Baptists, members of a Protestant denomination who hold that baptism is for believers only, not simply those born into the faith. Baptism, often at age 12, is by immersion. Total world membership is said to be more than 31 million, most of whom live in the United States, where they constitute the largest Protestant group. Individual churches have considerable autonomy. There is no single Baptist creed; beliefs range from fundamentalist to modernist. The evangelistic and revivalist tradition emphasizes the influence of the laity as well as ministers. The church originated with John Smyth, the leader of a group of English religious dissenters who sought refuge in Holland around 1608. The first U.S. church was founded in Providence, R.I. in 1639, by Roger Williams, and the new denomination evolved independently among the variety of Puritan dissenters. Williams later left the faith to follow his own religious vision. John Clarke in Newport, R.I. and Shubal Stearns in North Carolina were also important early leaders. The Baptist evangelical tradition began during the Great Awakening, an 18th-century U.S. religious revival, and Baptist converts spread westward along the expanding frontiers. In the 19th century the Baptists founded more than 100 colleges and universities. By 1845 the denomination had become particularly influential in the Midwest and the South. In that year a great split occurred over the slavery issue, creating Northern and Southern Baptists. After the Civil War, black churches developed an independent grouping, the National Baptist Convention of America (1880). In 1915 a dispute within that membership created another major group, the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. In 1950 the interracial Northern Baptists formed the American Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention now includes churches beyond the borders of the historic South. U.S. Baptists are active in the World Council of Churches through the Baptist World Alliance, which was founded in 1905.
See also: Protestantism.