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This section offers historical background by providing an overview of the early Southern Baptist Convention before 1880. All other parts of this web project focus on the period 1880-1920.

      No denominational unity existed among Baptists in America prior to the middle of the eighteenth century. Local Baptist churches determined their own policies without any connection to other Baptist churches or to any sort of governing organization. During the eighteenth century, some Baptist churches began joining together in local associations, but by the early nineteenth century only 115 such associations existed in the United States, and their activities were primarily limited to debating theological issues.1

      The growth of denominational organization among Baptists in America during the nineteenth century was a product of the simultaneous growth of interest in foreign mission work. Both trends -- the growth of bureaucratic organizations and an emerging interest in foreign missions -- affected not only Baptists but were at work throughout the larger American culture during the nineteenth century.

      It was not until the 1814 that interested Baptists in the young republic formed a national organization. This "General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions" (also known as the Triennial Convention) convened in order to pool resources for the support of Baptist foreign missionaries Luther Rice and Adoniram Judson. Given Baptists' fundamental beliefs in the individual's ability to communicate directly with God and in the independence of the local church to set its own policies, the Triennial Convention that formed in 1814 was a completely voluntary organization that exercised no control over matters of theology. Its sole purpose was the financial support of foreign missions, and supporters of its work could be found in local churches and associations throughout Southern and Northern states.

      By the end of the 1830s, other national Baptist societies formed for purposes such as home missions, Baptist publications, and Bible and tract distribution. All of these societies were headquartered in Northern cities but were supported by Baptists North and South. As early as the 1830s, however, complaints began to arise from within Baptist associations and newspapers in the South that the American Baptist Home Mission Society, headquartered in New York, sent far more missionaries to the Upper Mississippi Valley than to the South and Southwestern frontier. According to The Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, Tennessee Baptists in 1837 discussed forming a separate Southern organization for the purpose of supporting missions work in the South:

"The expediency of the measure was argued on the ground that the American Baptist Home Mission Society . . . had treated the south and southwest with almost total neglect; that the distance of our region from New York . . . was so great that they obtained but little information of our circumstances, and consequently did not, as was believed, feel so deep an interest in our affairs as they otherwise would; that they, being personally acquainted to no great extent with any ministers besides those residing in the north, seldom engaged the services of southern men; and northern men, with but very few exceptions, were unwilling to live amongst us. . . . The brethren, however, were reluctant to act on the subject; not because they regarded the measure as unimportant, but from a fear that their motives and feelings would be misunderstood by our northern brethren, and their efforts to help themselves by attributed rather to what really did not, and does not now exist toward the north, than pure zeal for the advancement of the common cause of our blessed Redeemer. After considerable deliberation and discussion . . . brethren agreed to suspend any action for the present."

The Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer
March 21, 1839 2

      Southern Baptist historian W.W. Barnes points out that the Home Board located in New York did attempt, however unsuccessfully, to meet the missions needs in the South and Southwest. Difficult communication between Southern Baptists and the New York headquarters, coupled with articles in the religious press about the greater missions contributions from states like Virginia as compared to those of New England, intensified regional conflict and set the stage for another conflict that would permanently divide Southern from Northern Baptists: abolitionism.3

      Abolitionist sentiment began to grow among Baptists in the North during the 1830s, leading some Northerners to withdraw from the Triennial Convention in order to form Abolitionist Baptist societies when the national boards remained neutral on the issue of slavery. By the mid-1840s, however, it became clear to Southern Baptists that the national boards were no longer neutral: when Alabama Baptists asked the Acting Board of the Triennial Convention whether a slaveholder could be appointed a missionary, the answer was negative. Baptists in Virginia responded to the Triennial Board's new policy by issuing a call for Southern Baptists to form their own convention.

To the Baptist Churches of Virginia and the Baptist Denomination of the United States generally:

Dear Brethren:

      You will perceive by the accompanying resolutions of the Executive Committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention, that they have acceded to our proposal to hold in Augusta, Geo., on Thursday before the 2d Lord's day in May next, a Convention. . . .
  1. We wish not to have a merely sectional Convention. From the Boston Board we separate, not because we reside at the South, but because they have adopted an unconstitutional and unscriptural principle to govern their future course. The principle is this -- That holding slaves is, under all circumstances, incompatible with the office of the Christian ministry. . . . For ourselves we cordially invite all our brethren, North and South, East and West, who 'are aggrieved by the recent decision of the Board of Boston,' and believe that their usefulness may be increased by cooperating with us, to attend the proposed meeting.

  2. We are desirous to see a full Convention. Let us, brethren, have a meeting concentrating in a good measure, the wisdom, experience, and sentiments of the denomination of the South, and South West, and such portions of our brethren in other places as may deem it best to unite with us. . . .

  3. Several important subjects, beside the question of organizing a Foreign Mission Society, will, we presume, come under the consideration of the Convention. We will mention some of them, that our brethren in Virginia, especially, may learn, as far as practicable, the views and wishes of the denomination. Whether it will be better to organize a separate Bible Society, and Publication Society, or to continue our connexion [sic] with the existing institutions, are questions which must be discussed. It is quite likely too, that the subject of building up a common Southern Theological Institution will claim a share of attention. . . .
James B. Taylor, Pres.
C. Walthall, Sec'y
[Virginia Foreign Mission Society] 4

      236 representatives (other reports say 327) from eleven states (other reports say eight states and the District of Columbia) met in Augusta, Georgia, in May of 1845 and proposed a Southern Baptist Convention made up of two boards: a Foreign Mission Board headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, and a Home Mission Board headquartered in Marion, Alabama. They proposed a constitution that was published in denominational newspapers throughout the South and adopted the following year when Southern Baptists convened in Richmond.

