Baptist Contributions to Protestantism

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

by William H. Brackney

To some people, saying Baptists are Protestants sounds strange, because they think Baptists are a category of Christians unto themselves. On the contrary, for many Baptists it is important to be seen as part of the Protestant family and Baptists have certainly made important contributions to the overall meaning of Protestantism.

Protestants are the Christians who emerged in Europe in the sixteenth century to emphasize the authority of Scripture, the priesthood of believers, and salvation by grace. Major categories of Protestants include Lutherans, Reformed (Zwinglian and Calvinistic), Anabaptists, and the Church of England. Major heroic figures emerged in the Protestant groups, including Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Balthasar Hubmaier, Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and Thomas Cranmer.

One of the major marks of Protestantism has been confessional development. As each of the Reformers reacted against the Medieval Catholic tradition in one way or another, they sought to define their beliefs in terms of “confessions” or statements of their beliefs. At meetings like the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) and the Diet of Speyer (1529), the confessions were presented in support of basic beliefs of the new groups. These confessions later gave shape to “denominations” as we know them today.

Baptists came along in historical development in the next century after the rise of the original Protestant denominations. They identified quickly with many of the teachings and practices of the Anabaptists, such as affirming the authority of the Bible, religious liberty, believer’s baptism, and religious experience. But, Luther’s teaching on the love of God and the priesthood of believers was also important to Baptists. John Calvin’s understanding of the sovereignty of God, God’s grace, the atonement of Christ, and the sacraments/ordinances were picked up by many early English and American Baptists. Zwingli’s positions on the simplicity of worship and the authority of Scripture were also definitive for early Baptists. Thomas Cranmer’s work in the Book of Common Prayer (1549) shaped the worship practices of many, both directly and indirectly. So, the debt of Baptists to earlier Protestants was indeed great.

In their first century of development in seventeenth-century England, three basic types of Baptists cooperated with several other “Protestant” groups. General Baptists worked with Seventh Day Baptists in exchanging pulpits, and Calvinistic Baptists wrote confessions of faith that imitated those of Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Baptists and Quakers sought common cause in religious toleration in the Restoration Period. Most importantly of all, Baptists joined Congregationalists and Presbyterians in forming the Three Dissenting Denominations, a body of political advocates that sought to gain concessions from the established Church for marriages, burials, and political rights of dissenters.

Many Baptists worldwide have continued to think of themselves as Protestants and interacted with other Protestants in significant ways. In launching the world missionary movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, Baptists joined Protestants in sending missionaries and cooperating with other groups like Presbyterians and Congregationalists overseas. In the United States, Baptists joined with other groups in promoting spiritual awakenings like camp meetings and the Great Revivals. In England, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians joined to form the Bible Society cause in 1802.

Within the greater Protestant family of Christians in the past century, Baptists have played a significant role. With the establishment of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905, Baptists signaled that they wanted to follow the pattern of other Protestant communions in uniting their family on a global basis. Soon, Baptist representatives were found in discussions pertaining to world mission, faith and order, and life and work of the churches. In many countries between 1910 and 1950, including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Japan, and China, Baptist joined councils of churches to have greater fellowship and interaction about theological and ethical concerns. Baptists were present from North America and Europe in the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

Especially important in the United States has been the presence of Baptists in the formation of associations for the nurture of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, like “Americans United.” In areas of the world where religious freedom has been denied or sharply curtailed, Baptists have benefited from solidarity with other Protestants in calling for laws to recognize dissenters, and advocating the freeing of political prisoners. The record of this type of interaction with other Protestants has been especially important in the Evangelical Alliance in Europe, the Christian Unions in the former Soviet Union, the China Christian Council, and Three Self Movement in Mainland China.

The presence of Baptists in standing with other Protestants has been an important united Christian witness. At the local church level, increasing numbers of Baptists across North America are dually aligning their congregations with other Protestant denominations like black Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodist groups, in addition to their historic Baptist relationships.

As a Christian community with clear principles, Baptists have made significant theological and ethical contributions to the Protestant tradition. Baptist commitment to the authority of Scripture has been a lodgepole in ecumenical discussions where biblical scholarship must undergird all faith and life. For Baptists all matters of faith and life must be mediated through Scripture.

One of the most important illustrations of Baptist influence upon the larger church’s theological development is in the understanding of the purpose and mode of baptism. Culminating in the issuance of the Lima Declaration (1972), Baptist thinkers in the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches succeeded in convincing their Protestant colleagues that the teaching of the New Testament and the practice of the ancient churches was believer’s baptism by immersion as the preferred practice.

Similarly, Baptist consultants to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on Religious Liberty urged that complete religious freedom be included in these now fundamental documents in international law.

Throughout their history, Baptists have advocated the Great Commission as the heart of their understanding of the gospel and this has been accepted widely in common Protestant statements on the purpose of the Church and the mission of the Church in the world.

The biographical record of Baptists engaged in the larger life of Protestant Christian work is likewise impressive. William Carey, the parent of the modern world missionary movement, was a unifying force both in India among several Protestant groups, but also at home in raising the consciousness of Protestants in the Church of England and the Dissenter communities toward world evangelization. Baptist W. Noel of mid-nineteenth century English Baptist life, formerly an Anglican, was a main promoter of the establishment of cooperative Christianity, notably the Evangelical Alliance. John Clifford, Alexander Maclaren, J. H. Rushbrooke, Ernest Payne, and D. S. Russell from the British Baptist family were international leaders in a great century of Protestant work in Europe and abroad.

In the North American context, E. Y. Mullins, Walter Raushenbush, Harry Emerson Fosdick, J. M. Dawson, Robert Torbet, James Wood, Emmanuel Carlson, Glen Iglehart, Winthrop S. Hudson, Gerhard Claas, and Robert T. Handy all played major roles in conversations with other Protestant groups on behalf of Baptists in the last half century. Perhaps most vividly of all, Helen Barrett Montgomery, the first woman president of any Protestant denomination in world Christian history (Northern Baptist Convention in 1920), initiated conversations in 1914 that led to the establishment of ecumenical women’s work and the all-Protestant World Day of Prayer.

Each time most Baptists and other Protestants open their hymnals in a Sunday church service, they might well see evidence of Baptist contributions to Protestantism and Baptist dependency upon the larger Protestant traditions. Baptists enjoy the hymns of a Methodist, Charles Wesley like, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” and Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Many Baptists count their favorite hymn as “How Great Thou Art,” actually composed by the Swedish Lutheran hymnist, Carl Gustav Boberg.

There are likewise few modern Protestant or denominational hymnals that do not have such Baptist favorites as Robert Lowry’s Easter hymn, “Low in the Grave He Lay,” or  P. P. Bliss’ “Wonderful Words of Life,” William H. Doane’s “To God Be The Glory,” or Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “God of Grace and God of Glory.”

William H. Brackney is Distinguished Professor of Christian Thought and Ethics, Acadia University and Divinity College.