Facts and Opinions

Choose from the archived articles
listed below:

Baptist Beginnings
by Leon McBeth

Southern Baptist Beginnings
by Robert A. Baker

Ordering Information
for These and Other
Baptist Heritage Series

Baptist Beginnings by Leon McBeth

Who was the first Baptist, and where was the first Baptist church? When did Baptists begin, and who was their founder?

A lot of people ask these questions. We want to know about our denominational roots. To know our beginnings will help us understand ourselves today.

These sound like simple questions, and one might expect brief and simple answers. The story of Baptist beginnings, however, is surprisingly complicated; and not everyone agrees on the conclusions. Perhaps this is one reason such questions have been so controversial in the past.



Some people try to trace organized Baptist churches back to New Testament times or to John the Baptist. One writer even suggested that Adam was the first Baptist! Certainly we believe that our doctrine and faith root in the New Testament, but we first meet our organized denomination considerably this side of Adam.

Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England. Some of these earnest people read the Bible in their own language, believed it, and sought to live by it. They formed separate congregations which accepted only believers into their membership, and they baptized converts upon their profession of faith. Their opponents nicknamed them "Baptists," and the name stuck. This pamphlet will fill in some of the details of that story.

The English Background

No one knows who first brought Christianity to England or when. An old tradition suggests that Paul the apostle or one of his converts may have preached in Britain. By the seventh century most English people were at least outwardly Roman Catholics. In the following centuries some evangelical groups flourished, and some remnant of these groups may have survived in the sects which later opposed Romanism, such as the followers of John Wyclif (sometimes called Lollards).

By the sixteenth century, multitudes of English Christians were demanding reform in their church. They sensed that the church had become corrupt and selfish, and that it had largely left the simple message of the Bible. Several factors contributed to this clamor for reform: the teachings of such great reformers as Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Geneva; the new translations of the




English Bible which allowed the common people once again to read the Word of God; and social and political changes which led people to want more participation in their church.

Several English rulers in the sixteenth century sought to reform the Church of England to some extent. However, none of these reforms went far enough to satisfy those who wanted to return to the simple teachings and practices of the Bible.

One militant group within the Church of England genuinely desired to recover biblical teachings and practices. Deeply influenced by the reforms of John Calvin, they became known as "Puritans," perhaps because they insisted upon more purity of doctrine and practice in the church.

Another group seeking reform was called "Separatists." Most of the Separatists were frustrated Puritans who had given up hope of reforming the church from within. Separatists decided to separate from the Church of England and form their own independent congregations. By 1600, there were already several of these congregations in England, and they mushroomed by 1625.

The Separatists included many groups holding a variety of views. Some of them later helped populate such diverse churches as Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and assorted independents and nonconformists. Some of these Separatists, studying the Bible, adopted believer’s baptism and became known as Baptists.

Two Kinds of Baptists

Baptists came into existence as two distinct groups, with somewhat different beliefs and practices, but with believer’s baptism in



common. The two main strands were known as General Baptists and Particular Baptists. There were also a few Sabbatarian or Seventh-day Baptists in the late seventeenth century, but they were never numerous.

General Baptists.–The General Baptists got their name because they believed in a general atonement. They believed Christ died for all people generally, and that whoever would believe in Christ could be saved. The first General Baptist church, led by John Smyth, was founded in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1608/09. Its members were English refugees who had fled England to escape religious persecution.

John Smyth was a minister in the Church of England. As a student and later as a pastor and teacher, he developed Puritan and Separatist views and sought to bring biblical reform to the church. When this failed, he joined a small Separatist congregation in Gainsborough, near London. As these Separatists grew so that it became dangerous for them to meet openly, they divided into two groups for convenience. One group moved to Scrooby Manor, where they were led by John Robinson, William Brewster, and William Bradford. Later, this little band became the nucleus of the "Pilgrim Fathers" who sailed to America on the Mayflower.

