Since this past Sunday was Baptism of Our Lord, I have been thinking about Baptist baptism a bit. This is part two of a series. Click here for part one.
Being Baptist has a lot to do with baptism. It is right there in the name after all.
However, we are certainly not the only Christians who baptize.
So why are we called the Baptists?
Baptists first got their start in England 1609. Two men, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, gathered with a small band of Jesus followers and snubbed church and state in one fell swoop—they baptized adults.
In 1609, most of the Western world was governed by the complete enmeshment of church and state authorities. In England, the king was head of the Anglican Church. By giving themselves to be baptized, the first Baptists were exposed not only to accusations of heresy by the Church, but also political treachery, if not treason.
Anglican and Catholic countries required the baptism of all infants by law. While there were some theological, some political, and some practical reasons for this practice, the first Baptists saw infant baptism as an unjust coercion of faith.
They believed that religion cannot and should not be forced. They also believed communion with Jesus through faith and baptism too precious to be cheapened into an act of government population control.
Believers’ baptism was both an expression of deep religious conviction and angry political dissent. The early Baptists’ commitment to Christ and the ideal of religious liberty was costly. When sisters and brothers clasped hands after baptism, they clasped the hands that would bring them food, water, and blankets when they were imprisoned weeks or months later.
Their sacrifice and radical baptism made a way for religious liberty and pluralism in their theocratic societies.
To be Baptist today is to be on the receiving end of this astonishing legacy of dissent. Indeed, to be alive in the West today is to reap the benefits of the first Baptists’ sacrifice.
The story of the first Baptists tells me that baptism itself is an embodied act of rebellion for and commitment to freedom.
When Baptist Christians come freely to the deep waters of baptism they declare with Smyth and Helwys and the multitude of saints through the ages that the heart is the property of no government under heaven. Faith is a matter of freedom.
The story of the first Baptists also tells me that becoming a member of the Body of Christ is a serious matter. Every person born in creation is beloved of God. The grace of God has made clear to me that the beloved state of a person never shifts or spoils, regardless of religious or moral choices.
Baptist baptism is not about whether or not a person is a beloved child of God. When Baptists come to the waters’ edge, they come knowing full well that they—and all creatures of the earth—are loved. They step into the deep because they want to join Jesus in His work of loving the world.
For the first Baptists, baptism was a sort of threshold, a true point of no return. When Baptists then and today cross that threshold, they become a member of a living Body on the move.
Baptism is a threshold. Baptism is the mystical and practical way that one becomes joined to the Body of Christ. In championing the individual’s right to respond to Jesus and step into the waters of baptism, the early Baptists sought to preserve the precious peculiarity of this calling.
I understand their point.
To christen all in infancy and tell them that they are a part of the Body of Christ whether they want to be or not is to step away not only from the testimony of New Testament Scripture, but has the potential to strip away at the person’s freedom of conscience. “Christening no Christians make;” Christ is the only one who can do that.
Among the early Baptists, baptism was a radical act of faith and an undeniable dissention from the ways of their time and place. What baptism did for these sisters and brothers was create a spiritual and sociological threshold through which professing followers of Jesus became members of one another and of Christ Himself.
It has been my experience that Baptist practices have largely moved away from the non-coercive commitments of our seventeenth century predecessors. As a white Baptist from the south-eastern US, I wonder if our change in social location has anything to do with that.
The early Baptists righteously railed against an unjust system of intolerance and coercion. Today, and certainly in my context twenty-something years ago, white Baptists in the South, more often than not, make up unjust systems of intolerance and coercion.
As a child of seven years old deciding for baptism (please see my previous post in this series), I was not making a deliberate choice between two masters—Christ or the Crown. Rather, I was responding to the narrative a revival preacher had given me, a narrative I find to be antithetical to the first Baptists’ intentions.
The lack of Christian education about conversion and baptism in my church, the revival preacher’s application of “hellfire and brimstone” theology, and the music minister’s implementation of “Just as I Am” created, I am dreadfully sad to say, a manipulative environment in which my seven year old heart did not stand a chance.
Though I was not baptized as an infant by state authority, I do experience the memory of my initial conversion and subsequent baptism as a type of coercion.
The prophetic witness of the early Baptists gives me hope, however, despite my experience.
To eschew Baptist ways entirely because of my unfortunate situation would be to throw the believer out with the bathwater.
The entirety of Baptist life is not coercive. I know this truth in the core of my being through my own journey of faith and through the testimony of generations upon generations of Baptists.
My question, though, is how can congregations ensure that their baptismal practices truly reflect Baptist ideals? How can Baptists reclaim or recast baptism as the radical act of following Jesus our forbearers experienced? And in what ways might Baptists communions leverage the Baptist legacy of dissent in order to reclaim the power, freedom, and authenticity of believer’s baptism?
To be continued...
Thank you for keeping up with my Baptist ramblings so far. I think this series will wrap up in one more post, so stay tuned or take cover. :)
Please feel welcome to share from your own experience in the comments below or over on Facebook.
Had you ever heard the origins of the Baptists? Did anything surprise you? Upset you? Inspire you? What has this series brought to mind about your own baptism?