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A Pastoral History of Southern Baptists

November 19, 2012 by Jeff Wright

I prepared the following for a short presentation at my church on the origins of modern Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention[1].  I post it here in the hope of benefiting someone else.

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Baptist Distinctives[2]

1. The Authority of Scripture

2. Regenerate Church Membership

3. Baptism by Immersion

4. Soul Competency/Priesthood of the Believer – “the right and ability of an individual to approach God directly without any human intermediary” (such as an earthly priest).

5. Religious Freedom – “the human, temporal realm [read: government] has no authority to coerce religious commitments.  God alone is sovereign over human conscience… [this doctrine] guarantees the right of each individual to believe as he or she chooses without fear of [earthly] penalty.”

6. Believer’s Baptism

7. The Lordship of Christ

Four Dominant Theories on Baptist History

1. Successionism

a. Landmarkism – aka “Baptist Bride” – began in 1851 largely by James Robinson Graves of Memphis; Only independent Baptist churches are truly churches; these Baptist churches trace back to the Apostolic church or John the Baptist; the members of these Baptist churches are the “Bride of Christ” – other believers will be either servants, guests, or family members in the Heavenly state; the Southern Baptist Convention distanced itself from Landmarkism through formal resolutions in 1859.

b. Trail of Blood – a lighter version of successionism than Landmarkism – takes it’s name from a pamphlet titled The Trail of Blood: Following the Christians Down through the Centuries – or, The History of Baptist Churches from the Time of Christ, Their Founder, to the Present Day by Dr. James Milton Carroll published in 1931 but the ideology is older than the publication (Charles Spurgeon apparently held a view very close to this one).  This theory argues  there has been an unbroken chain of churches since the days of Christ which have held beliefs similar to (though not always the name) of current Baptist churches. The inherent problem with this position is that it puts Baptists in direct descent from some not-so orthodox groups like such as the Montanists, Paulicians, Cathari, Waldenses, and Albigensess.

2. Anabaptist Kinship

“Anabaptist” –meaning Re-baptizer – is a catch-all term that refers to a broad collection of religious movements active in the Reformation, sometimes called The Radical Reformation.  Advocates of this theory see modern Baptists as directly descended from the Anabaptists who emerged from Zwingli’s reformation in Zurich, Switzerland in the early sixteenth century, specifically 1525.  This theory was more popular in days gone by but is still advocated by Page Paterson as well as Ergun and Emer Caner.  This theory, if correct, establishes a link between modern Baptists and contemporary Anabaptist groups like the Mennonites and the Amish.

3. English Separatist Descent

This theory of Baptist origins also traces the modern Baptist movement back to the Reformation but rather than starting with Zwingli in Zurich it sees the story of Baptists begin in the Anglican, or Episcopalian, Church in England in 1609- moving from Anglicanism through the Puritans, into the Separatists, and eventually birthing a distinctive movement recognizable as modern Baptist theology.

a. Nettles’ Spilsbury Hypothesis – possibly the most respected Baptist historian of our day, Tom Nettles of Southern Seminary, has argued that modern Baptists emerged as a group contemporary to English Separatists in 1638 in the ministry of John Spilsbury.

4. Convergent[3] or Polygenetic[4] Origins

This position argues that Anabaptism, English Separatists, and perhaps some medieval religious sects feed as streams into the river that is the modern Baptist movement.

But the earliest Baptists were aware that they were not the first baptistic Christians since the New Testament era. In fact, just like us they were aware that there had at least occasionally been free church movements in church history. Some of these groups likely immersed, though there is evidence that there were soteriological deficiencies and other shortcomings among the independent medieval sects. But Baptists knew that they were not taking a historically novel step in arguing for religious liberty, believer’s churches, and credobaptism.

The English Baptists represent the culmination of the reformation era, agreeing with the basic evangelical soteriology of the magisterial reformers and some Anabaptists and the radical ecclesiology of the orthodox Anabaptists and some English Separatists. They also recognized and appreciated that some medieval sects were correct in at least some aspects of their ecclesiology. But Baptists did not agree with these positions because they were affirmed by Waldenses, Lutherans, Reformed, or Anabaptists, but because Baptists believed an evangelical gospel and a free believers’ church represented the heart of New Testament Christianity.[5]

Our study will approach the issue of Baptist history from the fourth perspective.

I. Ancient History

a. The early church quickly developed into a movement concentrated in major population centers.

  • Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome become churches of dominant influence.
  • From this group, Rome emerges as dominant.

-  In 189, assertion of the primacy of the Church of Rome may be indicated in Irenaeus of Lyons’s Against Heresies (3:3:2): “With [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree…and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.”

