Lesson 10: Baptist Organization and Growth in the 1800s
Richard Furman, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina, addressed the Triennial Convention in 1814. His address best illustrates the mindset of Baptists in the 1800s:
Within the last few years, it has pleased the good spirit of our God to awaken in his churches a serious concern for the diffusion of the Saviour’s cause. Numerous, and in some instances large associations of Christians have been formed for the purpose: considerable sums of money have been collected; Bibles and religious tracts are extensively and gratuitously circulating, and the hope which thousands cherish that the glory of the latter days is at hand, is as operative as it is joyous.
The 1800s was an exciting century. We find that Baptists were motivated by the Great Awakening and missions work. William Carey’s mission work in India was circulated in magazines. British missionaries taking the western route to India would stop in America and speak of the need for foreign missions.
Baptists kept pace with certain theological errors that crept into the century. In order to accommodate the Arminian Baptists, a new confession was drafted, the New Hampshire Baptist confession in 1833. In some quarters, the Arminianism developed into Unitarianism, a belief that all people will eventually be saved. Gaustad captures the Universalists’ thought and their disdain for Calvinism.
“. . . by the second half of the eighteenth century, some theologians and popular preachers turned away from what seemed a rigid exclusivism to a more merciful and encompassing universalism. If Calvinism emphasized the justice of God, Universalism extolled his benevolence, explaining that God loved all, Christ died for all, and ultimately all would be saved.”1
Baptists also had the threat of Mormonism which swept across the states. Cambellites taught that baptism was necessary for salvation. Masons developed secret societies and Sabbatarians practiced legalism.
Missions work at home
Why it was established? As discussed in the last lesson (page ), many associations were developed in the 1700s. Richard Furman encouraged a unified effort so that these associations could work together for missionary activity. The technical name for this convention was The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. This convention met every three years, hence it became popularly, and more easily known as The Triennial Convention. Its stated purpose was for the “diffusing evangelistic light through benighted regions of the earth.3”
What did it accomplish? By 1817, the convention published The American Baptist Magazine to promote the cause of the convention and the labors of its missionaries. Most well known missionaries of the times were Adoniram Judson and William Carey.
That same year, during the Triennial Convention gathering, Luther Rice read reports of William Carey’s mission work in India and Adoniram Judson’s work in Burma. It was decided at that convention that one such missionary go to the Missouri Territory, John Mason Peck (1789–1858).
John Peck was born in a Congregationalist home. By 1811, he and his wife rejected infant baptism and became convinced through Scripture that believer’s baptism was to be practiced. They joined a Baptist church in New York.
They served in the St. Louis, Missouri area by establishing Sunday Schools, teaching, preaching, and publishing a newsletter – The Pioneer. In 1827 he founded Rock Springs Seminary which he later (1832) moved to Alton, Illinois and renamed it as Shurtleff College.
Peck served two terms in the Illinois legislature and is credited with abolishing slavery in that state.
What happened to the convention? The convention was also involved in establishing Columbian College. It was not long before this college became part of a controversy. Columbian College had fallen into heavy debt, primarily because of the “loose accounting” of Luther Rice. Luther Rice, traveled throughout America raising money and pledges for the college. He purchased land, built buildings, and borrowed money without authorization from the Convention. Though he was cleared of fiscal criminal activity, his actions raised concern among many churches in the South. As a result, the Convention lost much support from the Southern churches. In 1826, it relocated to Boston, Massachusetts and providentially gained the support of the New Englanders.
A second controversy resulted in a definitive separation in the Triennial Convention. The south and north were divided primarily on the slavery issue. Hence, the Baptists of the north and those in the south parted ways. In November 20, 1845, it was renamed to “The American Baptist Missionary Union”
The missionary impulse was so great that during a recess of the Triennial Convention, the American Baptist Home Mission was organized. The Triennial Convention was favorable to the new mission work for the Triennial Convention wanted to focus its efforts over seas. The ABHM focused on Home missions.
One such missionary with the newly organized American Baptist Home Mission was Jacob Bower. He primarily worked in Illinois. The following describes his view of mission work and the sacrifice it required in the “thinly settled regions.”
“A Missionary must be possessed of a good share of patience and fortitude . . . . I have recently made a tour in Pike company a thinly settled region, – where in 16 days, I preached 27 times. Sometimes I would ride 8 or 10 miles and meet about a dozen hearers, who in general seemed to be thirsting for the waters of life . . . . The cause of Missions within the range of my travels is not flattering. I have not been able to do much in the field for some time back. The Cholera, that dreadful scourge, has visited Illinois; many towns have been almost evacuated. It was found necessary to suspend our preaching, except twice on Saturday and Sabbath . . . . Under these circumstances, the poor missionary must wear out his clothes, his horse and saddle, his body, lungs, and voice, and spend his whole living, and get no help from those who pretend to love him so well.4”
The Baptist General Tract Society was born in Washington D.C. in 1824. The idea came from a Noah Davis who witnessed another man carelessly removing his hat which was filled with tracts. The tracts spilled all over the floor. The Tract Society was formed to “disseminate evangelical truth, and to inculcate sound morals, by the distribution of tracts.”5 This Society is now known as The American Baptist Publication Society which publishes far more than tracts.
