Editor’s note: Baptists in America

AS I WAS PREPARING THIS ISSUE, marveling at the twists and turns of the Baptist tale in the United States, I wondered how to begin this editor’s letter. With Roger Williams, leading dissenters from established colonial churches to worship in freedom in Rhode Island? With Isaac Backus and John Leland, urging a consideration for religious liberty as the new nation took shape?

Or perhaps with Adoniram and Ann Judson, setting out for India as Congregationalist missionaries and becoming convinced of Baptist beliefs on the way? (I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the Congregationalist missions board heard the news.) With Lottie Moon, the first single woman missionary ever sent out by Baptists, who spent four decades in China? With twentieth-century controversies and splits that pitted Baptist against Baptist, each group with differing visions of how to be faithful to the Kingdom of God?

Then Billy Graham died. 

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Something bigger

When speaking of “America’s pastor” Graham—as with another famous twentieth-century Baptist, Martin Luther King Jr.—the first thing that comes to mind is something other than Baptists. Graham’s crusades and King’s struggles are seen as bigger than any one denomination: something that belongs to Americans as part of our history, not just Baptist history or even Christian history.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that a lot of Baptist stories are like that. When we think about Williams, it quickly leads us into the importance of Rhode Island (and later Pennsylvania) as a place for all sorts of people who wanted to worship in peace. The stories of Backus and Leland soon give way to those of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the debates that consumed our country at its founding. Jefferson’s famous statement about a “wall of separation between church and state” came from a letter he sent to a group of . . . you guessed it . . . Baptists.

The Judsons and Moon were forerunners of the broader nineteenth-century missionary movement, spanning the globe with the story of Christ’s love as well as the march of Western cultural habits, for better or for worse. Recent Baptist splits bring us to the battle between fundamentalism and modernism, a battle that burst the bounds of churches to change American culture and politics forever. And all along Baptists have been committed in their message, congregational in their polity, and concerned for the freedom of the individual in matters of worship and conscience.

And I started thinking: if Baptist religion isn’t American religion, it’s got to be pretty close. True, the Baptist movement was birthed in England (a story we told in one of our earliest issues, #6). But in the Baptist journey, we see the struggles and triumphs of the United States, and of the Christian faith in the American context, as we do in the journey of almost no other group. (Given that I am descended from a people who grew up singing “I’m a Methodist till I die,” this is a significant statement.)

So no matter what your denominational ties, let Baptist history illuminate American church history for you in this issue. We’ve intentionally invited many different kinds of Baptists to contribute. And may all those whose stories we tell in these pages—including Williams, Backus, Leland, the Judsons, Moon, King, and Graham—rest in peace and rise in glory. CH

Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Managing editor, Christian History

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Don’t miss our next issue on the medieval lay mystics, men and women who desired to grow closer to Christ and left us many classic writings to spur our own devotion.

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By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #126 in 2018]

Managing editor, Christian History
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