Doing Diversity Baptist Style
Documents for Faith and Witness

by Albert W. Wardin, Jr.


Major   Variations

Jointly published by the Baptist History and Heritage Society
and the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society


Baptists are both the largest denominational body in the United States and the most diverse. Baptist bodies in the country total at least 54 groups and subgroups. They range in size from the Southern Baptist Convention with millions of members and tens of thousands of churches to the General Six Principle Baptists which today have only one remaining small church.

Roots of Baptist Diversity

Why so much diversity? Baptists have no one founder. They originated in a search for freedom, and an emphasis on liberty has characterized their life for four centuries. Thus, they are an independent lot.

Soul competency, a cardinal principle of Baptists, means that every person is directly responsible to God alone. A corollary is congregational church government in which each church, under the Lordship of Christ, makes its own decisions regarding doctrine and practice.

Baptist life includes many points of diversity. These relate to theology, culture and ethnicity, means, and successionism.

Theology—One point of diversity relates to  the division between Calvinists, stressing God’s sovereignty, and Arminians, stressing the individual’s free will. Another centers around Fundamentalism.

The modern Baptist denomination appeared in the seventeenth century as twins. The older twin, the General Baptists, taught that Christ’s atonement was general, for all, and favored free will. The younger twin, the Particular or Regular Baptists, taught that the atonement was limited to the elect and that God is sovereign in electing individuals to salvation. These differences resulted in two distinct bodies, both of which arrived in America.

Although not as important as it once was, the separation continues to the present. Primitive Baptists and a few others are strict Calvinists and hold to election and a limited atonement. However, most Baptists today, whatever their heritage, accept a general atonement and also recognize a place for freedom of the will in conversion.

This theological dividing line is still important in that Baptists of the Regular Baptist heritage, by far the most numerous among American Baptists, continue to maintain at least one point of their Calvinist heritage—the eternal security of the believer or “once saved, always saved.” A much smaller number come from the General Baptist tradition, advocating free will and the possibility of falling from grace.

Fundamentalism became very potent in Baptist life in the twentieth century when theological Liberalism began to seep into Baptist ranks in the North, particularly through the seminaries in the Northeast. A fundamentalist movement arose, stressing biblical inerrancy and the supernatural character of the gospel. It attacked Liberalism for emphasizing God’s immanence over his transcendence; for downplaying, if not denying, supernatural beliefs; and for sympathizing with the Social Gospel. Fundamentalists were generally premillennialists and dispensationalists, looking for Christ’s imminent return to establish his kingdom.

Fundamentalism exists today in the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., and the Southern Baptist Convention, with increasing influence in the latter body. Fundamentalism has also led to schism in both conventions, producing a number of separate associations or fellowships.

Fundamentalists have also attacked the ecumenical movement to which the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., and a number of African-American Baptist bodies belong. Moderate fundamentalists will cooperate with evangelicals of like faith, but militant fundamentalists refuse cooperation with evangelicals who, in turn, may cooperate with theological liberals.

Culture and Ethnicity—These points of diversity have produced the largest divisions. The initial division between Northern Baptists (today the American Baptists Churches, U.S.A.) and the Southern Baptists was not theological; it was cultural. The former was critical of slavery, while the latter defended the southern way of life which protected this institution.

Another great division occurred when black Baptists left the white-dominated churches and established their own churches and institutions. In addition, some Baptists formed their own foreign-language conferences or conventions. Two of the largest groups in the nineteenth century—the German and the Swedish—today are almost entirely English-speaking. However,  because of their heritage and other factors, they retain separate identities under changed names.

Culture has also played a role among Baptist groups which are predominantly rural and comparatively isolated from modern trends in the broader society. Such groups sanctify older practices and tend to resist change.

Means—The playing out of this point of diversity is often closely related to the dividing line of cultural differences. As a number of Baptists began to form mission and educational societies and theological schools and Sunday Schools, some Baptists, called Primitive or Old School Baptists, held back, rejecting all such means of expressing faith as unbiblical and infringing on the local church. These Baptists stressed their Calvinist roots.

Some Baptists also disagree over another means: they accept missionary and educational work but differ over the degree of centralization for such work. Such Baptists attack convention organizations as too centralizing, and many of them prefer separate societies or committees. Some even bypass home mission agencies and advocate direct missions, sending their mission contributions directly to the missionary.

Successionism—Early Baptists in England rejected the idea that their churches existed in a line of succession from the apostolic age; instead, they affirmed that they were true churches of Christ by their restoration of biblical standards. In the nineteenth century in the U.S.A., many Baptists believed they could trace a direct succession back to Christ and the apostles.

