|The Ten Most Influential Baptists|
If you ask fifteen Baptist historians, theologians, and denominational leaders to name the ten Baptists who have most influenced Baptist life in America, you will get a long list of names. I discovered this truth in March. I sent an e-mail asking for a top-ten list and received back more than seventy-five names. I have concluded that, like most questions in Baptist life, on the question of who has most influenced our denomination, total agreement does not and will never exist. But I have greatly enjoyed putting together my own top-ten list.
1. Thomas Helwys (c.1570-c.1616). In 1609, while living in Amsterdam, Holland, Helwys helped found the first Baptist church after he and John Smyth embraced the principle of believer’s baptism. In 1611, Helwys returned to his native England and formed the first Baptist church on English soil. He then wrote A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, considered by many historians to be one of the earliest pleas for liberty of conscience to be published in English. Soon after the book’s publication, he was imprisoned in Newgate Prison, where he died sometime around 1616.
2. Roger Williams (c.1603-1684). A Separatist minister who arrived in America in 1631, Williams clashed early and often with Puritan leaders. He was forced to flee to an area outside the Massachusetts Bay colony, where he founded the settlement of Providence. In 1638, Williams embraced Baptist beliefs and founded the first Baptist church in America. A few short months later, Williams abandoned his Baptist convictions, but he continues to be heralded as the founder of the Baptist movement in America.
3. John Leland (1754-1841). For nearly seventy years, Leland pastored and preached in Baptist churches, but his most remarkable contribution was as a spokesman for religious liberty. Through his preaching, writing, and advocacy work, Leland worked tirelessly to ensure that religious freedom would be guaranteed to all Americans.
4. Adoniram (1788-1850) and Ann Judson (1789-1826). In 1812, the Judsons sailed to India to serve as foreign missionaries for the Congregational denominational. En route, the Judsons adopted the Baptist interpretation of believer’s baptism. Their new convictions forced them to break ties with the Congregationalists and to seek the endorsement of Baptists in America, who quickly pledged their support. Thus, the Judsons became the first American Baptist foreign missionaries. In late 1812, the Judsons traveled to Burma, where they produced a Burmese dictionary, began translating scripture into Burmese, and sought to win converts. Ann died in 1826, but because of her letters and great courage, she attracted the attention of American Baptists and gained much support for mission work. Adoniram continued the work, and at his death, he left a flourishing Burmese church of 7,000 members with more than 100 national ministers.
5. Annie Armstrong (1850-1938). In 1888, Armstrong helped to found the Woman’s Missionary Union, an organization that helped to support and encourage Southern Baptist mission work. She was elected as the WMU’s first corresponding secretary and continued in that position until 1906. Throughout her life, Armstrong served as a strong advocate for missions, mission funding, and mission education.