Three major Baptist groups differ widely in views
By Ray Henry
By Ray Henry
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Grace Harbor Community Church's young congregants meet in a crowded hotel conference room, learn Scripture via PowerPoint and listen to a "praise team" play the bongos. The Web site of the four-year-old Southern Baptist church includes a cartoon proclaiming: "God said it, that settles it!"
Less than a mile away, the graying worshippers at The First Baptist Church in America prefer Bach to bongos, listen to a black-robed minister who quotes Winston Churchill and meet in a white-steepled building that's on the list of National Historic Landmarks.
First Baptist's historic congregation planted the faith in America, where 30 million people now call themselves Baptist. But in the movement's birthplace of Rhode Island, just over 2 percent of the population is Baptist, and some of its earliest churches are struggling.
Southern Baptist churches like Grace Harbor have emerged as the higher-profile public face of the tradition — which has evolved to become far more conservative than the church's roots in a liberal blue state would suggest.
Most Baptist factions trace their roots to Roger Williams, the 17th-century minister who founded Rhode Island and organized the nation's first Baptist congregation in 1638. The uncompromising provocateur was banished from Massachusetts for attacking state-sponsored Puritan congregations, demanding the separation of church and state, and arguing that American Indians had property rights.
Williams was fiercely committed to what he called "soul freedom" — or freedom of religion. Just months after organizing the first Baptist congregation, he left it and rejected the institutional church altogether.
Williams said he had a "restless unsatisfiedness" in his soul, and one of his contemporary critics called him "constant only in his inconstancy." Scholars say those attributes continue to mark the faith today.
"Wherever two or three Baptists are gathered together, there's a schism," said J. Stanley Lemons, the First Baptist church historian.
Over the centuries, Baptists have split into three major branches: the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Baptists, mostly black congregations with diverse beliefs. Dozens of smaller groups populate the Baptist family tree.
The largest denomination by far is the Southern Baptists, which split from the American Baptists in 1845 after delegates meeting in Providence banned slaveholders from serving as missionaries. Once confined to the South, the denomination spread north during the 20th century and claims 16.4 million members, making it the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Williams' old congregation remains American Baptist, which has about 1.4 million followers and is concentrated in the North.
The different groups subscribe to many of the same beliefs. They baptize adults only and consider the Bible their sole source of authority. Their churches are autonomous.
But they differ widely on a host of social and political views. Southern Baptists ban women from serving as pastors and, in their Baptist Faith & Message, say a wife should "submit" to her husband's leadership. Most American Baptists tend to be moderate to liberal.
Conservative Baptist positions can be a turnoff for churchgoers in progressive Providence, a city run by an openly gay mayor, said Evan Howard, pastor of Community Church of Providence, formerly Central Baptist Church.
Howard's 200-year-old American Baptist congregation changed its name two years ago — in part because the pastor realized his neighborhood could no longer support a traditional Baptist church, and because church members feared that the term "Baptist" would deter newcomers who associate it with Southern Baptists — who hold views they dislike.
"We're not comfortable with that sort of black and white feeling. We're more comfortable saying, 'All welcome,' " he said.
But he recognizes that other Baptists would spurn his teachings, such as that parts of the Bible should be read metaphorically, rather than literally. Southern Baptists believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.
"The Southerners would say, 'This guy's not Christian — how could he even be a minister?' " Howard said.
Some Baptists lament that conservatives are considered the main representatives of the tradition. Walter Shurden, executive director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., left the Southern Baptist Convention because he felt it strayed too far from Williams' beliefs.
"Do we follow the vision of Roger Williams that affirms this role of freedom, or do we become Baptists who try to conform everyone into our image?" Shurden asked.
Andy Haynes, pastor of the Southern Baptist Grace Harbor church, says he does not want to create division. He says he's had a friendly reception from Rhode Islanders, though his church, aimed at a college-aged crowd, doesn't always see eye-to-eye with its founding congregation.
"We have our differences," Haynes said.
Lemons, the First Baptist historian, is more blunt about the split. He says it upsets him to hear religious figures such as the Rev. Pat Robertson, who was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister but is no longer officially affiliated with the group, say God will forsake those who oppose teaching "intelligent design" in public schools — which Lemons views as a violation of Williams' unwavering support for church-state separation.
"For these guys to talk about a Christian nation," he said, "Williams would go up in smoke."