Baptists are a diverse people, and universal statements about Baptist beliefs are bound to be frustrated by one group or another, yet from their beginnings in the 17th century forward, Baptists have largely defined their beliefs in statements of faith and used such confessional statements to mark the boundaries of association, fellowship, and cooperation. This confessional impulse has marked General and Particular Baptists, Northern and Southern Baptists, and Baptist groups globally. Historian Tom Nettles identifies such confessionalism as one hallmark of Baptist identity. 
This article briefly surveys some of the more influential confessions of faith across the span of Baptist history to introduce some readers to these documents and to remind others of their importance. William Lumpkin’s Baptist Confessions of Faith is the key source for these documents, though many can be readily found online as well. 
England in the 17th and 18th Centuries
Baptists emerged in 17th century England among Puritan separatists who favored congregational autonomy over state control of the church. Many of these early separatist groups fled England for the Netherlands, where, in various instances, they became convinced that the ordinance of baptism was for believers, not infants.
John Smyth, an early separatist pastor whose theology and practice were ever changing, was a significant example of this tradition. Members of Smyth’s congregation eventually returned to England and gave rise to the “General” Baptist tradition, so named because of their belief in a general atonement, or the doctrine that Christ’s atoning death was available for all people.
At the same time, another group of separatists in London developed a different Baptist tradition. These “Particular” Baptists held Christ’s death was on behalf of the elect only; thus, their name emphasizes their belief in particular redemption. In somewhat simplistic terms, General Baptists tended toward the theological system of Arminianism whereas Particular Baptists were more Calvinistic. 
Both General and Particular Baptists wrote and used confessions of faith to define their congregations’ beliefs. John Smyth’s church in Amsterdam adopted A Short Confession of Faith (1610). This confession acknowledged God as Trinity and Christ’s divinity, denied original sin, upheld a congregation’s authority over its own ministry and affairs, and offered hope in the resurrection from the dead.
As evidence of Smyth’s fluid theology, he and members of his congregation also signed A Short Confession of Faith (1610) before merging with a Mennonite group known as the Waterlanders. Some members of this congregation chose to remain independent from the Mennonites and, under the leadership of Thomas Helwys, articulated their beliefs in A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam in Holland (1611). Within a year, this remnant returned to England and were the seed for later General Baptist congregations.
As congregations multiplied, in 1660 came A Brief Confession or Declaration of Faith that, within a few years, became known as The Standard Confession (1663). This confession, compiled by a general assembly of Baptists from across England, underwent revisions in the following decades but served as a unified statement of General Baptist theology during a time of governmental persecution. Before the century’s close, General Baptist churches in England’s Midlands region issued An Orthodox Creed (1678), which included a greater focus on the person of Christ than previous confessions to counter theological errors of the day. This confession was the only Baptist statement that integrated ancient Christian creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed).4 Particular Baptists in England were also busy writing confessions during the 17th century.
In 1616, Henry Jacob established a separatist congregation in London that would flourish and multiply throughout the rest of the century, even as its first two pastors fled persecution to the American colonies. Between 1640 and 1644, this single congregation had multiplied (amicably) into seven churches. In 1644, pastors from these seven Particular Baptist congregations in London wrote the London Confession, the earliest public expression of their doctrinal commitments.
This confession was apologetic and irenic as it defended the churches from false accusations of sedition and contained a robust presentation of historic Christian teaching while defending biblically the distinctive doctrines of a gathered church free from governmental control (Arts. 33–38), the lawful government of civil authorities (Arts. 47–53), and believer’s baptism (Arts. 39– 40). The clarity, breadth, and richness of this confession is remarkable considering that all its signatories were self-taught laymen. Baptists were not the only group writing confessions of faith in the 17th century. The Presbyterian theologians and pastors assembled at Westminster released their monumental Westminster Confession in 1646, and this confession helped shape subsequent Particular Baptist statements of faith.
During a time of renewed governmental hostility toward “Dissenting” groups, Particular Baptists used the Westminster Confession as the basis for a new confession of faith. Modifying its articles in several places (such as the ordinances, ecclesiology, worship, and civil authority), in 1677, these Baptists published the Second London Confession of Faith.
In 1689, the first general assembly of Particular Baptists, consisting of members from over 100 congregations in England and Wales, revised this confession, which was now signed by dozens of pastors on behalf of their churches (the 1677 confession being anonymous). This confession was widely influential in England and the American colonies, and it continues to guide many Baptists today (although I’m confident that “1689” finger tattoos are a decidedly modern phenomenon).
