A movement within the Protestant branch of Christianity, Baptist churches derived their name from their chief cause of separation from other churches; namely, their emphasis on the importance of making a profession of belief in the Gospel, prior to baptism (the rejection of pedobaptism).
There are several views of the history of Baptists. One is that there has been a group of people who have held views identified with those of Baptists since the time of Christ's walk on Earth. Note, this is not the same concept as that of apostolic succession seen in other Christian denominations. Many Baptist theologians reject this claim for lack of evidence. Another view is that Baptists derived from the 16th century movement called 'the Anabaptists'; however the Baptists and Anabaptists disagreed on significant theological issues, as well as views about involvement in politics. The majority view of American historians of religion is that the Baptist tradition is a specific combination of beliefs and doctrines that have become successively more precisely enumerated and elaborated over the centuries. Notable influences include the Puritans, the Waldenses, John Bunyan, the Separatists, and more. According to this view, the first identifiable Baptist congregrations came into existence in the early 1600s.
A thorough and careful understanding of the Bible is an essential part of Baptist belief, and underlies much of the Baptist world view and theology. Any view that cannot be directly tied to a scriptural reference holds less importance and is generally considered to be based on personal opinion rather than God's leading. The belief that only the Bible should be the source of all theological views is often called sola scriptura.
Since one of the distinctives of the Baptist denomination is the idea of the priesthood of the believer, Baptists reject the concept that there is authority flowing down from previous church leaders which can be traced to the apostles in apostolic succession. Each person is responsible before God for his/her own understanding of God's word (the Bible), and is encouraged to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.
Another distinctive is congregationalist government, the autonomy of the local church. Baptist churches are not under the direct administrative control of any other body, such as a national council or a leader such as a bishop or pope. John Wyclif and the Lollards who followed him, and Huldrych Zwingli, were strong influences in the early development of the idea of congregationalism. In a manner typical of other congregationalists, many cooperative associations of Baptists have arisen. The largest of these in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention. The second largest is the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc, which is also America's second largest predominantly African American Denomination.
Baptists share certain emphases with other groups, such as emphasis on evangelism and missions. Since Baptist churches stress the autonomy of the local church, there are a wide variety of practices and beliefs within churches that label themselves as Baptists. While the general flavor of any denomination changes from city to city, this aspect of Baptist churches is much more prominent than in the Episcopal church, or in the few branches of the Lutheran Church, or even in the many branches of the Presbyterian Church. Baptist churches often unite into "conventions" with a prime example being its largest convention, the Southern Baptist Convention. However there are hundred of conventions and most Baptist churches do not fall into any of them. Because Baptist churches do not have a central governing authority, many widely different beliefs are held, including different beliefs on the doctrine of separation, Calvinism/Arminianism, eschatology, the nature of Law and Gospel, the ordination of women, and homosexuality. The variety of Baptist beliefs often result in bitter disputes within a Convention, which are often divided between Christian fundamentalists and moderates.
There are several other distinctives of Baptists, such as believer's baptism, congregational government, and separation of church and state. Most feel that the state should not decide what the church can believe and should not prohibit the practice of religion.
The Baptist position of the priesthood of believers is one column upholding their belief in religious liberty. Baptists have played an important role in the struggle for freedom of religion in England, the United States, and other countries, including many who were imprisoned and even died for their faith. Some important figures in this struggle were John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Edward Wightman, Leonard Busher, Roger Williams (who was a Baptist for a short period but became a seeker), John Clarke, Isaac Backus, and John Leland. In 1612 John Smyth wrote, "the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience." That same year, Thomas Helwys wrote that the King of England could "comaund what of man he will, and wee are to obey it," but concerning the church - "with this Kingdom, our lord the King hath nothing to do." In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote what is believed to be the earliest Baptist treatise dealing exclusively with the subject of religious liberty.
Believer's baptism is commonly contrasted with "baptism of infants" or pedobaptism. It is the belief that only a person who has reached the "Age of Accountability" is eligible for baptism into a local church of believers. The age of accountability is not a specific age, but rather is the age at which a person is capable of making a well-informed decision to believe in Jesus Christ and his saving grace. A person who is not mentally or emotionally capable of weighing the evidence and concluding if they wish to become a believer is generally believed to be in a state of grace, and thus, not subject to separation from God and Heaven.
It is a common, though largely mistaken, belief that Baptists strictly oppose gambling, alcohol, tobacco, dancing and movies. In the 1950's, however, a large number of Baptists held strict views against alcohol, tobacco, card playing (regardless of whether gambling was involved), social dancing, and movie theaters. Generally, Baptist people realize the harmful effects that can occur if one isn't wise and careful about them, but few Baptists will claim that they are specifically prohibited by any biblical passages.