- Stephen I is the first Pope to claim primacy (254-257)

- Pope Gelasius (492-496) stated:

“The see of blessed Peter the Apostle has the right to unbind what has been bound by sentences of any pontiffs whatever, in that it has the right to judge the whole church. Neither is it lawful for anyone to judge its judgment, seeing that canons have willed that it might be appealed to from any part of the world, but that no one may be allowed to appeal from it.”

b. Rome and Constantinople come into conflict, eventually exploding in The Great Schism in 1504, which separated the church into a Western & Latin Speaking Branch (Rome) and an Eastern & Greek Speaking Branch (Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem).

II. Reformation History

a. Ulrich or Huldrych Zwingli was born in modern day Switzerland in 1484.  He was educated in Vienna and Basel, eventually coming to be influenced by the humanist Erasmus.  He was ordained to the Priesthood in 1506 and begins his ministry in Glarus, moving to Einseldeln, and eventually to Zurich.  During this time he begins to study the Bible in Greek and Hebrew.  He also starts preaching through the New Testament and by 1520 began coming in to significant conflict with the Roman church.  By 1525 he formally breaks with the Roman church through asserting:

(1) that the church is born of the Word of God and has Christ alone as its head;

(2) that its laws are binding only insofar as they agree with the Scripture;

(3) that Christ alone is man’s righteousness;

(4) that the Holy Scripture does not teach Christ’s corporeal presence in the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper;

(5) that the mass is a gross affront to the sacrifice and death of Christ;

(6) that there is no biblical foundation for the mediation or intercession of the dead, for purgatory, or for images and pictures

(7) that marriage is lawful to all

b. In 1519 Zwingli began studying scriptures with a group of people who come to be called The Swiss Brethren.  Their studies of the New Testament in Greek helps to solidify Zwingli’s thinking.  The group also comes to (a) reject infant baptism and (b) embrace believer’s baptism.  Notable names amongst the Swiss Brethren:

  • Conrad Grebel
  • Felix Manz
  • George Blaurock

This created a crisis for Zwingli. He was the city preacher of Zurich and taxation was directly tied to infant baptism – when a child was born the parents brought him or her to church to be baptized; the state registered the child on the tax register and from there on the child is subject to taxation.

Zwingli began to separate from his students and public disputations between he and they begin to take place.  On January 17, 1525 this breakdown came to a major point of division:

  • Zwingli recognized that the Zurich Council would not support rejection of infant baptism; he needed Council’s support for his Reformation
  • So he called for suppression of Swiss Brethren at public disputation on baptism
  • Zwingli coined term “Anabaptists”: Re-baptizers
  • Decision: Brethren to stop meeting & have children baptized or leave Zurich in 8 days

On January 21, 1525 George Blaurock asked Felix Manz to baptize him, which he did in the home of Conrad Grebel.  This marks the beginning of Anabaptism as a movement.  These gentlemen, their families, and other followers covenant together as what we would today recognize as a church.  Their commitments:


  • To live separate from the world
  • To teach the Gospel faithfully
  • To hold steadfastly to the truth


  • Formed church after NT model
  • Affirmed absolute lordship of Jesus
  • Affirmed church based on voluntary commitment
  • Refuted popular doctrine of infant baptism
  • Rejected role of magistrate, or civic government, in religion

c. Zwingli and the magistrate began a system of organized persecution against the Swiss Brethren.  Zwingli accused his former friends of sedition; Grebel, Blaurock, and Manz are imprisoned numerous times but escape.

  • Grebel died of the plague.
  • Manz is martyred on January 5, 1527.  Zurich prosecutors decided punishment would be “third baptism”, i.e. drowning.  Manz’s hands were bound to his knees, with a stick thrust between arms & legs and he was thrown into icy waters of the Limmat River.  His last words were reportedly “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”
  • On the day of Manz’ martyrdom, Blaurock was beaten & banished from Zurich

He began preaching throughout Switzerland until he was banished in April 1527.  He then moved on to Tyrol in the Austrian Alps, where many believers were baptized & churches were started.  He eventually died on September 6, 1529 by being burned at stake.

This marks the beginning of widespread persecution of the Anabaptist movement.  They began to teach that persecution and Martyrdom is a sign of the true church.  Anabaptists were eventually persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants, with the result that there were more Anabaptist martyrs in the 16th century than there were in the Christian church during the first three centuries under the Roman empire.[6]

b. English Developments starting in the Anglican Church 

In 1534 King Henry VIII separated the English church from the Roman Catholic church.  As the Church of England developed reformers within the Anglican Church called Puritans worked for greater doctrinal purity.  In 1662 the Uniformity Act expelled the Puritans, swelling the ranks of the Separatists who had already left the church because the believed reform from within wasn’t possible.

The story of modern Baptists picks up with 1609 with John Smyth, a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge who began meeting in England with 60-70 Separatists.  In this year he baptized himself and several others.  He was supported by a layman named Thomas Helwys.  Smyth and Helwys, in the face of significant danger, moved their people to Amsterdam.  During this time Smyth published a tract where he argued that infants are not to be baptized and converts are to be admitted to the church through believer’s baptism.  Eventually Smyth left the group and Helwys took over, moving the congregation back to England in 1611.  In 1612 Helwys wrote a book, which he sent to the King, where he said “The King is a mortal man and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them”, bold declaration of his belief that church and state are to be kept separate.  The King promptly had Helwys arrested and he died in prison in 1616 at approximately 40 years of age.

