Home  |   Introduction  |   SBC Established  |   Home Mission Board  |   Sunday School Board
Women's Missionary Union  |   75 Million Campaign  |   Bibliography


Read the full Introductory essay that begins below, or use these links to skip to specific sections of the essay.

      In the years following Reconstruction, Southern church members, both black and white, were more likely to belong to Baptist churches than to any other single denomination. By 1890, 88% of the South's white Baptists were members of churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.1 And of all white church members in the South as of 1906, almost one-third (1.82 million of 6.2 million) belonged to churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.2 Half a century later, in 1952, sociologists would use Baptist church density as one indicator of a distinct Southern region.3 And in 1999, sociologist John Shelton Reed would note that with a national membership of 15 million, the Southern Baptist Convention at the end of the twentieth century was the largest religious organization in America and the South's "de facto state church." 4

      Based on these numbers, it seems fair to say that the Southern Baptist Convention has been an institution of significant cultural power in the South for over a century. But in the early 1880s this regional institution was only beginning to take its modern shape. While we tend to think of Baptists as a denomination, the early Southern Baptist Convention (established in 1845) was less a denominational body than a voluntary organization whose primary purpose was foreign missions (along with limited domestic missions and Sunday School work). Completely dependent on the financial contributions of local churches and state associations, the Southern Baptist Convention had no power over theological issues or local church policy. Therefore, despite the high percentage of Southern church affiliation with the Convention, these affiliations before the 1880s were generally loose, consisting mainly of local churches and Baptist associations making donations to the Convention's foreign missions work and sending representatives (one per $100) to the Convention's annual meetings.

      Only after Reconstruction, during the era known as the "New South," would the Convention's leadership embark upon an increasingly concerted campaign to enlist white Southerners to the cause of building a centralized, regional denomination. As Robert Weibe points out, "America during the nineteenth century was a society of island communities. . . . The heart of American democracy was local autonomy."5 The movement to strengthen a South-wide Baptist Convention, therefore, reflected the national trend in the late nineteenth century away from local power, embodied in this case by the local church, and toward regional and national institutions as exemplified by the Southern Baptist Convention.

      This project focuses on this campaign over a forty-year period, 1880-1920, with particular emphasis on the emergence in the 1880s and 1890s of three agencies -- the Home Mission Board, the Sunday School Board, and the Women's Missionary Union -- that together would strengthen the power and reach of the Convention throughout the South. In looking at these three agencies as well as the later 75 million campaign, this study seeks to answer the following two questions:


  1. If an interest in missions was neither new in the late-nineteenth century nor unique to the South, how did the setting of the late-nineteenth century South make the Convention's missions campaign distinct?

  2. How did national trends toward business efficiency, professionalization, and secularization affect the growth of the Convention between 1880 and 1920?

In order to answer these two questions, it is helpful to think of the SBC's development over this forty year period as (at least) three movements rolled into one. The first, and perhaps the most meaningful to white Southern Baptists in the 1880s and 1890s, was that the Convention movement was a Southern movement, a fervent effort to reclaim and restore a defeated South. Secondly, and seemingly contradictorily, this was a progressive movement. The Convention's leadership, primarily made up of a growing class of urban professionals, consistently expressed a belief in the uplift of their more rural (and resistant) brethren and also made efforts to organize the Convention according to standards of business efficiency. Finally, the Convention movement was an expression of fervent religious belief in the soul-saving power of the Gospel and in Southern Baptists' particular responsibility to evangelize and baptize "all nations." But even this sacred mission of evangelism was largely a product of more worldly trends, including the science of social work, the bureaucratic organization of institutions, and America's increasing cultural and military imperialism. Ultimately, the Convention movement would express both regional and national ideology, would negotiate between tradition and change, and would act upon sacred beliefs intricately bound up with secular trends.

