In the beginning, the Philadelphia Baptists

Many churches in the diverse faith descended from the local group, which will mark its 300th year next month.

Posted: August 06, 2007

More than 30 million Americans call themselves Baptists, a faith with more branches than a Christmas tree.

There are Southern Baptists, American Baptists, National Baptists, Free Will Baptists and Conservative Baptists.

There are Primitive, Independent, Old Regular, Old Time Missionary, Progressive, Separate and Unregistered Baptists. There are even Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, and dozens of denominations more.

Yet all these Bible-believing denominations and conventions and church associations are the children, so to speak, of the "mother" of the nation's Baptist organizations. The Philadelphia Baptist Association next month celebrates its 300th anniversary as the oldest Baptist judicatory in the Americas.

"It would not be an overstatement to say that the forming of the Philadelphia Baptist Association led to the formation of all following Baptist associations and conventions," said Thomas White, professor of Baptist and free church studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, Texas.

White's observation appeared in the July issue of Southern Baptist Convention Life magazine, which reported that the Philadelphia Baptist Association's "line of descendants" just among Southern Baptists numbered more than 1,200 regional associations and 43,000 churches "with 16.4 million members around the country."

The Philadelphia Baptist Association began in September 1707 when five isolated Baptist churches in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware formed an association to "execute designs of common good."

These would include extensive church plantings across the American colonies, an early stance against slavery and for freedom of religion, and a role in the creation of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

With 128 churches, the Philadelphia Baptist Association today seems but an acorn next to the giant oaks it spawned, including its own parent body: the 1.5 million-member American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

Its members nevertheless include some of the best-known Baptist churches in the region, including Bright Hope, Enon, First Baptist Lansdale, First Baptist Philadelphia, Greater Exodus, Mount Carmel, Tenth Memorial, and Zion.

And while nearly all include Baptist in their names, their theologies range across the spectrum, with some churches biblically fundamentalist and others more nuanced in their scriptural reading. Some are accepting of lesbian and gay relationships; others teach against them.

"We have to work intentionally at respecting our differences," said the Rev. James E. McJunkin Jr., Philadelphia Baptist Association executive minister. "Our diversity is our strength but also our challenge."

Three years ago, he instituted a periodic "Day of Dialogue," when delegates from the association's diverse churches gather to learn about, and from, one another. "It's not churches telling the others, 'We're right,' " McJunkin said, "but more like, 'This is how we came to this perspective.' "

But in an era when Baptist churches - like many other mainline Protestant churches - are struggling, the association also trains churches in such essentials as fund-raising, fellowship and mission renewal.

"It has helped us very much," said the Rev. Repsie Warren, founder and pastor of the 31-year-old Society for Helping Church in North Philadelphia, whose ministry is to the deaf and their families.

After joining the Philadelphia Baptist Association two years ago, her church joined its yearlong "Decision: Discipleship" series of workshops. Church delegates met five times in groups with other association members, led by the Rev. John C. Murrow, a Philadelphia Baptist Association staff member.

"We've been able to move from a focus on membership to a focus on discipleship - on having persons re-examine where they are personally with their spirituality, and where they fit into the body of our church," Warren said. "Our church members have become more energetic, more involved, and their prayer lives have changed."

The association also includes ailing churches such as Manoa Baptist Church in Havertown.

Last year Manoa's half-dozen elderly members, feeling they no longer had the energy and resources to regrow their church, "chose proactively to end their time as a congregation," said the Rev. Thomas Beers, the association's staff minister for evangelization.

Manoa's members turned over their building and other assets to the association, which has begun a national search for a minister equipped to engage what Beers calls the "younger, less-engaged, postmodern Christians" who are seeking spirituality rather than institutional religion.

Pennepak Baptist Church, founded in 1688, and First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, founded in 1698, are among the founding churches of the PBA that still belong, and will be among those celebrating the tercentennial with a "Weekend of Commemoration" Sept. 6 to 9.

"The 300th anniversary is an opportunity for all of us to sit together, break bread together, laugh together, and get to know one another," McJunkin said. "Because you can't get to the next cycle of growth if people are disconnected."


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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