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1. a member of any of various Christian sects that affirm the necessity of baptism (usually of adults and by immersion) following a personal profession of the Christian faith
2. the Baptist. See John the Baptist


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

"Baptist," to many people, means Southern Baptist and brings to mind two of its most famous adherents, the Reverend Billy Graham and, until he left the denomination in 2000, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. But although the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, there are many more Baptist denominations, ranging from the mainline American Baptist Church to the smaller Conservative Baptists and Baptist General Conference. Then there are less well known Baptist denominations such as the Six Principle Baptists, Independent Baptists, and Charismatic Baptists.

Baptists came to America with the Puritan Roger Williams, who settled Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636. They have always been reluctant to force creeds and formulas, but, although their denominations are legion, they share certain doctrines and theological positions.

First, they practice adult baptism, almost always by full immersion in water. To be accepted into church membership, individuals must publicly confess conversion to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This means they have become, in the words of John 3:3, "born again," or spiritually awakened to God. Having thus "accepted Jesus into their hearts" and received God's forgiveness for their sins, believers are baptized, usually in a public ceremony, "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Second, Baptists tend to be conservative in theology, ranging from fundamentalists to evangelicals (see Evangelical; Fundamentalism). Christ is generally acknowledged as sole and absolute spiritual authority, speaking to each believer individually. The Bible is God's voice in all matters relating to faith and practice.

Third, Baptists practice congregational autonomy. Each congregation, although belonging to the denomination, is free to own its own buildings, call its own pastors, elect its own deacons, and manage its own affairs free from denominational hierarchy.

Fourth, worship is generally nonliturgical, featuring music, preaching, and teaching.

A recent and ongoing theological power struggle within the Southern Baptist Convention illustrates the tension between Baptist church polity and individual expression. Sensing erosion of fundamental theology, a group of conservatives, employing organizational techniques similar to those used in political parties, were able to fill key positions on both elected and appointed boards and committees within the convention during its 2000 annual spring meeting. After obtaining control, they proceeded to set forth a doctrinal agenda they believed was within the framework of traditional Baptist tradition. "The Baptist Faith and Message" is the denomination's chief doctrinal statement. All missionaries and teaching professors must affirm it to receive denominational support. Arguments erupted when it was amended to say that women must "submit graciously to their husbands" and could no longer hold pastoral teaching positions in the church. Because individual churches call their own pastors, the rule could not be enforced at the local level. But seminaries supported by the convention were urged to examine the classroom lectures of teaching professors, some of whom were respected women academics. A few of these professors were released, not explicitly because they were women, but because they taught theological positions contrary to those supported by the convention. Many churches stopped paying denominational dues and dropped their traditional monetary support of convention-based mission works. A church split loomed and is still a very real possibility. In 1985 more than 45,000 people attended the convention. In 2002 fewer than 9,500 registered.

The situation illustrates a fundamental question inherent in religious organizations that stress individual freedom. It is a question that has been asked again and again ever since Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and it is at the core of why Christianity is so divided as a whole and even within individual denominations. If religion is fundamentally a personal choice, how do people band together for the common good? Put in other words, who determines, in a democratically based institution, what the fundamental belief structure is going to be? Every time a vote is taken, are the losers forced to change their religious beliefs? If they don't change their beliefs, must they drop out to form yet another Christian denomination? How far out can theological lines be drawn and still maintain traditional identity, especially when facing a changing secular culture? How long does tradition continue before it becomes dogma, especially in a church that originally formed by breaking traditional dogmas?

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In December 1771, Meherrin Baptist Church censured John Pamplin for persistently driving his wagon on the Sabbath.
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