New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > B > Baptists


Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more — all for only $19.99...

(Greek, baptizein, to baptize).

A Protestant denomination which exists chiefly in English speaking countries and owes its name to its characteristic doctrine and practice regarding baptism.

Distinctive principles

The Baptists consider the Scriptures to be the sufficient and exclusive rule of faith and practice. In the interpretation of them, every individual enjoys unrestricted freedom. No non-Scriptural scheme of doctrines and duty is recognized as authoritative.

General creeds are mere declarations of prevalent doctrinal views, to which no assent beyond one's personal conviction need be given. The two principal Baptist confessions of faith are the Confession of 1688, or Philadelphia Confession, and the New Hampshire Confession. The Philadelphia Confession is the Westminster (Presbyterian) Confession (1646) revised in a Baptist sense. It first appeared in 1677, was reprinted in 1688, approved by the English Baptist Assembly of 1689, and adopted by the Baptist Association at Philadelphia in 1742, a circumstance which accounts for its usual name. It is generally accepted by the Baptists of England and the Southern States of the Union, whereas the Northern States are more attached to the New Hampshire Confession. The latter was adopted by the New Hampshire State Convention in 1833. Its slight doctrinal difference from the Philadelphia Confession consists in a milder presentation of the Calvinistic system.

Baptists hold that those only are members of the Church of Christ who have been baptized upon making a personal profession of faith.

They agree in the rejection of infant baptism as contrary to the Scriptures, and in the acceptance of immersion as the sole valid mode of baptism. All children who die before the age of responsibility will nevertheless be saved. Baptism and the Eucharist, the only two sacraments, or ordinances as they call them, which Baptists generally admit, are not productive of grace, but are mere symbols. Baptism does not bestow, but symbolizes, regeneration, which has already taken place.

In the Eucharist Jesus Christ is not really present; the Lord's Supper merely sets forth the death of Christ as the sustaining power of the believer's life. It was instituted for the followers of Christ alone; hence Baptists, in theory, commonly admit to it only their own church members and exclude outsiders (closed communion). Open communion, however, has been practised extensively in England and is gaining ground today among American Baptists.

In church polity, the Baptists are congregational; i.e. each church enjoys absolute autonomy. Its officers are the elders or bishops and the deacons. The elder exercises the different pastoral functions and the deacon is his assistant in both spiritual and temporal concerns. These officers are chosen by common suffrage and ordained by councils consisting of ministers and representatives of neighbouring churches. A church may, in case of need, appeal for help to another church; it may, in difficulty, consult other churches; but never, even in such cases, can members of one congregation acquire authority over another congregation. Much less can a secular power interfere in spiritual affairs; a state church is an absurdity.


The Baptists in the British Isles

Persons rejecting infant baptism are frequently mentioned in English history in the sixteenth century. We learn of their presence in the island through the persecutions they endured. As early as 1535 ten Anabaptists were put to death, and the persecution continued throughout that century. The victims seem to have been mostly Dutch and German refugees. What influence they exerted in spreading their views is not known; but, as a necessary result, Baptist principles became, through them, less of an unacceptable novelty in the eyes of Englishmen. The first Baptist congregations were organized in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Almost at the very start, the denomination was divided into "Arminian", or "General" Baptists, so named because of their belief in the universal character of Christ's redemption, and "Calvinistic" or "Particular" Baptists, who maintained that Christ's redemption was intended for the elect alone. The origin of the General Baptists is connected with the name of John Smyth (d. 1612), pastor of a church at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, which had separated from the Church of England. About 1606, pastor and flock, to escape persecution, emigrated to Amsterdam, where they formed the second English congregation. In 1609, Smyth, owing possibly in some measure to Mennonite influence, rejected infant baptism, although he retained affusion. In this he was supported by his church. Some members of the congregation returned to England (1611 or 1612) under the leadership of Helwys (c. 1550-1616) and formed in London the nucleus of the first Baptist community. Persecution had abated, and they do not seem to have been molested. By 1626 there were in different parts of England five General Baptist churches; by 1644, they had increased, it is said, to forty-seven; and by 1660 the membership of the body had reached about 20,000. It was between 1640 and 1660 that the General Baptists began to claim that immersion was the only valid mode of baptism. They were persecuted by Charles II (1660-85); but the Act of Toleration (1689) brought relief and recognized the Baptists as the third dissenting denomination (Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists). In the eighteenth century, Anti-Trinitarian ideas spread among the General Baptists, and by 1750, many, perhaps the majority of them, had become Unitarians. As a result of the great Wesleyan revival of the second half of the eighteenth century, new religious activity manifested itself among the General Baptists.

