On the seventh day, God rested. And on the eighth He created Baptists…
OK, maybe not, but you’d be excused for thinking so if you lived around here. There are twelve Baptist churches within a three-mile radius of our little town (population 4,226). Of course there are other denominations in the area: a Methodist church and a couple Pentecostal congregations. The next town over has a handful of Presbyterians, and even a small Catholic parish that meets every other week. But around here, if you attend church chances are you’re Baptist.
If you happen to live practically anywhere in the South, this is probably true for you as well. For decades, surveys have shown the majority of our most religious communities to be in the South. And this being the South, unless you live in Louisiana or one of the coastal cities with historic Spanish or French influences, that pretty much means Baptist.
Oh sure, there are pockets of Pentecostals here and there. In some places they’ve even commingled to produce Bapticostals, an interesting breed that shows a bit more excitement than your garden variety Baptist—but the hand-raising only goes to the shoulder, there is absolutely no waving of anything other than the American flag, and the somewhat animated singing may lead to hand clapping or toe tapping, but it never leads to dancing. Never. Ever.
To the Yankee (See how nice I was? I left off the usual pre-epithet.) all are lumped together as Southern Baptists. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the Southern Baptist Convention—headquartered in Nashville—is the largest Baptist group (and the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.), it’s the vanilla of the bunch. There are Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Regular Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Evangelical Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Full Gospel Baptists, Landmark Baptists,… Baskin-Robbins could do a Baptist flavor-of-the-day for a couple months with no repeats (though they’d argue about whether the scoop should be rinsed or soaked between cones, and whether the owners determined before opening a franchise which flavor would be served or customers could order for themselves).
With all the variations it would be natural to wonder just what all these folks who call themselves Baptists have in common. I’ll leave the doctrinal debate to theologians and just mention one shared characteristic of Baptists. In fact, it’s one trait that has been directly responsible for their huge influence on the culture and politics of the South—an influence both undeniable and impossible to ignore.
Independence. Fierce independence, in fact. Where many denominations have national and even international political structures which have some level of authority over local churches, every Baptist church is politically self-contained. Yes, most are affiliated with one (or more) of the larger Baptist groups, contributing financial and material support for things like missions and seminaries, but each congregation is independent.
That influence is nowhere more evident than in our small Southern towns. Here hard work and self-sufficiency are still cherished norms. That hardly means it’s every man for himself, though. Just as the church supports its members, each community takes care of its own. Volunteer fire department needs a new truck? Barbeque Saturday at the high school. Someone’s in need of help after an accident or illness? Chili cook off at First Baptist. A neighborhood hit hard by a storm? Spaghetti supper with the Methodists. Rec center for the kids? Brunswick stew sale.
[OK, our fund raisers tend to center around food. This is the South.]
So what’s a guy do when he grew up in a small, semi-Pentecostal denomination and winds up here? I may have been raised all over the South, but we always lived in cities. This small town thing is still new to me. But as they say, “When in Rome…”
Call me an accidental Baptist. Just don’t call me late for the pig pickin’!