      The end of Reconstruction in the 1870s marked a turning point for the Southern Baptist Convention. White Southern "redeemers" reclaimed control of Southern state governments throughout the 1870s, and the Southern Baptist Convention followed in the 1880s and 1890s with its own form of "home rule" based on the combined efforts of the Convention's Home Mission Board and Sunday School Board. During and after Reconstruction both the (Northern) Baptist Home Mission Society and the (Northern) American Baptist Publication Society considered the war-torn South a mission field. Northern Baptist Missionaries conducted mission work among former slaves and helped Southern churches to rebuild. The American Baptist Publications Society supplied Sunday school literature for Southern Baptist Sunday schools. Both Northern Baptist organizations formed relationships with Southern Baptist churches and state conventions, alliances that could not be prohibited by the completely voluntary Southern Baptist Convention. In the eyes of the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, those regions of the South that maintained relationships with Northern Baptists were lost territories to be reclaimed by the SBC. In 1892, Southern Baptist Home Mission Board Secretary I.T. Tichenor would look back on the difficulties the Convention had faced in the early 1880s, the greatest of these being the relationships between Southern Baptist churches and Northern Baptist institutions like the Publication Society and Domestic Mission Board:

      "[A] survey of the field indicated a great defeat and a lost cause. Impressed with the conviction that the existence of this Convention depended upon the resuscitation of its fortunes, the new [Southern Baptist Home Missions] Board threw itself into the arduous work before it with the determination to use every proper effort to reclaim its lost territory. . ." [my emphasis]

I.T. Tichenor 6

      Their desire to "reclaim" the South "rather than surrendering the field to others" impressed upon the SBC's leaders the importance of replacing its weak Home Missions Board with a stronger one in 1882 and in establishing the Sunday School Board in 1891 as the Convention's own publishing house for Sunday school literature. In 1914, the first Sunday School Board Secretary J.M. Frost would look back on the Board's establishment in 1891. Frost remembered that the campaign for a Southern Baptist Sunday School Board was a product of Home Missions Board Secretary Tichenor's sense of "the imperative need that a people make their own literature."7

"[The establishment of the Sunday School Board] was the settlement of one of the most vital and momentous questions ever raised in the Convention, and determined the far- reaching policy, that the Baptists of the South would act for themselves, and not depend on others [i.e. Northern Baptists] to make their literature or conduct their publication interests or foster their Sunday school work."

J.M. Frost 8

      Nowhere in the reports of the establishment of these two Southern Baptist agencies was there any reference to any theological disagreement with Northern Baptists. Southern Baptist leaders saw a threat not to their belief but to their desire for regional autonomy. Their home missions efforts in the late nineteenth-century, therefore, fulfilled a dual purpose: to save souls and to unite the South under the Convention's control.

      This fervent campaign borrowed from the rhetoric of war to explain its role in the region and throughout the world. Home Mission Board Secretary Tichenor had served as a chaplain and sharpshooter during the Civil War, and most of the other Convention leaders, coming of age a decade later, would probably have grown up hearing stories of Confederate heroism and the "Lost Cause." Now soldiers of Christ, they spoke the language of war to describe their mission work. "Reclaim[ing] its lost territory" within the South would lead to the Convention's "conquest of the world" for Christ. The different regions and peoples of the South were "fields" upon which, under the "heroism and generalship" of Secretary Tichenor, Southern Baptist home missions workers must make a "slow but steady advance."9 These are but a few of the many examples of the conflation of the rhetoric of war with the rhetoric of missions. Southern Baptist leaders' deeply held belief that they were the instruments of Christ is inextricable from their struggle for power within the South and, in their eyes, throughout the world.

