Southern Baptist Beginnings
by Robert A. Baker
Southern Baptist beginnings were filled with exciting events. To capture this excitement requires describing Baptist beginnings in America, why the Southern Baptist Convention was organized, why some call it a different kind of Baptist body, and how it got so large. The story will go as far as the founding of the Sunday School Board in 1891, which was a very important event in Southern Baptist fife.
The First Baptists in America
Most early Baptists in America originally came from England in the seventeenth century when the king and the state church persecuted them for holding their distinctive religious views. Baptists like Roger Williams and John Clarke migrated to New England in the 1630s; Elias Keach and others entered the Middle Colonies in the 1680s; and still others purchased land in the Southern Colonies in the 1680s and 1690s.
The oldest Baptist church in the South, First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina, was organized in Kittery, Maine, in 1682, under the leadership of William Screven. The church moved to South Carolina a few years later. A Baptist church was formed in the Virginia colony in 1715 through the preaching of Robert Norden, and one in North Carolina in 1727 through the ministry of Paul Palmer. By 1740, there were probably only eight Baptist churches in these three colonies with no more than 300 or 400 members.
A great revival affecting all denominations swept through the American colonies about 1740. Shortly thereafter, Baptists in the South began a period of rapid growth. The principal Baptist leaders in this revival were Shubal Steams and Daniel Marshall, who were called Separate Baptists. In 1755, these two Baptist preachers from Connecticut and a few of their followers organized a church at Sandy Creek, North Carolina. During the next few years they preached zealously in all the southern colonies, stormed the new western frontier, and provided patterns of church life that Southern Baptists still follow.
This rapid spread of Baptists in the South was strongly opposed by the churches supported by public taxes. In Virginia, especially, many Baptist preachers were whipped and imprisoned in the decade before the American Revolution. Baptists soon became active patriots in the Revolutionary War. With their demands for religious liberty, they included a cry for political liberty. They loyally supported patriots like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, and received their praise. Baptists in the South played an important role in securing the adoption of religious liberty in Virginia. Like their fellow Baptists in the North, they helped lay foundations for the national Bill of Rights which guaranteed religious liberty for all in the new Constitution of the United States.
After the close of the Revolutionary War, Baptists in the southern states grew steadily during the remainder of the 1700s. A second great revival broke out among several denominations west of the Allegheny Mountains just at the turn of the century. Baptist churches in the South gained many new members as a result of this revival.
Baptist Organization Beyond the Churches
Baptists in America, like their English Baptist forefathers, desired the larger fellowship and united strength for Christian tasks that could come only through joining hands. In 1707, Baptists around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, organized the first Baptist association in America by sending messengers from nearby churches. The second association, a daughter of the first, was formed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1751. After this, the number of associations began to increase rapidly.
At first the principal functions of the associations were to provide a larger fellowship and to allow counsel concerning common problems facing the churches. By common understanding, associations had no authority over the churches which affiliated with them. Some Baptists, however, were not willing to relate to an association for fear that their churches might lose some of their freedom and authority. When the Philadelphia Association began a home missions program in 1755, many churches viewed this as another way in which the associations might rob them of their freedom. They began to consider other ways to do mission work which would safeguard the authority of the churches.
One of these new methods came into being in 1792 when William Carey led in the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in England. This kind of missionary body would make it possible for individuals to work together in missions or any other Christian task without surrendering any church authority. Called the society method, it differed from the older associational method by removing the churches from the supervision of the associations in missionary activity. Under this new plan, any Baptists interested in foreign missions could organize an independent society for foreign missions whose membership would consist of those who would make a financial gift for foreign missions. Similarly, those Baptists interested in home missions could organize another independent society for that purpose, or another society could be organized in this way for any kind of Christian work. Massachusetts Baptists adopted such a plan in 1802. Within a decade, most of the associations had turned their missionary programs over to independent missionary societies.
A larger challenge soon faced Baptists in America. In 1812, Adoniram and Ann Judson and Luther Rice sailed to India as missionaries for another denomination. En route, they studied the Bible and other books carefully, concluding that Baptist beliefs were closer to the New Testament teachings than their former views. All three were baptized in India. They desired to become missionaries for Baptists of the United States, but at this time there was no Baptist foreign mission society in the nation. Local societies were formed in the North and the South to meet the immediate needs of these new Baptist foreign missionaries.
Then, on May 18, 1814, thirty-three messengers representing Baptists in America met at Philadelphia and formed a national foreign mission society called the General Missionary Convention. Meeting only once every three years, this body was sometimes called the Triennial Convention. The Convention was organized on the society pattern (that is, organizing a separate society for each Christian ministry), although southern leaders sought for several years to change it into the associational type (that is, one denominational body fostering several different Christian ministries). Baptists in America formed a second society in 1824 for tract publication and distribution. In 1832, they organized a home mission society. Seemingly, these Baptists had permanently united on the society model for Christian work.
