Question: "What is the American Baptist Church?"
Answer: The American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA) is a Baptist denomination with over 5,200 local congregations and 1.3 million members in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. As Baptist congregations, American Baptist churches emphasize salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, believers’ baptism by immersion, the priesthood of all believers, the importance of the local church, and the need for missions. The American Baptist Churches USA is a member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.
The American Baptist Church traces its history in the U.S. to the founding of the first Baptist church in America by Roger Williams in Rhode Island in 1638. Through the years various Baptist associations were formed in the Colonies and the States to advance the cause of education and missions. In 1814 the Triennial Convention, a national Baptist body, was formed and later named the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. Slavery became an issue in the church in the years leading up to the American Civil War. In 1845 the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society ruled it would no longer appoint missionaries who were slaveholders. That same year the American Baptist Home Mission Society divided into separate northern and southern conventions. The group of churches in the South became the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1907 the Northern Baptist Convention was organized, and in 1950 their name was changed to the American Baptist Convention. The name changed again in 1972 to American Baptist Churches USA.
Individual American Baptist churches are autonomous and practice congregational rule. A general council, overseeing thirty-four regional groups in the U.S., sets policy for the national organization, although its rulings are not binding on individual churches. The American Baptist Churches USA claims to be today’s “most racially inclusive Protestant body” (from their official website). The publishing arm of the American Baptist Church is Judson Press, and the denomination operates ten seminaries throughout the U.S.
The American Baptist Churches USA places a strong emphasis on social justice and community involvement. The denomination’s mission statement says, “Our commitment to Jesus propels us to nurture authentic relationships with one another; build healthy churches; transform our communities, our nations and our world; engage every member in hands-on ministry; and speak the prophetic word in love. Our vision for mission energizes a multitude of servant ministries of . . . social justice, healing, peacemaking, economic development and education. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we work together in mutual submission, humility, love, and giving that the gospel might be preached and lived in all the world” (from their website). Various ministries of the American Baptist Church provide “adult education classes, teen recreation, housing rehabilitation, health services, community organizing, employment training, family counseling, crisis intervention and much more” (Ibid.).
Doctrine and practice within individual American Baptist churches can vary widely; some are more evangelical, some are more Charismatic, some ordain women clergy, and some ordain homosexual clergy or perform homosexual weddings. The issue of homosexuality within the church has led some American Baptist churches to leave the denomination recently. The ABCUSA takes no official position on abortion, leaving the issue up to personal choice. The American Baptist Churches USA is also known for practicing open communion and open membership and promoting ecumenical and interfaith cooperation.
On paper, the American Baptist Churches USA espouses orthodox doctrine and upholds the need for Christians to share the gospel with all the world. In practice, it’s a mixed bag. Anyone seeking a church should thoroughly vet that church before getting involved, especially if other churches within the same denomination actively promote unbiblical practices.