Baptist Bible Study: History, Beliefs, Major Figures, and Resources

an open bible to represent Baptist Bible Study

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Baptist”? I asked this question online, and to no great surprise I received an array of answers. Some think of an energetic church choir with colorful robes. Others think of solemn, even stuffy Sunday services where expressions of emotion are frowned upon. Some think of fiery, revivalistic preaching complete with weekly altar calls. Others think of detailed doctrinal expositions. One friend remarked that, in his experience, when some folks try to describe Baptists, they have an easier time listing things some Baptists don’t believe in (alcohol, dancing) than providing what Baptists do believe!

These responses are all quite understandable. Baptists are a diverse bunch.

So who are Baptists? And what do Baptists actually believe? In this article, we seek to answer theses question, giving the reader a basic primer on the Baptist tradition—with a view to using its resources for one’s study of Scripture.

Baptist distinctives

What all Baptists by definition share in common is a set of certain convictions on ecclesiology; that is, a doctrine of the church. But outside of ecclesiology, Baptists differ on a lot. For instance, when it comes to the doctrine of salvation, one can find Baptists who are Arminian (for example, the Free Will Baptists) and Baptists who are Calvinists (Reformed Baptists). One will find Baptists who are more covenantal in their theology and others who are dispensational. One can find rigidly conservative, fundamentalist Baptists, but also more theologically liberal ones. Added to these, we observe notable ethnic and cultural diversity. For instance, the Baptist tradition includes many historically Black churches whose look and feel can often be distinct from those of their majority white counterparts.

Such differences in theology, culture, and practice can make it seem difficult, at least on the surface, to conceive of Baptists as forming a unified church tradition.

But despite these various differences, what unites Baptists is, again, a shared ecclesiology: a doctrine of the church. And this is what we mean by “Baptist Distinctives,” i.e., what makes a Baptist a Baptist.

1. Regenerate membership

The most important and load-bearing distinctive for Baptists is belief in regenerate church membership. For Baptists, the membership of a local church ought to be composed only of those who have been baptized upon a credible profession of faith.

This foundational distinctive leads to several others.

Believers’ baptism by immersion

Believers, and thus all church members, ought to be baptized. Those whom we baptize ought only to be professing believers. This rules out, for instance, baptizing infants or the children of believers (paedobaptism) who have not yet evidently exercised a credible profession of faith for themselves. Baptists also reject sprinkling and affusion (or pouring) as legitimate modes of baptism, accepting full immersion as the only true form of the ordinance.1

Related article: “Credo-Baptist, Paedo-Baptist, and Other Views on Baptism”

Religious liberty, individual soul liberty, and the separation of church and state

Baptists believe that each individual will be held responsible to answer directly to God, and thus should be free to follow the dictates of conscience in their religious decisions (“individual soul liberty”). Thus, Baptists have historically been ardent proponents and defenders of religious liberty for all and have opposed state-sponsored religion. If the gospel is only truly received when done so freely, then faith in Christ should not be coerced, and membership in his church should be voluntary. And if the church is to be composed solely of believers, its membership is not something that the state should impose on its citizens. Christ gave such “keys of the kingdom” to the church (see Matt 16:19; cf. Matt 18:15–20), not the state.

2. Congregationalism

As another ecclesiological distinctive, Baptists believe churches should be congregationally governed.

Church autonomy

On the one hand, this means Baptists believe in church autonomy, i.e., that each congregation ought to govern its own affairs rather than be governed by some sort of external body (like a synod or bishop) that exercises some measure of control over it. As we’ll see below though, autonomy does not necessarily mean independence, as Baptist churches may nonetheless (autonomously) choose to affiliate or partner with other churches.

Congregational polity

Congregational government also assumes some form of congregational polity. This means that the very members of the church, at least to some measure, exercise a role in governing their church’s affairs. As far as church leadership is concerned, Baptists affirm only two biblical offices: elders (or pastors and overseers) and deacons.

Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology, 2nd ed.

Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology, 2nd ed.

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Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age

Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age

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Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Foundations of Evangelical Theology)

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The Church: The Gospel Made Visible

The Church: The Gospel Made Visible

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Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity

Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity

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Baptist Political Theology

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Baptist origins

Baptists, as we know them today, first originated in England and Holland (due to exile), developing out of English Puritanism in the seventeenth century. (Although some claim that Baptists emerged out of the Anabaptists a century earlier, this is rather disputed and considered quite unfounded by many scholars.2)

Two distinct strands of Baptists existed from the very outset. The first and earliest became known as the General Baptists because of their Arminian theology and belief in a “general” (or universal) atonement. They were led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys.

