Roger Williams’s Baptists

The Baptist Movement has had an outsized influence on American church-and-state law. The movement’s American founder, Roger Williams, popularized the “wall of separation” metaphor that so greatly influenced Jefferson–and, through him, much of the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence in the 20th Century. A new book from Baylor University Press, Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island: Identity, Formation, and History, explores the Baptist legacy in the American state where Williams made his home. The author is historian J. Stanley Lemons (Rhode Island College). The publisher’s description follows:

Rhode Island can legitimately claim to be the home of Baptists in America. The first three varieties of Baptists in the New World—General Six Principle, Particular, and Seventh Day—made their debut in this small colony. And it was in Rhode Island that the General Six Principle Baptists formed the first Baptist association; the Seventh Day Baptists organized the first national denomination of Baptists; the Regular Baptists founded the first Baptist college, Brown University; and the Warren Baptist Association led the fight for religious liberty in New England.

In Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island, historian J. Stanley Lemons follows the story of Baptists, from their founding in the colonial period to the present. Lemons considers the impact of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration upon Baptists as they negotiated their identities in an ever-changing American landscape. Rhode Island Baptists, regardless of variety, stood united on the question of temperance, hesitated on the abolition of slavery before the Civil War, and uniformly embraced revivalism, but they remained vexed and divided over denominational competition, the anti-Masonic movement, and the Dorr Rebellion.

Lemons also chronicles the relationship between Rhode Island Baptists and the broader Baptist world. Modernism and historical criticism finally brought the Baptist theological civil war to Rhode Island. How to interpret the Bible became increasingly pressing, even leading to the devolution of Brown’s identity as a Baptist institution. Since the 1940s, the number of Baptists in the state has declined, despite the number of Baptist denominations rising from four to twelve. At the same time, the number of independent Baptist churches has greatly increased while other churches have shed their Baptist identity completely to become nondenominational. Lemons asserts that tectonic shifts in Baptist identity will continue to create a new landscape out of the heritage and traditions first established by the original Baptists of Rhode Island.

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