Baptists in America: A History

Baptists in America: A History

Baptists in America: A History

Baptists in America: A History


The Puritans called Baptists "the troublers of churches in all places" and hounded them out of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Four hundred years later, Baptists are the second-largest religious group in America, and their influence matches their numbers. They have built strong institutions, from mega-churches to publishing houses to charities to mission organizations, and have firmly established themselves in the mainstream of American culture. Yet the historical legacy of outsider status lingers, and the inherently fractured nature of their faith makes Baptists ever wary of threats from within as well as without. In Baptists in America, Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins explore the long-running tensions between church, state, and culture that Baptists have shaped and navigated. Despite the moment of unity that their early persecution provided, their history has been marked by internal battles and schisms that were microcosms of national events, from the conflict over slavery that divided North from South to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 80s. Baptists have made an indelible impact on American religious and cultural history, from their early insistence that America should have no established church to their place in the modern-day culture wars, where they frequently advocate greater religious involvement in politics. Yet the more mainstream they have become, the more they have been pressured to conform to the mainstream, a paradox that defines - and is essential to understanding - the Baptist experience in America. Kidd and Hankins, both practicing Baptists, weave the threads of Baptist history alongside those of American history. Baptists in America is a remarkable story of how one religious denomination was transformed from persecuted minority into a leading actor on the national stage, with profound implications for American society and culture.


In America, Baptists were once the ultimate religious outsiders. the Puritans called them “the troublers of churches in all places” and banned them from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1645. Unwilling to submit to official state churches, or to baptize infants, Baptists found themselves reviled, fined, and sometimes brutalized by authorities in England and in the American colonies. Well might Roger Williams, the most famous colonial Baptist, have warned the Massachusetts governor that the voice of Jesus himself was crying out on the Baptists’ behalf: “Why huntest thou me? Why imprisonest thou me? Why finest, who so bloodily whippest, why wouldest thou (did I not hold thy bloody hands) hang and burn me?”

Fast forward three and a half centuries, and a remarkable change has come over Baptists, who command tens of millions of American adherents, including the largest Protestant denomination in America (the Southern Baptist Convention) and the largest African American organization of any kind (the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.). Baptists such as Billy Graham have enjoyed access to the highest reaches of American political power. Baptist pastor Rick Warren seems (as much as anyone) to have taken on Graham’s unofficial role as “America’s pastor,” even hosting a presidential forum at his Saddleback Community Church in 2008.

Baptists possess vast networks of cultural influence: publishing houses, missions organizations, disaster relief agencies, advocacy groups, phenomenally popular authors and speakers, and a good deal more. Although American religion has always been too diverse to allow one denomination to become dominant, Baptists have become the largest of a species of broadly evangelical American churches that have, at times, functioned like a de facto American establishment, especially in the South. in many ways, Baptists have become religious and cultural insiders.

Yet even during their times of greatest strength and access, Baptists have felt threatened by forces that appeared poised to overwhelm and . . .

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