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
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.
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
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
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
Geographically Based Financially Based
Denominationally Benevolence Centered Church Based Individual Based
Many Benevolences Single Interest
Distributed to all Distributed to One
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”. *