2006: Mexico City, Mexico

The commission met in Mexico City, Mexico, during the BWA’s Annual Gathering from July 2-8, 2006.

Opening Session

Commission members in Mexico City

Commission members in Mexico City

Karen Bullock, chair of the Baptist Heritage and Identity Commission, welcomed approximately 20 members and 17 visitors to the first session of the Baptist Heritage and Identity Commission’s meeting in Mexico City, July 2006. She introduced the program for the three sessions and distributed session workbooks she had prepared for the meeting, briefly explaining the contents: updated member contact information; member regrets; suggestions sent to her from members regarding use of the BWA centennial history book; and commission projects for the quinquennium.

After all members and guests had introduced themselves, Bullock invited Dr. Dinorah Mendez, professor of Theology and History at the Mexican Baptist Theological Seminary, to present her paper, History and Development of Baptists in Mexico. Read this paper. Mendez distributed copies of her paper presented her study using power point to illustrate the story with photos of the persons and places mentioned. Dr. Mendez shared the following results:

James Thompson, a Baptist colporter working with the British Bible Society, brought Bibles to Mexico during the years 1827-30 and 1843-43. There is disagreement as to whether Melinda Rankin, an independent Presbyterian missionary, working with Mexicans near Brownsville, Texas, from 1852, or James Hickey, a Baptist employee of the American Tract Society who began traveling to Mexico in 1860, initiated the evangelical work. Hickey definitely came to Monterey in 1862 and, in the next year, held preaching services. In 1864 Hickey and some others organized “The Christian Church.” Rankin came to Monterey in 1865 and led that congregation to build a building.

In 1869 the first pastor of this Monterey church, Thomas Westrup, became the representative of a mission society connected to Northern (now called American) Baptists, and made certain that, from the year 1870, this first church was Baptist in faith and doctrine. The church, however, declares itself as the “First Baptist Church organized on January 30, 1864, by Rev. James Hickey.”

The Southern Baptist Convention began sending missionaries into Mexico in 1882. Just twenty years later, by 1901, Southern Baptists reported 37 churches, 21 missions, and 1,189 members, and Northern Baptists reported 43 churches and missions. Messengers from these churches met at the First Baptist Church of Mexico City to organize a national convention in 1903. Almost a century later, in 2000, there were approximately 1,500 churches. The goal is to have 10,000 churches by 2010.

Today, Mexican Baptists operate schools, hospitals, denominational publication houses, and engage in active mission work. The main issues with which Mexican Baptists are struggling are: (1) the appeal of the charismatic movement; (2) the desire of some pastors to be autocratic, forgetting the priesthood of all believers; (3) the tendency of convention leaders to overlook the autonomy of local churches; and (4) the diminishing participation of churches and people within the convention. Additionally, the relationship between Baptists and the Mexican government is an ever-present concern and challenge. New laws (1992) allow churches to establish schools, social projects, and to have access to the media; however, at the same time, the government requires every church to register and to give detailed information about its members, property, and finances.

Following Dr. Mendezo’s paper, and at her invitation, Justice C. Anderson, former missionary in Argentina whose newly published history of Latin American Baptists, An Evangelical Saga: Baptists and their Precursors in Latin America (2005), responded to Mendez’ presentation.

He observed that the Mexican Baptists have accomplished a great deal-1,500 churches with more than 120,000 members–despite tremendous challenges: militant Catholicism; anti-Clerical secularism; rival US mission boards; conflicts among missionaries; its role as a buffer state between the two Americas, all in addition to those mentioned by Mendez. The positive contributions of Mexican Baptists include Bible publishing and the development of their own hymnology; popular education; missionary outreach to sub-cultures and cross-cultural missions; faithfulness to church-state separation; and the promotion of theological education through seminaries and Bible institutes.

In the very brief time remaining, those present asked questions of Mendez and Anderson. This session was well-received and was such a productive time of information and fellowship, as the Commission heard about the development and identity of Baptists in the host country of Mexico. The Commission members and guests expressed their deep appreciation for Dr. Mendezo’s fine scholarship and presentation.

