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About the Author
D. Scott Hildreth is assistant professor of global studies and director of the Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
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From Missionary Society to a Convention of Churches
Southern Baptists have a rich history, a robust denominational structure, and a resilient identity that encourages voluntary cooperation among churches on a broad range of convention activities. The convention we see today stems from a loosely structured mission society. In 1845, a portion of that society adopted a structure that allowed for a diverse range of ministries and encouraged cooperation among local churches as the means of accomplishing this vision.
American Baptists Unite Around Global Missions
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Baptists in the United States had little structure beyond the local church. Some churches gathered in local associations; however, this simple structure did not translate into national, or even statewide, denominational organization. This changed on May 18, 1814, with the establishment of the General Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions, commonly referred to as the Triennial Convention. This convention was formed when Baptists organized themselves around the cause of foreign missions for "diffusing evangelistic light, through benighted regions of the earth." The first national identity for Baptists was a missionary identity.
The story of this missionary identity for American Baptists began, ironically, with the appointment of several Congregationalist missionaries by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. In February 1812, Adoniram and Ann Judson, along with Samuel and Harriett Newell, Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice, left the United States for a seven-month journey to India, where they planned to serve as missionaries. Adoniram Judson knew that when the group arrived, they would encounter William Carey and his team of Baptist missionaries. Judson wanted to be prepared to discuss (or perhaps refute) the Baptist beliefs about baptism, so he studied the biblical teachings on the topic. This exercise did not end as he anticipated. Judson was looking for support of the Congregationalist belief in infant baptism, but he ended up rejecting his previously held belief and accepting Baptist teaching on the subject.
Judson became convinced that the word translated baptize in the New Testament could only mean to immerse in water and could not be used to support any other mode of baptism. This discovery led him to question other aspects of his previously held beliefs. Further research led Judson to conclude that Christian baptism could only be understood as the immersion of professing believers. As one might imagine, this discovery was troubling. Not only did it challenge his theology; it also meant that Judson himself had never been baptized! Ann was originally opposed to Adoniram's conversion. However, after her own study of the Scriptures, she became convinced and joined him. Once they arrived in India, both Ann and Adoniram were baptized and resigned their appointment with the Congregational mission agency.
Fellow missionary Luther Rice seems to have held similar doubts about infant baptism. After talking to William Carey and reading Judson's baptism testimony, he too became a Baptist and resigned his missionary appointment. Because of their conversions, Rice and the Judsons were essentially stranded in India. They had a strong missionary calling and were firmly convinced of their new faith; however, they had no avenue for the financial support of their work. Eventually, Rice returned to the United States to raise support for the new Baptist missionary efforts. His fund-raising efforts and tireless work gave birth to the Triennial Convention. According to Baptist historian William Wright Barnes, Luther Rice, "more than any other man, may be called the organizer of the Baptist denomination in America." Even though Rice originally planned to return to the mission field, he never did. Instead, he spent the rest of his life working within the Triennial Convention, providing an identity and purpose for this growing body of Christians in the new world.
In the beginning, the Triennial Convention served as a centralizing network for previously disconnected Baptist missionary societies (and individuals) scattered throughout the United States. Rice's intention for the first meeting of the Triennial Convention was to bring together delegates "for the purpose of forming some general combination of concert of action among them." The Triennial Convention became the first ever national organization of Baptists in America. David Dockery, former president of Union University, has called this event "one of the most significant events in Baptist history." However, despite the monumental nature of this organization, within thirty years the unity of the Triennial Convention was shattered and the Southern Baptist Convention formed.
Several factors contributed to the eventual breakup of the Triennial Convention. Chief among them was slave ownership and missionary appointment, which became a significant point of tension between Northern and Southern Baptists by the 1840s. As Southern Baptists saw it, barring slaveholders from missionary service precluded them from fulfilling the Great Commission and demanded the formation of a new denominational body. According to Jesse Fletcher, "The Southern Baptist Convention walked on the stage of history burdened by its defense of a practice which subsequent history would condemn and which Southern Baptists themselves would one day condemn."
