In these latter days of the twentieth century, the denominational problem of identity is a genuine one for many groups besides Baptists. Baptists, however, appear to have more problems than most as we endeavor to locate that distillation, that essence, that defining difference which constitutes being Baptist.

For example, many groups can locate their identity geographically. If one is a Presbyterian, then the direction in which one should travel to locate the essence of that tradition is immediately clear: to Geneva or, perhaps even better, Scotland. If one stands in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, one feels the pride of origins, if not of ownership. Or if one visits a country church on the Isle of Mull or experiences a totally Presbyterian sabbath in the rural Highlands, a comforting assurance envelopes the pilgrim who knows that indeed John Knox is in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Or the Episcopalian can make his or her way like a homing pigeon to Westminster Abbey or Canterbury or Coventry; sitting in St. Paul’s on an Easter Sunday morning one instinctively knows why one is of the Anglican persuasion and why one is never tempted to depart from it.

The Lutheran may undertake the journey to Marburg, or Copenhagen, or anywhere in Scandinavia for that matter. When visiting the magnificent cathedrals one’s spirit can rise with the arches to the vaulted ceilings and beyond. With satisfaction and a sense of belonging, the Lutheran walks all through the cathedral, back and forth, up and down. It is easy to do this because, of course, no one else is there, even on a Sunday. Nonetheless, one has the feeling that somebody very important once was there!

If one wishes to reaffirm his Dutch Reformed identity, where better to go than to … Grand Rapids? Well, yes, but perhaps one is made even more firmly secure by a visit to Amsterdam or Rotterdam or Leyden.

But if you are a Baptist, it’s a problem not only of identity but also of direction. Where to go? I do not recommend a trip to Zurich where in the 16th century Felix Manz was drowned for administering believers’ baptism. Nor to England where Baptists were exiled or jailed or burned, all such activity leaving little leisure for erecting noble monuments to the memory of Smyth or Helwys or Murton. But surely in America, where Baptists have flourished far beyond the dreams of early founders, there will be monuments and statues of impressive dimension. No doubt. A few years ago, while doing a book on a forgotten Baptist hero, I spent some weeks in Newport, Rhode Island. Here at last I was on home ground, if not actually sacred Baptist soil. I looked forward to being surrounded by and ever-reminded of the likes of John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, Mark Lucar, Joseph Torrey, John Crandall, the Peckhams, the Weedens, the Hiscoxes and others.

I walked down to the handsomely restored brick market along the edges of the Narragansett Bay where the Chamber of Commerce distributed brochures and maps for Newport’s large tourist population. One brochure treated religion in Newport. Excellent! Here at last I would see Baptist history come into its own, in this colonial town where Baptists (Calvinist, Arminian, Seventh-Day) set the pace for Baptists in all of North America. And so I read the brochure, coming first to the Quakers. Well, yes, the Quakers (thanks to Roger Williams’ stand on religious liberty) did in the second half of the 17th century become a major presence in Newport. I read on: Jews in Newport. To be sure, the oldest synagogue building in all North America stands next to the Newport Historical Society. Then the brochure told of the Congregationalists; after all, the presence of Ezra Stiles (later president of Yale) in Newport gave this persecuting church a certain panache. Then, Episcopalians, trying desperately to adjust to their unaccustomed role of being just another sect: disestablished, unfavored, unprotected, competing for members in the open market.

But where were the Baptists? How clever of the authors, I thought, for they were obviously planning to save the best for last, to build to an impressive climax with the vital story of Baptist statesmen and martyrs. It was John Clarke, after all, who spent twelve long years in London making certain that Rhode Island, after the Restoration, had a valid and secure charter. So I read rapidly, racing toward that dramatic denouement.

But then I came to the end. I turned the brochure over, upside down, inside out. The Newport Chamber of Commerce tourist folder on religion contained not one single word about the Baptists. Standing in the midst of Newport’s brick market on that October afternoon, l had—not a conversion experience, not an enlightenment—but an identity crisis!

I had come home to Baptist beginnings in America only to discover that nobody was home. My geographical quest had failed. “Where does one go to find a Baptist identity?” had been my first question, and to it I had found no answer.

A second question then arose: “When does one find the essence of the Baptist heritage fully revealed?” To what marvelous moment of the past do we as Baptists instinctively and collectively turn? In 1983 Lutherans all over the world joined in celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. The United States Postal Service even cooperated by issuing a special commemorative stamp so that Lutherans throughout America might collectively reaffirm their origin and their fount. In the Spring of 1984 Methodists gathered in Baltimore to celebrate their bicentennial; their commemoration of that famous “Christmas Conference” of 1784 when Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke and others assumed the leadership of a newly born, newly invigorated American Methodist Church. The celebration, unfortunately, was not all that happy as the Methodists found themselves distracted and concerned: membership was down; financial receipts were down; homosexuality was up. None of this led to great joy. Surely, I reflected, this will not be the case when Baptists gather to celebrate their … bicentennial? centennial? tercentenary? sesquicentennial?

