The work of Baptists continued to grow and thrive both in the United States, and around the world in the 19th century. From 1814 to 1844, Baptists increased 360%, while the U.S. population as a whole only increased 140%. In 1845, the Triennial Convention became the American Baptist Missionary Union. All of this came to a halt with a great split in the mid-19th century over the issue of slavery. All denominations faced splits during this time, but most were reconciled later. Not so with the Baptists. As tensions rose between North and South, Baptist bodies, both North and South, took sides. Finally, in 1845, Baptists in the South split from those in the North, forming the Southern Baptist Convention. With this move, the Baptists' two largest bodies were formed out of the split of the main group, and Baptists were left with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Northern Baptists. Unlike the Methodists and Presbyterians who split over slavery but eventually reunited, these two Baptist bodies have never rejoined. To this day, there is still a Southern Baptist Convention, the largest body of Baptists, and the American Baptists, which was once the Northern Baptists. In addition, there are still some 50-plus other Baptist groups in the country, as well as national Baptist groups in countries all around the world.
BELIEFS AND PRACTICES
Baptists can be identified by their unique beliefs, organizational structures, and worship practices. Two major beliefs have dominated Baptist thought through the years. Believer's baptism and the separation of church and state are two key components to a Baptist identity. Primarily, Baptists have always been motivated by the concern for all of humanity to become baptized believers. Through efforts of evangelism, foreign missionaries, and educational institutions, Baptists have sought to find ways to emphasize conversion to their understanding of Christianity. This understanding is a rejection of infant baptism emphasized in most mainline denominations, and an emphasis on bringing persons to a crisis point where they accept the atoning work of Jesus on their behalf, and then publicly profess this through the initiatory act of baptism. In Baptist theology, it is not the baptism itself that works conversion, but the individual's profession that she or he now accept the atoning work of Jesus. Baptism is a symbolic and obedient act that publicly confirms the interior spiritual condition of the one being baptized.
Growing out of the Separatist tradition in England, and having faced persecution both in England and the North American colonies, Baptists have always argued for the separation of church and state. This was not important as a political principle for Baptists, but has always been a theological point for Baptists. As Roger Williams argued in colonial Massachusetts and based on the New Testament, the state does not have a role in the spiritual well-being of its citizens. The best thing that the state can do is to create the environment where all faiths are free to worship and accept new members, without aid or deterrence from the state. Baptists have often argued that people should be free to worship however they want, or not to worship at all. Any faith dependent on the state is not truly dependent on God, and therefore is not true to the essence of Christianity.
Baptists claim that the only authority outside of God is the Bible. They are a highly biblical people when it comes to religious authority. They often claim as their mantra, "no creed but the Bible." By this they seek to refute long-standing traditions and a more hierarchical authority structure such as popes and bishops. They developed confessional statements, but they were always tempered by a high regard for Scripture. Baptists are organized around a congregational form of ecclesiology or church government. This is in reference to their recognition that all members of a congregation are equal, and no one individual requires special authority to serve in a leadership role. The term that they developed for this is "soul liberty," or what others call the "priesthood of the believer." The idea here is that each individual Christian is equal in the eyes of God and requires no priestly intermediary. Therefore, clergy are usually not dressed in any liturgical vestments, and many members of a church can be involved in the leadership of a church.
Additionally, each Baptist church is an independent and autonomous entity. There is no bishop or board outside of the church body that makes decisions or provides leadership. Each church is independent and free to call their own pastors, to work with other churches or not, and generally to establish their own ministry patterns.
Baptist worship follows what is generally referred to as "low church." There is no set liturgy, and churches are free to structure their worship however they see fit. Early in their history, spontaneity was often an ideal in Baptist worship services. Ideally, anyone can preach and preside over the serving of what Baptists usually call the Lord's Supper. This is in place of Communion or the Holy Eucharist in other traditions. Since Baptists do not believe that there are any sacraments, their understandings of the practices in the church are somewhat different than other traditions. There are two ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper, but they are both described in more symbolic terms.
There are differences here among Baptists in both understanding and practice, but for the most part, Baptists hold to a more symbolic and less sacramental view of these worship activities. Neither of these practices is considered essential for the salvation of the individual Christian, and their place in the church is often described more as a memorial to past events, than having any present-day spiritual efficacy.
Because of their strong missionary vigor beginning in the late 18th century, Baptists today can be found around the globe. Baptists continue to be the largest Protestant group in the United States, and continue to send missionaries around the world. Yet they continue in their various sectarian ways, split still over issues like the Calvinistic-Arminian debates that have haunted them through the centuries. Baptists continue to emphasize believer's baptism, and many still call for the separation of church and state. Divided as they are, though, they still continue in the tradition from which they came, and they continue to spread to all parts of the globe.