Session 2

The Baptist Heritage and Identity Commission and the Freedom and Social Justice Commission held a joint session on Wednesday evening in order to focus on Religious Liberty, particularly as Religious Liberty relates to Catholicism across the globe. The Commissions heard a prepared presentation on the topic from an invited official from the government of Mexico and a panel of Baptist representatives, each from a different geographic area and each expressing the state of religious freedom in his or her region where Roman Catholicism prevails as the largest, or most influential, religion of the country. The session attendees then explored a series of questions as small groups which, in turn, generated observations and further research questions for the Commissions to undertake on this subject.

The first speaker was Dr. Alvaro CastroDirector of the Ministry of Religious Affairs for Mexico, whose remarks were translated by Hector Gonzales. Dr. Castro spoke to the present situation of religion and church life in Mexico. He stated that Religious Liberty is a fundamental right of all humans and is fully protected in Mexico, that every person is free to express and practice his religious beliefs, to associate for religious ends, to open new churches, and to propagate doctrine. Churches can enjoy autonomy, recognize ministers, and can participate in ministries, for it is against the law to be hostile to persons because of their religion or to force anyone to participate in religious ceremonies, he said.

Because Mexico has a system of separation of church and state, pluralism and tolerance are principles of Mexico’s democracy. Most Mexicans profess religious belief. There are 6,585 religious associations, and 1,500 of them are Baptist. The government, Castro asserted, has an open-door policy and respects dialogue. Castro was followed by a panel of Baptist leaders, each of whom reported about the state of religion in his or her country where Roman Catholicism strongly impacts the lives of all citizens.

The first was Jorge Lee, Baptist attorney in Mexico and a champion of Baptist religious liberty causes. Lee shared that Mexican Baptists have some difficulties with the definitions of, and efforts towards, ecumenism, primarily because of their history and the influence of Baptists’ past and present spiritual leadership. As church members, Baptists have little connection with people of other denominations; however, in daily life they are often in contact with individuals of other faith traditions, especially with Catholics, who make up 90 per cent of Mexico’s population. Lee stated that Baptists could perhaps be more willing to cooperate across denominational lines because Baptists are concerned for human rights, and that concern calls believers to recognize and accord dignity to others. If Baptists could embrace this goal and generate more opportunities to work with other churches and with the government, Baptists could help all of society in unprecedented ways.

Anna Maffei, President of the Baptist Evangelical Christian Union of Italy, shared that Italy is a secular country where the majority of its citizens are Catholic, although many are so only nominally. Until 1848 everyone was required to be Catholic by law; but after 1870, Protestantism and missions were possible, even though accompanied by much opposition. Since 1964, however, Catholics have been open to dialogue. Today, Baptists and Catholics pray together on the grassroots level. They cooperate in working with migrants and join hands to work for peace. There is even an official joint commission formulating a new policy regarding mixed marriage, so that either church may marry a couple and the marriage will be recognized in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Having said this, the Vatican is still dominant. The Italian government grants heavy financial support to the Catholic Church, while its members give very little, and all of the political parties try to please the Catholics. Despite many gains, then, there are still some religious liberty/equality challenges for Baptists in Italy.

Paul Msiza, General Secretary of Baptist Convention of South Africa, reported that South Africa is a secular state. Since 1994, South Africa’s constitution and bill of rights guarantee freedom of religion. The Dutch Reformed Church is the largest denomination, and Methodists and Lutherans are probably the next numerous in members. Catholics have never been dominant; however, they focus their efforts in social ministries, schools, and hospitals. Well-respected Catholic scholars serve on the faculty of religion at the University of South Africa, and all South African churches are members of a consortium of seminaries, where Catholics and Baptists work together.

Walter Klimt, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Austria, reminded the group that Baptist work began in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and won converts almost everywhere but Austria itself. Everyone in Austria, it seemed, was Catholic. Today, 70 per cent of the population still identify themselves as Catholic, but most individuals are Catholics in name only. Catholics need Baptists and are willing to work with them, particularly on the ecumenical council at the national level. Most Baptists, however, still offer some resistance to ecumenism, and the government recognizes Baptists as a 2nd-level religious organization.

The last speaker, Dr. Larry Ashlock, of the USA, briefly addressed some practical ways in which Baptists and Catholics might explore areas of common ground. By way of example, he noted that both Baptists and Catholics are interested in reaching young people, as evidenced by the new Pope Benedict XVI’s recent speech. Both Baptists and Catholics can influence this generation through college and university ministries and educational systems which integrate learning with biblically-based values. Both groups emphasize the Scriptures, both train their energies in ministering to the helpless, champion the dignity of mankind, protect the unborn, work to alleviate social inequities, and advocate for strong homes. By recognizing and appreciating each others’ efforts in areas such as these, Baptists and Catholics may perhaps begin to dialogue in beneficial ways in the geographic regions where conversations have historically been less than positive.

