So who are the Baptists? Some years ago I looked for Baptists in the yearbook of American churches published by the National Council of Churches. There were American Baptists (formerly Northern Baptists), Southern Baptists, National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Fundamental and Independent Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists and on and on.

Some folks believe that all truly biblical Christians from John the Baptist to the present have been Baptist in spirit if not in name, and that they have been widely despised and persecuted for that faithfulness to Christ and the scripture, in contrast to worldly churches identified with specific governments and ethnic or national groups. Thus these folks see Baptist history as a “trail of blood” running from John the Baptist through martyred reformers such as John Hus and John Wycliffe, right on up to victims of totalitarian governments in the present day.

Lots of congregations which don’t bear the name “Baptist,” such as our friends from Solid Rock, are baptistic in their core beliefs, organization and practices. But what does that mean, especially since I personally have had dear Baptist friends and colleagues who have proudly borne the label “liberal” – Jim Hopkins, the late George Hill – and other dear friends and colleagues – Ed Rogers, the late Russ Jones – who have been unabashed conservative evangelicals?
According to my best understanding of church history, modern Baptists emerged in England on the eve of the seventeenth century. Early English Baptists such as John Symthe and Thomas Helwys separated themselves from the Church of England over what they considered unbiblical practices, such as infant baptism, and the coercion of conscience by an established church linked with the power structure of the state. They believed that a person’s conscience was accountable to God alone.

The pilgrims who settled New England from 1620 on, like the English Baptists, rejected a state sanctioned church which enforced conformity by the power of government. They came to the New World explicitly to worship God and organize their churches in freedom. But ironically, when a young congregational pastor named Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s by invitation, to pastor one of the pilgrim churches, his novel ideas came under sanction by the authorized Congregational Church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He had come to accept believers baptism as the only truly biblical baptism; the New England Congregationalists still baptized their children. He believed that the colonies should only expand their territory through just and voluntary dealings with the natives. He soon was expelled by the very church that had invited him.

Returning to England, he secured a charter for a new colony at the head of Narragansett Bay, on land obtained by free and fair dealing from the Narragansett tribe. In 1638 he founded Providence, first settlement and present capital city of Rhode Island, and its First Baptist Church, which is celebrating its 375th anniversary this year. Rev. Dan Ivins, former pastor of this church, is their current pastor. From the very beginning Rhode Island affirmed the separation of church and state and complete freedom of conscience for every individual. Following in the footsteps of those original Rhode Island Baptists, we are heirs of John Smythe, Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams.

This month, First Baptist Church of Portland is honored to host the annual gathering of our region, the American Baptist Churches of the Central Pacific Coast, comprising some 70 churches in Oregon, southern Washington and northern California. It is important to understand what our region is and what it isn’t. It is not like a synod, diocese or annual conference, which owns property, deploys clergy and enforces doctrine. We don’t have bishops or creeds. Baptist churches are local gatherings of believers, who look to the Bible alone, in the light of the Holy Spirit, as our authority for faith and practice. Under the Lordship of Jesus, the local congregation identifies and calls its own leadership, raises and spends its own budget, and plans and carries out its own ministries.

We make common cause with the churches of our region, and some 5000 American Baptist churches nationwide, to do things no single congregation can do so well, such as identify, commission and send out missionaries; support camps, conferences, colleges and seminaries; and offer fellowship and continuing education opportunities to lay and ordained ministers. We are a family of congregations, under the lordship of Jesus, who freely cooperate for the advance of God’s Kingdom. Plan to be part of our regional gathering the 18th through the 20th of this month, and meet the family.

— Dr. David L. Wheeler