Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How the Southern Baptist Convention formed

Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

The sectionalism between North and South continued to gain intensity in the 1840s, both in politics and churches. Abolitionist Northerners touched off a bitter exchange among Northern and Southern Baptist newspapers in 1843 when an anonymous editorial in the New Hampshire Baptist Record asked whether or not it was true that James Huckins and William Tryon, HMS-approved missionaries to Texas who would later establish Baylor University, were in fact slaveholders.  That same year, a small group of abolitionist Northerners in the Convention worked to defund the two Texas missionaries because, they said, Huckins and Tryon were slaveholders. Only the charge was not exactly accurate. Huckins did not work for the Home Mission Society; he was appointed by the American Baptist Missionary Society of New York, and it was Tryon’s wife who owned slaves, not him. Regardless, Northern abolitionists continued an effort to defund all those connected with slavery.

Southerners, of whom only a small minority actually owned slaves, saw the situation in a different way, for good or ill. Many of their family members had moved to the wild and dangerous Republic of Texas which was in growing tension with the Mexican government. They took the Northern actions somewhat as a personal and cultural affront, wondering if at root the Northerners did not want to work in cooperation with Southerners. Viewing the Huckins-Tryon incident as an attack on their culture, Baptist newspapers in the South replied that there was no Convention policy written on it, and since the US Constitution didn’t outlaw it and the Triennial Convention constitution did not address it, they should stop their agitation.

Everyone knew a schism of Baptists in America was coming. In 1844 the Home Missions Society met following this Baptist newspaper war of words. In an effort to force the HMS to declare its position on slaveholding missionaries, abolitionist Samuel Adlam of Maine introduced a resolution stating that the HMS would appoint slaveholders, referring in his resolution to the Huckins-Tryon affair. He added that if North and South must part on this question, let it be done in peace. This handful of Northern abolitionists were trying to force the Southerners out of the HMS, and the society responded with a primary concern over separation or unity, not over slavery. Richard Fuller and J.B. Jeter motioned to amend Adlam's resolution that the Home Mission Society should not take sides. They did not defend slavery, but called it a disease that would soon die out. The motion to amend passed 131-61, but still a committee of eleven was formed to find a way to amicably dissolve the Home Mission Society. No one was happy. Nothing was settled.

Then in May 1844, Georgia Baptists nominated James Reeve as a home missionary for Georgia’s Tallapoosa Association as a test case. Several Georgians guaranteed his $20/ month salary, and without being asked by the Board, they volunteered information during Reeve's appointment process that he was a slaveholder. Since the Home Mission Society had gone on record as neutral on slavery, they reasoned, he should be approved. But the Radicals in the Convention wanted the issue settled and Southerners pushed out. Southerners just wanted to know what direction the Convention would take so that they could know themselves what to do. The HMS board had to make a decision, so on October 7, 1844, the board voted neither to appoint nor reject Reeve because they felt the Georgia Convention was using Reeve as a test case for slavery, and under HMS neutrality rules, slavery could not be discussed in their meetings. Rumors flew that three anti-slavery missionary societies were afoot.

Rumors then provoked the Alabama Baptist Convention in November 1844 to step into the fracas. Reports flew that HMS Board chairman Pattison was attempting to secure the resignation of a beloved Alabama missionary to the Indians because he was a slaveholder. The Alabama Baptists insisted to the General Convention that slavery should not be a factor in missionary appointments. The Convention board, which had long been anti-slavery, replied that they could not “be a party to any arrangement which would imply the approbation of slavery.”

When the Virginia Baptist Foreign Mission Society heard the Convention's response, they immediately cut off funds to the Triennial Convention and began to organize a call for a consultation for a Southern Convention of Baptists. Virginians Jeremiah Bell (J.B.) Jeterpictured) and William E. Hatcher soon issued a call to meet at First Baptist Church, Augusta, GA, in May 1845, to discuss what Southerners would do.

Both Northern and Southern Baptist papers called for separation. Even Adoniram Judson himself said the extent of the nation alone called for another mission organization. The April 1845 meeting of the Triennial Convention was a sad rerun of worn out pontifications, with few Southerners in attendance. The only resolution receiving unanimous support was that if division came, the North would retain the General Convention, and there would be amicable adjustments with those leaving. The elder Northern pragmatist Francis Wayland, president of the Triennial Convention, privately encouraged Southerners Jeter and Hatcher to leave and form a Southern Baptist Convention with Northern approval and earnest prayers.


Messengers from churches in Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina were in the majority at First Baptist Church, Augusta, GA, (pictured) on May 8, 1845, but since spring planting was going on, the messengers in attendance were mostly the most wealthy. They agreed immediately to separate from the old Triennial Convention based on the Convention’s reply to Alabama Baptists, a response which the Southerners maintained was a violation of the Convention's own constitution.

J.B. Jeter read a letter from the Triennial Convention president Francis Wayland, which said in part, “You will separate of course. Your rights have been infringed. We have shown how Christians ought not to act. It remains for you to show us how they ought to act. Put away all violence, act with dignity and firmness, and the world will approve your course.” Before the meeting was over, they had formed the Southern Baptist Convention. Its constitution, written by William B. Johnson (1782-1862) (pictured) of South Carolina, moved from the society model to the convention model, putting all work under one banner with separate home and foreign boards to handle business between annual meetings. Johnson, who had been president of the Triennial Convention 1841-44 became the Southern Baptist Convention's first president, serving 1845-51.

Was there opposition to the formation of the SBC? Well, we’re talking about Baptists here. Of course there was opposition. Abolitionists were delighted at the separation but critical of the SBC. Some Baptist Southerners were upset that the Augusta meeting had done more than they expected, “You were sent to consult, not construct! You had no authority to form a new convention!” The SBC framers replied, “Are you with us or not? We’re just as good an option as any.” Some, like John Waller, said, “We shouldn’t leave the Northern church. We should stay in and make this vocal minority form their own societies and leave us. They are only a handful of abolitionists anyway.” But no one listened. The impending separation and new direction had come, not very pretty, but done. The Southern Baptist Convention had been formed.