To compile a brief survey of Baptist life from the 17th century Separatists to the founding of the SBC is no small task. As with any historical sketch there are various caveats of influence that hold great importance, but must remain unmentioned. Though this is regrettable, for the sake of brevity, it is necessary. From the 17 century Separatists to the founding of the SBC in 1845 covers around 200 years of church history and involves numerous bylines that take place in England and early Colonial America. However, I have chosen four major themes that tend to be at the root of every historical byline. These four themes are:
- Dead orthodoxy vs. eroding orthodoxy
- The First Great Awakening
- The Impact of Associations
- The Modern Missions Movement
Dead Orthodoxy vs. Eroding Orthodoxy
In a previous session we pointed out that the positive byproduct of heresy is that it forces the church to clearly define, defend, and articulate orthodox belief. The same is true of debate and schism. While Baptists, both Particular and General, had numerous debates throughout the 17th century and into the 18th century, these debates inspired the publication of various tracts and books that help narrow the focus to what eventually becomes Baptist orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct action). As outlined by Leon McBeth those points of orthodoxy include:
- A Trinitarian understanding of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit as one).
- The Bible as the final authority of truth.
- The church as made up of true believers who clearly demonstrate saving faith.
- The leaders of the church are those who have expressed a divine call.
- Baptism is to be offered only for true believers and is to be practiced by immersion.
- Communion is a memorial supper to “recall and reflect upon the death of Christ.” Communion is to be observed only by true (believers baptized) members of the church.
- While there were various views on oaths, pacifism, and the relationship to government; most Baptists agreed on religious liberty for all.
- Because Baptists emerged during a time when millennial expectation was high, Baptists have always been an expectant people. While there are various eschatological views amongst Baptists, in general Baptists are encouraged to live life with a sense of evangelistic urgency and moral purity in lieu of Christ’s return.
- While worship is expressed in various ways, in general Baptists have held to preaching, an exposition of Scripture, as a central part of worship gatherings.
The occasion for defining orthodoxy was an eroding one. Some General Baptists (Arminian in nature) were eroding into a more Unitarian belief. Unitarianism rejects a Trinitarian belief in God, the idea of original sin in man, and the idea that God will damn mankind because after all, man may be misguided, but he is essentially good.
Another occasion for defining orthodoxy was a dead one. While some General Baptists were becoming Unitarian, some Particular Baptists were becoming hyper-Calvinistic. Hyper-Calvinism asserts that because God elects both the saved and the damned that evangelism is futile. In this environment missions and preaching in both America and England began to suffer. Sermons became more like the reading of academic papers and lost their passion and zeal. Because of the eroding orthodoxy of the General Baptists, Particular Baptists began to become more “creedal” in nature; seeking not only to define the faith but to force its congregants to subscribe to it. Missions was condemned as heretical because if it was God who determined who was to be saved and who was to be lost; missions/evangelism was merely the casting of a pearl before swine. Particular Baptists were growing to believe that the church had no Biblical basis to evangelize the heathen.
In response to the dead orthodoxy and lack of evangelistic zeal in the church comes two important movements that heavily influence Baptist life; The Great Awakening and the Modern Missions Movement.
The First Great Awakening
Not only was the pulpit cooling in America but in New England those churches, namely Presbyterian and Congregational, that had allowed infants to receive baptism and thus church membership were in a quandary. The expectation was that infants who were baptized would then follow through in their adult life and make their own profession of faith. In a cooling church environment, many of them did not. Because church membership was ironically tied to civic life in many towns throughout the colonies, a question arose as to the relationship of the next generation to the church and the state. A decision was reached in 1662 allowing the children of moral parents to be baptized into the church giving them church and state privileges with the exception of receiving communion. By doing so, many churches in the colonies were abandoning the idea of regenerate church membership. In effect, many in the church were now “half-way” members.
There are several preachers that should be noted in the First Great Awakening, but two were the vanguards of the movement: Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and George Whitfield (1714-1770). Jonathan Edwards rejected the idea of the halfway covenant and called for justification by faith and a regenerate church membership. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” resulted in many conversions and a spirit of repentance in the New England Colonies. If Edwards was the Awakening’s preacher, Whitfield was its evangelist. It would be the itinerate preaching ministry of George Whitfield that would spread the revival throughout all the colonies.
Baptists were at first slow to grab on to the religious fervor of the Awakening. In reaction came two groups, Regular Baptists and the Separates (not Separatists). The Regular Baptists were suspicious of the emotional outpourings associated with the revival while the Separates saw it as a genuine move of God’s Spirit in the church. In the beginning, Separates were mostly Congregationalists and Presbyterians who endorsed the revival. Feeling that the Presbyterians and Congregational churches were not responding to the revival many Separatists began to unite with Baptists who were beginning to embrace the movement. Isaac Backus, a noted Baptist leader came to the defense of the Separatists, opened communion with them, and as a result many Congregational and Presbyterian Separatists became Baptists.
