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An overview of Northwest Baptist history.

I make no claims to being a historian. I am probably nearer to "being history" than being a historian, but I have been an active observer of Baptist life in the Northwest for fifty years and know something of the history of Baptists in this area. As a means of introducing readers to the Baptist landscape in the Northwest, I have posed several questions and provided the answers.

First, in the eye of the average northwesterner, who, what, and where are he Baptists? A hundred years ago, every average-sized northwestern city and town had a "First Baptist Church." The Baptists were regarded as one of the mainline Protestant denominations, even though a real Baptist denied being a Protestant. In the larger cities, Baptist pastors were regarded with respect and in some areas looked upon as community leaders.

As time passed and the area was affected by two postwar migrations, those of us who came to the Northwest fifty years ago found a different attitude toward Baptists. On more than one occasion, I found myself having to prove I had common sense, was not a rigid negative legalist, and did not handle snakes or jump pews. Another accusation hurled at some of us because of the pronouncements of some of well-known eastern cousins and some of the guest lecturers at certain seminaries was that we Baptists were "liberals."

A recent sample survey that I conducted gives interesting insights into the general public's attitude toward Baptists today. I phoned ten residents in my city and asked them two questions: (1) Could you tell me the location of a Baptist church? Eight residents replied "no," and two replied "yes," and proceeded to do so. (2) When you happen to see a Baptist church, are your feelings positive, neutral, or negative? Three residents replied "positive," while seven replied "neutral."

From this limited survey and my observations, I have concluded that Northwest Baptists have a long way to go before catching up with their Mississippi cousins, of whom it has been said, "the Baptists and the kudzu are taking over the country." In spite of our low profile and questionable social standing, however, we are in no danger of disappearing.

Even though most Northwest Baptists do not count nickels and noses with the same vigor as Southern Baptists, we can identify 1,300-plus churches and church-type missions, with somewhere between 140,000 and 150,000 members, operating under about a dozen different banners. When asked why so many different kinds of Baptists, I reply, "Why so many different kinds of banks? Why so many different kinds of supermarkets?" Even with 1,300-plus churches, there are towns and villages with no Baptist church.

Another question worth considering is, "Who are Baptists in their own eyes?" The two largest groups of Baptists in this area are the Northwest Conservative Baptist Association (NWCBA) and the Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC).

The conservative association was born out of doctrinal controversy with the American Baptist Convention in 1948. When the association was organized, it consisted of forty-eight Oregon churches. Today, within the northwestern region, the association has 270 churches, with approximately 57,000 members. These churches stress a strong evangelical commitment, a fundamental theology, and the pre-millennial position in eschatology. This group of churches looks to Western Baptist Seminary as a primary source of leadership development. The seminary currently has 626 students and an annual graduating class of 110. One of its primary support systems is the churches of the NWCBA.

The churches of the NWCBA are currently involved in a self-study and are reexamining their doctrine, polity, philosophy of ministry, and orthopraxy so that they might help churches become mature relational communities. The NWCBA expresses its Great Commission commitment through seventeen various agencies controlled or approved by the national Conservative Baptist Fellowship.

The second large group of Baptists in the region, the NWBC, grew out of an early attempt by Baptist immigrants from the South to relate to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This attempt was rejected in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Many of the NWBC churches began as Landmark fellowships prior to the 1940s. Some of these Landmark churches called as pastors men who had been trained in Southern Baptist schools. The presence of Southern Baptist-educated pastors, coupled with the migration of Baptists from the South to work in wartime industries, produced a considerable interest in another effort to relate to the SBC during the late 1940s. The return of R. E. Milam to the Northwest was perhaps the spark that ignited a second vigorous effort to relate to Southern Baptists. In 1948, under Milam's leadership, a new Baptist entity was formed and ultimately was renamed the Northwest Baptist Convention and accepted in 1949 as a cooperating fellowship by the SBC.

The NWBC began with fifteen churches, but today counts over 400 churches and church-type missions with a resident membership of about 54,000. Several factors have contributed to the rapid growth of NWBC churches. In the 1940s, wartime industrial workers and military personnel started a number of churches. In the 1950s, many of the people who had formed these churches returned to the South only to find that the family farm could no longer support them, and they soon returned to the Northwest. By the time of their return, the new NWBC, with the help of the SBC Home Mission Board, was ready to take advantage of the greatest migration to the region since the days of the Oregon Trail. The formation of a strong regional denominational structure assisted in strategy development and church starting. Convention leaders early realized the demands of institutional development, and they chose to shed the convention of departments and agencies that detracted from its primary mission of evangelization and church development.

Not until 1980 did the NWBC address the issue of vocational leadership development. That year, the convention requested that Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary place a seminary extension center in Portland. Today, this center is known as the Pacific Northwest Center and is housed in the Northwest Baptist Center in Vancouver, Washington. It currently has ninety students and graduated fifteen in the spring of 2004.