Dan Taylor (1738-1816) organized the orthodox portion of them into the New Connection of the General Baptists. The latter appellative soon disappeared, as the "Old Connection", or unorthodox party, gradually merged into the Unitarian denomination. In 1816, the General Baptists established a missionary society. Their doctrinal differences with the Particular Baptists gradually disappeared in the course of the nineteenth century, and the two bodies united in 1891.

The Particular Baptists originated shortly after the General Baptists. Their first congregation was organized in 1633 by former members of a London "Separatist Church", who seceded and were re-baptized. Mr. John Spillsbury became their minister. In 1638 a second secession from the original church occurred, and in 1640 another Particular Congregation was formed. The opinion now began to be held that immersion alone was real Baptism. Richard Blunt was sent to the Netherlands to be duly immersed. On his return he baptized the others, and thus the first Baptist church in the full meaning of the term was constituted in 1641. In 1644 there were seven Particular Baptist churches in London. They drew up a confession of faith (1644), which was republished in 1646. The Particular Baptists now rapidly increased in numbers and influence. Some of them held prominent positions under Cromwell. With the latter's army Baptists came to Ireland, where the denomination never flourished, and to Scotland, where it took firm root only after 1750 and adopted some peculiar practices. Wales proved a more fruitful soil. A church was founded at or near Swansea in 1649. In the time of the Commonwealth (1649-60), churches multiplied owing to the successful preaching of Vavasour Powell (1617-70); and the number of Baptists, all Calvinistic, is today comparatively large in Wales and Monmouthshire. One of the prominent men who suffered persecution for the Baptist cause under Charles II was John Bunyan (1628-88), the author of "The Pilgrim's Progress". In the first part of the eighteenth century the Particular Baptists injured their own cause by their excessive emphasis of the Calvinistic element in their teaching, which made them condemn missionary activity and bordered on fatalism. The Wesleyan revival brought about a reaction against the deadening influence of ultra-Calvinism. Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) and Robert Hall (1764-1831) propounded milder theological views. The Baptist Home Mission Society was formed in 1779. In 1792 the foundation of the Baptist Missionary Society at Kettering, Northamptonshire, inaugurated the work of missions to the heathen. In this undertaking William Carey (1761-1834) was the prime mover. Perhaps the most eminent Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century in England was C.H. Spurgeon (1834-92), whose sermons were published weekly and had a large circulation. In recent years, the Baptists created a "Twentieth Century Fund," to be expended in furthering the interests of the denomination.

The Baptists in the United States

The first Baptist Church in the United States did not spring historically from the English Baptist churches, but had an independent origin. It was established by Roger Williams (c. 1600-83). Williams was a minister of the Church of England, who, owing to his separatist views, fled to America in search of religious freedom. He landed at Boston (February, 1631), and shortly after his arrival was called to be minister at Salem. Certain opinions, e.g. his denial of the right of the secular power to publish purely religious offences and his denunciation of the charter of the Massachusetts Colony as worthless, brought him into conflict with the civil authorities. He was summoned before the General Court in Boston and refusing to retract, was banished (October, 1635). He left the colony and purchased from the Narrangansett Indians a tract of land. Other colonists soon joined him, and the settlement, which was one of the first in the United States to be established on the principle of complete religious liberty, became the city of Providence. In 1639 Williams repudiated the value of the baptism he had received in infancy, and was baptized by Ezekiel Holliman, a former member of the Salem church. Williams then baptized Holliman with ten others, thus constituting the first Baptist church in the New World. A second church was founded shortly after (c. 1644) at Newport, Rhode Island, of which John Clarke (1609-76) became the pastor. In the Massachusetts Colony, from 1642 onward, Baptists, because of their religious views, came into conflict with the local authorities. A law was passed against them in 1644. In spite of this, we find at Rehoboth, in 1649, Baptists who began to hold regular meetings. In 1663, John Myles, who had emigrated with his Baptist church from Swansea, Wales, settled in the same place and most writers date the establishment of the first Baptist church in Massachusetts from the time of his arrival. The community removed in 1667 to a new site near the Rhode Island frontier, which they called Swansea. The first Baptist church in Boston was established in 1665, and the organization of the first one in Maine, then part of Massachusetts, was completed in 1682. The members of the latter, on account of the persecution to which they were still subjected, removed in 1684 to Charleston, South Carolina, and founded the first Baptist church in the South. The church of Groton (1705) was the first in Connecticut, where there were four in existence at the beginning of the religious revival known as the Great Awakening (1740).

