Why I am an American Baptist—A testimony and a hope

Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran

September 26, 2019

When I answered the call to ministry in 1978 in the Philippines, I was a fairly new Registered Nurse (BSN), having just passed the national board exams, and serving as a community health nurse. I was also a few months away from starting medical school to fulfill a childhood dream. My new journey led me in 1979 to a gracious seminary scholarship at Northern Seminary, then in Chicago. Little did I know that God brought me to the United States so that I would serve the denomination – whose missionaries gave my ancestors the Baptist faith – for almost 39 years as pastor, as executive staff of a national ecumenical organization, and then as a national and regional denominational leader.

By way of a concise historical background, Baptists in America were once one family. But in the early decades of the 19th century, there were growing cultural, economic, and political forces that were imploding within the inner core of American society leading up to the American Civil War. Those forces were creating cleavages in every level of society, including the Baptist congregations in the country. By 1845 the cleavage was completed, as the Baptist churches of the South split from the Baptist churches of the North over the issue of slavery. The churches in the North refused to send missionaries who owned slaves, asserting that this was contrary to the message of Christ. With the massive cotton industry during that time serving as a major economic engine in the country, and fueled by black slaves working the fields, the dispute was economic as much as it was theological. By the time the Civil War erupted in April 1861, the Southern and the Northern Baptists had clearly charted their separate paths. The Northern Baptist Convention became what is now the American Baptist Churches, USA (ABCUSA).


Having just taken a slightly early retirement in January of this year from full-time ministerial responsibilities, this moment of meditation inevitably invited me to reflexively rehearse my ecclesial roots: I am an American Baptist. But why? And so, I found myself reentering the story of my pilgrimage.

I am a 4th generation Filipino Baptist, a product of American Baptist missions. Christianity had already been on Philippine soil for almost 400 years before the first American Baptist missionary arrived in 1899. Christianity and its Roman Catholic expression were brought to the Philippines

by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, primarily as an instrument of imperial colonial policy. The three generations before me in my family were brought to the Baptist faith by the lives and witness of missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. With their passionate commitment to evangelism, theological education, discipleship, and leadership development, American Baptist missionaries were able to raise up the first national Baptist denomination in the Philippines. In 1935, the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches was formed. I consider it, still, as my spiritual home.

The very day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Philippines. They knew that the Philippines was the only Christian nation in Asia. They knew that one of its greatest strengths was its faith. Imperial oppressors share familiar ways. One of the things they all do to a people they intend to dominate and oppress is to first destroy their stories, eradicate their poetry and literature, erase their memory of who they are. And so, one of the first things the Japanese Imperial Army did was to go house to house in towns and villages and confiscate every copy of the Bible that they could find. They then took those Bibles to the town plaza and burned them for the public to see. But the nights that followed – dark as they were – were illuminated by the deep faith of the great women in my family. My grandmother and grandaunts would gather the children at night (my father and siblings, and their cousins) and recite to them Scripture passages they had memorized. They required the children to memorize them as well, in the belief that they were to never see nor read a copy of the Bible ever again. They thought that with the Bible burnings and the destruction of the war, a great famine of God’s word was to cover the land, and so they made sure the children’s spiritual storehouses were well-stocked. When I remember them, they remind me of Ruth and Hannah who never lost their trust in God even in the midst of great tribulation.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was orphaned at a young age. He was mentored by American Baptist missionaries, who established early on a vocational school for orphan boys in Iloilo City, my birthplace. He later became one of the first graduates of the seminary that grew out of that vocational school. After he graduated, he went back to the foothills of his birth and there founded a church to evangelize the local indigenous people. He had a fierce faith, like Gideon. When the Japanese Imperial Army overran Iloilo City, 11 ABC missionaries fled towards the hills where my grandfather was pastoring. He helped them find a hiding place. They found a location at the bottom of a deep ravine surrounded by lush forests. They called the place Hopevale. There they built a chapel made of river stones from the nearby stream and adorned it with a makeshift wooden cross. They called it “The Cathedral in the Glen.” A replica of that cathedral can be found today at the American Baptist Assembly grounds in Green Lake, WI. He and his family and his congregation provided the missionaries companionship, protection, food, and fellowship for almost 2 years until their hidden location was discovered by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese Imperial Army was on retreat at that time. They had orders to take no American prisoners. The order was issued to execute the missionaries. 

One of the 11 was James Covell. Covell and his wife, Charma, were originally commissioned to be American Baptist educators in Japan. During the war years they were moved

to the Philippines because James Covell’s strong and open opposition to the war became a danger to himself and to our Baptist partners in Japan. He and his wife spoke fluent Japanese. He begged the platoon commander to spare the group, indicating that they were missionaries and were not part of the war. He was almost successful in persuading the platoon commander but his orders from higher command were inflexible. When it became absolutely clear that death was to come, James Covell asked for a time to pray. They were given all the time they needed, and after almost an hour they came back to the soldiers hand in hand singing a hymn and then James Covell said on behalf of the group, “We are ready.” Then they were led, two by two, to different spots around the top of the ravine and they were executed.