Prior to 1930, the largest group of Baptists in the Northwest fellow-shipped under the banner of the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC). But following a departure from that convention of churches that formed the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) in the 1930s and a further departure in 1948 of churches that formed the NWCBA, the NBC no longer could claim to be the largest. Shortly after 1948, two new entities were formed: the American Baptist Churches of Oregon and the American Baptist Churches of the Northwest (Washington, Idaho, and Montana). Today, these two organizations consist of 180 churches. The stated strategic goal of the ABC organizations is to create a new culture that provides resources and support for the local churches to accomplish its overall mission toward greater spiritual and organizational growth.

The GARBC has a limited number of churches in Oregon, many more in Washington, and several in Idaho for a total of ninety-three. Their early distinctives may be described as a militant fundamentalism with a rigid legalist view of sanctification. In recent years, these attitudes have mellowed. The churches have retained their doctrinal integrity but are recognizing the necessity of new and more user-friendly worship formats. The GARBC gave birth to the Western Baptist College of Salem. Today, the college is an independent entity, holding the Baptist doctrinal position. It has about 700 students with an annual graduating class of 185.

Two other significant groups of Baptists began to appear in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These churches ministered in their mother tongue to immigrants from Europe. Today, about forty Baptist churches fellowship in the North American Baptist Conference. In their early ministry, the German language was used in their worship services. The Baptist General Conference identifies sixty-seven churches that ministered originally to Scandinavian immigrants. The majority of these churches are in the metropolitan areas. Both groups carry the reputation of being conservative theologically and evangelical in outreach.

World War II industry and postwar migration of southerners stimulated still another segment of Baptists: churches serving African Americans. Segregation and style of worship necessitated the formation of churches that would serve an ever-increasing African American population. Most of these churches have connections with the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. or the Progressive National Baptist Convention. The majority of these churches are located in major cities and near military bases. The precise number of churches and members is not available, but 100 churches would be a fair estimate.

Today, fifty or so Landmark Baptist churches and those with Landmark leanings exist. These churches include some of the older churches in the region and function in semi-isolation. Many of their pastors are bi-vocational, and it is not unusual for these churches to "go south" in search for leadership. Most Landmark churches have ties with the American Baptist Association or the Baptist Missionary Association.

Another hundred or so Baptist churches in the Northwest are independent, autonomous, sovereign, and self-governing; in fact, they are super independent. In addition, the Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and Seventh Day Baptists still have a few churches scattered across the Northwest.

The Baptist missionary spirit is currently manifesting itself through the establishment of churches ministering to growing ethnic minorities. Many of these "new Baptist churches" are counted in the numbers of the major Baptist groups. Southern Baptists have over forty ethnic congregations ministering in nineteen different languages. Both the Conservatives and American Baptists relate to ethnic groups. The most aggressive work being done is with the Koreans, Hispanics, and Eastern Europeans.

Answering another question gives further insight into Baptist life: What are the primary cultural forces influencing Baptist churches? The increasing secularization of society is affecting Northwest Baptists and the total Christian witness. There was a day when society said, "We must have a church!" The current attitude seems to be, "Must we have a church?" Every effort to plant a church is influenced by the cost of land, zoning laws, and parking restrictions. The expectations of the potential church member have changed the church marketplace. No longer do we find the spirit, "We'll do whatever it takes to worship our Lord." Now the questions are: "What kind of a youth program do you offer? How clean and safe is your nursery? Do you have Saturday night services?"

The migrations that once brought new prospects to the Northwest are largely over. Many of the Baptists who now come to the region from other parts of the country no longer come with the "pioneer spirit;" instead, they come from large churches with strong programs. If they do not find a Baptist church of the same size and quality of their church back home, they find a church that meets their needs; and the denominational affiliation does not matter. This tendency reflects the growing decline of denominationalism. Standard brands are no longer preferred. Within Baptist life in the Northwest, frequent attempts are made to drop the Baptist name and identity in order to better relate to the community. For instance, First Baptist Church may change its name to Community Baptist Church and then later change its name again and become The Community Church (SBC).

Another question about Baptists in the Northwest: Does our fragmentation weaken us? Yes, if our goal is to have a monolithic, authoritarian, efficiently directed approach. Our polity will never allow us to be as efficient and politically powerful as the Roman Catholics or the Mormons. Does our fragmentation weaken us? No, if we want the privilege of "every person a priest, every church autonomous and accepting the responsibility of world evangelization."

Yet another question: What is the general effectiveness of our Baptist churches in the Northwest? After fifty years of observation, my opinion is that 25 percent of Baptist churches in the Northwest are aggressive and evangelistic, about 55 percent are in a maintenance mode, and 20 percent are in decline.

The final question: What does the future hold for Baptists in the Northwest? The future presents Baptists a great opportunity. A dozen different Baptist groups exist in this region. If two dozen Baptist groups existed, there would still be plenty of sinners to go around. The Northwest may never be a Bible Belt; however, northwesterners do and will respond to the gospel message. A genuine, common-sense presentation of the Word of God will be well received.

Cecil C. Sims, retired executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention, resides in Tigard, Oregon.
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Author:Sims, Cecil C.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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