During the period of these foundations in New England, Baptists appeared also in New York State, at least as early as 1656. The exact date of the establishment of the first church there is not ascertainable, but it was very probably at the beginning of the eighteenth century. From 1684 on, churches also appeared in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Cold Spring, Bucks Co., had the first one in Pennsylvania (1684); and Middletown heads the list in New Jersey (1688). A congregation was organized also in 1688 at Pennepek, or Lower Dublin, now part of Philadelphia. The latter churches were to exert very considerable influence in shaping the doctrinal system of the largest part of American Baptists. Philadelphia became a centre of Baptist activity and organization. Down to about the year 1700 it seemed as if the majority of American Baptists would belong to the General or Arminian branch. Many of the earliest churches were of that type. But only Particular Baptist congregations were established in and about Philadelphia, and these through the foundation of the Philadelphia Association in 1707, which fostered mutual intercourse among them, became a strong central organization about which other Baptist churches rallied. As a result, we see today the large number of Particular (Regular) Baptists. Until the Great Awakening, however, which gave new impetus to their activity, they increased but slowly. Since that time their progress has not been seriously checked, not even by the Revolution. True, the academy of Hopewell, New Jersey, their first educational institution, established in 1756, disappeared during the war; but Rhode Island College, chartered in 1764, survived it and became Brown University in 1804. Other educational institutions, to mention only the earlier ones, were founded at the beginning of the nineteenth century: Waterville (now Colby) College, Maine, in 1818; Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, in 1820; and in 1821, Columbian College at Washington (now the undenominational George Washington University).

Organized mission work was also undertaken at about the same time. In 1814 "The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions" was established at Philadelphia. It split in 1845 and formed the "American Baptist Missionary Union" for the North, with present head-quarters at Boston, and the "Southern Baptist Convention", with head-quarters at Richmond (Virginia), and Atlanta (Georgia), for foreign and home missions respectively. In 1832, the "American Baptist Home Mission Society", intended primarily for the Western States, was organized in New York where it still has its headquarters. In 1824, the "Baptist General Tract Society" was formed at Washington, removed to Philadelphia in 1826, and in 1840 became the "American Baptist Publication Society". The Regular Baptists divided in 1845, not indeed doctrinally, but organically, on the question of slavery. Since that time, attempts at reunion having remained fruitless; they exist in three bodies: Northern, Southern, and Coloured. The Northern Baptists constituted, 17 May, 1907, at Washington, a representative body, called the "Northern Baptist Convention", whose object is "to give expression to the sentiment of its constituency upon matters of denominational importance and of general religious and moral interest." Governor Hughes of New York was elected president of the new organization.

The Baptists in other countries

(a) America

The earliest Baptist church in the Dominion of Canada was organized at Horton, Nova Scotia, in 1763, by the Rev. Ebenezer Moulton of New England. This church, like many of the earlier ones, was composed of Baptists and Congregationalists. The influx of settlers from New England and Scotland and the work of zealous evangelists, such as Theodore Seth Harding, who laboured in the Maritime Provinces from 1795 to 1855, soon increased the number of Baptists in the country. The end of the eighteenth century was marked by a period of revivals, which prepared the formation of the "Association of the Baptist churches of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick" in 1800. In 1815, a missionary society was formed, and the work of organization in every line was continued throughout the nineteenth century, growing apace with Baptist influence and numbers. In 1889 some previously existing societies were consolidated in the "Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec", whose various departments of work are: home missions, foreign missions, publications, church edifices, etc. Among the educational institutions of the Canadian Baptists may be mentioned Acadia College (founded 1838), Woodstock College (founded 1860), and McMaster University at Toronto (chartered 1887). Moulton College for women (opened 1888) is affiliated to the last mentioned institution. In other parts of America the Baptists are chiefly represented in the countries colonized by England. Thus we find a Baptist church in Jamaica as early as 1816. In Latin America the Baptist churches are not numerous and are of missionary origin. Recently, the Northern Baptists have taken Porto Rico as their special field, while the Southern Baptist Convention has chosen Cuba.