James R. Graves, an influential Baptist editor in Tennessee, developed a system called Landmarkism, which, among other tenets, insisted that Baptist churches were both apostolic in origin and the only valid Christian churches. They viewed other churches as mere societies. Landmarkers thus rejected the ordinances of non-Baptists, declaring their immersion of believers as “alien,” and refused to share pulpits with their pastors.

Varieties of Baptists

The preceding points of diversity help to explain Baptist differences. But the situation is even more complex. Various combinations or overlapping of these dividing lines have produced different results, producing at least eleven major varieties of Baptists. A further complication is that some Baptist bodies over time have shifted categories. The following section lists the varieties with examples of Baptist bodies under each.

Ecumenical Mainline—American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., with about 1.5 million members, is the one example of an ecumenical mainline body. The mother denomination of Baptists in the U.S.A., it incorporates many of oldest churches and the first national Baptist bodies. It is organized as a convention with a unified budget in coordination with regional or state conventions. It is a member of the World and National Councils of Churches with observer status at the National Association of Evangelicals. It also belongs to the Baptist World Alliance.

The national body has no confessional statement. The convention represents a broad spectrum of belief from conservative evangelical to liberal. Its churches observe open communion, and a number of them practice open membership. It considers itself a bridge denomination between Baptists and the wider ecumenical community. 

Conservative Evangelical (North)—Conservative evangelical bodies in the North with about 380,000 members differ from ecumenical mainline Baptists in adopting nationally conservative evangelical confessions of faith and rejecting the ecumenical movement, although some belong to the National Association of Evangelicals. Their churches practice close membership but generally observe open communion. These bodies, by and large, are members of the Baptist World Alliance.

Most of these bodies were at one time part of the American Baptist Churches. Two of them, the North American Conference and Baptist General Conference, were at one time ethnic bodies; they maintain coordinated national programs. The Conservative Baptist Association, formed in 1947, rejecting the inclusive policy of the Northern Baptist Convention, separated from the latter and follows a society method of organization. The Seventh Day Baptist General Conference differs from the others primarily in its observance of the seventh day as the day of worship.

Conservative Evangelical (South)—The foremost example of a Conservative Evangelical body with southern roots is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant body in the U.S.A. It has churches in every state and is the largest Baptist body in the world. It has a well-developed convention organization.

Unlike the American Baptist Churches, the SBC, since its 1925 adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message, has sought to follow a confessional standard. In 1998 and 2000, the SBC incorporated additional conservative elements into its confession. Most of its churches are close membership, but their communion practices vary from local-church communion to open communion.

The SBC is a member of the Baptist World Alliance but is not a member of any council of churches or the National Association of Evangelicals. However, not entirely isolationist, it finds increasing ties with other conservative evangelicals.

Although Northern and Southern Methodists and Presbyterians have reunited since their disunion over slavery, why do Southern Baptists and Northern (American) Baptists continue their separation and apparently grow farther apart? The conjunction of several dividing lines—cultural differences, successionism, and Fundamentalism—has played significant roles in Southern Baptist life.

Cultural differences have been extremely important, going back to the initial separation. In addition, the South has been a distinct cultural area with Southern Baptists helping to mold it and being molded by it. Also, many Southern Baptists, particularly in the Southwest, have embraced Landmarkism (which promoted successionism), while Northern Baptists, by and large, have rejected it.

Most Southern Baptists have traditionally been conservative evangelicals. Therefore, it is not surprising that ideological Fundamentalism is playing an increasingly important role. As a consequence, a fissure is appearing in Southern Baptist ranks, particularly in the academic community and often in areas less affected by Landmarkism. This division has led to the establishment of missionary, educational, and publication programs outside the SBC Cooperative Program, such as those supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Ethnic (Foreign Language)—At least nine foreign-language conventions exist, generally aligned with another convention. These bodies are small, numbering only about 7,000 members. Some ethnic conferences with roots in the nineteenth century became English-speaking and continue as English-speaking conferences. Others have merged with another body.

In addition, numerous foreign-language groups with their own fellowships are part of predominantly white and English-speaking conventions or conferences. This is particularly true of Spanish-speaking, oriental, and Indian bodies, many of which are showing rapid growth. For instance, Southern Baptists have twenty-one ethnic fellowships; the National Fellowship of Hispanic Baptists is the largest. American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., have significant Hispanic, Indian, and Asian constituencies, while a number of other Baptist groups have growing ethnic work.

