Baptist Christianity is a paradoxical and conflicted force in American religion, politics, and society. On the one hand, Baptists have historically been staunch supporters of church/state separation and freedom of conscience - and many Baptist churches remain so. Southern Baptists, however, have become the largest, most powerful force opposed to church/state separation, personal liberty, and autonomy in America. They were also a powerful defender of slavery and segregation. How did this happen?
Baptists today are the third largest Protestant group in the world (after Anglicans and Presbyterians/Reformed/Congregational). Their history can be traced back to the early days of the Protestant Reformaion - specifically, the radical wing of the Reformation which was rejected by major Protestant leaders like Luther and Zwingli. Baptists were originally nicknamed "Anabaptists," which means "re-baptists," because the baptism of mature church members rather than children is one of the original defining marks of this denomination - when they first appeared in the United States, this was a particularly radical position to take.
A recognizably modern Baptist movement developed in the 16th century and was split into two groups. One, the General Baptists, believed that the atonement of Jesus was general for all believers. The General Baptists were in fact the "original" modern Baptists, organized when Thomas Helwys founded the first Baptist church in Spitalfields, London, England in 1612. The other group, called Particular Baptists, believed that the atonement of Jesus applied only to a group of elect believers chosen by God.
The former was influenced by Arminianism and was the largest influence on Baptists in the north; the latter was influenced by strict Calvinism and would be the strongest influence on Baptists in the south. The Southern Baptist Convention today is the largest organization of Baptist churches in the world and the largest Protestant denomination in America. It originated in the South, but now its reach includes all 50 states and beyond - in part, some have argued, because of the movement of military families out of the South and through the rest of the country.
The importance of the Great Awakening for American religion and politics cannot be underestimated. When this spiritual fervor swept across the countryside, it encouraged people to adopt a more independent stance with regards to religious matters and even made it easier for them to abandon whatever church they were originally raised in. This, naturally enough, proved beneficial for newer, more radical churches like the Baptists.
Those most responsible for the development of the modern Baptist denomination of Christianity were English Puritan John Smyth (c. 1554-1612) in 1609 and Roger Williams in Rhode Island in 1638. Based on the work of these radical Protestants, Baptists adopted an anti-creedal theology in which all authority stems from the Bible. Common characteristics include: baptism of mature adults rather than children, baptism via full immersion, independence of local churches, and religious revivals.
So strong was the independent streak that the first national Baptist organization wasn't created until 1814. Already in 1845, though, Baptists split over slavery. The Southern Baptist Convention was established in Augusta, Georgia, in order to preserve a religious foundation for human slavery. The reason why Southern Baptists are organized as a "Convention" is that it is not a religious body in the traditional sense; instead, it is more of a congregational body when it comes to both practice and belief. Rather than a united community with a hierarchical leadership, it is supposed to be a loose affiliation of Baptist churches that share common attitudes, beliefs, and interests.
Technically, the Southern Baptist Convention is not supposed to exert any doctrinal authority over individual churches, but that has changed and this shift in attitude represents one of the most serious and dramatic changes ever in Baptist theology. A church which originated in ideals of radical independence has become a church based around fundamentalist authoritarianism.
Paul D. Simmons, a clinical professor of medical ethics and an ordained Baptist minister, describes the difference between traditional Baptist views and the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention:
Moderate Baptists see authority in terms of the roles of persuasion and leadership, not dictatorship. Fundamentalists want a Pope in every pulpit and then a Pope among the lesser Popes which also pertains to your question pertaining to their emphasis on dogma instead of individual interpretation. Women in ministry appeals to the notion of personal calling which in turn is based on the notion of direct relation to God as spirit and lord of the conscience.
The Fundamentalists insist now on an authoritative set of beliefs that are to be held by all the faithful and accountability is to be made to those in positions of authority, namely, seminary Presidents like Mohler and the convention President and other elected and appointed officials. That strategy is totally non-Baptist but is consistent with the Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition that now dominates the SBC.
These radical changes have disillusioned quite a few Christians. Many churches have formally left the Southern Baptist Convention, becoming completely independent or joining other Baptist organizations. There are also several million "non-resident" members of the Convention. These are Southern Baptists who joined a Southern Baptist church and then moved away, never to be heard from again. Had they joined a new Southern Baptist church, their whereabouts would be recorded. Finally, there are also many churches that have been expelled from the Convention because they have failed to uphold standards on matters such as homosexuality.