A diverse group of Baptist historians met on August 1–3 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, thought to be the first Baptist association. The event was held at First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, one of the earliest members of the Philadelphia Baptist Association.
According to Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopedia, this first Baptist association “was to be a body of delegates representing churches, and the yearly meeting had no representative character.” With only five churches at its infancy, this association grew and was indeed a “strong tower” during the Revolutionary War of the late 1700s. The association assisted with missionary efforts at home and abroad and was instrumental in founding Baptist schools of higher education in America.
Baptists have historically placed a high value on associations of churches. Because they believe each local congregation of saved church members is autonomous and free of any national governing structures, they emphasize loose structures of cooperation rather than a complex system of councils, bishops, and denominational hierarchy. So it is ironic that historical symposiums such as these feature the participation of some Baptist groups that have long fostered denominational control rather than the relatively loose associations of our heritage. From the GARBC’s separatist position, this year’s event was interesting from a purely historical standpoint. Due to the vast present-day differences in doctrine and polity among those who call themselves Baptists, the value of the conference was not for the nurturing of ministry alliances.
During the three-day celebration, more than thirty-five presentations were made. Break-out sessions included historical presentations on a wide variety of subjects. Many of the presenters were Baptist historians from nearly twenty distinct Baptist groups, but speakers mostly avoided sectarian reviews. While differences exist among participants from many groups, no one could even tell where most of them came from, apart from introductions. This was true of the attendees as well. This event was to be a celebration of the Baptist distinctives. I had the privilege of presenting a session at one of the break-outs, “Great Evangelists in Baptist History.” My three-year research project, Lord willing, will culminate in a forthcoming book titled Profiles in Baptist Evangelism: Great Evangelists in Baptist History.
The plenary sessions began with two profiles of Baptist individuals, continued with historical hymnody, and concluded with presentations of historical papers. Musically trained presenters profiled certain songwriters, showed great knowledge of hymnody, and led the audience in singing some of the well-known Baptist hymns (every stanza!). The final plenary session closed with a paper presented by Baptist historian Edwin Gaustad, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of California, Riverside. His paper was titled “Baptists and the First Amendment: Celebrating Baptist Commitments to Religious Liberty.” This outstanding presentation included an ardent call to Baptists to maintain religious freedom in America. After all, the First Amendment was put in place by concerned Baptists who were friends with other founding fathers of the United States. In his dignified way, Dr. Gaustad told fascinated listeners to not just be Baptists with religious liberty but to embrace their Baptist heritage in all areas of their lives. At the end of his impassioned speech, the audience came to their feet with applause.
Between the church building and a multipurpose building stood the book tents, a favorite outdoor spot for any book aficionado or historian. There one could find a number of prominent publishers of classic Baptist books and get newer Baptist materials autographed by the authors in attendance. At any given time between sessions, a veritable “who’s who” among Baptist historians gathered around the tents. At the end of each nightly session, attendees gathered in the church auditorium or back at the hotel to converse about the day’s plethora of information and the depth of Baptist heritage presented.
The Philadelphia Baptist Association originated in 1707; the celebration of its 300th anniversary has come and gone. This successful and enjoyable history-making celebration of rich Baptist heritage will be remembered with gratitude. Glory be to God!
Jeff Brodrick is the associate library director at Baptist Bible College, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. He also teaches technology courses and church history at the college, graduate school, and seminary. Contact Jeff about video or audio recordings of the Baptist History Celebration by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.