There also seems to have been tension among Baptists about the deployment and support of home missionaries. The Southern states felt their region was underrepresented and that funds and missionaries were being directed elsewhere. However, the problems within the Triennial Convention, and its eventual breakup, can be found in the different visions for ministry and convention structure. According to Baptist historian Leon McBeth, "Whoever fails to grasp the differences between society and convention methods will never understand Northern and Southern Baptists." Baptists in the North preferred the society model while Baptists in the South preferred a convention or associational structure.
Society Versus Convention Structure
Convention or association refers to a denominational structure that is church-based and embraces a broad range of ministries. Local churches are able to support and participate in foreign and home missions, education, publishing, and other ministries by participating in one convention. The work of the convention is carried out through delegates who represent the churches of which they are members. The vision and mission of the convention are defined by the work of the whole denomination.
Societies, on the other hand, are single-cause-based. They are established and held together to serve a single ministry or purpose. Membership consists of individuals who are interested in the cause and invest financially. The society is not connected directly to the local church. Instead, individual members from churches participate or do not participate depending on their interests in the specific cause. Rather than embracing multiple causes, a society focuses on foreign missions or local missions, education or publication, or another social ministry. Each society is autonomous and is generally controlled by a board of directors who are also financial contributors to the cause.
As observed earlier, despite its name, the Triennial Convention initially operated as a society, convening individuals and other societies, rather than delegates from local churches, as a means of advancing a foreign missionary cause. However, many of the founders envisioned a Baptist denomination with a broader range of ministries. Richard Furman, the convention's first president, pled with delegates to expand the ministry beyond the foreign mission field. He wanted the convention to adopt a home mission strategy and educate pastors. In his presidential address, he said, "It is deeply to be regretted that no more attention is paid to the improvement of the minds of pious youths who are called to the gospel ministry." Luther Rice shared this desire for a more expanded focus. Under their leadership, the Triennial Convention started to be involved in home missions, Christian education, and also published material for its members. However, this broader convention structure lasted less than a decade.
Most historians agree that Baptists in the North, especially New England Baptists, were unhappy the Triennial Convention had expanded its ministry beyond foreign missions, embracing a more denominational structure. Their frustration was rooted in at least two concerns. First, they expressed theological concerns. They felt the independence of the local church was being violated. Francis Wayland, pastor of First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, said, "I do not see how a church can be represented." These brethren believed external organizations were made up of individuals and could not claim to work on behalf of a local church. Second, they raised practical concerns. They believed that the emphasis on other ministries diverted monies away from foreign missions. One observer, Baron Stow, claimed no new missionaries were sent to Burma between 1820 and 1823 and plans for beginning work in Brazil and Africa in 1815 were postponed because of insufficient funding.
In 1826, the Triennial Convention reversed course and embraced its identity as a foreign missionary society. All other ministries were eliminated. Wayland, who originally supported a broader ministry structure, led the convention to adopt this new vision, noting the expanded ministry was viewed negatively "by so decided a majority that the attempt was never repeated, and this danger was averted. We look back at the present day, with astonishment that such an idea was ever entertained."
Two other factors contributed to the redirection of the convention. First, Richard Furman died in 1825, and with his death, Baptists in the South lost one of the strongest proponents for a broader convention structure. Second, and perhaps more important, New England Baptists were able to move the 1826 convention meeting from Washington, DC, to New York. In previous meetings, they had not been able to garner enough voting support to address their concerns. In New York, however, because of the expense and difficulty of travel from the South, the largest voting bloc was made up of delegates from the Northern states. Of the 63 delegates, 23 were from Massachusetts and 17 were from New York. This coalition made the way for a change in convention structure and leadership. The society method won the day within the Triennial Convention, and regional tensions flared, a factor that eventually contributed to the establishment of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Southern Baptists Choose a Convention
According to historian Robert A. Torbet, when Baptists from the southern United States gathered in 1845, they chose a "new type of Baptist organization." McBeth observed that Baptists in the South "favored a unified, cooperative denomination in which one general convention did various forms of ministry" while Baptists in the North "preferred an independent society approach." It is important to understand why Baptists in the South preferred (or did not oppose) the associational method for missions and ministry support. They shared similar convictions regarding the autonomy and independence of the local church. But where Baptists in the North rejected associationalism, Baptists in the South embraced it. Multiple factors contributed to this.
