Ascertaining accurate total numbers is difficult. The Baptist church is greatly divided. The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) indicates that their fellowship of 241 conventions and unions, in 126 countries and territories, comprised 47 million baptized believers in 2020 (members unions, baptistworld.org). However, not all Baptists are counted. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for instance, is not a part of the BWA. Yet, the SBC “ranks among the world’s largest Protestant body in the United States” (Southern Baptist, christianitytoday.com).
In the United States there are many branches of the Baptist church. Baylor University lists 19 different types of Baptist Churches in America (Baptist Denominations in America, baylor.edu). The Association of Religion Data Archives lists 22 different types of Baptist churches (Religious Groups: Baptist, thearda.com). The Handbook of Denominations indicates that there are 27 different types of Baptist churches in the United States (Frank S. Mead and Samuel S. Hill, Handbook of Denominations, p. 34). The largest branches in the United States are (1) Southern Baptist (SBC) with 14.5 million in 2019 (Fast Facts, sbc.net). Its numbers have declined for 13 straight years (Travis Loller, Southern Baptist See 13th year of Membership Decline, June 4, 2020, apnews.com). (2) National Baptist USA (NBC USA) with about 8 million members (Members Union, baptistworld.org). It is predominately a black convention. (3) National Baptist of America (NBCA) which has about 3 million members (ibid). It is predominately a black convention. (4) Progressive National Baptist (PNBC) with more than one million (ibid), perhaps as many as 2.5 million (Who is the PNBC, pnbc.org). Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in this group. It is heavily involved with civil rights activities. Its mission is “equipping pastors and churches to be effective in ministry and lift up our voice on behalf of the voiceless.” It’s vision is to “unite African Americans to positively impact the community” (ibid). (5) American Baptist USA (ABC USA), formerly known as Northern Baptist with more than one million members (Members Union, baptistworld.org). Northern and Southern Baptist split in 1845 over slavery and other issues (Frank S. Mead and Samuel S. Hill, Handbook of Denominations, pp. 54-55).
The top states for SBC as a percentage of the population in 2010: (1) Mississippi, 30.5%; (2) Alabama, 29.1%; (3) Oklahoma, 23.6%; (4) Tennessee, 23.3% (Southern Baptist Convention, thearda.com).
There are different ideas which have been set forth about the origin of the Baptist church. (1) A few Baptists believe that the Baptist Church has existed since the first century A.D.. Landmarkism is a belief system that developed in the 19th century in America. It holds that there has been a succession of Baptist churches from the first century to this day (See: Doctrinal Statement of the American Baptist Association 1905). “Landmarkism for Baptists might be thought of much in the same manner that nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism was. It was attempting to validate their claims to apostolic succession. The name ‘Old Landmarkism,’ somewhat like the ‘Primitive Baptists,’ laid claims not only to truth, but also to historic precedent as well” (Gerald L. Foster, Following the Denomination Called Baptist, p. 400).
(2) Most historians believe that it grew out of English separatism. The American Baptist Churches USA says, “American Baptists, Southern Baptists and all the scores of other Baptist bodies in the U.S. and around the world grew out of a common tradition begun in the early 17th century… The earliest Baptist Churches (1609-1612), although comprised of English-speaking congregants, flourished in Holland, where religious toleration was much greater than in England. Among their leaders were John Smyth, who led the first congregation of 36 men and women and Thomas Hewys, who returned to England in 1612 to establish the first Baptist church in England… In the early 1630’s Roger Williams, formerly a member of the Church of England, took up clerical responsibilities in Massachusetts. However, he eventually became estranged from authorities in Massachusetts Bay Colony over the failure of church and civil functions to be independent of one another. About 1638 he established the First Baptist Church in America in the then uncolonized Rhode Island (Providence), which became the first government in history founded in the premise of absolute religious freedom. At the same time, John Clarke, also originally from England and also dissatisfied with religious practice in Massachusetts founded a Baptist church in New Port, Rhode Island. Williams and Clarke secured a charter guaranteeing civil and religious freedom in Rhode Island from King Charles II in 1663” (Our History, abc-usa.org). Baptist historian, David Benedict credits John Smyth as establishing the first Baptist church in London in 1607 (David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination, p. 304, archive.org). Baptist historian, Henry C. Vedder also credits John Smyth, but locates the founding in Amsterdam (Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptist, p. 4 archive.org).
(3) Some think that there may be a connection with the Anabaptist. Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press writes, “Most modern historians mark the birth of the Baptist movement at 1609… There is no question the earliest Baptist interacted with Anabaptist in the Netherlands – When John Smyth’s group left England for Amsterdam, they met in a bake house owned by a member of a Waterlander Mennonite congregation – but historians disagree over the extent of cross-pollination between the groups” (Scholars Disagree on Anabaptist, Baptist Connection, baptistnews.com).
General Baptists and Particular Baptists (Regular Baptists or Reformed Baptists) have slightly different English histories. General Baptist were separatists, wanting to completely separate from the Church of England. John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were separatists. “The earliest documented Baptist Church in England dates from the return to Spitalfields of Thomas Helwys in 1611” (Origin of the Particular Baptists by Gordon L. Belyea, thegospelcoalition.org). Particular Baptists “Were non-separatist, forming their own (independent) congregations outside of the Church of England but seeking to maintain friendly relations with the Church of England” (What are Particular Baptists Churches? Gotquestions.org). However, in time they too would separate. “Historians have… concluded that the first Particular Baptist church dates at least from 1638, and possibly even from 1633. Though their baptism was for believers only, at first it was administered by sprinkling or pouring… English Baptists recovered the practice of believer’s baptism in two steps. By 1608/09, the General Baptists insisted that baptism was for believers only, and by 1638 the Particular Baptist reached the same conclusion. At first, English Baptist baptized by sprinkling or pouring. Immersion came a few years later” (Baptist Beginnings by Leon McBeth, baptisthistory.org).
They are referred to by different names for a reason. Particular Baptists are highly Calvinistic. They believe in particular (limited) atonement. General Baptists believe in general (unlimited) atonement (What Are Particular Baptist Churches? Gotquestons.org). An example of a Particular Baptists would be the Primitive Baptist. An example of a General Baptist would be Freewill Baptist. The Southern Baptist are divided in their acceptance of the five points of Calvinism. Since 1850 the sharp distinction between General and Particular Baptists has faded in most Baptist Churches (Gerald L. Foster, p. 410).