The later group were known as Particular Baptists due to their belief in Calvinism and its doctrine of “particular” (or limited) atonement. As we see from their confessions of faith, these Baptists sought to retain close alignment with Reformed Christians of other stripes, diverging from them merely in ecclesiology. Although emerging later than their Arminian counterparts, the Particular Baptists eventually would become the larger and more influential of the two groups within the overall Baptist movement.

As Baptists emigrated to America, they would eventually become the largest branch of Protestantism with the United States, remaining so to this day.3

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The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement

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The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness

The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness

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A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage

A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage

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Baptist confessions

Historically, many Baptists have been confessional, composing and subscribing to various articulations of their faith. Among other things, these confessions often provided a basis for cooperation and fellowship among churches. Although many exist that could be mentioned, some of the more well-known confessions include the following:

Lumpkin, William L. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Edited by Bill J. Leonard. 2nd edition. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011.

Baptist Confessions of Faith

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Baptist “denominations”

Baptists are, by definition, non-denominational, since they reject church government structures beyond and above the local church (which is what the term “denomination” is often meant to infer).5

However, historically Baptist churches have nonetheless cooperated with one another in the form of conventions, associations, and fellowships. A sampling of some notable US6 groups includes:

Many Baptist churches are also independent (often called “Independent Baptists”). These are churches that, either as a matter of fact or out of principle, remain unaffiliated from any such groups. In addition, many self-identified non-denominational churches might not label themselves as Baptist, but effectively are such.

Significant Baptists

Who are the Baptists? Some of the more well-known Baptists include the following (see how many names you can recognize!):

