We are nearly all Baptists now in American Christianity.
According to legend, Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, having failed to suppress Christianity, at his death uttered: “Thou has conquered, oh thou Galilean.”
Nobody has ever tried to suppress Baptists in America since colonial church establishments were overthrown. But the Baptists and the non-denominationals who are mostly Baptist in all but name have indeed conquered. Nearly every other branch of U.S. Christianity is shrinking. The Baptist ethos is prevailing. That ethos includes independent churches governed congregationally with pastors ordained by their congregations with a spiritual authority, believers’ baptism instead of infant baptism, the centrality of pulpit preaching, deemphasis on liturgy, typically more contemporary in worship, and more often than not, affirming once saved, always saved, precluding a fall from grace. Arguably, even more than other Protestants, the Baptist ethos stresses the individual’s direct relationship with God.
The Baptist ascendancy was further revealed by recent seminary statistics, showing that about two thirds of the top 25 Protestant seminaries are Baptist or Baptist adjacent, with roots in Baptist ethos. There are two Methodist schools, two Presbyterian schools, and a few others. But Baptists reign. Among the twenty, there is only one Mainline Protestant seminary, all the others are evangelical. Fifty years ago, the opposite was likely the case.
Liberal Protestantism has collapsed and been displaced by evangelicalism. But evangelicalism is becoming post-denominational and Baptist dominated. Pentecostalism is vibrant and growing. The only major growing U.S. denomination is the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Pentecostals have a more Methodist view of salvation, but their ethos is more Baptist. Their churches are usually, although not always, governed congregationally. They practice believers’ baptism. They deemphasize liturgy. Their worship is often more contemporary. A Protestant who emerged from a 70-year slumber and walked into most churches today might wonder how they all became mostly Baptist.
The Baptist conquest of America is not universal, of course. The Roman Catholic Church remains America’s largest church although declining, like nearly all Protestant denominations. Hispanic immigration had long sustained Catholic numbers in America. But Hispanic immigrants are increasingly not church affiliated, or they become evangelical, often Pentecostal. There remain special niche churches rooted in historic Protestant traditions.
The fast-declining Episcopal Church is down to 1.5 million. The more vibrant but much smaller conservative Anglican Church in North America is 125,000. Collectively they are less than one half of one percent of the population. The same is true for Presbyterians. The fast-declining liberal Presbyterian Church USA is down to 1.1 million. The more vital but much smaller Presbyterian Church in America has 390,000. So total Presbyterians, even including a few other tiny denominations, are not much more than one half of one percent of the U.S. population. Anglicans and Presbyterians, although few in number, do have a disproportionate public voice. They include lots of smart and accomplished people. Lutherans are not much more numerous and much less prominent.
Theological liberalism killed most of the larger Protestant denominations, especially United Methodism. Methodists were the largest religious force in 19th century America and the largest Protestant force in the 20th century. But their largest body, the United Methodist Church, has effectively committed suicide, shrinking from 11 million in 1969 to likely now about 5 million, as it suffers from schism and accelerating flight. To what extent the new Global Methodist Church can recapture the old grandeur remains to be seen. But even at best, it would take generations for Methodism to approach its former force. It long ago surrendered to the Baptists without realizing it.
Why did Baptists prevail? It should be noted that the Baptist victory comes despite the decline of its by far largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has been shrinking for over 15 years and has lost 3 million members with no end in sight. It remains America’s biggest Protestant and arguably America’s last great denomination. Its seminaries remain America’s largest. But many of its churches deemphasize or disguise their Baptist identity and meld increasingly into the nondenominational world. The Southern Baptists institutionally may face irreversible decline but the Baptist ethos surges forward.
Why so? The tight connectionalism of Methodism, guided by bishops, and undergird by denominational ownership of church properties, was said to aid Methodist ascendancy in the 19th century. But it arguably helped fuel its demise. The independence of congregations with a Baptist ethos is apparently more conducive to late 20th century church planting and religious entrepreneurship. The Baptist ethos is sometimes not very intellectual. But importantly it speaks powerfully to regular people who want practical faith with direct access to knowledge of God and His word. “Born again” entered the American popular lexicon in the 1970s with evangelical and Baptist ascendancy, further popularized by the election of Jimmy Carter, who advertised his Baptist rebirth.
What are the social and political implications of Baptist ascendancy via non-denominationalism? American secularization would be far more advanced without its influence. Evangelical sway exists because of it. But non-denominationalism is increasingly disconnected from Protestant and Christian tradition. By stressing the individual believer’s access to God through the Bible alone, the grandeur of church tradition, which includes political theology, is often discarded. Many are left believing the Bible will offer detailed public policy counsel. If charismatic or Pentecostal, they might expect the Holy Spirit to give such counsel. The lack of church hierarchy often removes mediation and informed leadership. This method is populist and sometimes democratic but often anarchic.
But new dispensations of Protestant growth are almost always chaotic. Usually, wisdom and order prevail out of the chaos. May it come sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, kudos to Baptists. They are often doomsayers and pessimists. They like to fight among themselves. But without knowing it, Baptists have conquered indeed.