Seventh Day Baptists don't make headlines as much as some other Baptist groups, but their history in America traces back to the 17th century. This year is the 275th anniversary of the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Shiloh, New Jersey. The following article offers interesting and insightful tidbits about what Baptist church life was like in centuries past.
Baptists Yesterday | Bruce Gourley
Bruce Gourley, online editor for Baptists Today and Executive Director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, provides observations about Baptists of yesterday that can benefit Baptists today.
In 1853, the Free Will Baptist Quarterly debuts, appropriately printed in Providence, Rhode Island, the home of America's Baptist founder (and the father of Rhode Island), Roger Williams. This first edition of the periodical offers an assessment of Baptists' heritage of "Soul Liberty." Paying tribute to Williams and the Rhode Island colony's founding commitment as "A PLACE FOR ALL KINDS OF CONSCIENCES," the treatise rejoices that soul freedom has since been established throughout the American nation, while offering a few warnings to Baptists regarding the guarding of their spiritual heritage:
While the world's history teems with the records of soul oppression, it is a most happy thing that instances of it become less and less numerous under the light of Protestant Christianity, as years roll on....
This certainly indicates a great change since the days of John Cotton. Were he here now.... he [would] be susprised at seeing the wilderness all cleft away, populous cities risen up, and the country settled all over with hamlets; not only would he be disturbed by the hum of factories, and amazed at the enginery of travel among the hills; but he would be confounded to find that that Massachusetts too had become "a Place For All Kinds Of Consciences"—that her population had become steeped in those doctrines of religious toleration, those extreme views of liberty of conscience, which, in his day, were regarded as an element so dangerous to the State, that their advocates were driven away by the civil authorities....
..... it is not ignorance of the rights of conscience, so much as conscious disregard of those rights, of which society now complnins. Caught in the net-work of a subtle influence, men now yield to beguiloments, and under a sweet compulsion are led captive by Satan at his will. And it is the extent of this base abandonment of "soul-freedom," whether to a crafty devil or to crafty men, that constitutes the most fearful obstacles to the progress of Christianity.
In 1814 Baptists in America formed their first national foreign missions board, known as the Triennial Convention (it met every three years). Meanwhile, in England Baptists were in their third decade of doing foreign missions. William Carey, father of the Baptist missions movement, penned instructions to new missionaries, as follows:
Pay the utmost attention at all times to the state of your own mind both towards God and Man. Cultivate an intimate acquaintance with your own heart, labour to obtain a deep sense of your own depravity and to trust always in Christ. Be pure in heart and meditate much upon the pure and holy character of God. Cherish every amiable and right disposition towards men. Be mild, gentle and unassuming, yet firm and manly. As soon as you perceive anything wrong in your spirit and behaviour set about correcting it and never suppose yourself so perfect as to need no correction. ....
Behave affably and genteelly to all but not cringingly or unsteadily towards any. Feel that you are a man, and always act with the dignified sincerity and truth which will command the esteem of all. Seek not the society of worldly men, but when called to be with them act and converse with propriety and dignity. To do this labour to gain a good acquaintance with History, Geography, Men and Things. A Gentleman is the next best character after a Christian, and the latter includes the former. Money never makes a, Gentleman, much less does a fine appearance, but an enlarged understanding joined to engaging manners. ....
(For Carey's full listing of instructions, click here.)
Carey's instructions are to a large degree a product of his time. Penned in the early era of Baptist mission work when many Baptists remained unconvinced that Christians should be doing mission work in the first place, Carey placed great emphasis on self-reflection and displayed an inquisitiveness for disciplines and knowledge beyond the realm of religion. An understanding of self and an appreciation of other cultures - or at the least, an attempt to understand and an oppeness to appreciating other cultures - underpinned Carey's pioneering efforts in preaching the Gospel in foreign lands.
Much has changed since 1814, but perhaps some of William Carey's instructions yet remain relevant to this day.
In the 17th century and into the middle 18th century, more than a few people envisioned a future without Baptists. From the English monarchy to the clergy of the Church of England in America and the Congregational and Anglican theocracies in colonial America, Baptists were heretical undesirables who needed to be eradicated (preferrably) or tightly contained (at the least).
While their ill-wishers were many, few cared for the people known as Baptists. The relative handful of Baptist churches that existed were small congregations. Converts were infrequent. Baptist faith convictions of freedom of individual conscience, believer's baptism, democratic church polity, religious liberty for all, and church state separation did not solicit the good graces of the American public.
Yet a funny thing happened along the road of the government and church's campaign to rid the world of Baptists.
Instead of taking down their church signs and fading into oblivion, Baptists double-downed on their faith convictions and began growing in number in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the 1770s and early 1780s, Baptist support for the American Revolution helped ensure victory over the British. And in the late 1780s and early 1790s, to the amazement of their many detractors, Baptist faith convictions of freedom of individual conscience, democracy, religious liberty for all, and church state separation emerged as the foundation of the new American nation.
It is not an exaggeration to say that without the Baptist witness - without the survival of the very people that governments and clergy wanted to eradicate - it is possible that America might not even exist today.
And so now, in the 21st century, we Baptists stand at another crossroads. The Baptist name is fading. Some (again) envision a world without Baptists. Does anyone care? And what would a 21st century world without Baptists look like?
The workshop features Andi Sullivan, co-founder of HisNets; Emily Hull McGee, minister to young adults at Louisville's Highland Baptist Church; David King, missional congregations assistance at CBF National; and Doug Weaver, Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Religion.
The workshop is free, and registration is not required.
The past week's annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, hosted by Dallas Baptist University, examined contemporary Baptists' unease with their own faith heritage. John Ragosta, historian and lawyer from the University of Virginia (and not a Baptist himself), brought to life the Baptist voice and witness of the American Revolutionary era, reminding today's Baptists - in no uncertain terms - that strict church-state separation is the denomination's great contribution to the American nation.
On the other hand, Stephen Stookey (pictured), professor of church history at Dallas Baptist University, offered a fresh-examination of fake historian David Barton. Barton, a Texan political figure with no historical credentials, has attained rock star-like status in many Baptist congregations. He is well-known for fabricating or (at best) cutting and pasting historical tidbits in order to create a historical mythology craved by today's Christian evangelicals who desperately want to believe that - contrary to clear documentary evidence - America was founded as a constitutionally Christian nation.
Stookey, however, moved beyond a mere rundown of David Barton's deceptions (Barton has been lying about America's history for several decades; here's a recent rundown of some of the lies) and instead examined the source of his fabricated history. Offering fresh historical perspective on the man who would refashion America into a theocracy, Stookey traced Barton's mythological constructions to the late Mormon conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, "a former FBI agent and professor at Brigham Young University who became a frequent speaker on the John Birch Society circuit in the 1970s" whose views on Mormon orgins and eschatology are the foundation of Barton's thinking and writing.
Stookey's new contribution to the historiography of David Barton makes it all the more difficult for Baptist followers of Barton to continue supporting his fake history. Not only is the forsaking of Baptist heritage necessary in order to follow Barton, but also the embracing of extremist Mormon conspiracies. Yet so loyal to Barton are many American evangelicals - Baptist and otherwise - that some will yet choose mythology and conspiracy over truth.
Stookey's presentation will be published in a future edition of the Baptist History & Heritage Journal.