Thus far, this article has devoted considerable space to the 17th century because this was the century in which distinctively Baptist congregations first emerged, and these congregations, though varied in theological affirmations, used the form of public confessions of faith to demonstrate the continuity of their doctrines with Christians who had come before and to explain and defend their practices against accusations of heresy or anti-government sentiments. The remainder of the article will focus on Baptist confessions in America during the 18th to 21st centuries to show that this confessional impulse remains an important hallmark of Baptist identity.
New England and the Old South
Baptists began emigrating to the New World in the 17th century, though the earliest Baptist church in the colonies was founded by Roger Williams, a separatist, turned Congregationalist, turned Baptist (briefly), in 1638/39.
Unlike the situation in England, Baptists in the American colonies generally did not adopt confessions during the 17th century.  In 1707, five Baptist churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey founded the Philadelphia Baptist Association. In 1742, this association formally adopted the Second London Confession of 1689 with a few modifications that reflected the lingering influence of London father and son ministers Benjamin and Elias Keach (hymn singing) as well as the influence of Welsh Baptists (imposition of hands). Known as The Philadelphia Confession, this Calvinistic confession proved tremendously influential to Baptist churches and associations, including the noteworthy Charleston (South Carolina) Baptist Association, which adopted the confession in 1767, though without the article on laying on of hands, which was more of a regional practice among Middle States Baptists.
The middle of the 18th century was a dramatic period of growth for Baptists in America but also a time of intense social and religious change as the series of revivals now known as the Great Awakening split churches among Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, the latter dividing between pro-awakening “Separate” Baptists and “Regular” Baptists who had concerns about the movement. Many Separate Baptist groups were cold toward confessions, and their theology, while moderately Calvinistic, placed great emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s immediate and direct leading of believers.
It might be appropriate to describe Particular Baptists as holding an ethos more than a distinctive theology, which is one reason they did not write distinct confessions. By the end of the century, many Regular Baptist churches had absorbed Particular Baptist groups, leading to an interesting situation that sometimes required modifying Regular Baptist confessions or specifying that such confessions were nonbinding on every matter. 
One significant exception proved to be the influential Sandy Creek Association.
In mid-1740s Connecticut, Shubal (or Shubael) Stearns was converted under the preaching of the Anglican revivalist George Whitefield. During the 1750s, Stearns, Daniel Marshall, and their families moved to Virginia, and ultimately to North Carolina, where they established the Separate Baptist Sandy Creek Church. This congregation was a hub of energy, planting nearly three dozen churches in under 20 years. These churches made up the Sandy Creek Association, which had no formal confession of faith until the early 19th century. In 1816, the association adopted the ten-article Principles of Faith that was Calvinistic (Art. 4 on election and effectual calling demonstrates this bent) and upheld local-church autonomy (Arts. 6–7) and believer’s baptism (Art. 9).
In New England, New Hampshire played an important role in the development of Baptist confessions during the 19th century and beyond. During the time of the American Revolution, Arminian and Calvinistic Baptist churches both existed in New Hampshire, when Benjamin Randall began his preaching ministry. Randall founded a Free Will Baptist Church in Durham, New Hampshire, in 1779. Before 1810, there were over 100 like-minded congregations spread across New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. In 1834, these Baptists published a confession that endured through the mid-20th century and that other Free Will Baptists in the South adapted and, with many revisions (most recently in 2016), continue to use today.
The Campbellite Movement of the 19th century challenged Baptist use of confessions. Alexander Campbell was a Scots-Irish immigrant and a Presbyterian who became a Baptist pastor in Pennsylvania. Campbell became convinced that a strict adherence to the New Testament required churches to forego the use of creeds and confessions (among many other changes in worship and practice).
He saw confessions as post-biblical innovations. A rallying cry of the movement was “No creed but the Bible.” Abandoning denominational labels, Campbell and other like-minded pastors were tremendously influential in spreading their vision of the primacy of Scripture, dividing many Baptist churches in the process. This movement gave rise to the Christian Church, Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ movements and caused some Baptists to have lingering questions about the place of confessions and creeds.
In 1833, Calvinistic Baptists adopted The New Hampshire Confession. This statement took a more moderating tone from the Philadelphia Confession and earlier London confessions with regard to doctrines like God’s decrees, predestination, effectual calling, and the ability of sinners to respond to the gospel. New Hampshire condensed its statements regarding the nature and marks of the church, described only as local in the confession, to one article, among other changes. This statement had wide influence in New England, the Middle States, and even in the Southwest in the 19th and 20th centuries and figured prominently in the Landmark Controversy among Baptists on the question of Baptist origins and the identity of the true church.