My great-grandfather on my father’s side was a carpenter; his name was Alejo Familiaran. He was an accomplished furniture maker. After he came into the Baptist faith, he was commissioned to build the first Baptist church in his town. He was stricken with glaucoma and became blind during the construction of the bamboo church but – with the help of his apprentices – he finished the structure with his imagination and the feel of his hands. Whenever I hear the word, “church builder,” I think of my great-grandfather, Alejo. He “felt” the church, not as brick and mortar – or in his case, bamboo, timber, and coconut leaves – but as a fellowship of Jesus people propelled by a fiery mission.

The American Baptist family has many offspring and, therefore, many expressions. And so, the question, “Why am I an American Baptist?” is best answered with the prior understanding that “Baptist” and “American Baptist” identities are not necessarily one and the same. It has been said that American Baptists have never been one thing, but many, and therein lies much of our distinctiveness. At the heart of the American Baptist self-consciousness are history and mission. Who American Baptists are today is, therefore, only the contemporary expression of a long history of particular persons who have responded to Christ’s call in the world in peculiar ways. And so, my identity as an American Baptist is not rooted only in organizational structure, or confessional and propositional statements. Rather, beyond all of that, my identity as an American Baptist is grounded in the lives and ministry of particular people who have responded to God’s call in their particular contexts. It begins with my own family history, with 3 generations of Filipino Baptists before me who were brought to the Baptist faith by American Baptist missionaries. This faith produced in my family church builders and pioneers who formed my own faith. And then farther out into the vast panorama of that Baptist history I see Obadiah Holmes, Roger Williams, Benjamin Randall, Mary Webb, John Mason Peck, Lott Cary, Luther Rice, Charles Journeycake, Joanna Moore, Dong Gong, Adoniram and Ann Judson – to name a few pioneers who represent my wider American Baptist ancestry.

In more modern memory, more saints crystallize this identity for me: Walter Rauschenbusch, James and Charma Covell, Helen Barrett Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., Orlando Costas, Jitsuo Morikawa, Delfin Dianala, Howard Thurman, Margaret Prine, George Peck, Moley Familiaran, Prathia Wynn – to name a few, but saints one and all! Why am I an American Baptist? The answer lies in the mighty stories of faith embodied in these people. For me, their lives and ministries have carried forth the American Baptist “DNA” through the generations, and it is their “genes” that continue to stir in my soul. When I remember them, I am reminded of the power of storytelling in the sustenance of our spirituality, and how important it is for the vitality of our faith for today that it is nourished by the memory of our roots. This is especially crucial for our time, for we live in a culture that, for the most part, diminishes the power of a shared tapestry of stories, but instead lures us into defining ourselves along antagonisms.

American Baptists find themselves at a crossroads, as the current General Secretary, Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer, has announced his early retirement at the end of this year due to health reasons. American Baptists have had their share of strife and conflict across the generations. And history reminds us that on the crossroads of those antagonisms, we always had a choice. There is a pejorative descriptor assigned to Baptists, that they defy the laws of mathematics because “Baptists multiply by dividing.” And when one examines closely our history, the appellation is not unfounded. But in each era, in each crossroads moment, we are always given the choice. Jesus prayed for the disciples that “they may be one,” in clear recognition that the destiny of the not-yet-fully-redeemed church on earth will be fraught with both triumphs and moral failings. Jesus in his farewell discourse made sure that the disciples do not lose sight of their telos, their purpose, in this journey by showing the way: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

Those who have claimed Jesus as Lord throughout history have devoted much of their spiritual energy in disputes over their differences, instead of on the discernment of what Jesus’ radical call to love means for their day and time. The Apostle Paul warned us in Philippians 3: 4-7 about the pitfalls of deifying our particularities (theologies, ideologies, and ethnicities) above the radical call of Jesus to the church. We are to celebrate our particularities only in the service of God’s reign on earth. As a people of faith, it is mission that gave us birth. It is the constitutive foundation of our history and ecclesial identity as American Baptists.

In the midst of the rapid changes in our culture, denominations have been struggling to grow and be an inviting movement for new followers of Jesus. Our biggest challenge in this post-Christendom and post-Christian world is obsolescence. If we are to remain relevant in society, we need to be able to proclaim a distinct voice of the gospel that rises above the antagonisms and the disconnective energies that now inhabit our culture, economics, and politics. How we discern God’s call in the midst of these is both the exciting and terrifying task of the church. I deeply believe that God has called American Baptists for a peculiar purpose in the world, and that they will endure into the future. But we will not look the same, because once we respond to Jesus’ summon to follow him, we cannot remain the same.

Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer, and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross-cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings. Adapted from an article first published on his blog June 15.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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