  • John Smyth (1554–1612) is one of the earliest Baptists who pioneered the General Baptist movement and “founded the first identifiable Baptist church of modern times, in Holland, about 1609.”7
  • Thomas Helwys (1575–1616), along with John Smyth, helped found the General Baptist movement and organized the first Baptist church.
  • Roger Williams (1603–1683) is most well-known as the founder of what became Rhode Island. He represented Baptist convictions in his strong advocacy for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
  • William Kiffin (1616–1701) was a founding father and key figure in the early Particular Baptist tradition.
  • Nehemiah Coxe (17th cent.) authored A Discourse of the Covenants That God Made with Men before the Law (1681), an articulation of a distinctively Baptist account of federal or Covenant Theology. Coxe is also typically believed to have been one of the primary architects of The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689).
  • John Bunyan (1628–1688), author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, is often included in lists of prominent early Baptists. However, given some of his idiosyncratic positions, good reasons exist for disputing his Baptist credentials.8
  • Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) belongs to the earliest generation of Particular Baptists and is author of the well-known The Baptist Catechism (1851). He represented Horsleydown Church in attending the assembly that accepted The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689).
  • John Gill (1697–1771) was a strongly Calvinist Baptist pastor well-known for his systematic theology, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (1839).
  • Isaac Backus (1724–1806) was an influential Baptist minister in the cause of the American Revolution and founding of the United States, including the ratification of the US Constitution.
  • David George (1742–1810), along with fellow slaves, founded the first Black congregation in the US.
  • George Lisle (1750–1820) was an emancipated slave who, after receiving his freedom, went on to plant and pastor churches in Georgia and conduct mission work in Jamaica.
  • Andrew Fuller (1754–1815) advocated offering the gospel indiscriminately to all in contrast to the Hyper-Calvinism of many of his contemporary Particular Baptists, who limited the gospel’s offer to those they felt they could discern were elect.
  • John Leland (1754–1841) was an American Baptist pastor well-known for his advocacy for religious freedoms and the abolition of slavery, supporting what became the First Amendment of the US Constitution.9
  • William Carey (1761–1834), a particular Baptist, is often called the “father of modern missions.” He wrote An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, which led to the founding of The Baptist Missionary Society. He eventually served as a missionary in India.
  • Adoniram Judson (1788–1850) was one of the first American missionaries, serving in Burma. You can read about his life in the famous biography, Anderson, Courtney, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Judson, 1987).
  • John Dagg (1794–1884) wrote the widely used Manual of Theology (1857) and Treatise on Church Order (1858), which together comprised a comprehensive Baptist systematic theology and ecclesiology.
  • John Jasper (1812–1901) served as a minister in the antebellum and Civil War South after being taught to read and write by a fellow slave. After the Civil War and his emancipation, he founded and pastored Sixth Mount 10Zion Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.
  • Fanny Crosby (1820–1915) was a prolific hymnist who authored many well-loved songs such as “Blessed Assurance,” “Praise Him! Praise Him!,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “Near the Cross,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
  • James Petigru Boyce (1827–1888) helped found The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859, which was born out of support for the morally legitimacy of slavery.11
  • Hudson Taylor (1832–1905) was founder of China Inland Mission and a pioneer of more contextualized approaches to missiology.
  • Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), the “Prince of Preachers,” was an English Calvinist pastor known for his rare colloquial preaching style. He pastored at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, and wrote many books, including his popular Lectures to My Students.
  • Lottie Moon (1840–1912) was a Southern Baptist missionary who served thirty-nine years in China. She adopted traditional Chinese dress, and she learned China’s language and customs. Lottie didn’t just serve the people of China; she identified with them.
  • Annie Armstrong (1850–1938) led the founding of the SBC’s Women’s Missions Union, which now exists as the world’s largest Protestant missions organization for women.
  • Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) is founder of the Social Gospel, a movement in which the Christian mission is largely conceived as addressing the ills of society.
  • Oswald Chambers (1874–1917) is known for his popular devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. Chambers theology reflects the influential Keswick (or Higher Life) and Holiness Movements of his time.
  • Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969) was a well-known and influential Baptist pastor who represented liberal Protestantism during modernist–fundamentalist controversies of the twentieth century.
  • Arthur W. Pink (1886–1952) was a Calvinist Baptist pastor known today for his theological writings.
  • W. A. Criswell (1909–2002) was an influential Southern Baptist pastor who served two terms as the convention’s president.
  • Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) was a leader in the “New Evangelicalism” movement. He made the call for a more intellectually serious and culturally engaged version of evangelicalism, in contrast to mid-twentieth century fundamentalism. He founded Christianity Today and served as its first editor. He also played a role in the establishment of other emerging “neo-evangelical” institutions, such as The National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, and The Evangelical Theological Society. You can read his manifesto for this “New Evangelicalism” in his The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (2003).
  • Billy Graham (1918–2018), or “America’s Pastor,” was a leading figure in the evangelical movement in the twentieth century, well known for his large-scale evangelistic “crusades.”
  • Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was a minister who served as the leading figure for Civil Rights movement, but who was tragically assassinated.
  • Adrian Rogers (1931–2005) was a well-known South Baptist pastor whose election as president of the SBC became part of its “conservative resurgence.”
  • Millard Erickson (1932–) is a Baptist systematic theologian whose Christian Theology is widely used by students of theology.
  • Charles Stanely (1932–2023) was a popular dispensationalist, Southern Baptist pastor and founder of In Touch Ministries.
  • Jerry Falwell Sr. (1933–2007) was a pro-segregationist pastor who became a key figure in the “Religious Right.” Following the Civil Rights movement, Falwell repackaged his concerns as “family values” and helped found the Moral Majority, an organization that aimed to mobilize evangelicals to participate in the political process, namely through the support of Republican politics. He founded Liberty University.
  • John MacArthur (1939–) is one of the most influential and widely known conservative evangelical pastors of our age. MacArthur’s theology largely aligns with Baptist theology. However, his church rejects congregational polity and opts instead for a pure-elder rule. So it would probably be more accurate to describe MacArthur as “baptistic.”
  • John Piper (1946–) is former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and current chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. He is well-known for his expository preaching, adherence to Calvinism, and a position he’s coined “Christian Hedonism.” You can find resources from his ministry at Desiring God.
  • D. A. Carson (1946–) is a prolific evangelical New Testament scholar who remains at the top of his field. He recently retired after a prestigious career at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
  • Timothy George (1950–) is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, where he now serves as research professor of history and doctrine.
  • Roger Olson (1952–) is a well-known Arminian evangelical theologian who teaches at Baylor University.
  • David Dockery (1952–) has had a prestigious career in higher education, having served as the president of Union University, Trinity International University, and now Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as we all as serving as president of the Evangelical Theological Society and president of the International Alliance for Christian Education.
  • Alistair Begg (1952–) is a Reformed Baptist pastor in Cleveland, Ohio, known for his ministry Truth for Life.
  • Thomas Schreiner (1954–) is a premiere evangelical New Testament scholar who teaches at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • Rick Warren (1954–) is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in California, one of the largest churches in the US.
  • Albert Mohler (1959–) is current president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a well-known public commentator, and a leading figure in what became known as the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence” starting in the late-70s.
  • Mark Dever (1960–) is pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and founder of 9Marks, a ministry that exists to help churches recover historic Baptist ecclesiology.
  • Juan Sánchez (1965–) is a leading pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention. He pastors at High Pointe Baptist Church and teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary.
  • Russell Moore (1971–) is a former Southern Baptist who served as president of the SBC’s The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is now Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today. He is a prominent public intellectual, known to some as “A nasty guy with no heart!”
  • H. B. Charles (1973–) pastors Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, and is known for his incredible preaching gifts.
  • J. D. Greear (1973–) is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and former president of the SBC.
  • Matt Chandler (1974–) pastors The Village Church in Dallas, Texas, and is a representative and influential figure of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement and the resurgence of Calvinism among younger evangelicals around the early 2000s.
  • David Platt (1978–) is pastor of McLean Bible Church in Washington, DC. He is former president of the SBC’s International Mission Board and is known for his passion for the church to reach the nations with the gospel (see his ministry, Radical).
  • Charlie Dates (1980–) pastors both Progressive Baptist Church and Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side and is known for his charismatic preaching gifts.