The Second London and Philadelphia confessions had clear statements on the universality of the church, that is, that the church was comprised of all elect persons, past, present, and future. In the mid-19th century, some Baptists like J. R. Graves and J. M. Pendleton challenged this doctrine of a universal church on the grounds that a New Testament church was a physical, observable, and local entity. In their view, Baptist churches were the only true church; thus other denominations were false churches with which no fellowship was possible.
The absence of any statement about the universal church in The New Hampshire Confession increased its usage among Baptists committed to a Landmark position across the United States. But this confession was also to have a particular influence upon the largest group of Baptists in America, the Southern Baptist Convention.
The 20th Century through Today
Baptists in the American north and south faced a host of challenges maintaining fellowship and unity during the 19th century, including competing visions of organization, missions, distance, identity, and of course, the challenge of slavery. In 1814, Baptists from the south and the north formed the Triennial Convention to support missionary work and ministerial education. By 1845, Baptists in the south broke from this project and formed the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the south, confessionalism played an important role in the founding of the convention’s first theological seminary, with the Abstract of Principles (1859) being required as a rule of faith for all faculty members at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This requirement led to the dismissal of C. H. Toy for views on the nature of Scripture that deviated from historic Christian teaching.
From the convention’s founding in 1845, the denomination had no single statement of faith. During larger controversies of modernism and fundamentalism, messengers at the 1924 annual meeting approved the formation of a committee to prepare a formal statement of faith for the denomination. The committee, under the leadership of Southern Seminary president E. Y. Mullins (and including Southern Seminary church historian W. J. McGlothlin) began with The New Hampshire Confession of 1833, excluding some articles, editing other articles, and adding ten new articles to the document. The convention’s messengers adopted the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925.
By the early 1960s, the convention realized the need to revisit this confessional document, and a revised version was approved in 1963. In 1998, Southern Baptists revised their confession once again. Changes emphasized the revelatory nature and clarified the Christo-centric focus of Scripture which had been added to the 1963 BF&M—though left open to a wide interpretation. Messengers approved the revisions at the 2000 annual meeting, a version that included articles on the family, the sanctify of life, and clarified biblical gender roles in the home and church.
African American Baptists have expressed diversity of opinion regarding confessions of faith. In 1895, three young African American conventions merged to form the National Baptist Convention. Debate over the autonomy of the convention’s publishing house in 1915 led to a split with two groups claiming the name “National Baptist Convention,” one being incorporated (the primary denomination) and one unincorporated (the publishing house). The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. utilizes a slightly edited version of The New Hampshire Confession from 1853 as its Articles of Faith.  The National Baptist Convention of America emerged as a separate convention from the publishing house controversy and has no statement of faith. The Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. formed in 1961 with an emphasis on religious freedom without government imposition. The PNBC has no formal statement of faith.
During the final decade of the 20th century, some Southern Baptists suggested that confessionalism represented a shift from historic Baptist principles. Some left the convention entirely, others formed the Southern Baptist Alliance (later renamed “Alliance of Baptists”), and still others formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF).
The CBF currently uses secular corporate language of “Core Values,” rather than “Confession,” to advance four central ideas: soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom.  Grounded in several “Axioms” of E. Y. Mullins, each of these four values has linkages with many historic Baptist confessions. The Fellowship’s explanation for each value demonstrates a departure from longstanding Baptist faith and practice. Missing are values related to distinctively Christian teaching such as the Trinity, salvation, sin, resurrection, or the eternal state, or even a statement on baptism, which typifies historic Baptist confessions. Although internally consistent with the Fellowship’s view of soul freedom, the statement is distinct from the tradition of authentically Baptist witness.
Emerging from the Puritan separatists in England, Baptists in every generation, and from a variety of theological traditions, have articulated their beliefs in published confessions to show continuity with orthodox Christianity and to give witness to their distinctive ecclesiology and practice. Baptists have insisted that confessions are helpful summaries of the faith, guides to interpretation, open to revision, fallible documents, and non-binding upon congregational autonomy—yet, despite their imperfections, confessions have been a vital part of Baptist life and will likely remain so.
1. Tom Nettles, The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forming a Baptist Identity, Volume 1: Beginnings in Britain (Ross-shire, Scotland:
Mentor, 2008), 46–48.
2. William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley
Forge: Judson Press, 1969).
3. “Remonstrance” and “Reformed Orthodox” would be better
terms that emphasize the shared theological commitments of movements rather than individual theologians, yet these terms are less well known.
4. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 296.
5. William J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia:
American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 293. However, Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 349, n. 3, suggests at least two local congregations in Pennsylvania had published confessions by 1700.
6. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 353.
accessed 12 August 2022.
8. https://cbf.net/who-we-are, accessed 11 August 2022.