(b) European Continent

The founder of the Baptist churches in Germany was Johann Gerhard Oncken, whose independent study of the Scriptures led him to adopt Baptist views several years before he had an opportunity of receiving "believers' baptism". Having incidentally heard that an American Baptist, B. Sears, was pursuing his studies at Berlin, he communicated with him and was with six others baptized by him at Hamburg in 1834. His activity as an evangelist drew new adherents to the movement. The number of the Baptists increased, in spite of the opposition of the German state churches. In Prussia alone relative toleration was extended to them until the foundation of the Empire brought to them almost everywhere freedom in the exercise of their religion. A Baptist theological school was founded in 1881 at Hamburg-Horn. From Germany the Baptists spread to the neighbouring countries, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Russia. Nowhere on the Continent of Europe has the success of the Baptists been so marked as in Sweden, where their number is larger today than even in Germany. The Swedish Baptists date from the year 1848, when five persons were baptized near Gothenburg by a Baptist minister from Denmark. Andreas Wiberg became their great leader (1855-87). They have had a seminary at Stockholm since 1866. Among the Latin nations the Baptists never gained a firm foothold, although a Particular Baptist church seems to have existed in France by 1646, and a theological school was established in that country in 1879.

(c) Asia, Australasia, and Africa

William Carey first preached the Baptist doctrine in India in 1793. India and the neighbouring countries have ever since remained a favourite field for Baptist missionary work and have flourishing missions. Missions exist also in China, Japan, and several other Asiatic countries. The first Baptist churches in Australasia were organized between 1830 and 1840 in different places. Immigration from England, whence the leading Baptist ministers were until very recently drawn, increased, though not rapidly, the numbers of the denomination. During the period which elapsed between 1860 and 1870, a new impulse was given to Baptist activity. Churches were organized in rapid succession in Australia, and missionary work was taken up in India. The two chief hindrances complained of by Baptists in that part of the world, are State Socialism, i.e. excessive concentration of power in the executive, and want of loyalty to strictly denominational principles and practices. The Baptist churches of the African continent are, if we except South Africa, of missionary origin. The Negro Baptists of the United States had at an early date missionaries in this field. Two coloured men, Lott Carey, a former slave, and Colin Teague, set sail in 1820 for Liberia; where the first church was organized in 1821. Today we find Baptist missions in various parts of Africa.

Minor Baptist bodies

Side by side with the larger body of Baptists, several sects exist. They are found chiefly in the United States.

(1) The Baptist Church of Christ originated in Tennessee, about 1808, and spread to several other Southern States. Its doctrine is a mild form of Calvinism, with belief in a general atonement and admission of feet-washing as religious ordinance. [Communicants, 8,254 according to Dr. H. K. Carroll, the acknowledged authority, whose statistics, published in "The Christian Advocate" (New York, 17 January 1907, p. 98), we shall quote for these sects.]

(2) The Campbellites, Disciples of Christ, or Christians, date back as a distinct religious body to the early part of the nineteenth century. They are the outgrowth of that movement which manifested itself simultaneously in some of the religious denominations in the United States in favour of the Bible alone without creeds. Thomas Campbell (1763-1854) and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), father and son, became the leaders of the movement. (Communicants, 1,264,758).

(3) The Dunkards (from the German tunken, to dip), German Baptists, or Brethren, were founded about 1708 in Germany by Alexander Mack. Between 1719 and 1729 they all emigrated to the United States and settled mostly in Pennsylvania. They are found today in many parts of the Union, but divisions have taken place among them. They practise threefold immersion, hold their communion service, which is preceded by the agape, in the evening, and seek to be excessively simple and unostentatious in their social intercourse, dress, etc. (Membership 121,194.)

(4) The Freewill Baptists correspond in doctrine and practice to the English General Baptists, but originated in the United States. They exist in two distinct bodies. The older was founded in North Carolina and constituted an association in 1729. Many of its members subsequently joined the Regular Baptists. Those who did not unite became known as the "Free Willers" and later as the "Original Freewill Baptists", and are found in the two Carolinas. The larger body of the "Freewill Baptists" was founded in New Hampshire. Benjamin Randall organized the first church at New Durham in 1780. The denomination spread throughout New England and the West, and was joined in 1841 by the "Free-Communion Baptists" of New York (increase, 55 churches and 2500 members). It maintains several colleges and academies, and has changed its official name to "Free Baptists". The American General Baptists are in substantial doctrinal agreement with the Freewill Baptists. (Membership: Original Freewill Baptists, 12000; Freewill Baptists, 82,303; General Baptists, 29,347.)

