Southern Baptist Convention

The largest non-Roman Catholic religious body in America. It is a voluntary organization of Baptist churches contributing financially to the programs of its various agencies. According to the constitution of the SBC, its purpose is to organize Baptist churches “. . . for promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the kingdom of God.” The Convention neither claims nor exercises authority over any other Baptist body, whether local church, association, or state organization.

Baptists in the southern USA trace their origins to New England, and the Southern Baptist Convention to the older nationwide Triennial Convention. Baptists became the largest denomination in the South largely because of the great revival of 1755-75 and the work of Shubal Stearns (d.1784), a man of remarkable natural gifts and a profound sense of mission. A spinoff of the Great Awakening in New England, under Stearns's able leadership Baptist missionaries won thousands of people to Christ on the southern frontier in this period. In 1814 the Baptist churches of the South joined with those of other parts of the country to form the Triennial Convention, a nationwide Baptist fellowship organized to promote missions, education, and youth work.

However, the Triennial Convention faltered in the pre-Civil War period and the southern churches withdrew to form their own organization. Three factors led to this breakdown of national Baptist life. First, there was a basic difference between North and South over the associational principle, Southerners tending to place more emphasis on the role of the association. Second, many Baptist leaders in the South objected to the neglect of their region by the Baptist Home Mission Society, one of the agencies of the Triennial Convention. Third, foremost, and the precipitating cause of the split was the question of slavery. This divisive problem cut deep into American life because it was at once a political, economic, social, moral, and religious issue. When Baptist abolitionists insisted that slaveowners be ineligible to serve as missionaries, and some Northerners even suggested that their brethren in the South withdraw from the Triennial Convention, Southern Baptists met in Augusta, Georgia, in May 1845 to discuss the matter. Churches from eight states and the District of Columbia sent 293 representatives who voted to form the new Southern Baptist Convention.

The growth of the fledgling SBC was slow but steady in the period 1845-61. However, it suffered badly as a result of the Civil War (1861-65) and the subsequent withdrawal of its black members to form Negro Baptist churches. In the latter half of the nineteenth century it also was rent by quarrels between antimissionary Calvinists and evangelistically oriented general Baptists (the latter won), and between Landmark exclusivists and ecclesiastically unstructured elements (which was indecisive). In the early twentieth century the Convention emerged from these disputations strongly committed to evangelism and largely untouched by the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy then raging in most of the other major denominations. Through it all, the SBC grew from 4,126 churches with 351,951 members in 9 states in 1845, to 34,441 churches with 11,826,463 members in all 50 states in 1971.

Southern Baptists hold the same basic beliefs as most other Baptist groups throughout the world: (1) the Bible as the sole norm for faith and practice in the Christian life; (2) a regenerate church membership safeguarded by baptism of believers only, and that by immersion; (3) autonomous local churches with Christ as the Head and democratic polity; and (4) religious liberty buttressed by the institutional separation of church and state. Above all, Southern Baptists are known as “people of the Book,” meaning the Bible. Although rejecting binding creedal statements, messengers to the 1925 meeting of the SBC adopted a general confession known as “The Baptist Faith and Message” intended as a consensus document “for the general instruction and guidance of our own people” but “having no authority over the conscience.” Individual Southern Baptists have the reputation of being devout, aggressively evangelistic, relatively strict Christians whose lives are oriented about the Bible and the fellowship of the local church.

The main features of Southern Baptist life include a heavy emphasis on evangelism and missions, a tradition of ministry to the common people, and a deep independent streak. The SBC's interest in evangelism is reflected in its steady growth and missions expenditures of $160,546,250 in 1971. Southern Baptists also claim a long tradition of eloquent evangelistic preachers, which includes more recently George W. Truett (d.1944), Robert G. Lee (b.1886), W.A. Criswell (b.1909), and Billy Graham* (b.1918). Further, many frontier observers recorded of the Baptist minister that “the common people heard him gladly.” This is still largely true of the SBC, although there is some evidence of increasing class consciousness and a growing ecclesiastical inferiority complex in a few of the more affluent churches in the South. As far as independence is concerned, any annual gathering of the Convention clearly demonstrates that it is one of Southern Baptists' most cherished prerogatives.

In addition to normal growing pains, a number of serious problems face today's Southern Baptist Convention including how to deal with Landmarkism (especially the issues of “open Communion” and alien immersion); how to fulfill its new role as a national rather than a regional organization; how to decentralize its national agencies in accordance with historic Baptist principles without destroying their effectiveness or their contributions to Southern Baptist life; and how to shift from a fundamentally rural-oriented to a basically urban-oriented strategy for preaching the Gospel.

The Convention accomplishes its work through its Executive Committee, four general boards (Foreign Mission, Home Mission, Sunday School, and Annuity), six seminaries, seven commissions (American Baptist Seminary, Brotherhood, Christian Life, Education, Historical, Radio and Television, and Stewardship), two standing committees (Denominational Calendar and Public Affairs), and three associated organizations (Women's Missionary Union, Baptist World Alliance, and American Bible Society). Along with a number of other Baptist bodies, it also supports the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Washington, D.C., which acts as both a watchdog and an informational clearinghouse for political matters of concern to Baptists.

W.W. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 1854-1953 (1954); Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists (2 vols., 1958); W.L. Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (1961); R.G. Torbet, A History of Baptists (rev. ed., 1963); S.S. Hill, Jr. and R.G. Torbet, Baptists North and South (1964); H. Wamble, “Landmarkism: Doctrinaire Ecclesiology Among Baptists,” Church History XXXIII (December 1964), pp. 429-447; O.K. and M.M. Armstrong, The Indomitable Baptists (1967); W.R. Estep, Jr., Baptists and Christian Unity (1967); R.B. Spain, At Ease in Zion: A Social History of Southern Baptists, 1865-1900 (1967).