Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the American Baptist Church

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We’re welcoming Elizabeth Hagan to Denomination Derby. She’s a prolific blogger, pastor, and a deeply committed member of the Feed the Children team, especially since her husband is the CEO! Today she answers the question: What do you love about the American Baptist Church? 


When I was 14 years old, I knew that God called me to ministry. One Sunday morning in the mountains of Tennessee, heard a compelling talk from a missionary preparing to leave America. She wanted to help people know the love of Jesus. Something tugged at my heart too saying, “This life is for you.”

When I told my Southern Baptist Church of about this spiritual prompting, they had one question: “Do you want to be a home or a foreign missionary?”

Honestly I had no idea.

What kind of question was this for a young girl who hadn’t even picked a college?

But, for women called to vocational ministry in Southern Baptist life “mission work” is the only option and preferably with a husband.

Fast-forward almost 10 years. I sat in a worship service at my college with a female preacher (gasp) in the pulpit. My upbringing full of rules said, “This is wrong. Leave!” But heart said: stay. Listen to her.

Two years later I began seminary on the preaching track. I would become a pastor too.

It should have been a joyous time. It wasn’t. I realized that the church that raised me would not engage with my interpretation of scripture and my experience of God. Neither would my local association. My new seminary friends found themselves on the “ordination track” with their denominations, but I was lost.

I would need a new church if I remained in seminary. Maybe another flavor of Baptists would accept me? And at this point, enter the American Baptist Church into my story.

I first met the American Baptists 10 years ago through a seminary internship at Calvary Baptist Church, Washington, DC.

Right away I learned this: the American Baptists’ history began in taking a stand for social justice. At the wake of the US Civil War, Baptists in the South wanted to keep segregation a part of their church life, and Northern Baptist (they would later be called American) said it was not God’s way. Groups that once had joined for missions soon separated at this moment in time.


In 1907 at a meeting at Calvary Baptist in Washington, DC, the Northern Baptist Convention formed. This meeting officially separated the Baptists into the Southern and Northern. The Northern Baptists elected Charles Evans Hughes, a New York governor who later became a Chief Justice, as their first leader. He championed a family of Baptists that valued the contributions of all, no matter the color their skin or their gender.


Over the next half century, American Baptists became known as a voice questioning the status quo on race relations during moments like the Civil Rights Movement.

Wow, now this is was something I could get behind!


When I took Baptist history and polity at Duke Divinity school I loved getting to know American Baptist pioneer, Helen Barrett Montgomery. A tireless crusader, fundraiser and champion of women’s rights was elected as the first female President of the Northern Baptists in 1921! (No home or foreign mission box for her! A woman in charge!) I admired her courage to answer the call of God even if she had little support too.


It kept getting better!


In 1950, the Northern Baptist officially changed their name to American Baptists—to align themselves to a larger geographic area and this name remains today.


Theologically, American Baptists closely align with Mainline Protestantism—the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, etc. Though American Baptist seminaries exist, you will often find ABCUSA students studying at schools affiliated with mainline Protestantism.


Today the American Baptist Churches USA is a body of 1. 5 million members and 5,000 churches still based primarily in the Northern part of the United States.


More specifically, the ABCUSA clings the historic Baptist principles such as:


  1. Separation of church and state
  2. Priesthood of all believers
  3. Believers baptism
  4. Autonomy of the local church


Nationally American Baptist meet bi-annually at a convention to make resolutions as a collective body, gather for fellowship and training. While there are state association leaders and national officers, each of these positions seeks to support churches. The local churches are kept in the center.


Today, women’s voices as well as minority leaders continue to be championed. Pastors who start American Baptist missions are encouraged to respect the traditions of the cultures in which they serve. For example, the only American Baptist church I found when my husband’s job recently took us to Oklahoma was within the Native American community. I learned that the American Baptist missionaries who started the congregation did not ask the new church members to stop attending to their tribal activities like pow wows and sweat lodges, as other evangelical groups had. I liked that.


I love that when I tell someone I’m an ordained American Baptist minister, I feel respected. American Baptists are not theological or social isolationists. They want to be a part of the larger community of faith.


Being an ordained American Baptist minister affords me the opportunity to pastor in an ecumenical context. For example, it is not frowned upon that I’m currently serving a United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Presbyterian USA merge congregation, as the interim pastor. My American Baptist friends bless me to be where I am till an opportunity presents itself to return.


Such freedom, I know comes because I stand on the shoulders of those who have walked this path before me with great courage. American Baptists who knew the gospel called them to action, unconditional love and soul liberty.


As I continue to discern how my vocational calling is lived out, I’m glad to have found a home with the American Baptists!


About Today’s Guest Blogger

Elizabeth HaganElizabeth Hagan became a Rev within the American Baptist tradition after graduating from Duke Divinity School in 2006. She spent six years serving churches in a full-time capacity in the Washington, DC area, most recently as the senior pastor of Washington Plaza Baptist Church in Reston, VA.

However, in 2013, she and her husband Kevin came to be a part of a large international non-profit called Feed the Children headquartered in Oklahoma City. She recently started a new position as Interim Pastor at the Federated Church (a UCC/ Disciples/ Presbyterian USA merge) in Weatherford, OK.


About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church. Search for more posts in the series by clicking on the “church” category.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

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2 thoughts on “Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the American Baptist Church

  1. Elizabeth, I’m a huge fan of the American Baptist church; it’s the denomination I grew up in, and I value the way they approach issues of social justice and women in particular. Thank you for serving!


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