(5) The Old Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists are Manichaean in doctrine, holding that there are two seeds, one of good and one of evil. The doctrine is credited to Daniel Parker, who laboured in different parts of the Union in the first half of the nineteenth century (12,851 communicants).

(6) The Primitive Baptists, also called Old-School, Anti-Mission, and Hard-Shell, Baptists constitute a sect which is opposed to missions, Sunday schools, and in general to human religious institutions. They arose about 1835 (126,000 communicants).

(7) The foundation of the Separate and of the United Baptists was the result, either immediate or mediate, of the attitude taken by some Baptists toward the Whitefield revival movement of the eighteenth century (Separate Baptist, 6,479; United Baptists, 13,209).

(8) The Seventh-Day Baptists differ from the tenets of the Baptists generally only in their observance of the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath of the Lord. They appeared in England in the latter part of the sixteenth century under the name of "Sabbatarian Baptists". Their first church in this country was organized at Newport, R. I. in 1671. In 1818 the name Seventh Day Baptists was adopted (Communicants, 8493).

(9) The Six-principle Baptists are a small body and date from the seventeenth century. They are so called from the six doctrines of their creed, contained in Hebrews 6:1-2: (a) Repentance from dead works; (b) Faith toward God; (c) The doctrine of Baptism; (d) The imposition of hands; (e) The resurrection of the dead; (f) Eternal judgment. (858 communicants).

(10) The Winebrennerians or Church of God were founded by John Winebrenner (1797-1860) in Pennsylvania, where their chief strength still lies. The first congregation was established in 1829. The Winebrennerians admit three Divine ordinances: baptism, feet-washing, and the Lord's Supper (41,475 communicants).


According to the American Baptist Year-Book, published annually at Philadelphia, there were in 1907, not including the minor Baptist sects, 5,736,263 Baptists in the world. They had 55,505 churches and 38,216 ordained ministers. The denomination counted 4,974,014 members in North America; 4,812,653 in the United States with church property worth $109,960,610; and 117,842 in Canada. South America has but 4,465 Baptists; Europe 564,670 (434,751 in Great Britain, 44,656 in Sweden 33,790 in Germany, 24,132 in Russia); Asia, 155,969; Australasia, 24,402; and Africa, 12,743. The statistic statement of Dr. H. K. Carroll, already referred to above, credits the Regular Baptists together with eleven branch denominations in the United States for 1906 with a membership of 5,140,770, 54,566 churches and, 38,010 ministers; Regular Baptists, North, 1,113,222; South, 1,939,563; Coloured, 1,779,969. The divisions in the bibliography correspond to the divisions of the article.


I. STRONG, Systematic Theology (3d ed., New York, 1890); SCHAFF, The Creeds of Christendom (New York, 1877), I, 845-859; III, 738-756; MCCLINTOCK AND STRONG, Cyclopedia of Bibl., Theol., and Eccl. Lit. (New York, 1871), I, 653-660; CATHCART. The Baptist Encyclopedia (Philadelphia, 1881). II.--(1) CROSBY, The History of the English Baptists (London, 1738-40); IVIMEY, A History of the English Baptists (London, 1811-30); TAYLOR, The History of the English General Baptists (London, 1818); ARMITAGE, A History of the Baptists (New York, 1887); VEDDER, The Baptists (New York, 1903) in the Story of the Churches Series. (2) NEWMAN, A History of the Baptist Churches in the United States (4th ed., New York, 1902) in Am. Church Hist. Ser., II, bibliog., xi-xv; BURRAGE, A History of the Baptists in New England (Philadelphia, 1894); VEDDER, History of the Baptists in the Middle States (Philadelphia, 1898); SMITH, A History of the Baptists in the Western States (Philadelphia, 1900); RILEY, A History of the Baptists in the Southern States (Philadelphia, 1899). (3) NEWMAN, A century of Baptist Achievement (Philadelphia, 1901); LEHMAN, Geschichte der deutsch. Baptisten (Hamburg, 1896); SCHROEDER, History of the Swedish Baptists, (New York, 1898). III. CARROLL, The Religious Forces of the United States (New York, 1893) in Amer. Church Hist. Series, I; TYLER, The Disciples of Christ (New York, 1894) in same Series, XII, 1-162; STEWART, History of the Freewill Baptists (Dover, New Hampshire, 1862).

About this page

APA citation. Weber, N. (1907). Baptists. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Nicholas. "Baptists." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Robert H. Sarkissian.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.