Ethnic (African-American)—Five predominantly black Baptist bodies have “National” in their titles. They are much like other Baptist bodies in theology but maintain their own national denominational programs. They number 7 to 8 million members. Racial identity, cultural differences in church organization and worship, and differing political and economic concerns have separated them from other Baptists. Except for the National Progressive Baptist Convention, their convention organizations (with separate boards, congresses, and auxiliaries) are more loosely organized than the structure of predominantly white conventions.

Except for the National Primitive Baptist Convention, the other four conventions come from a common origin, but have divided, not over theology, but over organizational differences. A Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, now growing rapidly, has emerged in recent years as a cross between Baptists and Pentecostals.

Separatist Fundamentalist—Separatist  fundamentalists exist across the nation, both north and south. Four bodies with northern origins in the Northern Baptist Convention have an estimated membership of about 350,000 in around 2,200 churches while four fellowships with origins in the Southern Baptist Convention have more than 1.9 million members in about 4,700 churches.

Their characteristics are particularly due to two dividing lines—Fundamentalism and the means of denominational operation. Their Fundamentalism has made them strongly confessional, stressing both the fundamentals of the faith and dispensational premillennialism. They militantly oppose theological Liberalism and regard separation from groups which tolerate it as “redemptive.” Their condemnation of convention organizations and their emphasis on local church autonomy have led them to reject centralized denominational organizations. They have established general associations of churches with separate mission and educational organizations or pastor-led fellowships.

Because of their militancy, they have been prone to division. The Conservative Baptist Association, which began as a separatist fundamentalist group (today considered a conservative evangelical body), experienced division when a more militant group left, which today exists in nine separate regional fellowships or associations. The World Baptist Fellowship has experienced two divisions—the Baptist Bible Fellowship International separated in 1950, and the Independent Baptist Fellowship International in 1984.

Landmark Missionary—Landmark Missionary Baptists with a half million members are premillennial fundamentalists. They, however, go a step farther than separatist fundamentalists in making polity a touchstone. They are strong proponents of Landmarkism, which denies legitimacy to any other religious denomination. The Lord’s Supper is confined to members of the local church.

As adherents of local church autonomy, they attack conventions and their systems of boards. They believe a church should give directly to the missionary; the contribution may or may not be forwarded through a mission committee or similar body. This body, however, has no authority to supervise the missionary on the field.

Two national Landmark Baptist bodies have such mission agencies—the American Baptist Association and the Baptist Missionary Association. Each also has other committees or departments for specialized ministries and also independent schools and periodicals. A number of Landmark Baptist associations and churches are independent of the two national bodies.

Old-Time—A comparatively large number of independent associations exist apart from other Baptists and tend to follow older patterns of Baptist life. Located primarily in rural areas, they have over 100,000 adherents. Some of these associations correspond with other associations of like faith and order but others have no associational ties. Various groupings include Old Missionary Baptists, Regular Baptists, Duck River Baptists, Enterprise Baptists, United Baptists, and the like. They are generally moderate Calvinists; however, unlike Landmark Missionary Baptists, they are typically, although not exclusively, non-millennial.

Some of these associations have never belonged to a state convention, while others ceased their cooperation with state conventions when the latter developed a more coordinated mission program. Some of these groups either favor direct missions by the local church or are non-missionary. Others have established outside institutions such as children’s homes or camps. In polity, they are successionist.

They are considered Old-Time Baptists both because by rejecting conventions they are outside the mainstream of Baptist life and because of their worship and church practice.

Their churches possess rural values and reject a professional ministry, often relying on pastors who are theologically untrained and part-time and who preach extemporaneously. The mourner’s bench is common but feet washing, although practiced by some of them, is not universal. They generally have Sunday Schools and accept musical instruments in worship; however, some United Baptists reject both.

Primitivist—Primitivists with possibly 75,000 or more adherents have characteristics similar to the Old-Time Baptists in rejecting a trained ministry. They differ, however, in their adherence to hyper-Calvinism, antimissionism, and rejection of all institutions outside the local church. Their worship follows patterns of a by-gone era with extemporaneous preaching, the rejection of musical instruments, and the practice of feet washing. They also reject Sunday schools.

The main body of Primitivist Baptists are the Primitive Baptists. They are divided into the Old Line, who believe in God’s election for salvation but in man’s responsibility for other aspects of life, and the Absoluters, who believe God has predestined all things. There is a splinter group of Universalist Primitive Baptists and a dwindling Gnostic group of Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists.