      Also present in the rhetoric of Southern Baptist leaders were references to a New South, an idea that enjoyed significant currency among many Southerners in the years following Reconstruction. As Paul Gaston explains, "the New South doctrine would become, in the 'eighties, the South's major intellectual and moral issue." On the surface this doctrine of industrial Progress for the South would seem to have been a call for national homogeneity and unity. However, Gaston argues that in calling for Southern industry and Progress, the New South spokesmen -- composed mainly of educated Southern newspaper editors, businessmen, and intellectuals -- were in actuality expressing a rhetoric of regionalism: "Underlying the [New South spokesmen's] professions of nationalism . . . were calculations of concrete gains for the region."10 Wilbur J. Cash would make the same point in 1949:


"So far from representing a deliberate break with the past, the turn to Progress clearly flowed straight out of that past and constituted in a real sense an emanation from the will to maintain the South in its essential integrity."
Wilbur J. Cash 11

Interestingly, Cash would note the same rhetoric of war among the proponents of a "New South" that the SBC's leaders were using to talk about their missions work:


      "[The New South spokesmen's espousal of industry and Progress] was in large part merely a revolution in tactics. The surrender [of an agrarian "Old South"] contemplated was only such a surrender as a general in the field makes when he gives up untenable terrain in order to bring his forces into position to strike more effectively for victory. The New South meant and boasted of was mainly a South which would be new in this: that it would be so rich and powerful that it might rest serene in its ancient positions, forever impregnable. . . .
      The language and figures, you will observe, are basically the language and figures of the Civil War; and the feeling, I am sure, is the feeling of that war also. In the feeling of the South, Progress stood quite accurately for a sort of new charge at Gettysburg, which should finally and incontestably win for it the right to be itself for which, in the last analysis, it had always fought."

Wilbur J. Cash 12

      The rhetoric of a New South that would, on the surface, come to resemble the North in terms of industry and Progress, was in actuality a rhetoric of regionalism. The New South movement, while making few material gains, gave Southern progressives a rhetoric of renewal that presaged future glory and material wealth for their distinct region. The goal was not to be vanquished again; defeat had come at the hands of the Union military but a new and revitalized South would be strong enough in resolve and in material independence to keep control of its own territory amidst an onslaught of "Yankeedom."13 The efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention can be seen, therefore, as part of a larger New South ideology that was at its height when the Convention's Home Missions Board, Women's Missionary Union, and Sunday School Board were established. The leaders of these three agencies would embrace Progress and new business methods in order to create and maintain a region united in opposition to the influence of Northern Baptists.

      The rhetoric of the New South was a rhetoric of urban middle-class progressivism that did not bear great resemblance to the primarily rural, agrarian South. Similarly, the campaign to build a regional denomination controlled by the Southern Baptist Convention was devised and carried out primarily by a small group of urban, middle- class Southern Baptists.

      To give a sense of the constituency that would have to be courted in order to establish the SBC's regional power, it is helpful here to look more closely at Baptists in the South who were not among this group of Convention leaders. Despite the leadership's vision of a New South and a Southern Convention, ministers and congregants of local country churches, far removed from the Southern cities where Convention power was concentrated, did not see themselves as part of a larger institutionalized denomination. To review Weibe, "America during the nineteenth century was a society of island communities. . . . The heart of American democracy was local autonomy."14 Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the Convention would campaign for the support of these local ministers and congregants. Enlistment of the local churches in centralized denominational work mirrored trends Weibe describes within larger late- nineteenth century culture: "By contrast to the personal, informal ways of the community, the new scheme was derived from the regulative hierarchical needs of urban-industrial life."15

      And yet most white Baptists in the South were far-removed from the values and practices of "urban-industrial life" in the late-nineteenth century. Given the rurality and localism of Southern Baptists in the 1880s and 1890s, the Convention rhetoric about "reclaiming" the South is misleading, for it suggests that a Southern Baptist denomination already existed and need only be reclaimed from Northern influence. In actuality, such a denominational consciousness did not significantly exist during this period and would have to be created in order to establish institutional control by the Convention. Creating denominational consensus was a campaign led by editors of Baptist newspapers, educated ministers of large urban churches, leaders of the Women's Missionary Union, and Baptist seminary professors, aimed at the "uplift" and accompanying enlistment of their more rural brothers and sisters. Campaign methods included sending Convention-sponsored missionaries throughout the South, distributing free Sunday school materials to encourage rural churches to begin Convention-sponsored Sunday school programs, and building mountain schools to educate rural white children.

