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Eighteenth Century Baptists

By Timothy Binion 

In the 1700 Baptists numbered 24 churches with 839 members. The out pouring of revival (called the first Great Awakening), immigration of English and Welsh Baptist to America, and the spurt of Growth resulted in Baptists becoming the largest denomination in America. By 1790 we numbered 979 churches with 67,490 members, 42 Associations and were discussing plans to form a national organization. In 1742 we adopted a confession of faith , formed a Baptist college in 1764, struggled for, and achieved religious liberty. No person better illustrates Baptist progress in the eighteenth-century than Hezekiah Smith (1737-1805). Called “the Baptist Whitefield,” Smith combined pastoral duties, evangelistic tours, and denominational service. He was a spokesman for religious liberty and served as a trustee of the Baptist college in Rhode Island. He was converted and baptized by John Gano. Smith entered the Hopewell Baptist Academy in New Jersey in 1756 and graduated from Princeton in 1762. At the time he was one of only five college educated Baptist ministers in America. 
He organized a Church in Haverhill Massachusetts in 1765, Benedict noted, the church building was located “in the center of the town; a rare occurrence in those days”. Haverhill’s church was one of the four that formed the Warren Association in 1767. In 1802 Smith helped form the Massachusetts Baptist Mission Society, the first of its kind in America. By the end of the eighteenth century the old prejudice against learning was eroding and Baptists came to the new century with a new education vision. They saw clearly that schools were important, and it “need not sap spirituality but indeed might enhance it.”  Baptists had settled the singing controversy in America. There was an article on hymn singing in the Philadelphia confession in 1742. The primary work of the associations in this century was in three areas; Education, Religious Liberty, and Home Missions. Anti-Catholicism formed a staple of Baptist preaching in the eighteenth century. A Baptist pastor Elisha Paine wrote in 1752; “We all know that the pope or papal throne is the second beast.” Church buildings had neither heating nor lighting. They usually conducted two services each Sunday in summer, but only one in the winter. The amen corner emerged in contrast to the state church assigning pews by social rank. It seemed the most vocal members congregated and a section for the spiritual elite instead of the social elite was invented. The song service was conducted by the minister. Song directors were unheard of in this century. Most of the hymns centered around baptism and the Lord’s Supper, often refuting other denominations. Here is a stanza from the Newport Collection of 1766 Baptist song book:“Some call it baptism and think it will stand, a few drops of water dropt from a man’s hand, In the face of the infant who’s under the curse, But we find no scripture that proves it to us.” Behavior at church proved a problem at times, not only among youth but also among adults who sometimes talked out, laughed or simply went to sleep. Backus wrote before the revival of 1780’s “young people got to be so extravagant in vanity, that they could hardly be kept civil in times of public worship.” Easter and Christmas were not only not observed by Baptists but also both were opposed as worldly and popish. Most regarded Easter as pagan and Christmas as “the superstitious relics of the scarlet whore.” 
Catechism’s were used and Sunday School was nonexistent. 

Nineteenth Century

Baptist growth accelerated in the 18th century largely as a result of the movement known as the Great Awakening. Later in the same century, the Baptists ardently supported the American Revolution and thus became more popular. In the 19th century the Baptists, like most other Protestant denominations, split over the issue of slavery. This led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. In 1907 the Northern Baptists drew together their various educational and missionary societies to form the Northern Baptist Convention (now the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.). In the midst of their growth, the Baptists had a strong appeal for members of the black community, due in part to evangelistic outreach, informal preaching, emotional appeal, and autonomous polity. Church historians call the time from 1800 to 1900 “The Great Century” for Christian advance. Baptist support for the Revolution greatly improved their public image. Presidents Washington and Jefferson both wrote to Baptist groups. The revivals so augmented Baptist growth that by 1800 they had become the largest denomination in America. The Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s further extended Baptist growth. Foreign mission movements took early root in America. Letters of William Carey were read at church and association meetings. English Baptist missionaries en route to India often came by way of America. These missionaries spoke in Baptist churches and the zeal for missions proved contagious.  The concern for the American Indians and settlers who followed the wagon trains westward awakened a need for home missions. Church growth called for more pastors which in turn encouraged the formation of training schools. Religious liberty brought great expansion. The background of Progress and Problem from 1800 -1845 centered around the formation of “Three Great Societies,” for foreign missions 1814, tracts and publications 1824, and home missions 1832. 
On May 18, 1814, at the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, Thirty three delegates met to form the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. Though called “convention” in constitution and function it was basically a society for foreign missions. At times called the General Convention but most often called the Triennial Convention because it met every three years. At Williams College (Congregational) in Massachusetts a group of students led by Samuel Mills became interested in missions and met regularly for prayer and discussion calling themselves “The Brethren”. One Saturday in 1806 five of these students, caught in a sudden thunderstorm took refuge in the sheaves of a haystack. This “Haystack Prayer Meeting” marked the birth of the foreign mission movement in America. There the students resolved to go beyond talk to action. After graduation most of the Brethren went to Andover Seminary, where they came under the leadership of Adoniram Judson. Judson heard a sermon entitled “Star in the East” which made a powerful appeal for missions in India. Judson knelt in the snow in 1810 and dedicated himself to missions in heathen lands. Judson appealed to congregational leaders in 1810 and they formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (first foreign mission body in America) Baptists as well as others contributed to the new work. The Board appointed Judson, Mills and Rice with their wives to be. Rice’s bride canceled after learning of his mission plans. On the long sea voyage Judson studied the Greek New Testament and concluded that immersion is the Biblical form of baptism. Luther Rice arrived on a separate ship and also embraced Baptist views. They resigned from the Congregational board and Rice returned to America to enlist Baptist support for the mission. Rice did his work well, traveling to churches and associations with his exciting message on missions. He helped form a number of mission societies and discovered others already in existence, forming a link of communication and cooperation between them. Rice conceived the plan of drawing delegates from these groups to form one nationwide mission agency.

