Baptist-UCC-UU Convergences

The Baptist story commenced as a dissent to the existing hierarchies and hierarchical beliefs, either the Catholic papacy or the Lutheran elite, either the Anglican church, the Royal crown, or Puritan theocracy. In America, it begins with Roger Williams, the original American Baptist, who resisted the theocracy established by the Puritans and called for religious freedom and for a democracy that separated matters of church and state.

According to Baptist scholar Walter Shurden, the Baptist tradition throughout its diverse and vast history has focused on "four fragile freedoms": 1.) Bible Freedom - the freedom to read and interpret the Bible based on one's conscience and one's spiritual understanding; 2.) Soul Freedom - the soul's freedom from imposition of clergy, creed, or civil government; 3.) Church Freedom - the local church is free to govern the way they see fit without hierarchical restraint; and 4.) Religious Freedom - individuals and the church are both ordained with freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion.

With that said, Baptist history shows convergences, confluences, connections, and shared histories with two other free church, congregational polity-based traditions, the UCC and UUA.

Together in Dissent

The Baptist tradition, the UCC, and the UUA all have their historic roots in the English Separatist movement. The Puritans, though beginning as a tradition desiring the purification of the Anglican Church, eventually realized that purification was beyond reach. So in England and especially in the American colonies an ardent separatist spirit took hold. Both the Congregational church (which gave way to both the UCC and UUA) and the Baptist church arose out of this dissent known as the Separatist Movement.

The Congregational and Baptist churches also shared a focus on some sort of testimony to Christian faith being a prerequisite for church membership, with the Baptist church adding adult baptism as a mandated outward sign of internal faith.

But what truly differentiated the Baptist tradition from its Congregationalist cousin is the Baptist tradition's radical call for religious freedom, namely for a "wall between church and state." In fact, Roger Williams was first excommunicated from the Massachusetts church and then exiled to Rhode Island because of, among other things, his persistent demand that church and state be separate.

That both the UU and UCC have become and remain strong proponents of the separation of church and state points to a Baptist-UU-UCC confluence some 200 years after the exile of Roger Williams. I am sure Roger Williams is proud!

Rejection of Calvinism

After the separation of church and state became a constitutional mandate, the Congregational and Baptist churches became in many ways more similar than different in the first half of the 19th century. Both the Congregational and Baptist church were under the throes of the Calvinist claims of total depravity of human nature and the doctrine of unconditional election, which claimed that only an elect few drew God's favor and being part of the elect was evidenced by one's life of good works, deep devotion, strong work ethic, and resulting economic reward. The pervading Calvinism of the day served the role of papal rule. It was inevitable that new movements of dissent would arise against this new religious ruler, often called the paper papacy.

Let me mention four new movements that rejected Calvinism.

1.) General and Free Will Baptists: General and Free Will Baptists were Arminian proponents (Arminian being synonymous with the notion of free will and general atonement) and rejected the Calvinist claim that God's will predestines some to heaven and others to hell making free will on the human's part is not operative in the case of salvation. General and Free Will Baptists and their ilk also rejected the Calvinist belief that atonement was limited to the elect, holding to the notion that Christ's atonement is offered to all, making it general and unlimited in its offering.

2.) Christians: Known as simply the Christian Church (or the Christian Connexion), it developed out of the rejection of Calvinist Baptists and Methodists on the frontier. Seeing the rigid Calvinism of the day in both the Baptist and Methodist churches and seeing that Calvinism proffer an overly hierarchical and institutional church, the Christian Church called for a decentralized, back to basics, simple Bible church. Like the Free Will Baptists, the Christian Church held to an Arminian view of atonement and free will. The Christian Church grew in New England and in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Christian Church interestingly had a Unitarian slant with many ministers and thinkers by the 1920s writing pamphlets arguing for a rejection of the Trinity in favor or a Unitarian view of God.

In 1931, the Christian Church merged with the Congregational Church to form the Congregational Christian Church (CCC). The CCC would be merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to create the United Church of Christ.

3.) Unitarians: One of the most profound dissents to Calvinism was the Unitarian movement which rejected not only the Trinity (and hence its namesake) but also the central Calvinist teaching on the total depravity of human beings. While both the Free Will Baptists and the Christian Church asserted that depravity was real just not total, the Unitarians asserted that human beings were created with innate goodness.

