By Aaron Weaver
“Why am I a Baptist? Well, at the outset, because my father was one.”
With these words, Walter Rauschenbusch, the renowned Baptist pastor-theologian from Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., and father of the Social Gospel Movement, began a series of articles 110 years ago articulating why he chose to be a Baptist.
“There is no use in denying that our family relations and the training of our childhood exert a very strong influence on all of us,” Rauschenbusch wrote in the prelude installment of his “Why I am a Baptist” series in November 1905.
I resonate with Rauschenbusch’s opening line. My dad is a Baptist minister (uncle and late grandfather too). While I didn’t follow exactly in my dad’s footsteps (I’m not ordained), I did catch his love for the Baptist heritage and Baptist higher education — my Baylor diplomas attest to this. Who can deny that the influence of family is often a real shaper of one’s faith identity?
“We are Americans by birth, but we must become Baptists by conviction,” Rauschenbusch continued. “And no person is a true Baptist until his inherited tendency has been transformed into conscious purpose. In a big freight yard you can watch a locomotive distributing a freight train over the various sidings. It will bunt a car along and let it roll along by itself. The car moves, but it moves by the power of inertia. It has no living energy in it. By and by it will slow up and stop.”
“No Baptist boy or girl ought to grow up to resemble that car,” Rauschenbusch added. “They must develop their own Baptist convictions and run under their own steam. They have inherited a great legacy of truth. …I began by being a Baptist because my father was, but today I am a Baptist, because, with my convictions, I could not well be anything else.”
This is a powerful truth. It’s a simple statement that reminds us that for faith to be authentic it must be free. Authentic faith can’t be passed down from generation to generation. The “experiential” faith that has characterized the Baptist tradition is free and voluntary. The inner experience that sparks the formation of one’s convictions, to quote Rauschenbusch, “has to be free and spontaneous.”
Realizing this truth some years back confirmed for me my place in the Baptist family. This truth — that faith must be free — led me to find a home in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I identify with CBF because the Fellowship professes its commitment to an unfettered conscience and an uncoerced faith, to be the presence of Christ in the world as free and faithful Baptists.
At its birthing nearly 25 years ago, CBF leaders publicly committed the Fellowship movement to a series of Baptist principles: soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and religious freedom. With these principles, the Fellowship was founded on affirmations of the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without imposition of creed or control of clergy or government, the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the autonomy of every local church, and the freedom of religion and its essential corollary, the separation of church and state.
As a Baptist by conviction, this freedom identity of CBF is compelling. It’s an identity that has defined the Baptist tradition at its best over the past 400 years. It’s an identity that we see embodied in the lives of Baptist giants from Thomas Helwys to Roger Williams to Lott Carey to Muriel Lester to Barbara Jordan to Jitsuo Morikawa to Carolyn Crumpler. It’s an identity that calls us to be advocates in society, to seek peace and justice in our communities. It’s an identity that encourages ecumenism and togetherness. It’s an identity that requests respect for differing viewpoints — rejecting orthodoxies found on the left and right that demand conformity and rely on coercion. It’s an identity that aims to show what unity in the midst of diversity looks like.
I am a Baptist, because, with my convictions, I could not well be anything else. I find myself at home with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because it is a fellowship that seeks to live fully into this all-important commitment to authentic faith and a freedom identity.
This column is the first installment of a yearlong series sponsored and hosted by the Baptist History & Heritage Society, one of the Fellowship’s partners, exploring and celebrating why young Baptists identify with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Keep up with this “Voices of Young Baptists” series throughout 2015 by signing up to receive the Baptist Studies Bulletin, the free monthly online journal of BHHS providing articles, editorials and book reviews on Baptist history and issues of importance to Baptist individuals and congregations.