There are several key factors for the decline of the Baptist Church. This article will examine those principal reasons; but first will offer a brief history of the Baptists and their main denominations. The Baptists are one of the major Protestant groups – churches that ‘protested’ and separated from the Roman Catholic Church system and control.
The following sections are presented herein: Historical Background, Chart of Baptist Churches, List of Major Baptist Denominations and their founding dates, Statistics, and the Decline of the Baptist Church.
The Baptist Church is typically traced back to 1609 in Amsterdam, where the 39 year old English Separatist pastor John Smyth was preaching. Smyth graduated from Cambridge and became an Anglican (Church of England) priest in 1594. About 1602, he broke with the Church of England and traveled to Holland. By 1609, his core elders and members rejected infant baptism and followed the biblical practice of ‘believer’s baptism’ or the requirement of belief and profession of faith in Jesus Christ. They also practiced ‘immersion’ were available. Many of them were English Congregationalist which rejected the ‘parish’ structure.
In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian (Catholic) monk and professor nailed the ’95 Theses’ protest on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in Germany. In 1604, King James I ordered Roman Catholic priests banished from England. Early 17th saw much persecution by Catholics and Protestants against each other, and which was supported by various governments. Pilgrims and the persecuted fled from one country to another. Thus, the Pilgrims journey to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1630.
In 1612, Thomas Helwys, returned to England and established the first Baptist church in England. In 1636, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in the American Colonies (British controlled). He established laws for toleration of all Christian religions. And in 1638 he began the first Baptist church in America; while about the same time John Clarke founded a Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. Together in 1663, Williams and Clarke secured a Charter from King Charles II granting religious freedom for the Providence.
From the Swiss Reformation (1519, Ulrich Zwingli; and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion 1541; Calvin of France was exiled in Geneva for several years) came the Puritans of England and from the Puritans came the Baptist Churches.
In 1689 the Baptist Confession of Faith or Second London Baptist Confession was written by Puritans and Particular or Reformed Baptists who followed Calvinistic theology. It was largely based on the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Savoy Declaration (1658).
About 1700, Welsh Baptist immigrants in Philadelphia had established ‘Baptist’ churches in America and formed the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1707. In 1727, Rev. Paul Palmer founded the first Baptist Church in North Carolina. By 1776 and the American Revolution, North Carolina had about 40 Baptist churches.
According to ABC-USA, “By 1790 there were 35 Baptist associations, and approximately 560 ministers, 750 churches and 60,000 members in the U.S. …for religious liberty …the Baptist influence was significant in the First Amendment…”
Between about 1730 and the American Revolution, the American colonies witnessed a time of ‘Great Awakening.’ Edwards, Whitfield and others toured the colonies preaching. By 1742, the Philadelphia Baptist Association adopted a Confession of Faith and where known as Particular Baptist. This Confession was a revision of the 1689 London Baptist Confession, which used in great part the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith.
In 1764, Brown College was established from the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Many such as Isaac Backus (1724-1806), Benjamin Randall and George Liele (1750-1828; founded the first black Baptist Church) were part of establishing the denomination in America – in the Southern Colonies. The Baptist sent out missionaries such as Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), and in 1793, William Carey began his 40 year missionary work in India.
As the United States became an independent country, it ended the Anglican religion as the state religion. A second Great Awakening occurred from about 1790 to a couple of decades before the Civil War. By 1812, many Baptists called themselves Free Will Baptists, knowing that Christ Jesus died by all people, and not a supposed limited elect drawn to salvation. Up to this time, Baptist followed what was called a Calvinist theology – through if one reads Calvin’s commentary on Hebrew’s 10:26 they would know he did not believe in once saved always saved.
In 1843, Konrad Fleischmann began The German Church of the Lord in Philadelphia; by 1851 four churches formed the first German Baptist Conference from which the North American Baptist Conference would immerge.
In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention voted for a split between Northern and Southern Baptists. The next year, Knapp Bixby became the first licensed female Baptist preacher (Freewill Baptist). Following the Civil War was a time of Reconstruction and it also witnessed many, such as Lottie Moon (China), giving their all and going to the mission field.
According to the SBC website (2018), “The Southern Baptist Convention was created ‘to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God’.” They do not offer their early history, but do site their beginning in 1845.
According to the American Baptist Churches – USA, “The issue of slavery reached a peak in 1845 when the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society determined that it could not appoint any candidate for service who held slaves and when the American Baptist Home Mission Society decided separate northern and southern conventions were necessary. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in response.”
According to the National Baptist Convention, “The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. traces a history of significant growth and achievements, attended sometimes by periods of turbulence, to Saturday, November 22, 1880 when 151 persons from 11 states met in Montgomery, Alabama and organized the Baptist Foreign Mission Convention. …Six years later in 1886, 600 delegates from 17 states gathered at the First Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri and formed the National Baptist Convention of America.” Black or Colored ministers were compelled to formed their own association to help their own and all people.
The Northern Baptist Convention formed in 1907. After World War I (1919), technology was quickly advancing in America. Universities were becoming common choices for the average high school graduate. In 1923, the Baptist Bible Union separated from the Northern Baptist Convention. Following the depression the Southern Baptist were very established as the largest Baptist denomination.