Frantically I began to search our past for that revered date, that critical juncture, that historic pivot which all Baptists, European or American, Northern or Southern, black or white, male or female, would want to remember and hold dear. I searched. How sad it is, I said to myself thinking once again of the Methodists, to hold a bicentennial that is not filled with rejoicing. But how sadder still, I concluded, to be able to hold no bicentennial at all!

Oh, we do have lots of dates: Smyth’s self-baptism in 1609; Baptists in Rhode Island in 1638 or ’39; the Philadelphia Association in 1707; the Triennial Convention in 1817; the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845; the National Baptist Convention in 1895 or earlier; and so on. The only problem is that to mention any one of these dates does not cause the heart to sing or the eyes to mist; it only causes the mind to wander. No one date has the ring of 1066 or 1492 or 1776. So the temporal search for a Baptist identity proved as rewarding as the geographical one. One knows neither where nor when to go to escape the crisis of identity.

Just when the situation looks bleakest and most unpromising, God moves in mysterious ways to rescue us. The early Christian church was assisted in refining its theology, its ecclesiology, and its canon—in other words, its identity—by the fires of persecution. Where are the lions when we really need them?

Baptists have had a long history of being deliberately misunderstood in order to be violently attacked. Continental Anabaptists were, of course, persecuted by everybody: Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, princes. Therefore, when English Baptists came along, the simplest way to deal with them was merely to tag them with the epithet of “Anabaptist.” Let the discredited name alone pull them down. English Baptists were regularly imprisoned, fined, and deprived of social and political rights.

When Massachusetts wanted to stamp out the minority movement trying to scramble for a pathetic foothold in Rhode Island, the Bay Colony passed a law in 1644 which stated:

Forasmuch as experience has plentifully & often proved that since the first arising of the Anabaptists, about a hundred years since, they have been incendiaries of commonwealths & the infectors of persons in main matters, and the troublers of churches in all places where they have been, and that they who have held the baptizing of infants unlawful have usually held other errors or heresies together therewith…

Baptists in New England suffered many things, but no crisis of identity haunted them. They always had plenty of enemies to let them know who they were.

In the colonial South, Baptists were despised and condemned even when they were in remote places and could not successfully be banished. The dominant Church of England felt no more kindly toward these incendiaries of commonwealths, infectors of persons, and troublers of churches than the dominant Congregationalists in New England did. One travelling minister of the English church, Charles Woodmason, journeyed to the Carolina backcountry just before the American Revolution to see how religion fared in those rural parts. He found New Light Baptists there, worshipping in their brush arbors and their open air tabernacles. Woodmason stopped, looked, listened; and everything that he saw or heard or imagined absolutely horrified him.

But another vile Matter that does and must give Offence to all Sober Minds is what they call their Experiences. It seems, that before a Person be dipp’d, He must give an Account of his Secret Calls, Conviction, Conversions, Repentance &c &c. Some of these Experiences have been so ludicrous and ridiculous that Democritus in Spite of himself must have burst with Laughter. Others, altogether as blasphemous, Such as their Visions, Dreams, Revelations—and the like; Too many, and too horrid to be mention’d. Nothing in the Alcoran, Nothing that can be found in all the miracles of the Church of Rome, and all the Reveries of her Saints can be so absurd, or so Enthusiastics, as what has gravely been recited in that Tabernacle Yonder—To the Scandal of Religion and Insult of Common Sense.

That was the golden age for Baptists: identity was clear and scorn was everywhere.

In the 19th century, the denominational focus grew more clouded as Baptists were no longer persecuted or oppressed. Rather they prospered and flourished, growing rapidly in New England, in the South, in the states in between, and most dramatically all along the expanding frontier. Baptists did well on the farmlands and also in the cities: they appealed to the poor and to the well-to-do; they recruited great numbers of whites and great numbers of blacks. And as they multiplied and expanded, so did the number of separations and recriminations, the schisms and the protestations; in other words, the identity crises. Baptists opposed slavery; Baptists supported slavery. Baptists were free; Baptists were enslaved. Baptists launched missions: Baptists opposed missions. Baptists rejected Darwin; Baptists incorporated Darwin. Baptists employed literary criticism; Baptists renounced literary criticism. Baptists were modernists, and Baptists were fundamentalists, and millions were somewhere in the middle.