Session 3

Chair Karen Bullock welcomed the approximately 16 members and 8 visitors who attended the third session, which was slated, by Commission directive, to be a work session. Horace Russell led in prayer, mentioning especially the members of the Commission who had not been able to attend and Southern Baptist friends who no longer participate in the BWA.

Deborah Van Broekhoven, director of the American Baptist Historical Society, announced that the society would be moving its holdings, which include the archives of the BWA, from their present location in Valley Forge, PA. The society’s board will meet the last weekend in September to decide where to move.

Bullock had hoped to honor all of those who worked to produce Baptists Together in Christ 1905-2005, but only one writer (Horace Russell), one editor (Eljee Bentley), and Tom Corts who, as president of Samford University, supervised the publication process for the book, were present. These three spoke briefly of the book-writing experience, emphasizing that the book had truly been a project of the commission. The centennial history could not have been written and published without the Commission’s work in determining the type of book desired, in outlining its content, and in exhorting the BWA leadership to move ahead on the project.

Bullock expressed the concern felt by all that the book should be more widely known among Baptists around the world and asked for suggestions as to what might be done to improve its visibility. One suggestion was wider distribution. After the 2005 Congress, where 1,000 copies sold very quickly, the BWA office sent copies to Baptist institutions of higher learning and listed the book as available for $15 US on the BWA website (www.bwanet.org) and on Amazon (www.amazon.com).

Other suggestions were (1) to produce a “Readers’ Digest” version; (2) to produce from the book workbook-style Leader’s and Student’s study guides for small group or classroom use (perhaps even along thematic or topical issues); (3) to translate the book into other languages; and (4) to produce a second book that would include many things that, for lack of room, were omitted from the centennial book, such as collecting stories of women, exploring the joy of singing among Baptists; collecting the stories of missions (both the national missionaries and international missionaries of each region), tracing the development of education of other types, such as agriculture and medicine; and identifying the problems of race and class, the ever-constant struggle of enabling more people to attend, and gathering anecdotes from the long-time members (perhaps even a volume of funny stories).

Small group discussion

Small group discussion

Bullock then asked for the members to identify the most important work that the commission should accomplish together in this quinquennium. She pointed out that ideas suggested by members who had been unable to come were already in the booklets distributed at the first session. She divided the members and guests into small groups to discuss their ideas for the work of the commission. After a brief time, she asked for reports from the small groups and the members discussed their ideas all together.

Large Group Interaction, Suggestions, and Discussion Points:

1) Responding to the first suggestion, Bentley said that a future issue of Review and Expositor (see website www.rande.org) would contain a condensed version of the history by Richard Pierard, the book’s chief editor. Lloyd Allen of the McAfee School of Theology (Atlanta, GA), and a Commission member, is also a board member for that quarterly, which is now independent of the Southern Baptist Seminary. The Commission asked for permission to post the article, when it was published, on its website.

2) The Commission was keen that the regional secretaries should be encouraged to have the book translated into several languages (German, Russian, French, Spanish), and that perhaps each region could publish versions for use in its areas.

3) The members also expressed great concern that the book should be reprinted, and several avenues were suggested for disseminating the book through digital and other formats.

3) A new book was proposed – “Reflections on 100 Years,” which would follow the National Story-Book Project model. A BWA Story-Booth could be set up at the annual gatherings and at the next quinquinnium, and personal anecdotes could be recorded by audio and video equipment. The booth could be manned by members of the Commission, individuals could make appointments (15 minutes each) to come into the booth and sit to tell their stories. These could then be processed and combined into a book or video, and would be a collection of the “stories never told” of the Baptist family around the world.

