Part 2: Baptists in America through the 19th Century
Even though we’re primarily focusing on the establishment of Baptist churches in America, to understand them we have to go back to 1792 and the establishment of the Baptist Mission Society in England.
William Carey (1761-1834)
William Carey was a Baptist minister in England who was convicted to promote the cause of missions, and wrote a treatise entitled “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” He tirelessly preached in support of missions in England, leading to the establishment of the “Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen” (now called the Baptist Mission Society). He himself became the first missionary sent out by that society, leaving for India in 1793 and later establishing a Baptist mission in Serampore, Bengal.
Carey’s letters were well circulated among Baptist churches in America, raising interest in missions. In 1812, Baptists in America found themselves in curious position; with the change in denomination of Adoniram and Ann Judson, and Luther Rice, American Baptists found themselves with foreign missionaries, but no Missions society to support them.
Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), Ann Haseltine Judson (1789-1826)
Adoniram and his wife Ann were originally commissioned as Congregational missionaries to India in 1811. Knowing they would come into contact with Carey and his Baptist group, they took up an intensive study of believer’s baptism while on the voyage to India. They were eventually convinced of its biblical basis, and they were baptized by immersion in Calcutta into the Baptist church by William Ward, an associate of Carey’s. Luther Rice then took it as his role to return to the U.S. and raise support for the mission among Baptists. He did so admirably, leading to the foundation of the triennial convention in 1814.
Over the next few years, with support from Rice, the Triennial convention grew and took on more responsibilities, including Home Missions (to the West, particularly Illinois, and to the Indians in Indiana), publications and tracts, and (most controversially) a College and Seminary founded in Washington D.C. (Columbian College; what is now George Washington University).
So, by 1826, Baptists in the U.S. had a full denominational infrastructure, supporting Home and Foreign missions, with seminaries and universities. Baptists being Baptists, they would never be so united again.
From 1818 on Baptists particularly in the west (Kentucky, Illinois and parts of North Carolina) had strong negative reactions the foundation of the missionary societies and to the growing denominationalism of the Triennial convention. Churches and sometimes entire associations voted to not support these missionary societies, as a more Calvinistic mood, coupled with a distrust of big cities “back east” and a very high worth put on congregational independence took hold out west. This was often (ironically) tied to the growing Anti-Masonic movement and many statements by churches condemned Masonic lodges and Missionary societies in the same breath. This was also part of a larger movement that condemned seminary education as a rebirth of the same form of ecclesiastical hierarchy that was the source of error of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Church.
This led to the first major split in Baptist churches since the General/Particular outgrowth in England – the “Anti-missionary” Baptists (often called “Primitive Baptists”, especially in North Carolina, or “Hardshell” or “Old-school” Baptists elsewhere) formed their own associations and withdrew from all missions, tract and other societies.
Finally, in 1826, radical (or conservative – depends on your point of view) elements took over the Triennial convention and immediately dropped support for all endeavors except what it was originally founded for; foreign missions. They also censured Luther Rice, who at this time was the President of Columbian College, and who had been a major force in Baptist life until this time.
Alexander Campbell (1788-1866)
One of the key leaders of the Antimissions movement was Alexander Campbell, who, while only a Baptist during the period between 1813 and 1830, greatly influenced two major denominations in the U.S. He edited a newspaper (The Christian Baptist) during this time, which attacked missions societies, bible and tract societies, associations, instrumental music, and many other things as being “extra-biblical”. He finally led a split of many churches in Kentucky and other parts of the west from Baptist associations, which later joined with other similar churches to eventually, become the Churches of Christ (Disciples of Christ) denomination.
The split of 1845
From 1820 until 1860, no single issue captured the thoughts of Americans more than Slavery; whether or not its expansion should be allowed into the West, or whether it should be abolished altogether, or not. That ultimately became one of the key issues leading to the demise of the Triennial convention, and the formation of two different denominations of American Baptists, the American Baptist Convention (Northern Baptists) and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Starting prior to 1840, some Baptist churches in New England had begun withdrawing from their associations and forming associations of their own with opposition to slavery being a key principle. However, slavery wasn’t the only issue at hand; there were others too.
Baptists in the south had favored the pre-1826 structure of the Triennial convention; it allowed more participation by the southern states as more could be done at a single meeting, rather than at different meetings of different societies. In short, Southern Baptists preferred a Convention model as opposed to a Society model. This has ramifications beyond just simple organization; in a Convention model, delegates represent the churches, while in a society model, individuals provide support for particular causes. In some respects, this can be seen in the difference between the denominational and “para-church” models today, and is still reflected in the differences in focus between Northern (American) and Southern Baptists.
Likewise, whether justified or not, southern Baptists felt that they were being overlooked in Home missions; while they contributed to the societies, they did not feel that they were receiving an equal share of the Home missions personnel.
But Slavery proved to be the decisive issue; while the north was becoming more anti-slavery, the southern states were becoming more doctrinaire in their defense of their “peculiar institution”. While the Triennial convention tried to adopt an officially neutral stance in 1841, in 1844 a “test case” finally broke the camel’s back – a slaveowner was nominated as a home missionary. The Home missions board neglected to act on the matter in an attempt to remain neutral, but that action did not endear it to the southerners. In response to this action and others involving foreign missionaries, delegates from the various southern states met in Augusta GA on May 8, 1845 and formed the Southern Baptist Convention. It was formed on a convention model (similar to the pre-1826 Triennial convention), supporting both foreign and home missions (the Sunday school board – now Lifeway Christian Resources -- was founded in 1891) and from the beginning staked its territory out as including the entire United States. The remaining Northern Baptists changed the name of their convention several times, eventually becoming the American Baptist Churches (USA).
The Landmark Controversy
From the beginning, the Southern Baptist Convention proved it meant business with regard to Foreign missions. It sponsored missions in India, China, Mexico, Brazil, and a host of other nations. However, even in addition to facing the recovery from the Civil War the SBC had its own major doctrinal controversy to deal with from the 1840s on to the 1880’s and later; the Landmark Controversy. This threatened to derail the Southern Baptist commitment to missions almost before it got started.
The Landmark principles were originally set down by J.R. Graves, although its main proponents included A.C. Dayton and J. M. Pendleton. While both sides wrote extensively on the principles involved, it all boiled down to a view of the doctrine of the church. The Landmark views can be summarized as follows (from McBeth pp 450-453)
- Baptist churches are the only true churches in the world
- The true church is a local, visible institution
- The churches and the kingdom of God are co-terminous
- There must be no “pulpit affiliation” with non-Baptists
- Only a “true” church can do churchly acts
- Baptist churches have always existed in every age through an unbroken historical succession.
Graves espoused these principles in his voluminous writings, and several times tried to have them adopted by the SBC. He published his own Sunday school materials starting in the 1850’s, attempted to take over or replace the nascent Southern Baptist Publication Society, and attempted to take over and dismantle the FMB in 1859. While he was ultimately unsuccessful in each of these, his effects are still felt in many churches today.