Baptists. This religious community derives its distinctive name from the views it holds upon the rite of baptism. It maintains that the only proper mode is by immersion, and the only proper subjects are individuals who profess personal faith in Christ. In support of these views Baptists appeal to the Scriptures, affirming that neither in example nor in precept is sanction to be found for any other observance of the rite, and they declare that the spiritual significance which the New Testament attaches to baptism cannot be expressed by sprinkling or by pouring. They seek to strengthen their position by citing the opinion of eminent scholars as to the meaning and use of the Greek word baptizo, by referring to the absence of any mention of infant sprinkling in the writings of the Fathers of the first and second centuries, and by the discovery of the origin of baptism as applied to infants in the North African Church, the introduction of the practice being due, as they allege, to the corrupting influences of a growing sacerdotalism. They quote Tertullian, who died about 220 A.D., as being opposed to even child baptism, and Origen, who died in 254, as approving of it, and infer that as the dispute was evidently in relation to older children and not to infants, it could not have arisen had the practice of infant baptism been in existence. They trace the beginning of a change of mode to the innovation of clinic baptism - the baptism of sick persons unable to leave their beds.
As Baptists date their origin to the age of the New Testament their history embraces the entire Christian era; when, however, departure, through sacerdotal and state influences, from primitive customs became more general and decided, and especially when by the edict of Justinian in the sixth century infant baptism was enforced by law, those who adhered to the original administration of the rite became more and more a distinct sect. During the obscure Middle Ages their progress cannot be followed with any degree of certainty, but they zealously maintained, as did other spiritually minded Christians who differed from them on the question of baptism, a fearless protest against the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. When the Reformation in Europe arose, Baptists were full of hope at the prospect of the greater liberty to be enjoyed; these expectations, however, were not fulfilled, for they found in the Reformers opponents little less bitter than the Catholics themselves. Their unflinching testimony in favour of the simplicity of the primitive religion, and their determined refusal to acknowledge any human authority in matters of faith, brought them into disfavour, and exposed them to persecution and death. They became a sect everywhere spoken against, and it must be admitted that none were more free in their epithets of reproach than were the Reformers. Taking advantage of the spread of the Reformation, the Baptists diligently propagated their opinions, and large numbers of the people throughout Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries accepted their principles. Then it was the term Anabaptist sprang into use, implying as it does the rebaptism of those who had been baptised in infancy.
The excesses in Munster in 1534, on account of which the reputation of Baptists has been unfairly damaged, were due to fanatical theories advanced by certain leaders. And "to accuse," says an authority, "the Continental Baptists of the sixteenth century of the deeds of the people who for nine months held possession of Munster, is as unjust as it would be to charge the excesses of Mormonism on the whole of Christendom." In endeavouring to form an accurate estimate of this episode as indeed of the state of the Continental Baptists generally, it must never be forgotten that their historians were not their friends but their decided opponents. The English Reformation brought no liberty for Baptists, for one of the first proclamations issued by Henry VIII. commanded them to leave the shores of England or suffer the penalty of death. The oldest Baptist Church in this country in existence is supposed to be at High Cliff in Cheshire, a tombstone discovered some time ago bearing date 1357. The records of several churches now extant go back to the sixteenth century. Amongst the noble army of martyrs not a few were Baptists.
The division into Particular and General Baptists appears to have arisen in the sixteenth century. In 1770 the New Connexion of the latter was formed in consequence of the Socinianism which had become rife in some of their churches. The terms Particular and General have no reference, as is commonly supposed, to the question of communion, but are purely doctrinal; the first relating to Calvinistic, and the second to Arminian views of redemption. These two communities are now being fused into one body. The word Paedobaptist is usually applied to those who practise infant baptism, though strictly speaking, as the prefix paedo indicates a child, a lad, a maiden, it is not sufficiently distinctive, as Baptists baptise children provided they give evidence of faith in Christ.
In their ecclesiastical polity the Baptists are congregational as distinguished from Episcopalians, Wesleyans, and Presbyterians, each church being self-governing. There are, however, county associations which hold periodic meetings for conference and mutual edification, and of more importance than these organisations is the Baptist Union, which was founded in 1832, since which date its constitution has undergone occasional revision. It has no legislative power, its functions being deliberative and fraternal. Its operations are conducted by a council consisting of 100 members, from which are appointed sub-committees for the management of its Home Mission, Annuity, Pastors' Augmentation and Education Society's Funds. Most of the churches in this country are in the membership of this Union, but not all; several churches in England of the same faith and order, as also the Strict Baptist churches (the term strict referring to close communion and membership), the Scottish churches (which have their own union), as well as the old Scottish Baptists, are outside its constituency. The statistics compiled by the editor of the Handbook show in connection with the whole denomination in Great Britain and Ireland, 2,947 churches, 3,842 chapels, with 1,293,459 sittings, 364,779 members, 527,616 Sunday school scholars, with 57,800 teachers, 5,021 local preachers, and 2,006 pastors in charge.
The Baptists are held in high reputation on account of the prominent part they have taken in the foreign missionary enterprise. To them belongs the honourable distinction of having formed the first society in this country for propagating the Gospel amongst the heathen, which was established in 1792 at Kettering. Dr. Carey was its first missionary, and Andrew Fuller its first secretary. Its principal mission fields are India, China, and Africa, its missions in Jamaica being now self-supporting. The gross income of the society for the year ending March, 1897, was over £90,000.
In addition to the organisations already noticed may be mentioned the Baptist Board, founded in 1723, for pastors in or about the cities of London and Westminster to consult and advise on subjects of a religious nature; the Particular Baptist Fund, date 1717, whose object is the relief of ministers and churches; the Building Fund (1824), granting loans without interest; the Total Abstinence Association; the Tract and Book Society; the Bible Translation Society, etc. The Collegiate Institutions are at Bristol, Rawdon, Regent's Park, Metropolitan Tabernacle, Manchester, Pontypool, Haverfordwest, and Glasgow.
Amongst Baptist celebrities may be enumerated Major-Gen. Harrison, of Cromwell's army, Colonel Hutchinson, John Bunyan, Hanserd Knollys, Benjamin Keach, William Kiffin, Roger Williams, of earlier date; and Dr. Gill, Robert Robinson, Dr. Beddome, Dr. Gifford, Dr. Rippon, Robert Hall, Dr. Ryland, John Foster, of more recent times.
In the United States of America the Baptists are very numerous, their membership being estimated at more than 3,000,000.