The Southern Baptist Convention Organized
When Baptists in this country formed the first of their three national societies in 1814, many of their leaders recognized that there were numerous social, cultural, economic, and political differences between the businessmen of the North, the farmers of the West, and the planters of the South. These differences had already brought much rivalry between the several sections of the new nation. Each section continued to revive old colonial disagreements and wrestled with questions about how the new constitution should be interpreted, what constituted the final legal power, and similar problems.
Perhaps most critical of all was the slavery issue. This practice had been forced upon the colonies by England early in the seventeenth century against the protests of Northerners and Southerners. Northern merchants, however, soon sought the profit involved in importing slaves from Africa. Southern planters, the only ones able to use large numbers of unskilled laborers on large plantations in a relatively warm climate, helped to prolong this evil. At the height of this system, however, two-thirds of the white families of the South owned no slaves at all, and Baptists (who were generally of the lower economic status) were probably less involved than this.
The same moral blindness that caused a minority of northern businessmen to purchase and import slaves from Africa and finance their sale to southern planters was displayed in the South in continuing this evil institution. The same arguments concerning the right of secession from the federal union that were debated by the South in 1860 had been vigorously used by the northeastern states a generation earlier in the Hartford Convention. The same political frenzy that finally brought all of these issues into civil conflict in 1861 dominated equally the New England merchant, the western farmer, and the southern planter.
These tensions were already building at the very time when Baptists united in the three national societies for Christian work. Naturally, Baptist unity was affected by such tensions. Furthermore, the meetings of these societies between 1814 and 1845 revealed some basic differences in the thinking of northern and southern Baptists.
Southern leaders, for one thing, desired a stronger denominational unity than the society plan afforded, but were unable to achieve it. In addition, just three years after the organization of the national home mission body in 1832, many Baptist leaders of the South openly urged the formation of a separate southern body for home missions. They believed that southern mission needs were not being met by the northern-based society. A separate southern home mission body was actually organized in 1839, but it died after three years. In his history of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. W. Barnes expressed the view that these differences between northern and southern Baptists would have brought separation eventually, even if there had been no slavery-abolition issue. However, when the “slave states” voted as a bloc in Congress (and particularly in the Senate), threatening to upset the political balance, the slavery issue became a political football as well as a moral issue.
The meetings of the three Baptist national societies in the 1840s brought angry debates between Northerners and Southerners. These debates concerned the interpretation of the constitutions of the societies on slavery, the right of Southerners to receive missionary appointments, the authority of a denominational society to discipline church members, and the neglect of the South in the appointment of missionaries. The stage was set for separation.
In 1844, Georgia Baptists asked the Home Mission Society to appoint a slaveholder to be a missionary in Georgia. After much discussion, the appointment was declined. A few months later, the Alabama Baptist Convention asked the Foreign Mission Society if they would appoint a slaveholder as a missionary. When the society said no, Virginia Baptists called for Baptists of the South to meet at Augusta, Georgia, in early May, 1845, for the purpose of consulting “on the best means of promoting the Foreign Mission cause, and other interests of the Baptist denomination in the South.”
Thus, on May 8, 1845, about 293 Baptist leaders of the South gathered at the First Baptist Church, Augusta, Georgia, representing over 365,000 Baptists. They concluded, with expressions of regret from their own leaders and from distinguished northern Baptist leaders, that more could be accomplished in Christian work by the organization in the South of a separate Baptist body for missionary work. The Methodists in the South had already separated over the issue of slavery, and southern Presbyterians would do so later.
Southern Baptist leaders noted that Paul and Barnabas had disagreed over the use of John Mark in mission service, and “two lines of service were opened for the benefit of the churches.” These leaders hoped that “with no sharpness of contention, with no bitterness of spirit, . . . we may part asunder and open two lines of service to the heathen and the destitute.”
On May 10, 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was provisionally organized under a new constitution, which was ratified the following year in Richmond, Virginia. In their address to the public, Convention president William B. Johnson and other Southern Baptist leaders pointed out that Baptists North and South were still brethren; that separation involved only the home and foreign mission societies and did not include the third national society for tract publication; and that this new organization would permit them to have a body that would be willing to appoint Southerners to home and foreign mission fields.
At the 1845 meeting, Southern Baptists were faced not only with the question of whether to organize a separate body but also with the problem of what kind. Baptists, like other denominations which give final authority to the local churches, have had difficulty in trying to form an effective general body without threatening the local authority. This was the reason that the association-type plan had been viewed with suspicion by some churches, resulting in the adoption of the society plan for missionary and other Christian work.
In safeguarding the authority of the churches, however, the society plan made it difficult to secure unity and effectiveness in denominational work. Southern Baptists, at their meeting in 1845, deliberately rejected the method of having a separate society for each kind of Christian service. They chose instead to follow the more centralized pattern of the older associational plan to form only one general convention closely related to the churches for all Christian ministries. They felt that they could provide safeguards in Convention operation that would protect the authority of the local churches. Rather than form independent societies for Christian ministries, Southern Baptists elected a board of managers to supervise foreign missions and another to supervise home missions, both under the authority of the Convention. Other boards for additional Christian ministries would be formed later by the Convention.
