Catoosa County is one of the church-goingest communities around, and the predominant faith is Baptist — Southern, independent and otherwise — by an overwhelming 75 percent.
While a few Baptists claim descent from the Anabaptists (they became Mennonites) or John the Baptist (he was neither Christian nor Baptist), the first Baptist congregations were founded by two dissenting Anglican ministers, John Smythe and Thomas Helwys, in the Netherlands and England respectively in the early 1600s.
Baptists in America trace their beginnings to Roger Williams, who left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded a Baptist settlement in Rhode Island. Typically Baptist, Williams split and moved again in only six months.
Whenever you have two Baptists, the saying goes, you have three opinions — at least.
Anytime you begin a statement with “All Baptists . . .,” you’re liable to tell a lie. Conformity is not a Baptist test of faith.
The Scots-Irish settlers who came to our neck of the woods after the Cherokee removal were mostly Presbyterians. But the requirement of an education at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey at Princeton for ordination effectively excluded young frontier men receiving the call to preach.
Therefore, the new evangelical faiths, Baptist and Methodist, quickly became the dominant churches, thus beginning an era of dual-vocation Baptist and circuit-riding Methodist preachers. I am descended from that tradition on my father‘s side.
My grandfather and great-grandfather, Erasmus P. Reed Jr. and Sr., were Baptist farmer-preachers near Collinsville, Ala. Another great-grandfather, Francis Marion “Hoss” Roberts (“Hoss” because he rode from church to church) was a Methodist circuit rider. A great-great-grandfather, Matthew Small, came into Alabama in 1835 as a Cumberland Presbyterian minister and later converted to Methodism.
Before the slavery controversy divided the nation, it split the major Protestant denominations into Northern and Southern bodies, except for the Episcopalians, who were Southern-dominated anyway. The Methodists and Presbyterians have since reunited, but the Baptists seem not inclined to do so.
Most Baptists today consider themselves theological conservatives and Biblical literalists, a position tracing back to pre-Civil War times when a literal interpretation was used to support Southern views on slavery. Today, some Baptists seem just as sure about what the Bible says about women as they were in 1845 about slavery.
To their everlasting credit, Southern Baptists recently apologized to African-Americans for their former pronouncements on slavery. Will it take them another 150 years to change their policies toward women?
Several years ago a moderate messenger — a rare bird indeed — to the 2000 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla., wrote in a letter to the Chattanooga Times predicting, “In about the year 2050, Southern Baptists will officially apologize to the world for their chauvinism and prejudice toward women in Orlando in 2000.”
The unmarried apostle Paul, writing in the context of his times, accepted uncritically the thinking of his day concerning the inferior status of women. But I know of no Baptist congregation today heeding Paul’s advice forbidding women to speak in church (1.Cor.14:34-35).
Baptist women are seldom reticent about speaking when the spirit moves them. In obeying the Scriptures, we all pick and choose.
We owe much of our religious freedom to the Baptists who prodded James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” and a member of the established church, to include the “Separation of Church and State” clause in the First Amendment.
Of staunch convictions even then, Baptists were often victims of persecution by the established Anglican church. In 1745, Daniel Marshall, a Baptist minister, was arrested near Augusta, Ga., for preaching without a license.
Licenses were granted only by the Anglican Church. But since becoming the largest Protestant body today, Baptists are not as vocal on religious freedom as they once were, and occasionally involve the church in partisan politics.
Stinginess and laziness have never been Baptist shortcomings. Their success in spreading the Gospel both at home and abroad has set a standard that is the envy of all denominations.
But more than 20 years ago, in a well-organized fundamentalist takeover, Southern Baptists began purging “liberal” professors and missionaries from denominational institutions and reducing their giving to the SBC Cooperative Program. Some now invest in lavish family life centers, outrageous sound systems, and rock-and-roll music ministries that would make Elvis blush (actually, Elvis preferred old-time Southern Gospel).
The Baptist faith was founded on believers-only baptism, the priesthood of all believers and separation of church and state. Unfortunately, some Baptist congregations have recently become politicized.
Despite what Pat and Jerry say, God is not a Republican — nor Democrat either.
But with congregational rule, Baptists have the wherewithal available to few other denominations to revitalize. I just hope it doesn’t take them another 150 years.George Reed lives in Fort Oglethorpe, holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and taught foreign language and history in the Hamilton County school system after retiring from BellSouth in 1987.