      The new Southern Baptist Convention's activities and influence were limited by a number of factors during its early years: despite its self-definition as a South-wide institution, poor transportation and communication made it difficult to enlist the support of local churches. The United States in the mid-nineteenth century was, in the words of Robert Weibe, "a society of island communities," and the Southern Baptist Convention's activities and influence in the South were limited by a pervasive sense of localism.5 Thus, many Baptists in the South, particularly but not limited to those in western and mountain regions, did not support the Convention. Many churches and associations continued to affiliate with the Baptist societies in the North, and many distrusted centralized denominational power, fearing a loss of self-determination within local churches and state associations. The more Calvinistic Primitive Baptists did not affiliate with the new Convention out of a theological opposition to missions.

      Those areas that affiliated most readily with the new Southern Baptist Convention's work were from more established areas of the South, and their representatives to the Convention meetings, in addition to a majority of ministers, were also described as "governors, judges, congressmen, and other functionaries of the highest dignity." 6 This description of early representatives to the Southern Baptist Convention does not bear much resemblance to the primarily poor white Baptists in the South. Thus, support for the early Convention, whose work remained limited to the commissioning and financing of domestic and foreign missionaries, was certainly uneven throughout the South and was more common among the upper classes and in the more established upper South.

      The Southern Baptist Convention's earliest foreign mission work, reflecting a growing national zeal for foreign missions, was primarily in China but also included other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Liberia, and Mexico. Its domestic mission "fields" included Southwestern frontier settlers, slaves, free blacks, and by the 1850s, Indians. The beginning of the Civil War would interrupt the growth of the Convention's missions activities but would add a new field to its missions work: Confederate encampments.

      During the war Southern Baptists continued their home mission work on a limited scale with the help of Northern Baptists, who sent tracts, Bibles, and donations into the South by flags of truce. Continuing to support the Southern Baptist Convention's foreign missionaries was a riskier business involving the help of blockade runners. But more significant to the future of the Southern Baptist Convention than the interruption of its mission work was the devastation of many Southern Baptist churches and colleges and of the Southern economy in general. The result, both during the war and after, was that Northern Baptists came to view the defeated South as a significant mission field. The American Baptist Home Mission Society formed relationships with some Southern Baptist state conventions and sent missionaries into the South to work among freed slaves and to take over deserted Baptist meeting houses (by the authority of the U.S. Secretary of War). The American Baptist Publications Society supplied Southern churches with its Sunday school literature. The extent to which Northern Baptist intervention was desired by Southern Baptists varied, but there were certainly many churches and state conventions in the South that gladly received the much-needed aid of Northern Baptist societies.

      The biggest question faced by the Southern Baptist Convention during the Reconstruction era was whether Southern and Northern Baptists would reunite under a single denominational body. The New York Examiner and Chronicle expressed a desire for reunification in 1868: "[I]t is not as conquerors or oppressors that Northern Baptists would come to such co-operation, but as brethren, seeking to restore wastes and to turn them to joy and gladness."7 (Barnes 66) But Virginia Baptists in 1866 had stated their intention to continue "doing our own work in our own way."8 It was this latter sentiment that carried the day, and throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, the Southern Baptist Convention and its leaders officially expressed feelings of goodwill and fraternity toward their Northern brethren while firmly insisting that the Southern Baptist Convention was now a permanent institution and would continue doing its own work in the South.

      Official statements by the Convention, however, did not necessarily influence the activities of Southern churches and state conventions. Many of these bodies continued to maintain alliances with the American Baptist Home Mission Society (North) and the American Baptist Publications Society (North). Others refused affiliation with any denominational board, North or South. As Reconstruction drew to a close, the Southern Baptist Convention had survived the question of its continued existence but had yet to establish significant power throughout the South. The campaign for the support of Southerners that would eventually establish the Convention as a legitimate denominational body would be the work of three organizations soon to be established: The Home Mission Board (1882), the Woman's Missionary Union (1888), and the Sunday School Board (1891).

  
  

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1  I relied primarily upon the following resources in writing this section: William Wright Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention 1845-1953 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954). "Southern Baptist Convention," Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, 1958 ed.

2 R.B.C. Howell, The Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, March 21, 1839, p.3 col.3. Cited in Barnes 15.

3 Barnes 17.

4 Religious Herald [Virginia], April 10, 1845, p.2, cols 3-4. Cited in Barnes 26-27.

5 Weibe, Robert, The Search for Order (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967) xiii.

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6 Baptist Memorial and Monthly Record [New York], July, 1845. Cited in Barnes 35.

7 Examiner and Chronicle [New York]. Quoted in Western Recorder, March 14, 1868, p.1, col.3. Cited in Barnes 62.

8 Religious Herald [Virginia], January 4, 1866, p.1 col.4. Cited in Barnes 64.