The Baptist Church is a Protestant Church, distinguished from most of the other Protestant Churches by its rejection of infant baptism and its practice of baptising only adults who have made a profession of the Christian faith.. The Baptist Church, with around 150,000 members, is one of the smaller Protestant denominations in the United Kingdom, but it is much more prominent in religious life in North America, and worldwide is one of the largest Protestant denominations.
The Baptist Church traces its origins to an Anglican clergyman, John Smyth (c1570-1612), who went to Holland and was influenced by the views of Jacobus Arminius (Jacob Harmensen, 1560-1609), a Dutch theologian strongly opposed to John Calvin's doctrine of predestination. The first Baptist Church was established in Amsterdam in 1609, and on his return to England Smyth was responsible for establishing in London in 1612 the first Baptist Church in this country.
As Protestant Christians, Baptists believe that the ultimate authority in matters of faith is the Bible as interpreted, under God's guidance, by the individual himself or herself. Most Baptists are Evangelical Christians, i.e., they believe that salvation for the individual Christian rests on faith in Jesus' death as an atonement for sin, and not on 'good works' or acceptance of the sacraments. Most Baptists have also followed their founder, John Smyth, in accepting Arminius' view that salvation by faith is open to all human beings, but in the seventeenth century some Baptists endorsed Calvin's view that only the 'elect', i.e., those whom God has already chosen for salvation, can be saved. This doctrinal dispute led to a rift between the Arminian Baptists in the 'General' Baptist Church and the Calvinist Baptists in the 'Particular' Baptist Church - a rift that was not healed until 1891 with the creation of the Baptist Union. What, however, distinguishes Baptists from most other Protestant denominations - and indeed is responsible for the denomination's name - is their distinctive doctrine and practice with regard to baptism. Baptists reject the practice of infant baptism, i.e., the practice of baptising children soon after birth, and hold that baptism is appropriate only for adults who have made a profession of the Christian faith and understand the significance of the rite. Further, for Baptists baptism involves the bathing or submersion of the individual's entire body in water (i.e., baptism by immersion) and not merely the sprinkling or pouring of water over the individual's head (i.e., baptism by aspersion or affusion), as is the practice of many other Christian denominations. Baptists claim, no doubt rightly, that in these respects their practice reflects the practice of the first Christians - and certainly it is in line with the etymology of the verb 'to baptise' (see below).
There is no hierarchy in the Baptist Church. As with, e.g., the Congregational Church, each local church, with its clergyman or pastor, is completely independent of all the other local churches, and is not subject to the authority of a bishop or any other ecclesiastical authority.
- Etymological note: the English words 'Baptist', 'baptism', and 'baptize' derive from the Greek verb βαπτίζειν (baptizein}, which means: to bathe or dip.