      Paul Harvey's study of white and black Southern evangelicals from 1870-1930 considers the ways in which denominational campaigns such as that of the Southern Baptists were coercive attempts by middle-class leaders to establish more "intelligent worship" practices among rural Southerners. His article considers "the effects of denominationalists as part of a broader, relatively unified effort to implant a Victorian middle-class decorum in a region still dominated by rural plain folk living and worshipping in relatively traditional ways."16 Harvey offers a compelling portrait of the constituency that Convention leaders would attempt to enlist:


"Despite the rapid urbanization of the south in the period from 1880 to 1930, the vast majority of southern churches were in rural areas. Throughout the region, farmer- preachers of little formal education exhorted from oral traditions in small, scattered rural churches. Congregants narrated meaningful conversion experiences in emotional public testimonies. Physical tactility (hugging, footwashing) and kinetic spiritual expressions (ring shouts, spiritual dancing) characterized worship gatherings. In short, public spiritual expressiveness derived from the interaction of whites and blacks in churches, camp meetings and revivals remained a vital part of southern religious life.
Paul Harvey 17

      During the 1880s and 1890s, Southern Baptist Convention leaders believed that these country churches must be brought under the influence of the Convention, both to strengthen the Convention and to impart a middle-class standard of culture to their more backward brethren. In its report of 1892, the SBC's Home Mission Board identified the white Baptists of the Mountain District (including West Virginia, and parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama) as the Board's most important mission field:


"Our [Home Mission] Board has no where a broader or more inviting field than this, none whose needs for culture are more urgent. Its present population is largely Baptists. The work of evangelization among them has been chiefly done by men, who though thoroughly devoted to the Master's work, and deserving of all praise for what they have accomplished under so many disadvantages, have not sought to lead their converts to the higher realms of truth or the broader fields of christian activity. Their churches have been content to be centers of local influence, seeking for nothing beyond the conversion of the children of their membership and of those immediately about them. They cherish no broad ideas of Christian obligation, have never entered into sympathy with the design of our Redeemer to give the gospel to all the world, and are for the most part living upon the lowest plane of christian life. . . . [The Baptist missionaries currently in the Mountain region] are mostly men who are reared among them, have no higher conceptions of Christian duty and no broader ideas of Christian progress than those among whom they have lived. Evidently they are inadequate to the task of lifting these people to a higher level of Christian life."

1892 Home Mission Board Report  18

      The Convention's work among the rural churches of the South, therefore, was both a campaign for support and a policy of uplift. These two purposes went hand in hand, for those churches that most stubbornly protected their local autonomy and traditional worship styles were the same churches that opposed mission work, the sole ostensible purpose of the Convention's existence. As Harvey explains:


"Among whites, churches in Appalachia and the southern upcountry best preserved customs derived from the camp-meeting era of the early nineteenth century, the time of a democratic explosion of Protestant plain-folk fervour. Anti- mission traditions deeply rooted in these areas resisted the modernizing efforts of denominationalists. Not coincidentally, these regions, heavily populated by poorer white farmers, historically were strongholds of unionism, Republicanism and agrarian radicalism."
Paul Harvey 19

      Many of these mountain churches would never affiliate with the Convention and would come to be known as Primitive Baptists. But based on the statistic that only 12% of white Baptists in the South were not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention as of 1890, the Primitive Baptists and other unaffiliated Baptists did not make up a significant threat to Convention affiliation. The Progressive regionalists that made up the Convention's leadership would come to find that their greatest challenges came from among churches, associations, and state conventions that did affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention, but on their own terms. Much of the best-documented resistance to the progressive, business-oriented efforts of denominational leaders would come from within the Convention.

      Based on annual reports from the Southern Baptist Convention's meetings during the 1880s and 1890s, arguably the two most transformative decades in the Convention's history, controversies abounded. Ranging from doctrinal controversies to opposition to the creation of new denominational boards, these conflicts actually resemble one another in that they surfaced during the period of the Convention's greatest growth. As such, these "growing pains" during the 1880s and 1890s represent the push and pull that was occurring between local autonomy (sometimes called "religious states' rights" 14 ) and centralized denominational power.