The Gainsborough remnant, led by John Smyth, was in daily danger. English law prohibited such independent or dissenting churches, and King James I had vowed to deal harshly with any who refused to attend the Church of England. By 1607, the Gainsborough group had decided to migrate across the English Channel to Amsterdam, a city that provided religious liberty.

When these English exiles, led by John Smyth and a layman named Thomas Helwys, left England, they were not yet Baptists. In Amsterdam, they came into contact with Dutch Mennonites, a branch of the Anabaptist family that taught religious liberty and



baptism of believers only. Historians have debated the extent of Mennonite influence upon later developments among the English exiles. The Smyth-Helwys congregation continued to study the Bible and sought to follow the way of the Lord more completely.

By 1608/09, Smyth was convinced his Separatist church was not valid. Most of the members had only infant baptism, and the church was formed on the basis of a "covenant," rather than a confession of faith in Christ. Smyth therefore led the church to disband in 1608/09 and re-form on a new basis–a personal confession of faith in Christ, followed by believer’s baptism. Since none of the members had been baptized as believers, Smyth had to make a new beginning. He baptized himself and then baptized the others. His baptism was by sprinkling or pouring, but it was for believers only.

In 1611, Thomas Helwys led a portion of this church back to London, where they set up the first Baptist church on English soil. By 1650, there were at least forty-seven General Baptist churches in and around London. They believed in a general atonement, baptism of believers only, religious liberty, and other doctrines still associated with Baptists. The General Baptists also believed that it was possible for one to fall from grace or lose his salvation.

Particular Baptists.–The Particular Baptists came into existence a generation later than General Baptists. Named for their view of particular atonement, they believed that Christ died only for a particular group, the elect. They were deeply influenced by the teachings of John Calvin.

Particular Baptists emerged out of an Independent congregation. While Separatists, as the name implies, separated totally from the Church of England, the Independents sought to maintain autonomous congregations without a radical break with the state church. Ultimately, most of the Independents were driven to more complete



separation. As early as 1616, Henry Jacob was leader of a small Independent congregation in London. The next two pastors were John Lathrop and Henry Jessey. This church is often called the "JLJ Church" from the initials of these three early pastors.

Members of this Separatist JLJ congregation were in constant conversation about the meaning of baptism. By 1630, one member withdrew, possibly in opposition to infant baptism. In 1633, a number of members withdrew from the JLJ church to form another congregation, and perhaps some of them were rebaptized as believers at that time. In 1638, several others withdrew from the JLJ church to join the 1633 group, and old church records state clearly that in 1638 they received baptism as believers. Historians have therefore concluded that the first Particular Baptist church dates at least from 1638, and possibly even from 1633. Though their baptism was for believers only, at first it was administered by sprinkling or pouring.

By 1650, there were a number of Particular Baptist churches in and around London. In 1644, seven of them had drafted a confession of faith which showed some of their distinctive views. In addition to particular atonement, they taught believer’s baptism by immersion and insisted that a person who is once saved is always saved.

Believer’s Baptism by Immersion

English Baptists recovered the practice of believer’s baptism in two steps. By 1608/09, the General Baptists insisted that baptism was for believers only, and by 1638 the Particular Baptists reached the same conclusion. At first, English Baptists baptized by sprinkling or pouring. Immersion came a few years later. Some of the General Baptists may have immersed as early as 1614, but if so it was not yet customary. Many historians do not recognize them as Baptists before immersion.




By 1640, there were at least two Particular Baptist churches, and both became convinced that baptism should be by immersion. Old church records state:

1640. 3rd Mo: The Church became two by mutuall consent just half being with Mr. P. Barebone, & ye other halfe with Mr. H. Jessey. Mr. Richd Blunt with him being convinced of Baptism yt also it ought to be by dipping in ye Body into Ye Water, resembling Burial and riseing again.

