The Baptist faith traces its origins to the 16th century in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition of the European continent and the English Puritan movement. Both sought to recover the spirituality of the gospel community of faith, in contrast with the institutionalism and secularism of the church of the time. The history of the Baptists begins with two religious refugees, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, Anglicans of Puritan sentiment who left the Church of England in 1606 and found asylum in Holland. In agreement with the Anabaptist tradition of adult baptism, Smyth proclaimed the importance of a believer’s baptism as a public testimony to the experience of repentance and faith. Early Baptists therefore regarded the church as a gathered community of redeemed people, rejected the Constantinian identification of Church and State, and accepted into their congregation membership only believers who had been baptized upon their profession of faith.
In early 1609, John Smyth’s group held its first baptismal service in an Amsterdam bake house, making 2009 the 400th anniversary of the first Baptist church. In 1612, Helwys sailed home to England and planted the first Baptist church on English soil. Shortly after, he published A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, the first document written in English that called for complete religious freedom, asserting that the King of England had no power to control religious beliefs or practices.
The story of Baptists in America begins with Roger Williams in the 1630s. A lawyer-turned-clergyman, Williams fled the Old World for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, where he became increasingly critical of the merger of church and state.
Today, in the US, the most recognized Baptist is Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
These are a summary of the principles that characterize the Baptist faith:
The Bible as the norm of faith: The Bible, not church hierarchy or tradition, is the sole norm for faith and practice.
Baptism of believers: Baptism is usually given by immersion to those who have given their profession of faith in Christ as their savior.
Autonomy of the local church: The local church is autonomous, self-generating and self-governing, gathered by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. The assembly of the local church, composed of baptized believers, elects its ministries and decides in full authority over all the aspects of the community life.
Freedom of conscience and Separation of Church and State: Each person, regardless of his/her religious beliefs, must have complete spiritual freedom. Church and State should not interfere in their mutual sphere of competence. John Leland, a Baptist pioneer imprisoned for preaching without a license, influenced the introduction of the First Amendment.
Source: Robert G. Torbet. (1993, 3rd edition), A History of the Baptists. The Judon Press: Valley Forge.