In the 20th century, nothing grew simpler. We knew we still had enemies, but were far from agreed on where to look for them. Within or without? In the political and economic realms or in the theological and ecclesiastical circles? In the Moral Majority or in the National Council of Churches? In hedonism or humanism? In accredited seminaries or in unaccredited Bible institutes? In order to answer these questions, what we obviously needed was some persecution.

Perhaps we can find our way through or even out of the current crisis of identity if we understand what our past persecutors found so objectionable. There are two points, I believe, that were consistently opposed: 1) the Baptist emphasis on the individual and his or her own faith experience, and 2) the Baptist resistance to the dominating culture (or state).

First, the individual’s own experience—the experience of grace or wonder or finitude or forgiveness or acceptance or being made whole. Charles Woodmason was right: that “vile matter … what they call their Experiences” Baptists do tend to take seriously. In his letter to the London Baptists in 1651, Obadiah Holmes spoke of his “experimental knowledge.” And in his Testimony written in 1675, he described how his own evangelical commitment grew directly, inevitably, out of his prior, personal, individual experience with Jesus Christ. “That which first moved me to entreat and beseech them to be reconciled to God was the consideration of God’s mercy showed to my poor soul.” A century later, Isaac Backus observed: “Much of what I have here written I knew experimentally before I did doctrinally.”

Doctrine does not make the Baptist, but the personal faith experience does. The creed does not bring one to grace; it is by way of grace that a creed, if any be needed, must come. Baptists in the 18th century were ridiculed for their non-creedal position. Only heretics, it was said, resist creeds. To which John Leland, the Virginia itinerant, had a sharp response: “It is sometimes said that heretics are always averse to confessions of faith. I wish,” Leland wryly added, “that I could say as much of tyrants.” In the history of Christianity, creeds have far more often been used to compel a faith than to elicit one, and Baptists—in the 18th century, at least—knew that lesson well. Backus spoke of that intimate, sacred relationship between the believer and Christ, a relationship based preeminently upon personal faith experience and therefore a relationship “with which no human authority can intermeddle.”

Many a Baptist pulpit, north and south, black and white, rings with the appeal to personal experience: “I know Whom [not what] I have believed … Once I was blind but now I see … Let no man trouble me, for I bear on my body …” Sometimes these appeals are not taken as seriously as they should be, and sometimes the rhetoric is only that, as the demands (from either left or right) for conformity in belief or behavior promptly forget or ignore that ultimate court of appeal: a personal faith experience.

Such an emphasis is seen as anarchy by our enemies, but as the guarantor of relevance and vitality by ourselves. Experience requires that a certain pragmatic test be applied to our ideas and our claims: i.e., pragmatic in the sense that we must test the consequences in order to determine what real difference this idea versus that idea will surely make. Personal experience also gives an existential aspect to our professions of faith: i.e., in the sense that we know we are not mere spectators of or commentators on life; not idle observers at the theatre, we recognize that we, with all the rest of humanity, are on the same stage. In addition, experience and the steady appeal thereto ensures that our ideas and our actions are constantly being reshaped, are always undergoing revision—like the streets of Philadelphia.

If only we had kept our eyes on the centrality of personal spiritual experience with Jesus Christ, how many unprofitable quarrels and struggles and schisms in Baptist history might have been avoided! Millennialism (post, pre-, a-, and aha! [“Aha” is when the Advent occurs before one’s very eyes.]) Revelation (verbal, mechanical, virtual, natural, rational, plenary or progressive). Baptism (pedo- or re-, alien or domestic, triune or single, total or partial, effusion or aspersion). Communion (open or closed, at pew or at table, fermented or Welch’s, weekly or monthly or quarterly—or “I think it’s been a long time since we’ve done it”). In Kansas City in June of 1984 Baptists even debated hotly about the Garden of Eden: who did what to whom—first. (Eve lost the debate.) Then there’s dancing and drinking, movie going and lipstick wearing, dice throwing and card playing (in Texas, dominoes are okay), and countless other exciting chapters in Baptist history. It is a history that Thomas Helwys or John Clarke or Isaac Backus might have some trouble recognizing and even more difficulty identifying with.