Many historians attribute the Great Awakening as an important contributor to the American Revolution. Another fruit of the movement that changed the shape of the movement was that Baptists enjoyed massive growth and rapid expansion throughout the colonies. The Great Awakening also re-ignited the pulpit and began to impact theology as a result of the collusion of Baptists and Separates. The end result was a more moderate form of Calvinism, also known as Evangelical Calvinism. This form of Calvinism rejected the hard fatalism of hyper-Calvinism, kept a Reformed theology, but concentrated also on the call of Jesus to preach the gospel to all nations.
The Impact of Associations
A normal part of early Baptist life was the organizing of the churches into associations. Associations in early America owe their roots to Baptist life in England. In America the associations were the forerunners of national denominational life. By 1800 there were 42 Baptists associations in America. The most notable being the Warren Association (Rhode Island, 1767) and the Philadelphia Association (1707) in the North, and the Sandy Creek (1758) and Charleston (1751) (first association in the South) in the South. Each association had its own DNA mostly traced back to influence of either General, Regular, or Separate Baptists. No doubt the influence of Separate Baptists became strongest in the South resulting in congregations that were more emotional and zealous. Regular Baptist congregations tended to be orthodox Calvinists who were more methodical in not only worship but also their work. In the early stages many associations had both Separate and Regular churches within them. While this did often cause controversy, there are many positive examples of their working together in the association.
The main contributions of the associations to Baptist life were as follows:
- Endorsement of schools and theological training for pastors.
- A unified approach to church discipline.
- Important documents that establish orthodoxy and orthopraxy in Baptist life.
- An approach to missions that filtered the finances through denominational channels.
The Modern Missions Movement
The predecessor to the American associations was the mission society in England. One of the most notable societies was the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792. Frustrated by the lack of missionary zeal in the churches of England due to the dead orthodoxy that had emerged from hyper-Calvinism there, William Carey brought a treatise entitled An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. His treatise was the result of careful studies of world populations and revealed numerous unreached people groups around the world. Carey called for every possible means to be used to reach them. Carey was later invited to preach at the 1792 meeting of the association in Nottingham. His sermon had two simple points “Expect great things - attempt great things.” Burdened by the message a group of ministers met in Kettering on October 2, 1792 and formed the Baptist Missionary Society. In 1793 John Thomas and William Carey were appointed as the first missionaries and sent to India. The Baptist Missionary Society would make mission work an important part of Baptist life as it moved into the 19th century. Through William Carey and the BMS, the modern missions movement was born.
Baptists in the colonies were not as well organized as they recovered from the American Revolution and missionary activity was intermittent at best. Coming into the 1800’s there were several small missionary societies that were attempting to engage in regular work, but it was not until the organization of the Triennial Convention. Adoniram Judson, his wife Ann, and Luther Rice (all students at Andover Seminary) went from America to Berma to assist the work of William Carey. Luther Rice left the Judson’s to return to America to raise support. In 1813 Rice met with the Charleston Association and a recommendation that a united effort for missions be formed. In May, 1814 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to form the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States; also known as the Triennial Convention as it was to meet every three years.
Along with the focus of the Triennial Convention on foreign missions, other societies were organized to lend support to other tasks:
- The Woman’s Union Missionary Society (1861)
- The Home Mission Society (1817)
- Numerous Baptist papers and publishing houses were formed throughout the 19th century
- The Tract Society (1824) which eventually became the American Baptist Publication and Sunday School Society (1844).
The Formation of the SBC
Baptists enjoyed rapid growth under the organization of the Triennial Convention. Yet America was moving into another controversy that would deeply impact Baptist life, slavery. In 1843 the American Baptist Free Mission Society was formed and was committed to appointing only non-slave holding missionaries. In 1844 the Society changed policies officially banning the appointment of slave holding missionaries. Anticipating the move delegates from Georgia submitted the name of James Reeve as a missionary to the Native Americans. Reeve, a slaveholder, was refused by a vote of seven to five. In 1844 the Alabama State Convention demanded that the Triennial Convention acknowledge the right of missionaries to own slaves. The Board rejected the request.
Convinced they no longer had a place in the Triennial Convention a group gathered at First Baptist Church of Augusta, GA on May 8, 1845 and established the Southern Baptist Convention. Forming their charter and purpose with no mention of slavery the new convention would engage in missionary efforts while at the same time assimilating Southern culture into their practices.
While this may be an abrupt stopping point for the SBC it is necessary for the scope of this project. In the final four weeks of this class we will discuss how the SBC is currently organized and how it engages the world with the gospel. While some of the cause behind the beginnings of the SBC are certainly not admirable, the SBC, like the rest of the South has struggled through the years to overcome a racially charged heritage. To note how far the SBC has come, it is expected that its first African American President, Fred Luter, Pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, will be elected at the June, 2012 New Orleans Convention.
In any event, this historical sketch provides enough background to see the roots of rich SBC heritage such as the Women’s Missionary Union, Lifeway Publishing, the North American Mission Board, the International Mission Board, associations, state conventions, ministries, and concerns for education through the seminaries.