Some Primitive Baptists, such as Progressive Primitive Baptists, adhere to Calvinism but have evolved away from their primitivist heritage by accepting Sunday Schools and institutions outside the local church. Some Primitive Baptists have evolved to such an extent in belief and practice that today they are more like Old-Time Baptists than Primitive Baptists.

Another primitivist group is the Old Regular Baptists. While more moderate in their Calvinism than Primitive Baptists, they are related to them in polity and worship.

Free Will/General—These Baptists, numbering about 435,000, differ from other Baptist groups in theology. Unlike Regular Baptists, they have always advocated a general atonement and free will and teach the possibility of falling from grace. Unlike many Regular Baptists who traditionally have observed close communion, they have historically observed open communion. Many of their churches have a rural base, but increasing numbers live in urban areas. Many of the churches observe feet washing.

Like other Baptists, they are divided into a number of separate groups. There are three Free Will Baptist bodies, the largest of which is the National Association of Free Will Baptists. In addition, there are independent Free Will associations which belong to no national body.

Other bodies in this category include the General Association of General Baptists and Separate Baptists in Christ. The General Six Principle Baptists, which advocate the laying on of hands on new believers as one of their six principles, are now practically a historic relic. They have only one church, located in Pennsylvania, which still carries Six Principle in its name, but its current pastor does not observe all the six principles.

Neo-Calvinist—With Neo-Calvinist Baptists, one has come full circle theologically. During the last half of the twentieth century, some Baptists sought to return to the Baptist heritage of the seventeenth century, advocating an evangelical Calvinism as found in the early Baptist confessions. Two major groups have emerged—Reformed Baptists and Sovereign Grace Baptists. The former looks to the Second London Confession of 1689, while the latter relates more closely to the First London Confession of 1646, more critical of covenant theology and less puritanical. A third and very small Calvinist group is the Strict Baptists, who separated from the Baptist Union in England. They began their first church in America with English immigrants in 1907. Although Neo-Calvinist Baptists are growing, their numbers are small—possibly about 16,000 adherents.

Common Features

With over 50 distinct Baptist groups and subgroups in 11 categories, one could easily conclude that Baptists are hopelessly divided. However, one should first note that many groups are very small; over 90 percent of all Baptists in the United States are members of the five largest Baptist bodies, all with a common theological heritage.

In spite of organizational divisions and differences over inter-denominational relations, Baptists in the country are amazingly uniform in their theology, probably more so than any other major denominational group. They adhere, by and large, to the centrality and supernatural character of the gospel. The vast majority are theological conservatives, ranging from moderate to fundamental.

Apart from doctrinal preaching in small Calvinist groups, most preaching is warmly evangelical and biblical. Baptist worship generally includes an ordered service but in most cases is non-liturgical with congregational singing (often incorporating gospel hymns), extemporaneous prayer, and a sermon with an appeal for a personal response. Some churches follow, at least in some of their services, a contemporary or more charismatic style while a comparatively small number follow a set liturgy. A folksy atmosphere of fellowship often prevails before and after the service.

In spite of their differences, most Baptists would still consider themselves part of one Baptist denomination, accepting in some form historic Baptist principles. With some exception, they generally accept each other’s members with only Primitivist, Landmark, and possibly Free Will Baptists considering themselves outside the major stream of Baptist life.


Albert W. Wardin Jr., retired Professor of History, Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee, lives in Nashville.

 Bibliography—Standard histories which provide information on Baptist bodies are H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), and Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists (3rd ed.; Valley Forge: Judson Baptist Press, 1973). A book by Bill J. Leonard (scheduled for release in 2002) will be titled Baptist Ways: A History of a Diverse People (Judson Press). An extensive survey of Baptist bodies is Albert W. Wardin Jr.’s Baptists Around the World: A Comprehensive Handbook (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1995).


Questions for Discussion

-- What are the major points of diversity among Baptists?

-- Describe the various classifications of Baptists.

--   Show how different combinations of dividing lines create different classifications. 

-- What makes Baptists in the Primitivist category different from other Baptists?

-- What are the common features which contribute to Baptist identity?



This pamphlet is one of nine in the series, "The Baptist Style for a New Century," jointly published by the Baptist History and Heritage Society and the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society.

To order copies, contact the Baptist History and Heritage Society, P.O. Box 728, Brentwood, TN 37024-0728

(800) 966-2278 • FAX (615) 371-7939


To learn more about the Whitsitt Society, contact

Doug Weaver, 1717 Shenandoah Drive, Vidalia, GA 30474.


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