Baptist resources

Having surveyed the Baptist tradition, we can now consider some specifically Baptist resources to aid you in your study of Scripture and Christian theology.

Baptist commentaries

As far as commentaries go, B&H, a Baptist publisher (an imprint of Lifeway Christian Resources), has put out several commentaries. Two include:

Additionally, many Baptist scholars (see the list above) have contributed individual commentaries to series that aren’t distinctively Baptist. Or use the “denomination” button in the commentary guide section of your Logos Passage Guide to sort your existing commentaries in Logos by those with Baptist contributors.

Screenshot of the Logos Passage Guide for Romans 1:3 showing Baptist commentaries

Baptist theologies

For Baptist theologies, consider the following:

Christian Theology: The Biblical Story and Our Faith

Christian Theology: The Biblical Story and Our Faith

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Christian Theology, 3rd ed.

Christian Theology, 3rd ed.

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Systematic Theology (3 vols.)

Systematic Theology (3 vols.)

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Abstract of Systematic Theology

Abstract of Systematic Theology

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A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity

A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity

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Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical

Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical

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In addition, Baptist theologians Stephen Wellum and Matthew Barrett are both currently in the midst of producing their own systematic theologies. So be on the lookout for those once they’re published!

Finally, Logos has created a series of packages specifically curated with Baptist resources for all your Bible study needs.

Logos 10 Baptist Starter

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Take Your Bible Study Deeper, Faster
  1. Baptists often prefer the language of ordinance over sacrament in order to distance themselves from more sacramental theologies. The language of “ordinances” designates Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the two rites that have been ordained by Christ for his church to observe.
  2. As Michael Haykin explains, “there are next to no major organic historical links between the continental Anabaptists of the sixteenth century and the English Baptists of the seventeenth century.” Michael A. G. Haykin, “Where Did Baptists Come From?,” Desiring God (blog), February 13, 2023.
  3. America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Appendix B: Classification of Protestant Denominations,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, May 12, 2015.
  4. As McGlothin explains, “Indeed, it is doubtful if it ought to be called Calvinistic, since it is non-committal on every point of difference between the Calvinistic and Arminian systems. It is brief and very moderately Calvinistic. It emanated from the region where Arminian influences among American Baptists have always been strongest, and it faithfully reflects the modifying tendency of their presence. It is perhaps the most widely used and influential statement of doctrine among American Baptists at the present time.” W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (St. Louis, IL: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 299.
  5. Sometimes folks use the term “denomination” to refer to various theological traditions (e.g., Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism). In this sense, Baptist would be another denomination that could be placed alongside these others. At other times though, the word “denomination” is used to designate specific collections of churches and their institutions. And these collections of churches often times derive from a particular theological tradition. So, for example, denominations of this sort include the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). In this article, I am using “denomination” more in this latter sense. So when I speak of Baptist “denominations,” I mean organizations that form collections of Baptist churches.
  6. For our purposes, we restricted ourselves to mentioning just US organizations; but it should be noted that Baptist groups exist worldwide.
  7. H. Leon, McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1987), 32.
  8. See for instance Justin Taylor, “Why John Was Not a Baptist: The 7 Irreconcilable Differences Between John Bunyan and the Baptists,” The Gospel Coalition, April 27, 2022.
  9. A rather interesting event in Leland’s life is when he was appointed to deliver a massive block of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson. Leland was invited to speak to congress, and took the opportunity to talk about the importance of religious liberty.
  10. “John Jasper,” Virginia Changemakers.
  11. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,” December 2018.
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Written by
Kirk E. Miller

Kirk E. Miller (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Manger of Digital Content at Logos where he edits and writes for Word by Word. He is a former pastor and church planter with a combined fifteen years of pastoral experience. Kirk lives in Milwaukee, WI with his wife and three kids. You can follow him on social media, kirkmillerblog.com, and his podcast Church Theology.

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