Summary: Baptists have a distinctive history, with some soaring moments and yet with some dismal ones as well. There is much to correct, but the good news is that we remain committed to missions and evangelism.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC, Feb. 4, 1996
They came out of nowhere. From small villages and obscure city streets, from backwoods farms and hard labor coal mines; from workingmen’s cottages, but not from the plantations, and from the ranks of domestics and cooks, but not from the great ladies. They were a humble people, schooled by experience rather than the universities; and a modest people, doing without elegant things, living on plain food, wearing nondescript clothes.
They were much like those described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, “not many wise, not many powerful, and not many of noble birth.” An ordinary group of people.
They would never have been noticed by the historians, except for one thing.
They were a fiercely independent people. They held a belief so powerful, so revolutionary, that some of their number would stand before kings and congresses and defy them; a belief so vigorous that they chose to stand apart from all the privilege they might have had, if only they had chosen another way. A fiercely independent people, who disliked the thought of any authority over them, who would not submit to any earthly power.
And they were not only a fiercely independent people, but they were also an exceptionally aggressive people, a winsome people. They did all they could to convince others of their way, and, once convinced, those others made new converts, and they in turn made others, so that these people and their beliefs spread like wildfire, without plan or strategy, without the permission or the help of the authorities. They just grew and multiplied. An exceptionally aggressive and winsome people.
And yet, there is a shadow side to their history as well. There are some negatives. In their fierce independence, they became known as a contentious people, and others felt that they had too brittle an edge, too harsh a flavor. They were thought of as angry, insensitive.
And more. Their very success held in it the seeds of their destruction. Their very popularity made them desire popularity even more. Here and there, as they became a little too popular, they got cozy with the powers that be. They lost the ability to speak the truth, because they had prospered by living the half-truth. They lost their distinctiveness, because they wanted to be big and to be accepted more than to be faithful to their principles.
And so they began to have real troubles, these people. They began to pick fights with one another. They began to forget what had brought them into being in the first place. They became so middle-class, so respectable and acceptable, that they forgot those from whom they had come. They forgot that they had come out of the poor, the humble, the needy, and the downtrodden. These people of whom I speak caught a kind of corporate amnesia. They forgot who they really are.
These people of whom I speak are my family. And your family. Our family of faith. They are the people called Baptists. The Baptist branch of the body of Christ, after nearly four hundred years of history, some of it glorious and some of it cowardly. But it is my family and yours. It is who we are. And today I want to call you to learn from that history. I want to call us to recommit ourselves to that family of faith as children often recommit to their parents – running from them for a while, distancing, and then learning to appreciate. Just as some of you have had or have been young adult children who wanted to put a lot of distance from the family, but who finally came home, I want to ask us to think about this Baptist family and to see if we can be at home with it.