Second, our persecutors do accuse us of being, one way or another, “incendiaries of commonwealths,” to use the language of that 1645 law against Anabaptists. Another somewhat gentler way of making the same point is found in an early Puritan tract by Edward Johnson. Johnson names New England’s several religious enemies with whom the Puritans must “never make league.” And in naming each one, he provides the defining essence of that particular group. For the Baptists, the essential feature is not their mode or subject of baptism, not their opposition to a paid clergy, not their “enthusiasm” or “antinomianism.” Baptists are the enemy because they “deny Civil Government to be proved of Christ.” Baptists, that ungodly lot, treat government as though it were a strictly human invention: no divine right of kings, no bishops in the councils of state, no magistrates as God’s appointed instruments, no baptized foreign policy or sanctified political platform. Government, Baptists would agree, is to be obeyed, but government, Baptists would assert, is not to be bowed down before. Isaac Backus is relevant again: “… we dare not render homage to any earthly power which I and many of my brethren are fully convinced belongs only to God.” And Backus was speaking here in 1774 not of foreign and imperial England, but of local and meddlesome Massachusetts.

As we stumble toward the 21st century, Baptist identity in this counter-cultural area seems both serious and severe, especially in the United States of America. Now everyone speaks favorably of separation of church and state; everyone endorses religious liberty. Since these once frightening phrases have now become so respectable, so trite, it is important that Baptists not trivialize their own historic position. We are talking, please remember, about “incendiaries of commonwealths”—a phrase that black Baptists in recent years have understood more keenly than most white Baptists. In a large and brawling denominational family, the majority of us want to eat our cake and have it too. We wish to critique a culture even as we embrace it, to hold civil government (“not proved of Christ”) at arm’s length at the same time that we are prepared to baptize it.

Our denominational schizophrenia (and schizophrenia is the classic identity crisis) was painfully revealed in March of 1984 when the administration’s prayer amendment finally got unbottled from committee to face a vote of the full and total Senate on the floor. There were 56 “yes” votes and 44 “no,” but the proposal nonetheless failed because an affirmation by two-thirds of the Senators was required. A vast majority of the Baptist Senators voted “yes,” thereby revealing their own identity crisis (and probably that of their constituents as well). John Leland speaks to us once more: “Experience … has informed us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than persecution ever did. Persecution, like a lion, tears the saints to death, but leaves Christianity pure; state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints, but corrupts Christianity.”

That early perspective is not altogether drowned out in our own day, though it is coming closer and closer to being lost. One agency dedicated to keeping that perspective alive, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, found itself struggling in 1984 to maintain its own life. At their 1983 Conference, attendees were urged to keep alive the tension between being a Baptist and being absorbed into the rest of the world: a tension, not a cozy alliance. “It is a fearful thing, that much of the current outrage regarding the great social and moral evils of our day have been registered by journalists, jurists, editors and lawyers rather than by the people of God in general and Baptists in particular.”

Where has all the tension gone? Roger Williams labored to keep in good repair that fence which separated the garden from the wilderness. We have trouble today even finding where the fence line was once located. The Southern Baptist Convention may reveal this tendency more clearly than others but, if so, it is chiefly because the status of outsider and dissenter—so familiar to Baptists in the past—has largely given way in the South to a dominant, establishment, majority status. That novel and unfamiliar posture for Baptists aggravates an already difficult problem of identity. Baptists not only flourish in the South; to a large degree they are the South. Piety, which used to be private, has now gone public; the former sect has become the Church, with some spokesmen even aiming for it to become the National Church. Those who fought against old alliances with the State now seek new and more intimate alliances; those who resisted and rejected imposed creeds would now enforce a rigid orthodoxy. One would never accuse these leaders of being “incendiaries of commonwealths” or of relying chiefly on that “vile Matter” called personal experience.

The modern Baptist incendiary or anarchist or merely critic, is not, however, one who is simply negative and carping, not one who rebels for the sake of rebellion, not one whose great role in life is to prevent any vote from ever being unanimous and any meeting from ever being brief. The Baptist counter-cultural force is critical, to be sure, but it is also constructive. There is a Christian Word to affirm as well as a Christian warning to proclaim. The Baptist dissenter is more than a member of the loyal opposition; she or he is a member of the loving opposition as well: a tough love when necessary, a softer one when appropriate. If there is no criticism, no dissent, no judgment, no prophetic voice, then America’s churches fall into that trap of “playing at Christianity” that Kierkegaard found so repulsive. No one takes Christianity seriously enough even to attack it, Kierkegaard complained in his 19th century Denmark. “… for one certified hypocrite there are 100,000 twaddlers; for one certified heretic, 100,000 nincompoops.” There you have it: a clear choice. Would you rather be an anarchist or a nincompoop?

We are told to pray for them that persecute us. I think we should go one better and give thanks for them that persecute us, for they help us to know who and what we are as Christians. On the other hand, we may also wish to pray for deliverance from our friends.

Dr. Gaustad is Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside