Seventeenth Century England:
Two major divisions and an important variant of Baptists arose in seventeenth century England. They were:
- General Baptists These were Arminian Baptists. That is, they followed the teachings of the theologian Arminius who believed that all men had the potential to be saved and that salvation had to be lived in order to be kept. The name General refers to their belief in the general atonement that Christ died generally for all men.
- Particular Baptists These were Calvinistic Baptists who followed the theology of John Calvin. They believed in particular atonement that Christ shed His blood particularly for those God had elected to redeem.
- Seventh Day Baptists These Baptists came from both of the above groups. They believed that true worship should be on Saturday.
By the end of the century, the Particular Baptists were the dominate group. Many of the General Baptists had drifted into Unitarianism. However, all three groups made their way to America.
The distinctions between the above groups continued in America. However, over time the Seventh Day Baptists greatly diminished and the General edged toward the Particular Baptist viewpoint. And, as in England, the Particular Baptist view became dominate. The major change in the Baptists during the colonial times was in the birth and growth of the Separate Baptists.
The Great Awakening of the 1730’s and 1740’s was fired by the preaching of men such as George Whitefield and William Tennent. These men were not Baptists, but they attacked the laxness of the established clergy and churches. Many people gained the courage to leave the established church and start independent churches. This was mostly a Congregational movement and those who left the established churches were called New Lights or Separates.
A large number of the Separates began to study their Bibles and were converted to Baptist doctrine. These new Baptists were known as Separate Baptists. Coming out of the revivals of the Great Awakening, they were very aggressive in their evangelism and church planting. They grew rapidly and were involved in the Baptist revivals of the late 1700’s that helped create the Bible belt in the Southern United States.
In order to distinguish themselves from the Separate Baptists, the old-line Baptists began calling themselves the Regular Baptists. So, in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s the main distinction between the Baptists was between the Separates and the Regulars. Over time, the Separates and Regulars joined forces. During this period, there was also the early development of the Free Will Baptists who maintained the doctrines of the earlier General Baptists.
Nineteenth Century America:
Numerous controversies hit the Baptists in the first half of the nineteenth century. One controversy led by Alexander Campbell and others pulled great numbers of Baptists into the Church of Christ and Christian Church fold. But probably the most important one for our purposes involved the missionary controversy.
With the conversion of missionaries Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice to the Baptist faith, the missionary movement began with the Baptists. While Judson remained in Burma, Luther Rice returned to America to raise funds for the work. The Baptists started Missionary Societies and began to strengthen the old Baptist Associations in order to organize fund-raising.
Numerous Baptists in the South opposed these developments. All of them did not oppose missions (though some did because of their staunch Calvinism), but they all opposed the increased denominational control sought by those pushing missions. They also opposed other innovations such as the Sunday School. They became the Anti-Missionary Baptists who opposed the Missionary Baptists.
Eventually, many churches sided one way or another. However, many others split down the middle and formed two churches—sometimes next door to one another. The Anti-Missionary Baptists claimed that they held to the primitive doctrines of the church and became the Primitive Baptists. Over the years, the Missionary Baptists mostly dropped the name (with some important exceptions) and became the main body of Baptists.
In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in a split mostly over the issue of slavery. The Northern Baptists were the other result of this split. There have been many other splits since that time, but this gives a very simplified summary of the early groups of Baptists.