Society Versus Convention 

Convention: is based upon churches, which send messengers and contributions to a central body, to plan and carry out Christian ministries beyond the local churches. To some degree the work of the churches is combined and emphasizes a strong central denomination. 
Society plan, by contrast, is based upon the voluntary participation of interested individuals. Membership is determined mostly by financial contributions. The societies had no official connection with the churches. Most societies were cause centered; each cause was made up of separate societies (single-barreled approach) with different leaders, different members and separate meetings. By 1832 the Baptists had 14 Missionaries in Burma; By the mid-1830’s they had opened missions in France, Germany, Greece, and China and by 1844 had 111 missionaries; 10 missionaries in Europe; 6 in West Africa, 63 in Asia, and 32 in North America, mostly among the Indians. Baptist strength stood at 720,046 members gathered in 9,385 churches with 6,364 ministers. This represents a 360 percent increase in 30 years. 

The Baptist General Tract Society

Eighteen men and seven women met on February 25, 1824 at the home of George Wood where, after prayer by Luther Rice, they formed “The Baptist General Tract Society”. It’s first year the Tract Society received only $373 in offerings but managed to issue nineteen tracts. By 1830 the Tract Society had issued almost 100 titles for a total of 1,394,000 tracts with 15,393,000 pages. In the 1830’s the society issued a hymnal. In the 40’s the name changed to the American Baptist Publication and Sunday School Society. In April 1832 delegates from fourteen states and one territory met in New York and formed the American Baptist Home Mission Society. By 1844 the society had 97 missionaries, helped supply 327 churches and mission stations, organized 551 churches and baptized 14,426 new converts. 

The Southern Baptist Convention

In May 1845, a delegation of Southern Baptists met in Augusta, Georgia, to form a separate mission agency for Baptists in the South. “Slavery was the final and most decisive factor which led Southern Baptist to form their own convention.” In 1785 the Baptist General Committee of Virginia pronounced slavery “contrary to the word of God”. Two years latter the Ketockton Association called slavery “a breach of divine law”. In 1790 the General Committee of Virginia adopted a statement calling slavery “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government; and therefore (we) recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure, to extirpate the horrid evil from the land” By 1840 Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists became divided over the issue with Virginia Baptists calling for the meeting in Georgia. The Triennial Convention even adopted a statement of neutrality on slavery. Georgia Baptists, not convinced by the repeated assurance of neutrality, introduced a test case called the “Georgia Test Case”. They nominated James Reeve, a slave owner, for appointment as a home missionary. They frankly admitted that the nomination was intended to stop the mouths of gainsayers and answer once and for all whether the society would appoint a slave owner. In response the board reaffirmed its commitment to neutrality, said that to act on a test case either way would violate that neutrality. They neither appointed nor rejected Reeve; it simply declined to act upon the matter. In the Baptist Banner, editor J. L. Waller wrote an article urging caution and delay. In his conclusion he wrote; “We wish to preserve the Union”. However, on May 8, 1845 in Augusta Georgia the Southern Baptist Convention was organized, numbering 4,126 churches and 351,951 members. Since 1845 we were no longer just “Baptists” but “Northern” and “Southern Baptists”.

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