So far we have covered a lot of ground. We’ve talked about the Orthodox, Protestantism in general, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and some of the history that underlies these movements within Christianity. Today, I’d like to say a bit about Baptists. Baptists today are the largest Protestant group in the United States. As one would suspect, they make up the majority of the population in the Southeastern part of the country. But as a whole, they are the second only to Catholics as the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. While there are many different groups of Baptists, the largest group in the U.S. is known as the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptist theology is rooted in Martin Luther’s notion that one is justified before God by faith alone. Baptists take this belief to its logical conclusion by asserting that infants should not be baptized, since they are not yet capable of making an act of faith. Only those who are capable of making an act of faith should be baptized. Hence the name, “Baptist.” As Catholics, we believe that baptism confers on us a character – i.e., a sacramental mark on our souls, claiming us for Christ. Baptists see baptism more in a symbolic way of putting on the burial and resurrection of Christ through a dramatic immersion in a pool of water. As an aside, the sacrament of Baptism was practiced by immersion in a pool of water in the earliest days of the Church up until around the 12th century – a period of history in which there were still many adult converts to the Faith. As whole societies became more completely Christian, and more baptisms were those of infants than adults, the immersion form of baptism gradually disappeared. Although, one finds it occasionally in some newer Catholic Churches today that are constructed with an immersion pool. Infant baptisms were practiced in the early Church as well, as whole families came into the Church together.
Baptists today trace their spiritual and theological heritage back to the Anabaptists, a group during the time of the Protestant Reformation who disagreed with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. They wanted congregations of adults that gathered freely and were autonomous, rather than a state-sponsored church. Calling themselves “Baptists,” they eventually spread to the New World and grew particularly among those in the Southern states, and those who were former slaves.
Baptists tend to be most literal, or literalist, in their interpretation of the Scriptures. They also do not see Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments, but rather symbols and not necessary for salvation. Baptism only occurs after one is “born again,” or has a conversion experience in which they acknowledge their faith in Christ and become assured of salvation. Baptists are also very focused on evangelization and mission work. Since they often tithe at the biblical 10% and have large congregations, Baptists have grown and spread with programs that reach worldwide. Unfortunately, Baptists have sent many missionaries to countries that are mostly Catholic in population.
Like with other Protestant denominations, Catholics and Baptists hold in common many fundamental beliefs. While Catholics differ with many mainline Protestants on controversial moral issues, Baptists tend to be our allies on matters pertaining to abortion and traditional marriage. May we continue to share our Catholic faith and pray for greater unity.