Apparently, members of the Barebone congregation reached this conclusion from a study of the New Testament. Immersion was a new practice, for their old records speak of "none having then so practiced it in England to professed Believers." These two congregations reinstituted immersion in different ways. One church sent Richard Blunt to Holland to confer with a group of Mennonites, who practiced immersion. Possibly, he received immersion from them and returned to immerse others of the congregation. The other church simply began to immerse without alluding to historical precedent. "Where there is a beginning," the pastor said, "some must be first." The First London Confession of Particular Baptists, adopted in 1644, says of baptism, "The way and manner of the dispensing of this Ordinance the Scripture holds out to be dipping or plunging the whole body under the water." The General Baptists were probably practicing immersion by 1650, but their first confession specifically calling for baptism by immersion only appeared in 1660.

Baptist Worship

Baptist styles of worship have changed considerably since 1609. The early Baptist services were quite long, sometimes with several sermons, and in the early days there was no music or singing. The oldest record of a Baptist worship service is from 1609, in a letter



from Hughe and Anne Bromhead, who said:

The order of the worshippe and government of oure church is . 1. we begynne wth A prayer, after reade some one or tow chapters of the Bible gyve the sence thereof, and conferr vpon the same, that done we lay aside oure bookes, and after a solemne prayer made by the .1. speaker, he propoundeth some text owt of the Scripture, and prophecieth owt of the same, by the space of one hower, or thre Quarters of an hower.

"This Morning exercise," the Bromhead letter concludes, "begynes at eight of the clocke and continueth vnto twelve of the clocke the like course of exercise is observed in the afternowne from .2. of the clock vnto .5. or .6. of the Clocke."

The earliest Baptist worship was lengthy and dealt primarily with Bible exposition. There was no singing, and Baptists put great value upon spontaneity and audience participation.

By the 1670s, some Baptist churches were singing both the Psalms and "man-made" songs. This was quite controversial, and many churches split over the "singing controversy." Benjamin Keach, a London pastor, led his church to sing a hymn after the Lord’s Supper, and within a few years they were also singing during regular worship services. In 1691, Keach published the first Baptist hymnal, Spiritual Melody, a collection of over three hundred hymns.

The Baptist Name

Many people assume that Baptists got their name from John the Baptist. This is not the case. Like most religious groups, Baptists were named by their opponents. The name comes from the Baptist practice of immersion.

The first known reference to these believers in England as "Baptists" was in 1644. They did not like the name and did not use it of




themselves until years later. The early Baptists preferred to be called "Brethren" or "Brethren of the Baptized Way." Sometimes they called themselves the "Baptized Churches." Early opponents of the Baptists often called them Anabaptists or other less complimentary names.

Baptists rejected the name Anabaptist, not wishing to be confused with or identified with the people who bore that name. (In fact, the true Anabaptists were not fond of that name either, because it had unfavorable overtones from early church history.) Even as late as the eighteenth century, many Baptists referred to themselves as "the Christians commonly (tho’ falsely) called Anabaptists."

Perhaps the most startling practice of early English Baptists was their total immersion for baptism after 1640. Crowds would often gather to witness a Baptist immersion service. Some ridiculed, as did Daniel Featley, describing the Baptists as people who "plung’d over head and eares." The nickname "Baptist" was given to describe the people who practiced this strange form of baptism.

Baptists Organized for Witness

An observer today may find it hard to imagine Baptists before they were organized! However, the Baptist structure or denomination evolved gradually over a period of years to meet needs as they arose.

The Association.–The oldest form of organization, beyond the local church, was the association, and it remains a vital part of Baptist denominational structure today.





From the first, Baptists entered into fellowship and common cause with other believers who shared their faith. As early as 1624 and again in 1630, several General Baptist churches in London acted together in discussing doctrine and in corresponding with other believers. Though they had no formal association, they showed a sense of cooperation and common identity.

By 1650, the Baptist association was well established. The name and geographical concept probably were adaptations of a civil unit in England, much like a county. During the English Civil War (1642-45), much of the country was divided into "associations" for political purposes. After the war Baptists continued to use this concept and name for their regional fellowship of churches.

