Seventh Day Baptists are a covenant people based on the concept of regenerate membership, believer's baptism, congregational polity, and scriptural basis for belief and practice. Seventh Day Baptists have presented the Sabbath as a sign of obedience in a covenant relationship with God and not as a condition of salvation. They have not condemned those who do not accept the Sabbath but have been disappointed at the apparent inconsistency of those who claim to accept the Bible as their source of faith and practice, yet have followed ecclesiastical and popular traditions instead.
Seventh Day Baptists date their origin with the mid-seventeenth century separatist movement in England. With the renewed emphasis on the Scriptures for Free Church doctrine and practice, men such as William Saller, Peter Chamberlain, Francis Bampfield, Edward and Joseph Stennett concluded that the keeping of the seventh day Sabbath was an inescapable requirement of biblical Christianity. Some maintained membership within the Baptist fellowship and simply added the private Sabbath observance to their other shared convictions. As the power of the state was used to enforce conformity to a common day of worship, separation became necessary. The first separate church of records was the Mill Yard church founded about 1650 in London.
One of those who maintained Sabbath convictions while a member of the Baptist Church in Tewksbury was Stephen Mumford who came with his wife to Newport, Rhode Island in 1664. Through his influence, several members of the First Baptist Church of Newport joined in fellowship with him while remaining members in the parent body. When two couples gave up their Sabbath convictions, the others found difficulties in sharing communion with them in the Newport Church, and a separation took place in December 1671, giving rise to the first Seventh Day Baptist Church in America. Yet after the separation, close fellowship with other Baptist brothers remained, and twenty years later when the Newport Baptist was without pastoral leadership, they voted to place themselves under the care of William Hiscox, the Seventh Day Baptist pastor.
A similar separation occurred in 1705 at Piscataway, New Jersey, when a deacon of the Baptist Church, Edmund Dunham, became convinced of the biblical basis for Sabbath observance. Dunham and sixteen others withdrew to form their own church. A third group of churches came out of the Keithian split from Quakerism in the Philadelphia area about 1700. A pietistic movement among German immigrants was influenced by this third group. This led to the formation of a sister conference known as German Seventh Day Baptists which founded the cloisters of Ephrata, Pennsylvania about 1728. From these beginnings, Seventh Day Baptists followed the westward migration, arriving on the Pacific Coast by 1900.
Seventh Day Baptists have been characterized by their participation in missionary activity, educational endeavors, ecumenicity, and civic responsibility. The missionary spirit led to the formation of a General Conference in 1802. In preserving the autonomy of the local church, the Conference has relied upon societies for implementing a range of missions, publications, and education. Beginning in 1821 the denomination has had an almost continuous publication, with the current house organ, The Sabbath Recorder, unbroken since 1844.
Several early missionary societies encouraged pastors to make extended journeys in the home field. The current Missionary Society was formed in 1843, and four years later missionaries began an effective mission in China, embracing both medical and educational phases until the Communist takeover in 1950. Most of the foreign missions of the twentieth century have been of the "Macedonian call" in response to Sabbathkeeping groups who have cried out, "Come over and help us." This led to missions in such places as Jamaica, and Guyana in the Caribbean region; Malawi, South Africa and Ghana in Africa; India, Burma (Myanmar) and the Philippines in Asia; Australia and New Zealand in Oceania, and scattered responses in other areas. In 1965 a World Federation of Seventh Day Baptist Conferences was formed which by 1993 embraced seventeen conferences.
Seventh Day Baptist insistence on an enlightened conscience for belief and practice led to the formation of an Educational Society and the establishment of schools or academies as they migrated into the frontiers. These schools were never limited to members of the denomination but served the areas where public education had not yet become readily available. Three of those schools later became colleges at Alfred, New York; Milton, Wisconsin; and Salem, West Virginia. The desire for an educated clergy led to the establishment of a seminary at Alfred in 1871. These schools were among the pioneers in women's education at the college and seminary level. What colleges and academies did for higher education was duplicated for both children and adults in the local church through the Sabbath Schools and materials prepared for them.
The sense of ecumenicity present in the earliest churches was continued as Seventh Day Baptists were charter members of such organizations as the Federal, the National and the World Councils of Churches. The denomination withdrew from these ties in he 1970s when the direction of these bodies appeared to violate the autonomy of the local church and other principles of Baptist thought and practice. The withdrawal strengthened their relationship with other Baptists in such organizations as the Baptist World Alliance, the North American Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and related kindred groups involving women and societal interests.
Throughout their history, Seventh Day Baptists have had a strong sense of civic responsibility. Several leaders of the first churches in England held responsible positions in the government. In America both Richard and Samuel Ward were governors of Rhode Island in the eighteenth century, the latter serving in the Continental Congress in 1775-1776. Others served in government at various levels, including Congress where Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia represented his state for forty years in either the House or the Senate beginning in 1933. Many have served in the armed forces, including chaplains in the revolutionary, the Civil War and more recently in World War II. The General Conference has taken strong stands on social issues such as temperance and sexual immorality and has urged its members to implement those principles and practices which would make for a more Christian society.
Because of its emphasis on freedom of thought and conscience, Seventh Day Baptists have represented a wide diversity of theological thought. Their common bond of the Sabbath enabled them to avoid a split during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s. For most of its history, the denomination has been rural oriented but has found in more recent years its greatest growth in developing urban ministries.
The Seventh Day Baptist General Conference is organized as a conference of churches. Voting on most issues brought before the annual sessions is done by delegates from members churches. A General Council is empowered to act for the conference between sessions and prepare budget and program emphases. The Council is composed of six elected members at large and six ex officio members representing the Missionary Society, the Board of Christian Education, the Tract and Communication Council, the Council on Ministry, the Women's Society and the Memorial Fund Trustees.
The General Conference offices are located at 3120 Kennedy Rd. in Janesville, WI 53547. The Missionary Society and the Board of Christian Education have offices in Westerly, Rhode Island and Alfred Station, New York respectively. Eight geographical associations help strengthen local fellowship, youth activities and witness.
For more information about Seventh Day Baptists, visit the General Conference web site at http://www.seventhdaybaptist.org/