      Both sides claimed a number of victories during the period. Denominationalists successfully established the Sunday School Board and Women's Missionary Union, while the "religious states' rights" contingency successfully removed an unorthodox seminary President from office by withholding their Convention dues.15 Given the individualist theology of Baptists and the democratic structure of the Convention, dissenters within the organization could always resist the Convention's corporate decisions, whether by ignoring Convention directives within their own churches and state conventions or by campaigning on the Convention floor to sway a vote in their direction. Baptists who favored local autonomy and state power would continue to be heard within the Convention throughout this era, but the denominationalists would ultimately determine the Convention's future course.

      This trend toward centralized bureaucracies was one of the defining features of America in the Gilded Age, and it informs the central argument in Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America. In his Preface, Trachtenberg argues that the Gilded Age (known in this project as the era of the New South) can be understood, in part, by focusing on the changing nature of the term "corporate." His description of this new corporate model -- in which a small group of managers acts on behalf of a larger corporate body in order to achieve more "far-reaching" ends -- strangely resembles Southern Baptists' move toward denominationalism for the sake of the "far-reaching" goal of evangelizing the world:


"The Gilded Age marked a significant increase in the influence of business in America, corresponding to the emergence of the modern corporate form of ownership. Based on minority ownership -- that is, on the legally established authority of a small group of directors and managers to act in the name of a larger, amorphous body of otherwise unrelated stockholders -- the corporation provided capitalists with a more flexible and far-reaching instrument than earlier forms of ownership such as simple partnerships and family businesses."
Alan Trachtenberg 16

Trachtenberg compares this modern form -- corporate ownership of for-profit enterprises -- with the pre-industrial association of "corporate" with religious and communal organizations.


"[Corporation] refers to any association of individuals bound together into a corpus, a body sharing a common purpose in a common name. In the past, that purpose had usually been communal or religious; boroughs, guilds, monasteries, and bishoprics were the earliest European manifestations of the corporate form."
Alan Trachtenberg 17

      Trachtenberg's argument, by focusing on religion solely as a pre-industrial (outmoded) corporate form and by disregarding religion in his otherwise detailed study of Gilded Age cultural transformation, misses what was perhaps the best evidence for the validity of his argument in the South. Note the similarities between W.W. Barnes' use of the term "denominationalism" and Trachtenberg's term "incorporation" in describing the ways in which some people resisted change:

"The Convention was a new sort of organization within Baptist life and was certain to meet decided opposition from those who were not thoroughly committed to genuine denominationalism."
W.W. Barnes 18
"[E]conomic incorporation wrenched American society from the moorings of familiar values . . . the process proceeded by contradiction and conflict. The corporate system in business, politics, and cultural institutions engendered opposing views, however inchoate and incomplete that opposition remained."
Alan Trachtenberg 19

      The South does not figure into Trachtenberg's study of Gilded Age America. He considers it an exception to the trends he sees affecting the rest of America at the end of the nineteenth century. His argument that the South was "underdeveloped" and was a "satellite" of the industrialized North is valid, but his assumption that the South's different economic status is sufficient to assume it did not take part in cultural change is a mistake.20

      This project began with Trachtenberg's dismissal. It seemed to me that the cultural trends of the late nineteenth century (toward incorporation, secularization, professionalization, business efficiency, etc.) may be working differently in the South, but must surely be working in some way. The region's continued reliance on agriculture and lack of corporate capital well into the twentieth century led me to look beyond the industrial sector for evidence of Trachtenberg's argument in other areas of Southern life. It was in the growth of the Southern Baptist Convention that the business and cultural trends of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America found form. Southern Baptist churches had the rare ability in the South to generate capital from within the region in the form of offerings (and, after 1891, from the proceeds of Sunday School Board publications), and a portion of this money would be forwarded to state conventions and the regional Southern Baptist Convention, thus providing a financial base that would grow as the Convention expanded its reach throughout the South. This may seem an insignificant source of capital until we consider the fact that Southern Baptists by 1919 conducted a campaign to raise 75 million dollars over a 5-year period, by no means an insignificant sum, particularly in the still underdeveloped South.