Baptists developed a passion to evangelize the “pagans” in America. They left the colonies and moved West to establish churches as far west as the Mississippi River.
“The strength of the Baptist appeal on the frontier lay in the accessibility of its theology to those of little education or sophistication. The farmer-preacher was a commonplace among frontier Baptists . . . he could be found in great numbers, along the sparsely settled frontier. . . . The theology was accessible, and the minister as well. The Bible was also accessible, along with rivers or creeks for the ritual of Baptism.6“
Missions work overseas
Adoniram, like so many other Baptists, was born in a Congregationalist home. He had the “unusual gifts of concentration, extended labor, and mental alacrity [liveliness].”7 His brilliance became his idol. He attended Providence College (now Brown University). At the university, Judson linked with an intellectual skeptic, William Eames, who persuaded him to abandon his religion. Through the providence of God, Judson heard the agonizing, fearful moans of his friend as he passed away.
Softened by this experience, Judson accepted his father’s counsel and enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary. At Andover, Judson’s mind was challenged by the well explained truths of God’s word. He acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord on December 1808.
While at Andover, Judson developed a friendship with some others who already devoted themselves to missions work. One of the men was Luther Rice. Upon graduation, these two men joined a Congregational society for foreign missions and were commissioned to Calcutta, India. Judson took his wife Ann. Rice’s fiancé, opposed to missions in a foreign land, abandoned him.
They left for the mission field in 1812 during the war. Rice and the Judsons boarded separate ships to increase the chance that at least one of them would arrive. While sailing to India, Rice engaged in a debate with another passenger regarding baptism. Hence, Rice rejected his belief in infant baptism. Likewise, Judson, reading through his Greek New Testament became convinced of believers baptism. When they arrived in India, they concurred on the subject of believer’s baptism. They knew this would set them at odds with their mission society and lead to a drop of their support. Ann Judson’s words sum up their concerns well:
Can you, my dear Nancy, still love me, still desire to hear from me, when I tell you I have become a Baptist? If I judge from my own feelings, I answer, you will, and that my differing from you in those things which do not affect our salvation will not diminish your affection for me, or make you unconcerned for my welfare. You may, perhaps, think this change very sudden, as I have said nothing of it before; but, my dear girl, this alteration hath not been the work of an hour, a day, or a month. The subject has been maturely, candidly, and, I hope, prayerfully examined for months.8
When the Judsons and Rice arrived in Calcutta, India, they were baptized. Rice agreed to go back to America to cut off their connection with the Congregationalists and solicit support from the Baptists. This he did. He was one of the great leaders who formed the Triennial Convention. From that time forward, Rice served in America, raising support and preaching across the states about missions. Lest we think he chose to remain in America for its comforts, consider the following:
Rice swam rivers, braved snowstorms, endured the heat, and at times detoured to avoid hostile Indians or bandits, lodging in homes along the way when he could find them, under the open sky when he could not.9
The Judsons disassociated themselves from the Congregational mission work and served under the Triennial Convention. The Judsons were expelled from their mission work and began in Burma.
Their mission work in Burma was difficult. Judson was imprisoned. Just after his release from prison, Ann passed away. He remarried twelve years later. His second wife died after eleven years of marriage. He married again, only to see his third wife die within a few years.
Judson’s tenacity and perseverance demand our attention. He returned to America in 1846 for only one year, after having spent 33 years on the mission field. He was sought out to speak in many churches. However, because of a throat ailment, he could not speak. He composed his messages while others spoke them.
Judson not only increased missions in the minds of Americans, he provided the Burmese with a grammar book and left them with the entire Bible in their own language.
Baptists continued to grow in spite of the theological difficulties and social ills (i.e., slavery). Church historian, Robert Torbet identifies four factors for Baptist growth in the 1800s:
- interest in foreign missions,
- home mission concern,
- and prayer.”10
How does this factor in numbers? In 1832, 14 missionaries were in Burma. By 1838, the number of missionaries increased to 98. That means in six years time, 84 missionaries were sent to the field. Growth continued for by 1841, 129 missionaries were on the fields.11
It should come as no surprise that the Baptists increased in their numbers. The following table illustrates the continued growth.12
The Great Awakening and the mission work of the English Baptists encouraged the growth and mission-oriented mind of American Baptists. We find the following important lessons in this period of history:
1. Mission work abroad encourages mission activity at home.
2. Mission work abroad is based on solid ministries at home.
3. Mission work at home is often as difficult as mission work abroad. Acts 20.22–24
4. Pray for souls to be converted. 1 Timothy 2.1–4
1 Edwin Gaustad, A Documentary History of Religion in America to the Civil War, 280.
2 McBeth, History, 344.
3 From Proceedings
4 Annual Report, American Baptist Home Missionary Society, 1835, 13–14. Cited in McBeth, Sourcebook, 225.
5 Daniel Stevens, The First Hundred Years of the American Baptist Publication Society, 114. Cited by McBeth, History, 361.
6 Gaustad, History of Religion, 386
7 Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory, 148.
8 Letter to a friend, September 7, 1812.
9 McBeth, History, 351.
10 Torbet, 332.
11 Torbet, 337.
12 Noll, History, 153.