By 1644 there were 50 Baptist churches in England (including the important congregation of John Spilsbury, founded in 1638).  From this group came Roger Williams and John Clarke who fled to the New World to escape religious persecution.  In 1638 Williams founded a Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island while Clarke founded one in Newport in 1644.  Williams, founder also of the Rhode Island colony, argued for believer’s baptism and the separation of church and state.  Rhode Island was the only colony where citizenship didn’t require membership in a particular church.

In the mid-eighteenth century America was taken by “a surprising work of God” in the first Great Awakening, associated primarily with Jonathan Edwards.  Though Edwards wasn’t himself Baptist the Great Awakening was good to Baptist causes.  A Baptist evangelist named Shubael Stearns saw great fruit in the area of North Carolina, establishing more than 40 churches.  During this time Baptists began to divide into Separate Baptists in the South and Regular Baptists in the North.  The difference between the two was largely a matter of belief in the number of ordinances –  Separates recognized nine rites: baptism, the Lord’s supper, love feasts, laying on of hands, washing feet, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, kiss of charity, and devoting children. The Regular Baptists held to two: baptism and the Lord’s supper.

c. The Rise of the Southern Baptist Convention

In 1814, Baptists unified nationally under what became known as the Triennial Convention (because it met every three years) based in Philadelphia. It allowed them to partner in support of international missions. The Home Mission Society, affiliated with the Triennial Convention, was established in 1832 to support missions in frontier territories of the United States. By the 1830’s tension cropped up between the Northern and Southern Baptists. The chief issue dividing the Baptists was slavery. Northern Baptists believed God would not allow for treating one race as superior to another while Southerners said that God intended for races to be separated. Soon southern state Baptists began complaining that they weren’t receiving money for mission work. The Home Mission Society decreed that a person could not be a missionary and wish to keep his slaves as property. As a result of this division, Baptists in the south met in May of 1845 and organized the Southern Baptist Convention.  It took until 1995, for the Convention to formally acknowledge the failure of its founders to honor God on the issue of slavery.  However, the SBC did so conclusively, voting to adopt a resolution renouncing its racist roots and apologizing for its past defense of slavery, segregation, and white supremacism.  In 2012 the Southern Baptist Convention elected the first black president of the SBC, Fred Luter of New Orleans, LA.

Perhaps the greatest theological event in SBC history was what is known as the Conservative Resurgence.  In July 1961, Prof. Ralph Elliott[7], an Old Testament scholar at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, published a book entitled The Message of Genesis containing his interpretation of the first book of the Bible in which he argued that Genesis 1-11 was purely mythological and his speculated that Melchizedek was a priest of Baal and not, as generally believed, of Yahweh.

This led into the 1963 re-working of the confessional standard of the denomination, The Baptist Faith and Message, to accommodate more liberal theology.  Up until the late 1970s theological liberalism flourished in the institutions of the SBC (i.e. seminaries) while the people in the pulpit remained theologically conservative.

In 1976 Judge Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson, then of Criswell College in Dallas, began meeting with an eye to restoring the convention to its conservative theological roots.  They were joined in 1978 by W.A. Criswell and Adrian Rogers and met with a group of determined pastors and laymen at a hotel near the Atlanta airport to launch the resurgence/takeover. They understood William Powell’s contention that electing the president of the Southern Baptist Convention was the key to redirecting the entirety of the denomination. The Atlanta group determined to elect Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, as the first Conservative Resurgence president of the convention which they did in 1979.  From there the Conservative Resurgence has grown to take the dominant position in Baptist life, making the SBC the only mainline Christian denomination to return to conservativism from a prevalent liberalism.

Further Reading

1. Comparison of the 1925, 1963, and 2000 Edition of The Baptist Faith and Message

2. Baptists through the Centuries: A History of a Global People by D. W. Bebbington

3. The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention by Jerry Sutton

4. Southern Baptist Beginnings -

5. The Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives –

[1] Hence my calling it a “pastoral history.”  My sources are frequently (and obviously) uncited.  They include my own memory, blogs, Power Point presentations, Wikipedia, and The Encyclopedia Britannica.  As a result you are welcome to distribute what I’ve written but I would strongly caution against any citation or use in something even resembling scholarship.  I also welcome correction in anything I’ve gotten wrong.

[2] This list is sourced from R. Stanton Norman’s More Than Just A Name (Broadman & Homan, 2001), particularly chapter two “Formation of Doctrine”.

[5][5] Nathan Finn, Toward a Convergent View of Baptist Origins Part 2


[7] A graduate of Tennessee’s own Carson-Newman College and the recipient of their Distinguished Alumnus award for 2005-2006.

1 Comment »

  1. Jennifer says:

    Wow great information..thankyou

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