      The movement to build a Baptist denomination in the South was, in fact, a product of late nineteenth century trends toward centralized bureaucracies. Nothing like it had existed in Baptist life before the late nineteenth century. In this case, rather than seeing religious bodies as a pre-industrial form of organization, this particular religious body was very much a part of all that was taking place around it.

      The progressive regionalists who wanted the Convention to be a distinctly Southern denomination touching all parts of Baptist life saw their dreams become reality through the work of the Boards that they fought with their resistant brethren to establish: the Home Mission Board, Woman's Missionary Union, and Sunday School Board. As the twentieth century neared, the Convention had grown beyond needing its leaders to justify its existence. It was now securely established in enough of the South for its denominationalist leadership to take further steps toward efficiency and standardization. The Woman's Missionary Union would establish standards of achievement for its local mission organizations, and the Sunday School Board would inaugurate a teacher-training system and would greatly expand its publication enterprise. These are only a few examples of the many ways that the denomination's leadership gave new meaning to the term "gospel of efficiency." From the perspective of these progressive regionalists, the business model was the best, most "efficient" way to do the work of the Kingdom.



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.

This section looks at the re-establishment of the Home Mission Board in 1882. The leader of the new Board, I.T. Tichenor, was a former Baptist minister turned progressive industrialist, and the ideology of the New South strongly influenced the Convention's home mission work.

This section traces Southern Baptist women's mission work through two generations of women. It examines the appeal of missions to Southern Baptist women and argues that the Woman's Missionary Union played a central role in the Convention's growth.

This section traces the Sunday School Board from its controversial 1891 establishment to its campaign for support in the South, culminating with the Board's early twentieth century focus on business efficiency and religious orthodoxy. This section ultimately argues that the Sunday School Board, more than any other Convention venture, unified white Southern Baptists in support of an increasingly corporate Southern Baptist Convention.

In 1919 Southern Baptists embarked upon a path breaking campaign to raise $75 million for the Convention's work. Not only was the financial goal unprecedented, but the way in which the proceeds were allocated by the Convention marked a permanent step toward denominationalism (or incorporation). This section also considers the significant effects of World War I and other outside pressures that contributed to the fervent fundraising campaign.


Home  |   Introduction  |   SBC Established  |   Home Mission Board  |   Sunday School Board
Women's Missionary Union  |   75 Million Campaign  |   Bibliography


Click on the numbers to return to the essay.


1 Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) 161.

2 Kenneth K. Bailey, "Southern White Protestantism at the Turn of the Century," American Historical Review 68 (April 1963): 618.

3 Wilbur Zelinsky, "An Approach to the Religious Geography of the United States: Patterns of Church Membership in 1952," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 51 (June 1961): 172. Cited in John Shelton Reed, My Tears Spoiled My Aim (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994): 16.

4 John Shelton Reed, lecture notes from Sociology 15: "Sociology of the South" (Fall 1999).

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

Click on the numbers to return to the essay.


6 Isaac Taylor Tichenor, "Home Mission Board Report," Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1892 .

7 James Marion Frost, The Sunday School Board: Its History and Work (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1914) 11.

8 Frost 7.

9 Isaac Taylor Tichenor, "Home Mission Board Report," Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1892. Frost 11-12.

10 Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1976) 42.

Click on the numbers to return to the essay.


11 Wilbur J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941; New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 179.

12 Cash 183-184.

13 Cash's term, 179.

14 Fannie Heck, In Royal Service: The Mission Work of Southern Baptist Women. (Richmond: Educational Department of the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1913) 118.

15 This was the "Whitsitt Controversy" involving Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President William H. Whitsitt, who was forced to resign in 1899. See W.W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954) 136-139.

Click on the numbers to return to the essay.


16 Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America (1982; New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) 4.

17 Trachtenberg 5-6.

18 W.W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954) 98-99.

19 Trachtenberg 7.

20 Trachtenberg 76, 77.