After 1845, Northern Baptists moved even farther toward the society type of organization until 1907-08, after which they began experimenting with a modified associational type of convention. Southern Baptists continued to move toward an associational-type body until 1931 when, by constitutional action, practically all of the remaining society-type characteristics were eliminated from their convention.
Expansion and Growth (1845-91)
The Civil War, Reconstruction, continued sectional rivalry, depressions and inflation, the withdrawal of blacks from the white churches, internal doctrinal conflicts, perplexing organizational questions, and–despite these things–remarkable growth and expansion in Christian ministries made up the story of Southern Baptists until 1891.
Civil war totally disrupted all of the programs of the Convention, while Reconstruction (until 1877) delayed the return to normalcy. Although the slavery-abolition issue had disappeared, sharp sectional differences in other forms continued to mar the fellowship and cooperation of all Baptists in America. The question of reunion was raised by Northern Baptists after the civil conflict had ended, but Southern Baptists declined to return to the society-type denominational bodies they had left in 1845. Despite this, the Home Mission Society of the North carried on a fruitful program of missions, education, and church, assistance among both blacks and whites in the South during this period. This active work in the South by the northern society provided a formidable rival for the Southern Baptist Convention. Not until the 1880s was the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board able to claim the southern field as its base.
Landmarkism, another important movement in Southern Baptist history, developed in the 1850s from the views of J. R. Graves. He migrated from Vermont to the South bringing with him the typical New England Baptist fear of conventions. His ideas were reflected in various severe controversies during the remainder of the century.
Meanwhile, the work of the two original boards of the Convention showed good progress. In 1846, after the first year of operation, the Foreign Mission Board reported that only two missionaries had been appointed to one field (China) and that receipts had totaled only $11,735. By 1891, however, the board had raised a total of almost $2,000,000 and had increased the number of missionaries to ninety-one serving in six fields: China, Africa, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, and Japan.
One of these missionaries in China was Lottie Moon. In 1887, she appealed to Southern Baptist women to make a special Christmas offering for foreign missions. In the following year, the newly-organized Woman’s Missionary Union set a goal of $2,000 for this cause and raised $3,315. This was the small beginning of an annual Christmas offering that has raised more than $1,000,000,000 for foreign missions.
The Home Mission Board encountered many problems in its first half century of life. Despite adverse conditions, this board made excellent progress. In its first year, it reported seven missionaries and receipts of $1,824, but by 1891 the number of missionaries had increased to 407 and the receipts for that year to $199,251.
In addition to these two original boards, the Convention elected two other boards during this period, neither of which survived In 1851, a Bible Board was formed at Nashville, Tennessee, but it was dissolved during the Civil War. From 1863 to 1873, the Convention fostered the first Sunday School Board at Greenville, South Carolina, but it was a casualty of the postwar financial crisis in 1873.
Some Southern Baptists desired to carry on ministries which the Convention preferred not to include as boards. Four society-type bodies were organized outside of the Convention between 1845 and 1891 to support these ministries. A Southern Baptist Publication Society was organized in 1847 and a Southern Baptist Sunday School Union in 1857, but neither survived the Civil War. In 1859, an Education Convention opened the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Greenville, South Carolina. Forced to close during the Civil War, the seminary resumed classes at the close of hostilities, moving to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1877.
The fourth organization developed outside of the board structure was Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention. After many years of activity on the local and state levels, in 1888 Southern Baptist women formed a southwide organization, with Annie W. Armstrong as the first executive secretary. In the following three years, this organization demonstrated its deep commitment to missions, a harbinger of great things to come in the next period.
The close of this period of Southern Baptist beginnings occurred in 1891. Southern Baptists did not separate from the American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia at the time the Southern Baptist Convention was formed. This northern society continued to publish books for Southern Baptist writers, provide tracts, and furnish Southern Baptists with Sunday School quarterlies, supplies, and helps for Sunday School teachers. It had many friends among Southern Baptists. When southern leaders in the 1880s proposed the formation of a separate Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, there was immediate resistance from many Southern Baptist leaders. When J. M. Frost, a Virginia pastor, declared in an article in Baptist papers in 1890 that he intended to push for a separate Sunday School Board, he was opposed by a large majority of southern leaders and editors. Nevertheless, after many debates and some sensitive confrontations, Southern Baptists formed their present Sunday School Board [now LifeWay Christian Resources] in 1891 with headquarters at Nashville, Tennessee.
The formation of this board marked a new era for Southern Baptists. It signaled the move of the Convention toward becoming a truly denominational body. Through its promotion and financing of many ministries, its development of effective methods for church growth and training, and its unifying effect by providing a common literature for all Southern Baptists, the Sunday School Board rapidly fostered a strong denominational unity that became an important factor in the geographical expansion of Southern Baptists in the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, the growth of the constituency of the Convention between 1845 and 1891 was substantial. From 365,346 members in 4,395 churches in 1845, Convention affiliation increased to 1,282,220 members in 16,654 churches by 1891. Scores of new ministries had been undertaken by the Convention, and a developing denominational unity gave the promise of effective cooperation through the years ahead.
Robert A. Baker (1910-1992) was professor of church history, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.