Southern Baptist History

Trace Southern Baptist History From English Reforms to American Civil Rights

Southern Baptist History
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The roots of Southern Baptist history go back to the Reformation in England in the sixteenth century. Reformists of the time called for a return to the New Testament example of Christian purity. Likewise, they called for strict accountability in covenant with God.

One prominent reformer in the early seventeenth century, John Smyth, was a strong promoter of adult baptism. In 1609 he re-baptized himself and others. Smyth's reforms birthed the first English Baptist church. Smyth also held to the Arminian view that God's saving grace is for everyone and not just predestined individuals.

Escaping Religious Persecution

By 1644, due to the efforts of Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, 50 Baptist churches were already established in England. Like many others at the time, a man named Roger Williams came to America to escape religious persecution, and in 1638, he established the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. Because these settlers held radical ideas about adult baptism, even in the New World, they suffered religious persecution.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the number of Baptists increased greatly as a result of the Great Awakening pioneered by Jonathan Edwards. In 1755, Shubael Stearns began to spread his Baptist beliefs in North Carolina, leading to the establishment of 42 churches in the North Carolina area.

Stearns and his followers believed in emotional conversion, membership in a community, accountability, and adult baptism by immersion. He preached in a nasal tone and sing-song rhythm, perhaps imitating evangelist George Whitefield, who had deeply influenced him. That unique cadence became a hallmark of Baptist preachers and can still be heard in the South today.

The North Carolina Baptists or Shubael followers were referred to as Separate Baptists. The Regular Baptists resided primarily in the North.

Southern Baptist History - Missionary Societies

In the late 1700's and early 1800's, as Baptists began to organize and expand, they formed missionary societies to spread the Christian lifestyle to others. These mission societies led to other organizational structures that would eventually define the denomination of Southern Baptists.

By the 1830's tension began to mount between Northern and Southern Baptists. One issue that severely divided the Baptists was slavery. Northern Baptists believed God would not condone treating one race as superior to another, while Southerners said that God intended for races to be separate. Southern state Baptists began complaining that they weren't receiving money for missions work.

The Home Mission Society declared that a person could not be a missionary and wish to keep his slaves as property. As a result of this division, Baptists in the South met in May of 1845 and organized the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

The Civil War and Civil Rights

From 1861 through 1865, the American Civil War disrupted all aspects of Southern society, including the church. Just as Southern Baptists fought for independence for their local churches, so the Confederacy fought for individual states' rights. In the Reconstruction period after the war, Southern Baptists continued to maintain their own identity, expanding rapidly throughout the region.

Although the SBC broke from the North in 1845, it continued to use materials from the American Baptist Publication Society in Philadelphia. Not until 1891 did the SBC form its own Sunday School Board, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Providing standard literature for all Southern Baptist churches had a strong unifying effect, solidifying the Southern Baptist Convention as a denomination.

During the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the SBC took no active role, and in some locales strongly opposed racial equality. However, in 1995, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, at its national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, SBC leaders adopted a resolution on racial reconciliation.

The resolution condemned racism, acknowledged the SBC's role in supporting slavery, and affirmed the equality of all people on scriptural grounds. Further, it apologized to African-Americans, asking their forgiveness, and pledged to eradicate all forms of racism from Southern Baptist life.

Sources:,,, and the Religious Movements Web site of the University of Virginia;;;

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Fairchild, Mary. "Southern Baptist History." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, Fairchild, Mary. (2021, September 16). Southern Baptist History. Retrieved from Fairchild, Mary. "Southern Baptist History." Learn Religions. (accessed June 1, 2023).