First, the social structure of Southern communities encouraged associationalism. New England states were made up of townships. These townships were governed through strict democratic rule; each citizen attended town meetings expecting to have a voice and a vote in local decisions. This fostered a sense of individual responsibility in decision making. Southern states, on the other hand, governed themselves quite differently. Rather than townships, these communities were made up of counties. McBeth observed that the social structure of Southern counties was "at times almost feudal." Decision making was not the exclusive responsibility of the masses but was more centralized. This form of government seems to have made Baptists in the South more comfortable with a representative denominational structure.
Second, William Wright Barnes has noted that another reason Baptists in the South were more willing to embrace associationalism can be found in their statements of faith. These statements allowed, if not encouraged, formal cooperation between local churches. For most Baptist churches in the South, the statement of faith developed by the Philadelphia Association served as the primary confession. This document affirmed the existence of both the universal and the local church. While it described local churches as having autonomy and the authority to carry out all ministries, discipline, and the establishing of leadership, the confession also noted that God's command for believers was to "walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification." The Philadelphia Confession does not seem to acknowledge any conflict between cooperation and local church authority. Even the South's General Baptists, most of whom settled in Virginia and North Carolina, though opposed to aspects of the Calvinistic theology espoused by the Philadelphia Association, adopted confessions that encouraged partnership between churches. Barnes noted, "Although [they] were Arminian in theology ... they held to a centralized ecclesiology in agreement with the fundamental spiritual idea of Philadelphia." Whereas early Southern Baptists held different understandings about nuanced aspects of the doctrine of salvation, they held enough agreement on the doctrine of the church to make space for voluntary association between churches.
Third, many Baptists in the South had already experienced the benefits of cooperation and realized that voluntary association did not necessarily undermine local church autonomy. One of the largest and most influential associations was the Sandy Creek Association. Philadelphia pastor Morgan Edwards observed that in just 17 years, this association had "spread branches westward as far as the great river Mississippi; southward as far a Georgia; eastward to the sea and Chesopeek bay [sic] and Northward to the waters of Potowmack [sic]." The Sandy Creek Association was more than a friendly gathering. This association engaged in many functions that were typically considered the responsibility of the local church: placement and ordination of ministers, baptism, administration of ordinances, and church discipline. These churches were comfortable with associationalism, and when the Southern Baptist Convention formed, they embraced a centralized organization and cooperative ministry.
Fourth, and perhaps the most significantly, Southern Baptists chose a different structure due to the leadership and influence of two men: Richard Furman and W. B. Johnson. Richard Furman was the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1787 until his death in 1825. As noted earlier, when he served as president of the Triennial Convention, Furman was a strong advocate of a denominational structure supporting a wide range of ministries. Furman's greatest influence came through his protégé W. B. Johnson, the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Johnson was arguably the most influential person with regard to the structure of the Southern Baptist Convention. Even before 1845, he was a recognized leader among Baptists. He served as a pastor in Georgia and South Carolina, and while in South Carolina, worked to organize the state convention and served as its president. Johnson also served on the organizational committee and eventually served as president of the Triennial Convention. Johnson's reputation and previous leadership experience helped him lead the SBC to adopt a structure that supported a wide range of ministries and encouraged congregational cooperation.
At the first gathering of Southern Baptists in 1845, Johnson described two possible structures for the new denomination:
I invite your attention to the consideration of two plans: The one is that which has been adopted for years past, viz.: separate and independent bodies for the prosecution of each object. ...
The other proposes one Convention, embodying the whole Denomination, together with separate and distinct Boards, for each object of benevolent enterprise, located at different places, and all amendable to the Convention.
According to McBeth, "It is clear which plan Johnson favored; in fact, in his coat pocket he already had a draft of a constitution which would set the new Southern body on the convention plan." At last, Baptists in the United States seemed to have become what Luther Rice and Richard Furman hoped the Triennial Convention could be.
Excerpted from "Together on God's Mission"
Copyright © 2018 Darren Scott Hildreth.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter 1: From Missionary Society to a Convention of Churches Chapter 2: The SBC Adopts a Cooperative Identity Chapter 3: How Southern Baptists Cooperate on Mission Chapter 4: Our God is a Missionary God Chapter 5: God’s Mission and God’s People Chapter 6: The Early Church and Its Cooperative Mission Chapter 7: A Proposal for Southern Baptist Cooperation