In the mid 1800s, the Baptists were the last of many Protestant denominations to divide into southern and northern factions. On May 8, 1845 there was a meeting held in Augusta, Georgia, of what would soon become known as the Southern Baptist Convention. The eight states of Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Kentucky were represented at the meeting. Four more states, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee who were unable to send delegates, dispatched letters expressing their opinions of the separation. It seems the precipitating cause in producing this division had been the refusal of the General Missionary Convention of Baptists, popularly known as the Triennial Convention, to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Though the "peculiar institution" of slavery appears to have been the cause of this urgent meeting, upon closer examination, one will see that a myriad of causes existed for formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).It was in this context of general church division and disagreement over the best ways to join with other churches in supporting missions that the Southern Baptist Convention was born. By 1845, most Baptists in the south came to the conclusion that the best method was the “associational method” as opposed to the “societal method”. This meant a more denominationally-oriented mindset, as opposed to leaving it up to each local congregation to determine for itself how it wanted to invest its mission dollars. Article II of the original Constitution of the SBC reads as follows:
The propensity for division among Baptists in the United States was certainly not a new condition in the mid 1840s. Many issues in the past had been catalysts for division and numerous events had caused ruptures among Baptists. The anti-mission controversy was one of the first disputes to cause a split among the Baptists. Due to the westward movement of the American people during the late 18th century, a new frontier was established. Baptists soon began to see a need to send missionaries to the frontier to proclaim "the glad tidings of salvation to the heathen." This area, already filled with Baptists, seemed to be rich in opportunity, but soon a controversy emerged that would plague the frontier from 1820 to 1840. One of the main reasons for this conflict was jealousy. Frontier preachers were usually uneducated and many times illiterate. When missionaries from the east began to arrive, the frontier preachers feared losing their congregation to their urbane and educated counterparts. As a result, these frontier preachers began to speak to and influence their congregations against missions. Furthermore, the leaders of the anti-mission movement were often Calvinists or hyper-Calvinists and believed it wrong to try to actively evangelize to or convert the lost. They thought missionary societies were unscriptural and were against the man-made establishments of Sunday school and theological seminaries. The antimissionists were also fierce believers in the autonomy of individual churches and feared the control of the more sophisticated eastern churches.
It shall be the design of this Convention to promote Foreign and Domestic Missions, and other important objects connected with the Redeemer’s kingdom, and to combine for this purpose, such portions of the Baptist denomination in the United States, as may desire a general organization for Christian benevolence, which shall fully respect the independence and equal rights of the Churches.Almost certainly, the most influential person in Baptist life at this time was W. B. Johnson. Tom Nettles writes the following:
No single individual had more to do with determining the nature of the Southern Baptist Convention than W. B. Johnson ... That Johnson was the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention surprised no one who was familiar with his unparalleled qualifications. As early as 1813, when Johnson was about 30, he discussed with Luther Rice the formation of a general body of Baptists to support foreign missions. This discussion later bore fruit in the formation of the General Missionary Convention, known more familiarly as the Triennial Convention … When in 1845 division in the ranks of the General Missionary Convention became inevitable, Johnson, who served as president of that Convention during the years 1841-1844, became a leading figure in the new organization for Baptist in the South. Not only was he elected president of the consultative convention which met in Augusta, May 1845, but he was elected first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a position he held until 1851.I have copied below a few relevant excerpts from W. B. Johnson’s 1845 SBC Address to the Public
A painful division has taken place in the missionary operations of the American Baptists. We would explain the origin, the principles and the objects of that division, or the peculiar circumstances in which the organization of the Southern Baptist Convention became necessary. Let not the extent of this disunion be exaggerated. At the present time it involves only the Foreign and Domestic Missions of the denomination ... In particular, a special rule of the Constitution defines who may be missionaries, viz: “Such persons only as are in full communion with some church in our denomination; and who furnish satisfactory evidence of genuine piety, good talents, and fervent zeal for the Redeemer’s cause.” Now, while under this rule the slaveholder has been, in this turn, employed as a missionary, it is not alledged that any other persons that those above described, have been appointed. Moreover, the important post of a superintendent of the education of native missionaries, has been assigned, with universal approbation, to the pastor of one of our largest slaveholding churches ... III. OUR OBJECTS, then are the extension of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the glory of our God. Not disunion with any of his people; not the upholding of any form of human policy, or civil rights; but God’s glory, and Messiah’s increasing reign; in the promotion of which, we find no necessity for relinquishing any of our civil rights. We will never interfere with what is Caesar’s. We will not compromit what is God’s. The objects will appear in detail on the face of our Constitution, and in the proceedings, which accompany this address. They are distributed, at present, between two acting Boards for Foreign and Domestic Missions, having their respective seats at Richmond, Va., and Marion, Ala. We sympathise with the Macedonian cry from every part of the heathen world,--with the low moan, for spiritual aid, of the four millions of half stifled Red Men, our neighbors; with the sons of Ethiopia among us, stretching forth their hands of supplication for the gospel, to God and all his people ... Our eyes and hearts are turned with feeling of parental fondness to Burmah and the Karens; with a zeal in which we are willing to be counselled by God and all considerate men, (but by none else,) to the continent of Africa, and her pernicious fountains of idolatry, oppression and blood, but yet more, with unutterable hope and thankfulness, to China and her providentially opened ports, and teeming thirsty millions ...A few thoughts of mine...
The issues which face us as Southern Baptists today are not new. We have always struggled with how to best join with other members of the Body of Christ to fulfill the Great Commission. Although there is much in our past for which we should be proud, there is much for which we should be ashamed as well. The 1995 Convention's Resolution on Racial Reconciliation was a big step in the right direction. However, after 161 years of SBC history, we are still working at the objective of "extension of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the glory of our God" while not at the same time falling into the trap of "disunion with any of his people."