The associations were extremely important to early Baptists. They provided Christian fellowship, a forum for discussion of Baptist concerns, a means to propagate Baptist teachings, and an effective way to monitor and maintain correct Baptist doctrine among the churches. Associations also participated together in common causes, such as issuing confessions of faith and working for religious liberty.

The General Assembly.–Each branch of English Baptists called its national organization the General Assembly. Composed of representatives from the various churches and associations, these General Assemblies usually met in London. General Baptists were first to develop this national organization, with evidence of such a body by 1653. This would correspond roughly to a national convention today.

Function.-What was the purpose of these organizations, and what did they do? They provided fellowship, counsel, and comfort to Baptists who lived during difficult days of persecution. General and




Particular Baptists developed sharply different concepts of the function and authority of the denominational meetings. In a 1678 confession, General Baptists said,

General councils, or assemblies, consisting of Bishops, Elders, and Brethren, of the several churches of Christ . . . make but one church. . . . And to such a meeting, or assembly, appeals ought to be made, in case any injustice be done, or heresy, and schism countenanced, in any particular congregation of Christ.

These Baptists considered a meeting of the General Assembly to be a meeting of "The General Baptist Church," with full authority to do "churchly" acts. They also gave the denomination a certain amount of jurisdiction or control over local congregations. Particular Baptists, on the other hand, never allowed an association or their General Assembly to become "The Church" or to do churchly acts. They leaned over backwards to protect the freedom of the local church and prevent the denomination from interfering in their affairs. In their Second London Confession (1677), Particular Baptists dealt with the question of how to handle problems that arose in local churches. The confession stated:

In cases of difficulties or differences, . . . it is according to the mind of Christ, that many Churches holding communion together, do by their messengers meet to consider, and give their advice in, or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the Churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not entrusted with any Church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the Churches themselves . . . or to impose their determination on the Churches, or Officers.

This clearly protected the autonomy of the local church and refused to allow the denomination or its leaders any control.




Baptists New and Old

The story of Baptist beginnings forms a paradox. On one hand, Baptists are deeply convinced that theirs is a Bible faith, rooted in the message of Jesus Christ and the apostles. To that extent, Baptists can be called a New Testament church.

On the other hand, the historical evidence clearly states that Baptists originated, as a distinct denomination, in the early seventeenth century. How does one harmonize the sense of continuity from Bible times with the factual reality of more recent beginnings?

Some have so emphasized the sense of continuity from Bible times that they find it difficult to face up to historical facts about Baptist origins. Some have even erected elaborate schemes, or "Trails of Blood," seeking to trace Baptists through all the centuries from Christ to the present. These theories are based upon assumptions, unreliable or nonexistent historical data, or faulty interpretation of Jesus’ promise that the gates of death should never prevail against his church. A Baptist today can have a real sense of identification with the teachings of Christ without trying to prove historical succession.

Other Baptists, however, may so emphasize the recent origin of Baptists that they lose the sense of continuity in faith and practice from Jesus himself. The earliest Baptists recovered and proclaimed anew the old faith that has come down the centuries from the Lord and his apostles. The Baptist denomination dates from the seventeenth century; the Baptist faith, we believe, dates from the first century.


Baptists originated in England in a time of intense religious reform. They sought to recover and proclaim the faith of the New Testament




as first given by Jesus and his apostles. Since then they have spread their teachings and churches in many lands and many cultures. They have never wavered from that original desire to hold and proclaim the simple faith of the New Testament church.

H. Leon McBeth is professor of church history, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

This pamphlet is one of nine in a series designed to help readers understand and appreciate the Baptist heritage.  For ordering information, click here

Charles W. Deweese, Executive Director-Treasurer
Copyright 1979. The Baptist History and Heritage. All rights reserved.
ISBN 0-939804-03-4

back to top

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 Smith 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.

This pamphlet is one of nine in a series designed to help readers understand and appreciate the Baptist heritage.  For ordering information, Click Here.

Copyright 1979.
The Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention
All rights reserved

back to top