10. Quoted in Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), ii.

11. James Leo Garrett, “Theology, History of Baptist” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists 2:1412–13.

12. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 39.

13. Timothy George, “John Gill” in Baptist Theologians, 93–94.

14. James E. Tull, Shapers of Baptist Thought (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1972), 85–92.

15. McBeth, 200.

16. Mead, 123.

This article is reprinted from Baptist History and Heritage 35, no. 1 (Winter 2000), 7-19.

Copyright © 2000, Southern Baptist Historical Society. ®