Are Baptists still nonconformists?

Not long after our move to work at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity my wife Kheresa read Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, 2010), a novel rooted in Truong’s childhood experiences as an “outsider” Vietnamese-American in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, where her family settled after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and where we now live. One morning Kheresa read to me a sentence that follows a reference to the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in nearby Shelby: “As far as the Southern Baptists were concerned, Episcopalians were third on the list of local religious nonconformists” (after one of the characters in the novel and Catholics).

That sentence struck me as delightfully ironic, for in seventeenth-century England the 1662 Act of Uniformity officially made Baptists the “Nonconformists” (along with Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers)–because of their dissent from the doctrines and practices of the established Church of England, the progenitor of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Things have changed. While there may be no government-established church in the United States today, it’s fair to say that Baptists are now culturally established here, and it’s not merely a function of their numerical preponderance. As the eminent historian of American Christianity Martin Marty has observed, all American denominations–including those with more hierarchical eccelsiologies–are now “Baptistified” (Martin Marty, “Baptistification Takes Over,” Christianity Today [2 September 1983]: 33-36). Baptistness has worked its way into the American ecclesial establishment, even while American culture has become intertwined with Baptistness in what Marty’s fellow historian of American Christianity Nathan Hatch (now president of historically Baptist Wake Forest University) calls The Democratization of American Christianity.

In light of the cultural and ecclesial establishment Baptists now enjoy in relation to the current state of the American experience, are they still Noncomformists? Some degree of noncomformity belongs to the essential DNA of Baptist ecclesial identity, for Baptists at their best are a relentlessly pilgrim community that resists all overly-realized eschatologies of the church, seeking the ideal community that is fully under the rule of Christ somewhere ahead of them rather than in any past or present instantiation of the church. In the present circumstances of the American establishment of Baptistness, it seems that we will have to reclaim our Nonconformist heritage through a stance of “Baptist alterity” in relation to the status quo of the Baptist denominational tradition–a perspective that my fellow Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman of Duke University Divinity School calls a consciousness of being an “other Baptist.” Otherwise the stance of Baptist churches–whether theologically conservative or liberal–toward the American polis may continue what in many instances seems to be mere conformity to the ideologies of American politics.

(Adapted from a previous post to Dr. Harmon’s Ecclesial Theology blog)

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • Nathan J Kerr

    I would venture to guess that embracing liberal theology and homosexuality is conforming to the world.

  • ScottFrady

    It seems to me that the baptist voice that speaks to the culture is far too enamoured with the idea of theocracy to be non conformist. One has to wonder whether that ship has sailed. There are some small pockets of resistance, but they are too few in number to have a fair hearing. I am, I admit very pessimistic. I fear that for all intents and purposes the baptist experiment may be over. They are no longer church of Smyth and Williams. They are the church of Patterson and Mohler. That is why I left. I didn’t sign up for that.

    • CarterMcNeese

      @ScottFrady , I am really not sure if what you say is accurate.  There are whole strands of Baptist life in America that have nothing at all to do with the SBC.  The National Baptists and Progressive National Baptists, American Baptists etc.  Just look at the supporting bodies of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty to see exactly how wide, and deep, the Baptist waters are on this continent.  While it is true the SBC came to be the de facto established church in much of the South that is changing.  And in the process the larger understanding of what it means to be Baptist is changing as well.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  It is not just the Baptist movement that has made peace with the Empire in order to thrive, but the Church as a whole, dating back 2000 years give or take a couple hundred.  But essentially I agree with you.  If the Baptist Movement in particular and the Church generally are to survive, we must out from under the umbrella of the Empire and stand, once again, as a nonconformist voice in the wilderness against the excess of the Empire.

  • Michael Poole

    I like playing the part of the resistance. But sometimes resisting means refusing to remain stuck in old interpretations of Paul and hanging on to silly world views . Perhaps Baptists are living into the role of “transformists.”