In 1932, Charles Fuller began the ‘Gospel Broadcasting Association’ and preached on the radio ‘Old Fashioned Revival Hour.’ By World War II, he was on hundreds of stations and had started Fuller Theological Seminary.
During the hundred years from 1845 to 1945 there were dozens of splits in the Baptist Churches and formations of Baptist denominations and associations. There are also various practices and beliefs among all Baptist – within and without their groups.
In 1950 the Billy Graham Evangelic Association was formed. Graham said, “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.” As D. L. Moody had traveling singers and conferences, so did Graham; with Cliff Barrows often leading in song. According to BillyGraham.org, “Mr. Graham preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history—nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories—through various meetings, including Mission World and Global Mission. Hundreds of millions more have been reached through television, video, film, and webcasts.” Graham was ordained into the Southern Baptist Convention in 1939.
Chart #13 Baptist Churches (Timeline Charts of the Western Church; Susan Peterson, 1999, p.256)
Major Baptist Denominations
Major groups include: the American Baptist Association (formed by merger in 1924); American Baptist Churches in the USA (1907); Converge (formerly the Baptist General Conference – 1945 dropped ‘Swedish’ BGC – formed 1879); General Association of General Baptist Churches (GAGBC – formerly Liberty Association of General Baptists, 1824), General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (1932), National Association of Free Will Baptists (formerly ‘General’ or ‘Free Will’ – founded 1727), National Baptist Convention of America (1880), National Primitive Baptist Convention (1907); North American Baptist Conference (1859), Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC – from the African American Baptist movement, 1961); Reformed Baptist Church (also Particular or Calvinistic Baptists, 1630s), and the Southern Baptist Convention (1845). There are many other including the Primitive Baptists and Independent Baptists.
Information on many Baptist groups can be founded at the ARDA (Association of Religion Data Archives): http://www.thearda.com/denoms/families/F_96.asp
Statistics about Baptists
According to the Baptist World Alliance (2018) there are about 42 million Baptists worldwide. According to http://www.adherents.com ‘Gallup Polling data on Southern Baptists’ in 1993 reported that 10% of Americans stated they were Southern Baptists, that was half of the 20% in 1850 and by 2001 Adherent’s reported Americans who said they are SBC was down to 6%.
Denominational shares of Religious Adherents in the United States
A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Mark Noll, 1992)
Methodists 2.5 %
Roman Catholic 1.8 %
Roman Catholic 13.9%
Congregationalists 4 %
Episcopalians 3.5 %
According to Noll and the above text, the percentages of Canadians who are Baptist dropped from 7.2% in 1941 to 2.9% in 1981, while Catholics rose from 43% to 46%.
According to a 2018 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) ‘Fast Facts’ Sheet the SBC has over 47,000 Cooperating churches worldwide and about 15.2 million members with about 5.2 million in regular ‘weekly worship attendance.’
Decline of the Baptists
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. According to Religion News Service (RNS – 2015) the SBC membership reached its ‘peak of 16.3 million in 2003.’ Though ‘the number of Southern Baptist churches is higher than ever – 46,449’ their membership is both aging and declining.
As noted above the percentage of Americans who said they were Southern Baptist fell from over 20% in 1850 to about 6% in 2001. And moreover, they numbers (SBC) fell from 16.3 million in 2007 to 15.2 million in 2018 (according to their own SBC Fact Sheets). Thus with a current US population of about 327 million (August 2018) there are about 4.6% Americans proclaiming to be Southern Baptist, down from 5% in 2007 and 6% in 2001.
1. One of the major reasons for the decline is the general move towards being Non-religious in America and the world. Church membership has fallen from about 75% immediately after WWII (1945) to about 54% in 2015. But that number is high and based on stated affiliation – not attendance. It is common, as among the Catholics, to state one is of a certain religion; but not attend regular services. Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study (2015) found that the number of Americans unaffiliated with a religion rose from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014. For much more see: Why the Generation Z Population will be Non-religious
2. The RNS (2015) reported that Southern Baptists are having fewer children.
3. Less of their children are being ‘baptized;’ and very few have a knowledge and understanding and belief in their core beliefs or confessions.
4. The rise of non-denominational and mega churches. More Americans worship in nondenominational churches than there are Southern Baptist.
5. Other Baptists have loss membership. In 1967, ABC –USA membership was about 1.3 million and it was reported at the same level in 2012 after US population more than doubled. And their website in 2018 still reports 1.3 million – though with seriously doubt that reflects attendance.
6. Baptist young adults like most in America and throughout the world CARE more for College and Career, than Christ and Confession.
7. The number who pray has significantly decreased; in America from more than 80% in 1990 to less than 70% in 2018 (that is not even speaking of belief in Jesus – only a God). According to a 2009 Pew Research study only 53% of Protestants prayed at least once a day.
8. Membership in Sunday Schools has fallen dramatically. According to a 2015 USA Today article, Has the sun set on Sunday school?: “Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity..”
9. The continuous work of the separation of Church and State and God and the World by all forms of governments – both earthly and spiritual.