Who Are We?
The Baptist denomination came into being in the early 17th century when a number of English Christians wanted to take the principles of the Reformation further than the state church permitted by applying the principles of the Bible and early Christianity to their situation. Not being free to do so in England, they fled to Amsterdam and, under the leadership of Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, established the first Baptist church in 1609 which was based on the idea that the true church is composed of those who make a personal profession of faith and express this in baptism, according to their reading of the New Testament which was acknowledged as being the authority for all faith and actions. Some of this group under Thomas Helwys returned to England in 1611 and formed the first church at Spitalfields, London, but Helwys made an appeal for religious freedom but was imprisoned and died soon after.
This group came to be known as “General Baptists” because they followed the doctrine that the salvation brought by Jesus Christ on the cross was open to all people in response to their faith. In the 1630s another group of Baptists was formed in England, adopting the same view of the church, baptism and the New Testament but following a Reformed theology of salvation; they became known as Particular Baptists. Both groups continued on in parallel for many years, and eventually during the 19th century gradually merged.
The first Baptist service of worship in Australia was held in Sydney on 24 April 1831, more than four decades after the British penal colony had begun in 1788. The first preacher was Rev John McKaeg who conducted the first baptisms in Woolloomooloo Bay in 1832. Under the subsequent leadership of Rev John Saunders, a chapel was built in Bathurst Street and a church formed in 1836. A Baptist Association was formed in 1868, known as the Baptist Union from 1870.
The first Australian Baptist church had actually been appeared in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania from 1853) when Rev Henry Dowling, a strict Calvinist, led a small group to form a church in Hobart Town in 1835. The work begun under Dowling was later to be strengthened by the generosity of William and Mary Ann Gibson who built fifteen chapels, many manses and brought out young men from Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College to serve in the colony. The Baptist Union of Tasmania was formed in 1884.
In South Australia, church services were held from 1837 but the coming of Rev Silas Mead in 1861 marked a new and enlarged identity for Baptists in Adelaide. He established the Flinders Street church, which was a model for many others and numerous suburban churches were commenced by his people. The Baptist Union in this state was formed in 1863.
The first Baptist services in Melbourne (in what was to become Victoria after its independence from New South Wales in 1851) were in 1837. With the coming of Rev John Ham in 1843 and the formation of the Collins Street Church the work in Victoria assumed a more stable identity. The discovery of gold in Victoria during the 1850s brought a boom growth to Victoria. Baptists shared in this growth, forming a Baptist Union in 1862.
Baptists are known to have been present in Queensland from 1846, with further people arriving in 1849; they became active in the ‘United Evangelical Church’ formed in 1849 until the first Baptist church was formed in 1855. The pioneering leader here was Rev B G Wilson who from 1858 until 1878 led what later became known as the City Tabernacle Church and was influential in the public life of the colony. A Baptist Union was established in 1877.
Although Western Australia had been settled since 1826 the first Baptist church was not commenced until 1895 under the leadership of Rev J H Cole. The fledgling WA Union was established in 1896. A notable pioneer was Rev William Kennedy who helped found many rural churches.
Development and Growth
The new century saw Baptists envisioning a federal character to their work but it was not until 1926 that the Baptist Union of Australia was formed by representatives of the individual State Unions. Each state body remains an independent authority while the national body has certain functions related to its particular position. For example, it has coordinated work in Christian education and publication, home missions and various evangelistic movements. It is largely dependant upon the states for finance and leadership. It also helped commence Baptist work in the national capital Canberra in 1927. A national paper The Australian Baptist functioned from 1913 until 1991 but has been replaced by various state monthly publications. Baptist work in overseas and cross-cultural missions ihas been an important national ministry since 1913 although the various states/colonies were active on their own behalf since the 1860s.
At the 2012 Australian Government Census, Baptists were 1.64% of the population or 352,499 persons, although this figure has to be compared with the official denominational membership figures in 2012 of 63,392 and a linked constituency of around 140,000 in 957 churches. The proportion of active members is relatively high. Australian Baptists also have numerous ‘ethnic’ churches, which reflects the multicultural nature of modern Australia.
Adapted from http://www.baptist.org.au/About_Us/Where_We_ve_Come_From.aspx