Baptist: Are We An Extinct People?

 

There's a grief that can't be spoken,
There's a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution,
Here it was they lit the flame,
Here they sang about tomorrow and tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner,
They could see a world reborn,
And they rose with voices ringing,
And I can hear them now
The very words that they have sung
Became their last communion
On this lonely barricade, at dawn.

Marius, Les Misérables

 

One of the necessary drawbacks to working in congregational ministry is being in the same place every Sunday. PLEASE DON’T READ THAT WRONG. I love my church in every possible way, but it does prevent me from visiting other churches. I use to do this more frequently several years ago. I intentionally visited other churches to build relationships with fellow pastors and to check out different Student Ministry programs to see what they were doing well (in the context of their people and the ministry God had set before them, of course).

Not being able to venture away from my church as much has left me to be a connoisseur, so to speak, of church websites. When I meet someone at a conference or hear about something cool a particular church is doing I do a quick Google search to check them out. Church websites are often similar in design with A LOT of churches having very outdated or ambiguous information (yeah I was talking to youour last updated pictures are from 3 Easter egg hunts ago” church). Some churches do a terrific job presenting crucial information on their website and other social media platforms. Examples include, but are not limited to; location, service times, the style of worship, if childcare is available, special events...This is basic info which gives those who are thinking about visiting a church a heads up on what to expect before they even walk through the doors.

However, church websites often include other material as well. Vision statements, beliefs, audio/video sermons, and staff profiles. It is here where often intentional or unintentional proclamations are made.

A church’s view of Scripture. Is it inerrant, inspired, or authoritative?

Does the church believe in women in ministry (a quick view of the staff directory might give you a clue)?

Diversity, be it generationally, ethically, economically?

Is the church progressive or conservative (in a biblical sense, NOT in a political one)?

Is the church inclusive or exclusive? LGBT affirming or not?

Some of what I mentioned can be discovered peripherally. Just like viewing staff photos might allude to whether or not they believe in female ministers, other tells might include educational schools of thought. Seminaries and divinity schools differ and produce pastors/theologians who do the same. In a Baptist context, a pastor who graduates from Southeastern Seminary has a different approach to ministry as say someone who graduates from Wake Forest School of Divinity. One might be able to see if a church is diverse by photos taken of actual parishioners (I’m looking at you “stock photo” church, cut that mess out).

Most often though churches produce a “Statement of Beliefs” or “What We Believe” page somewhere on their website. The point of this section is to inform visitors (and remind current members) just what exactly the church holds on to as far as doctrinal beliefs. Stances on the role of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are usual given. Other understandings on salvation, the role of the Church (people of God), and Christian education/discipleship are often presented as well.

Recently I read something that made me ask the question, “What if a church put something else on their belief page?” Something not as typical as what I just described.

This summer I’ve had the luxury of reading for pleasure again. I described in another blog about my discovery of the Baptist preacher Will D. Campbell and it was last summer, before I began at Wake Div(inty), that I ordered and began reading Campbell. I began with his autobiographical works, but Campbell also produced fictional writings which I ordered as well. They sat on my bookshelves until I could find the time to enjoy them properly (graduate studies have a way of consuming one’s reading choices). With the academic year ending in May, I was able to pick Campbell back up and began reading The Glad River. Below is a synopsis via Amazon.com,

No one in Claughton County ever understood why Doops Momber refused to be baptized: his people were all good Baptists. And no one in Cummings, Mississippi, knew that Kingston Smylie’s daddy was really his granddaddy and that Kingston wasn’t really white. And at Camp Polk, no one knew anything at all about Fordache Arceneau because he spoke only Cajun. They met in basic training. Green kids who’d always felt themselves to be outsiders, they formed a community of three. They called it the neighborhood. After seeing action together at Guadalcanal, the three friends went back to the lives they’d each known, but they went on meeting regularly, keeping up the neighborhood. Their lives were untroubled, until the day Fordache found himself accused of murder, on trial for his life. And in a small Southern courtroom in the autumn of 1952, the neighborhood — bound by love and based on understanding — faced its ultimate test. The Glad River is a deeply affecting novel. Grounded in a particular place and time, its themes are, nonetheless, universal. A novel that probes the limits of religion and the state, it is also the work of a master storyteller and civil rights activist whose works are considered a treasure of modern Southern literature.

Campbell touches on a lot of issues in this story. The importance of community and friendship are described in detail along with the horrors of war that are somehow relationally binding to those who serve beside one another. Having served in the army himself during WWII Campbell accomplishes this by drawing from personal experience. He also addresses the complex issues surrounding individual and social identity. The story is captivating with wonderful character development. Perhaps for this reason, when I reached the last several chapters of the book, I began to ask myself questions much aligned to those asked by the main characters (good stories, be they fictional or not, should move one to question themselves in one way or another). Yet, it was the thoughts of the character Doops Momber where most of my questions began to stem from. As the synopsis described, Doops is a Baptist. A Mississippian Baptist to be exact. His family is Baptist (or his as Campbell and other good southerners would say “his people” are Baptist) along with everyone in his hometown. Without giving too much of the story away, Doops has troubling thoughts about the act of baptism from an early age. His mother continues to pressure him about it before and after the war. Throughout the book Doops gives somewhat vague responses as to why he hasn’t been baptized nor saw it happening in his foreseeable future. It is only near the end of the book where Doops is sitting on the witness stand during a murder trial involving his close friend Fordache where Doops gives the reader his most clear answer as to why.

During the scene, Doops is questioned about a fictional story he wrote while recovering from illness in an army hospital. Doops writes of a group of Christian believers living in Holland in the early 16th century. On the stand, Doops said he was inspired by a book entitled Martyrs Mirrors which a pastor had given to him as a young boy. Doops's character is being questioned by the prosecuting attorney for not having been baptized. When Doops's counsel has the chance to cross examine his client the following conversation ensues;

“What did the people you wrote about believe?” he said again. What made them different?”

“They did not believe in baptizing infants. And because they did not believe in taking human life, would not go to war. They did not believe in the death penalty so they were not allowed to serve on juries. They believed the Church and the State should be completely separate. They would not swear, because they understood the scripture to forbid it. They led simple lives, did not engage in politics. And some of them, a few of them, practiced community of goods.”

“And what exactly was that? ‘Community of goods’?”

“They had a common treasury. Property and possessions were owned by the community, not the individuals. It was the only way they could survive in times of persecution.”

At the end of the questioning, Doops gives his reason for not being baptized.

“Mr. Momber, you admired the people you wrote about, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir. I still do.”

“Do you know anybody like that today? Like they were?”

“No, sir. Not so far.”

“And if you found someone like they were, would you ask them to baptize you?”

“Yes, sir.”

I read those words and highlighted them. I put the book down and began to process what feelings they brought up in me. I knew the believers Doops described were obviously based off a real sect of Christians that existed after the Reformation. These believers were offshoots of the Reformed and Lutheran Protestants. They were referred to as Anabaptist or Re-baptizers, a name given to them by their critics (believers of this sect would say they never were re-baptized since their infant baptism were issued by the State resulting in the first being illegitimate). These men and women took the teachings of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli and “radicalized” them. Names such as Conrad Gerbels, Jacob Hutter, and Menno Simons are counted among the founders of the Hutterrites, Mennonites, Amish, and the Swiss Brethren. While significance and contribution is often debated, the teachings of these early leaders played a role in the development of the people who now identify as Baptist. After all, the man most often given credit for founding the modern Baptist faith, John Smyth, led a group to Holland (where the Anabaptist movement was strong) and by the end of his life asked to be accepted into a Mennonite community (just like a good Baptist to question their salvation, haha). No doubt an influential connection, whether strong or weak, was established.

As a Baptist, I believe these people are the for-bearers of my faith and from what I can devise from Campbell and his fictional character Doops, both of them thought the same. Yet, somewhere Doops had seen this connection severed in such a way that it would not allow him to be baptized by the folks in his community who claimed to be Baptist in good conscious because they did not resemble the individuals who had started the faith. Which made me wonder, what would happen if a church website included Statements of Beliefs in close line with early Baptists? Imagine seeing this,

We here at First Baptist Church Small Town, USA believe…

1)    Infants are not to be baptized.

2)    We do not believe in taking human life.

3)    We will not go to war for this country or any country.

4)    We do not believe or support the death penalty.

5)    We will not swear or serve on juries.

6)    We believe in complete separation of Church and State.

7)    We believe in a community of goods.

A church with this on their website might not get a lot of takers, but then again, maybe they would. The Baptist faith has gone through many changes attributed to culture and modern interpretations/revelation of scripture. I often hear older generations make the statement, “If only we could do it like we did it back then” or echo the old Gospel hymn “Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me.” I dare say the “old time religion” they are referring to resembles this type of early Baptist faith. This sort of adherence of faith is still seen in some groups already mentioned (Amish, Mennonites, etc…), and even in some modern Baptist denominations (mostly concerning the separation of Church and State). Nonetheless, little of this understanding of faith is seen in Baptist circles today.

Doops had something to say on this as well. When he was first writing his story in the army hospital he formed a relationship with a nurse, Miss Williams, from Rhode Island (I see what you did there Campbell). When asked about the story he was writing, Doops and Miss Williams had the following exchange;

“This story is about some people who lived a long time ago and aren’t around anymore,” he wrote. “An extinct species, I think.” He handed her the tablet. She read it sighed and handed it back. “I just want to write a story about them. And that’s all I want.” She read his words but did not hand the tablet back to him this time.

“Extinct people,” the nurse said, looking confused. “What kind of extinct people?” Doops reached for the tablet, but she held it behind her back. “What kind of extinct people?” she asked again.

“Baptist people,” Doops said feebly after a long pause.

Baptists. An extinct people. I believe ole Campbell and Doops were on to something there.

Baptist represents the largest Protestant denomination in the United States (and of them the SBC claims the most members). We have come a long way in some areas and traveled less in others. For a people who do not claim creeds, we have become creedal in our understanding of traditions. We point to our heritage as validation of our beliefs while leaving behind some of the tenets that made our interpretation of faith uniquely profound. For that is the kind of faith that causes a people to rebel against the injustices of a corrupt world in hopes of living a life in obedience to God.

Oh…spoiler alert, Doops does get dipped (baptized) by the end of the story. He finds someone who reminds him of the people he respected and admired for the ability to live out their faith. Turns out Baptists weren’t extinct after all, they just weren’t in the churches anymore…

Like Campbell and Doops, I mean to find me a few real Baptist is this world. I don’t believe they're extinct.

Hopefully, just maybe, I might mess around and become one in the process.