Originally Published: August 28, 2015 6 a.m.
Almost every city and town across the country has more than one or two Baptist churches. Prescott has at least five. Where did Baptists come from and why have they split off into Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Conservative Baptists, National Baptists, Primitive, Particular and General Baptists, Reformed and Independent Baptists?
It's a long complicated story, but in brief, Baptists came to the United States in the early 1600s to escape religious persecution in England. The main sticking point was infant vs. believer baptism, with Baptists adhering to the latter. All Baptists practice believer baptism...or probably all, as another Baptist identifier is "local church autonomy." Baptists are an independent lot who value their freedom to call ministers, decide on liturgy, and make their own church decisions.
Contrary to infant baptism, believer baptism is of a person old enough to understand its meaning: being born into a new life with Christ. This practice is based on the Baptist principle that babies are not inherently sinful and baptism needs to be carefully considered and understood. Baptism is by full immersion administered by the pastor in a serious but celebratory church-wide occasion.
Three Prescott Baptist pastors shared what makes their churches Baptists and yet each slightly different.
Pastor Chris J. Marley is Senior Pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church on Whipple St.
Miller Valley Baptist is in the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches (ARBC), which adheres to the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints (TULIP). Pastor Marley summarized this as "God will save who He will save, which was decided before creation, but we are all sinners needing grace and forgiveness made alive by Christ." And "salvation is theocentric," meaning God-centered, not dependent on humans' works or faith.
Pastor Marley is assisted by two pastors and two lay elders. Women are not elders or ordained as pastors, because in ARBC Paul's teachings that women remain silent are followed. But, he adds, women work in many church activities: Sunday School, the music program, cleaning the church, and leading a women's Bible study. A congregation of about 50 members, Miler Valley Baptist Church is also a "confessional church" and adheres to The Apostle's Creed.
In 1845, most Baptists split into two main groups: American Baptist and Southern Baptist, primarily over the issue of sending slave owners as delegates to conventions. American Baptist churches also differs by ordaining women and having individual churches accept same-sex marriage.
Willow Hills Baptist Church on Mogollon Rd., led by Pastor Jesse Liles, belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Their primary doctrinal beliefs, "like most Protestant denominations," he said, are "Jesus alone, solo fide (faith alone), Christ Lord of all, the Trinity, and Christ as Messiah." Pastor Liles stressed that SBC emphasizes mission and is the "largest Protestant mission force in the world." Planting churches and sharing the Gospel around the world is "what drives most Baptists," he stated.
Concerning social issues, Pastor Liles asserted that gay rights are not part of the Civil Rights movement in that same sex relations are "not okay in the Bible." He stated, "Baptists love America; we came here out of the Reformation, and just wanted freedom to worship as we believed." He expressed concern about the "overreach of the federal government and lawsuits over gay vs. religious rights."
Liles said the SBC has not always been good about race relations, and in recent years has tried to make amends, with leadership stating "we repent and we regret our role regarding slavery."
Jerry Loftis, Business Administrator of First Baptist Church on S. Marina St., responded by e-mail, writing, "In 1880...the first Baptist church was established in the Territory of Arizona and named the Lone Star Baptist Church. In 1927, the building at the corner of Marina and Goodwin was completed. In 1950, the church formally affiliated with the Conservative Baptist Association (CBA)."
Like Pastor Liles, Loftis stressed traditional Baptist distinctives, a word often used instead of doctrines. These distinctives are believer baptism and the primacy of Christ. First Baptist has many mission outreaches: the Soup Kitchen every Monday night, a clothes closet, financial aid, and food donations. Loftis stated, "First Baptist Church is about joining God in loving people into following Jesus...We seek to love others as Christ loves us." He wrote that they promote Bible education, sponsor the Christian Academy of Prescott, and "support 22 individuals or families through mission agencies...with personal contact, and prayer and financial support." He believes this extensive mission support, in cooperation with many local organizations, differs "in belief and practice from other Baptist churches."
The Baptist story in both England and the United States is a long and fascinating one of believers coming here for religious freedom, then organizing and reorganizing into various groups. Freedom to worship as they believe and freedom to understand and accept baptism are two distinctives of all Baptists.
Marti Garrison is a retired hospital chaplain and ordained in the United Church of Christ.