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Baptist Heritage: What’s in a Name?

Posted: 7/2/20 at 8:00am. Written by Nathan Taylor.

What’s in a name?

What does Baptist heritage mean to you?

Why even include such a loaded word on the sign?

Why should we care? Why do we care?

Aren’t denominational nameplates tired…restrictive…irrelevant?

If you have wondered, discussed, or asked yourself these very questions, you are not alone.

home of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society

In an era in which research confirms that churches are hemorrhaging members, and in which marketing influences even our spiritual discernment, we are tempted to disassociate ourselves from any terminology that could pose the slightest impediment to new folks who might join us–regardless of the historic depth of such monikers, and that which they convey about our basic theology and ways of being church together.

In one congregation’s self-study in Richmond, members surveyed neighbors door-to-door to understand their perception of the church. The brief survey, conducted some years ago, revealed enlightening responses to the word “Baptist” in the church’s name. To be sure, this was (and is) a church with a strong tradition of social ministry in the community, a stalwart neighborhood fixture that made a conscientious decision to remain in the city when many other churches were packing up for the suburbs. I’ll never forget hearing some of the responses for the first time, in a task force that revisited the data several years after it was collected.

“Makes me think of that televangelist who’s always railing against things on TV.”

“Caring; read the Bible–a lot.”

“Isn’t the President a Baptist?”

“Covered dish suppers.”

“Churches that look like Greek temples.”

“Isn’t that [other] televangelist a Baptist?”

“Bible thumpers.”

“Oh, I know that church–community Thanksgiving!”

I paraphrase from memory, but such examples represent the gist. You get the idea. The responses were all over the place. The conversations revealed some positive responses, but more often than not highlighted a mish-mash of loose perceptions that have accrued to our tradition for good or for ill, depending on one’s worldview–a religious Rorschach test, if you will. In all likelihood, we would find similar results in almost any neighborhood.

Thus, it is not a secret to any of us who live our faith through our beloved congregations. Whenever we pause to say, “Oh, but we’re not that kind of Baptist,” we acknowledge out loud the uphill battle we have in the realm of public relations. And yet…

It’s also true, I’ve found, whenever I’ve had the privilege of addressing a group of Baptists in churches across the state, that we, ourselves–that is, “Virginia Baptists”–don’t know our own story, at least not very well. This is not to fault the dedicated church member who faithfully participates in the life of the church, in worship, Bible study, and missional engagement. It’s mainly that, for more than a generation characterized by denominational fragmentation and enormous changes in social habits, congregations are spread so thin that we give little to no time to exploring these foundational narratives that so critically shape who we are. So, what are some basics that we might hope all (or at least more) Virginia Baptists would know about how we got here, that might strengthen and inform our faith identity?

Foundationally, our oldest churches go back to the Colonial era and the period of a state church–and Baptists were instrumental in changing that. The Church of England and the political power of the state were intertwined to the extent that meaningful expressions of dissent from the authorized faith were punishable by law. Numerous Baptist ministers such as John Waller and James Ireland were jailed in counties throughout Virginia for preaching without a license from the authorities. Some of their warrants and associated letters are among the most precious items preserved here at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Baptists could be and were beaten, harassed, and fined, and Baptist marriages went unrecognized. These early exemplars of conscience bore the weight of persecution, paving the way for religious liberty for those of all faiths and none.

Of course, it still would be some time before this growing religious freedom was to be fully available to all, especially African Americans. The Virginia Baptist story also includes courageous figures such as the enslaved Rev. Gowan Pamphlet of Williamsburg. After nurturing his church from a carriage house fellowship to a membership of 500 and petitioning for membership in the Dover Baptist Association in 1791, the congregation (now the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg) was admitted in 1793 – overcoming previous assertions by the Association that no person of color be allowed to preach on pain of excommunication. A video of their history is here.

Other stories are too numerous to recount here, but we live with them every day in our work at VBHS. The Baptist name carries a depth of meaning, acquired by this particular people through over 400 years (over 300 in Virginia) of shared experience. Facets of this meaning include a free church in a free state, congregational autonomy, the priesthood of all believers, the authority of scripture, and the centrality of the person of Jesus, as understood through religious experience. To deny the depth of this experience and the shoulders we stand on by hiding from our heritage in hopes of a few new members serves to undermine a foundation laid so sacrificially, and, ultimately, I would argue, to dilute the power of a witness that in its best moments has stared down the might of oppressors with a fearless dependence on the divine.

To be sure, our Baptist history is marred by its own sins, particularly the abysmal failures related to race that we have only begun to explore in earnest, including the religious rationalizations that far too many pastors and their churches provided for slavery and racism. We cannot afford to bask solely in our movement’s heroic moments but must continue to examine our most tragic chapters in order to learn from them and prepare the way of healing through necessary steps of acknowledgement.

Only then, in claiming our whole story, may we begin at last to know more fully who we are: as individuals, to one another, to others, and to God. When we are able to do so, as God’s particular people, known–not as some generic, rootless, stock-photo version of a church–but as Virginia Baptists, and as participants in our own, local, particular congregations, we can begin to lean into the gospel calling of God’s New Day that seeks to be realized amidst the everyday human experiences that we are gifted to steward on this earth.

And so, for Gowan Pamphlet, for John Waller, and the sea of saints who have followed because of their faithfulness, may we be ever grateful. Virginia Baptists have an amazing, complicated and unfinished story. Let’s keep learning it for the sake of our neighbors and those who will come next.

Nathan L. Taylor serves as executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies.