A Baptist Primer

The Baptist faith emerged in early 17th-century Europe, fueled by objections to papal and state inference. Baptists called for independent reading of the Bible not beholden to the interpretation of a central person or institution. In colonial America, many Baptists were tortured or killed for refusing to follow state-led and established churches, and for their rejection of infant baptism. Today, this independence remains. Some churches are wholly independent, while others affiliate with the Southern, American or predominantly black Northern Baptists, or any of the hundreds of other Baptist-affiliated groups.

Southern Baptists

Emerged in 1845, and separated themselves from "Northern Baptists" primarily over the issue of slavery. The Southern Baptist Convention was an annual meeting of those churches whose members identified as Southern Baptist. Southern Baptists can now be found in every state.

American Baptists

Originally called the Northern Baptists. Like Southern Baptists, members live across the U.S. But, unlike Southern Baptists, they do not privilege pastor interpretation over that of individuals.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Churches and individuals (members include President Jimmy Carter) who believe that each person is a priest before God and to each other, and that Baptists and others are free to interpret scripture and God for themselves.


Beginning in the early 1990s, Southern Baptist fundamentalists began calling themselves conservatives; accordingly, Southern Baptists who had previously called themselves conservatives were forced to accept the label of moderate. As historian Bruce Gourley of the Baptist-based Mercer University suggests, the fundamentalists' co-opting of "conservative" has made for a politically misleading concoction - and one that's served the fundamentalists well in the polls. "Language became very important in the 1990s and the fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist [faith] won the battle over language."

Brent Walker grudgingly accepts the term moderate, but doesn't like it. "I hate that word because it sounds like you don't believe in anything."

-Allyson Gonzalez

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