4) Several members were concerned that there was a need for educational materials to help Baptists learn about Identity:
– simple brochures upholding principles
– short biographies
– coloring book for children
– timelines
– Material that focuses on grassroots level, or the lay people
– An assessment continent by continent about the status of Baptist life/identity
– Baptist heritage materials for a beginning seminary class or Bible school level
– Update of Lynn May’s 1990s compilation of Baptist historical sites (archives, histories of unions, all web-based resources)

5) The Commission’s Identity Statement needs to be revised, widened, updated, with input from Africa, Asia, South America, and other groups. The statement needs to be sent around the world to get feedback from all parts of the Baptist family, including women, youth, and laity.

6) One suggestion asked for a history of Latino Baptists in America, since this group of Baptists is large and so diverse, and yet not exactly corresponding to the South American Baptists.

7) Finally, a multiple-pronged suggestion called for (1) a resource list or directory of Baptists, complete with areas of expertise, so that better interaction could take place for teamwork and project assimilation; (2) a comprehensive online Baptist archive directory; (3) a worldwide Baptist Bibliography that is kept current (including master’s theses and dissertations); (4) and a listing of open positions for Baptist life.

Please note that any person(s) wishing to tackle any of the above projects either individually, or as a team, are warmly invited by the Commission to do so. 

After the reports were heard, the members present came up with the following tentative plans:


2007 – Accra, Ghana – “Slavery”
2007 is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British government and Ghana was a site of that slave trade.
1st session: slave trade and the unholy triangle from four perspectives:
Ghana; Caribbean; US; UK
2nd session: history of Baptists in Africa
3rd session: slavery today
Kojo Osei Wusuh of Ghana (currently president of Ghana Baptist Convention) said that we must arrange a visit to the slave prison museum, which is near Accra.

2008 – Middle East – “Baptist Identity/Distinctives”
1st session: history of Baptists in the region
2nd session: Perhaps focus upon Baptist Relationships with Muslims, Jews, Hindus?
3rd session: perhaps joint session with another Commission?

2009 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – “Baptist Beginnings”
The year 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of founding of 1st Baptist church
1st session: history of Baptists in the region – Kirsten Timmer?
2nd session: joint session w/ several historical societies & research contest with papers?
3rd session: panel discussion about the Future of Baptist Identity?
The Commission suggested that a stone/plaque/marker/monument should be placed at the site of 1st church (where the National Bank of Scotland now stands?). We would also like to cooperate if possible with the International Conference of Baptist Scholars that plans to meet in Amsterdam in 2009.

2010 – Honolulu, Hawaii – “Pan Pacific”
Since this will be the large quinquinnium gathering, there may be fewer smaller sessions. The Commission spoke about sponsoring a traveling museum from across the globe on display there in Hawaii, shipped from various archives and schools. The BWA Baptist Story Booth Project could also be non-stop here as well, with members of the Commission manning the booths. Audio could be saved into MP3 formatting (audio reflections and video files) with iPod capabilities and even flashed on the screen each evening.


Collect anecdotal material about BWA by initiating the BWA Story Booth Project–maybe at annual gatherings as well as at Congress. Have recording equipment and invite people to stop by and tell their stories. Collect material for second book suggested in first part of session or make DVD. Fred Anderson of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and Lloyd Allen were suggested to investigate the feasibility of this project and report back next summer.

Produce educational materials for laypersons on Baptist principles/identity including interdependence.Review pamphlets/brochures already available; adapt for worldwide audience; translate; distribute. We need a volunteer or a team to assume responsibility for this task.

Put educational material on website with translations-be brief. Peter Morden of Baptist Missionary Society (UK) spoke to this and agreed to distill the essence into 400 words or less for use in church hymnals, brochures, or newsletters.

Collect information and put on website:
– Update the directory of Baptist archives
– Compile a directory of Baptist experts on different subjects
– Compile a worldwide Baptist bibliography
– Establish a listing of open positions for persons interested in Baptist history/identity

Other suggestions were made:
Paul Reitzer, who is with the Fellowship of Baptist Educators (US), thought the Commission might work with his group. Someone suggested that notice of the commission meeting should be sent to members earlier. The final suggestion was that all members who were in attendance in Mexico City should report that the new schedule for the annual “gathering” left the Commission with far too little time to do its work.

Finally, as the session came to a close, a photograph was taken of those who remained, and Dr. Deborah Bingham Van Broekhoven distributed to the attendees brochures and information about the American Baptist Historical Society, which houses the BWA Archives.

The Baptist Heritage and Identity Commission adjourned its 2006 session in Mexico City with prayer.