4.) Universalists: Another profound dissent to Calvinism was the Universalist movment and their rejection of the central Calvinist claim of limited atonement. Not only did Universalists argue that atonement was unlimited but that actual redemption was unlimited. In other words, not only did Jesus die for all, but Jesus' death (and resurrection) in reality saves all.

Baptist-UU-UCC All-Stars

The shared anti-Calvinist sentiment resulted in a confluence of Free Will Baptists, Christians, Unitarian, and Universalists, both here and in England. The names below of Baptists cum Unitarians and/or Universalists and/or proto-UCCers makes this confluence pretty clear:

Abner Jones and Elias Smith: two Baptist preachers, both with connections to Vermont and New Hampshire, who rejected the Calvinism of their Baptist (non-free will) tradition. They were central in creating the Christian Church, planting the first two Christian Church congregations in New England. The Christian Church would be part of the UCC merger in 1957. Elias Smith would become a Universalist.

Elhanan Winchester, father of American Universalism and founder of the Society of Universal Baptists in 1790 which later became the still extant UU Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.

William Vidler: a Winchester disciple and Baptist Universalist who became a Unitarian preacher and publisher essential in establishing Unitarianism in England. He was also involved in the creation of a religious journal called the Baptist Unitarian Advocate in 1837.

Robert Aspland: a Baptist preacher and father of organized Unitarianism in Great Britain. He was central in 50 General Baptist churches becoming Baptist Unitarian in 1836.

Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou: two American preachers who were very influential Baptist Universalists in the mid-1800s. The Ballou family all have Baptist roots.

Curtis Reese and Charles Potter, two Baptists preachers integral to Unitarianism’s movement from a solely theist tradition to a more religious humanist one in the 1920s.

Henry Emerson Fosdick: a renowned Baptist minister who helped found Riverside Church, the landmark church in New York City which is an interdenominational UCC/American Baptist Church USA.

James Forbes: renowned 20th-21st century preacher and minister of Riverside, possessing dual standing with the UCC and the American Baptist Churches USA.

Alive & Kicking?

Yet what about present day, living Baptist-UU-UCC traditions? Well, there are a few UU/UCC/Baptist federated churches -- in Sturbridge and Bolton, Massachusetts, for example.

The most impressive discovery in my Baptist-UU-UCC research is the Primitive Baptist Universalists. Howard Dorgan's book In the Hands of a Happy God actually introduced me to UU’s long lost cousin this way:

“That denomination is a uniquely Appalachian institution, the Primitive Baptist Universalists (or PBUs) of Central Appalachia, believers aptly described as ‘pilgrims in the hands of a happy god’…God [is] happy because he found a way – they believe – to redeem his children from the curse of Adamic sin…[PBU’s] expound an inclusive theology of universal atonement, claiming that, at the close of the temporal world, all humankind will be redeemed…restored to that purified state that existed prior to Adam’s fall, and thus prepared for an eternal and joyous communion with God. PBU’s are known in Central Appalachia as the ‘No-Hellers’ – a title which is a misnomer, simply because they view hell as a reality of earthly life.”

Now, the Primitive Baptist Universalists are a present day, living reality. Groups of Baptist Universalists are meeting every Sunday in Central Appalachia. This to me is pretty cool!

Other Honorary UCC-UU Baptists
(The main criteria are Baptists found in either UU's Singing the Living Traditional hymnal or UCC's New Century Hymnal. The above names mentioned are also in this list.)

Walter Rauschenbusch

Henry Emerson Fosdick

Robert Lowry

John Fawcett

Howard Thurman

Martin Luther King Jr.

Wendell Berry

UCC-UU Baptist Prototypes

Before the Baptists, the Christian Connexion, Unitarians or Universalists in America there were a few examples of prototypes, if you will. What amounts to a Baptist-UCC-UU prototype is a figure who holds to adult-believer baptism by immersion (baptist) and either is a unitarian (denies the trinity) or a universalist (holds to universal salvation). Here is a list of such figures:

Michael Servetus

Faustus Socinus

Ferenc David (Francis David)

Hans Denck

Jacob Kautz

Hans Hut

Alexander Mack


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