The Baptist Courier and the South Carolina Baptist Convention

“The Courier has done far more for us than we have done for it,” South Carolina Baptists concluded in a report adopted by the 1912 South Carolina Baptist Convention. The paper reported what Baptists were doing and greatly contributed to the growth of the denomination. It helped unite South Carolina Baptists and advanced the discussion of rich and valuable ideas. The paper called South Carolina Baptists to noble achievements and excellence. Above all, it called them to Bible truth and gospel labor.

Until 1920, The Baptist Courier was privately owned, and its survival was in constant jeopardy. “The paper takes all the financial risks,” the 1912 report observed, and at the same time “puts all its great wealth and ideas within our reach for a small and reasonable amount.” The paper’s peril troubled convention leaders and pointed to a long-standing dilemma. A newspaper dedicated to Baptists of the state was invaluable, but the convention could not support it financially.

South Carolina is the oldest state convention in the Southern Baptist denomination. Constituted in 1821, the convention had a very clear purpose: the Baptist churches in the state joined together to advance education and missions. The need for a denominational newspaper to support this purpose was evident from the very beginning. At the convention’s second meeting in 1822, the issue of a dedicated periodical would be discussed.

Such prominent leaders as Richard Furman, W.B. Johnson, and Basil Manly Sr. agreed to discuss the importance of religious newspapers. Those present urged Baptists to subscribe to one of several Baptist papers. Among those were two published in the North — The Columbian Star, founded that same year; and The Christian Watchman, published in Boston since 1819. The early leaders in the SCBC believed in the importance of Baptist papers.

The importance of a paper that would advance the business of “the Baptist denomination of the Southern States” became clearer with every passing year. Each meeting of the convention and decision made by the brothers there needed to succeed, the missionary task required financial backing. A newspaper would aid the transparency and accountability needed to raise missionary funds faithfully.

In 1826, leaders investigated starting a Baptist periodical in the South. The obstacle was money. The convention was not able to sustain a paper. It was committed to education, and Furman Theological Institute had just begun in 1826 — and it was under threat of folding every year because of meager finances. Convention leaders concluded in 1828 that after serious consideration “the undertaking is at this time inexpedient.” This would be the stance of the convention for almost 100 years.

This conclusion in 1828 did not stop the critical need for a Baptist paper published in South Carolina. Indeed, the need for it increased year after year. Private papers began to appear with the blessing of the convention, but without its financial support. In 1834, The Southern Baptist and General Intelligencer began. Its editor, William Henry Brisbane, was a Baptist pastor and a plantation owner. However, when Brisbane was awakened to the evils of slavery and began the process of freeing his slaves, the paper lost support and dissolved.

Some of the most visible leaders and names in the SCBC attempted to launch papers throughout the years leading up to the war — men like W.T. Brantly and The Southern Watchman, James P. Boyce and The Southern Baptist, and finally James L. Reynolds and The Confederate Baptist. All of these ceased publication, principally for lack of financial support.

While all of those papers began in the larger cities of Charleston or Columbia, and were led by well-known pastors and leaders, it was a paper of humbler origins established in Yorkville (modern York) and edited by an obscure pastor that would finally survive. The first copy of The Working Christian appeared July 1, 1869. The editor was Tilman R. Gaines, a “pastor of a struggling interest” in Yorkville. At the annual meeting, which met in Yorkville at Gaines’ own church, he was able to present the “claims” of his new paper to those present. In 1870, Gaines moved to Charleston to plant a church, and many thought the paper would disappear like the ones that had come before — but Gaines applied extra effort and gained wide respect for the paper.

Over the next several years, the paper moved from Charleston to Columbia and by 1879 changed its name to The Baptist Courier. It finally landed in Greenville, where it remains to this day. Over the years, The Courier proved its value to the Baptists of South Carolina. However, the financial support for the paper continued to be a struggle. Through the years, the messengers at the meetings of the SCBC heard the sentiment repeated: “The Courier has done far more for us than we have done for it.”

The desire for the convention finally began to grow. In 1915, pastor D.M. Ramsey of Greenville argued for a financial arrangement between The Courier and the SCBC. The paper was “absolutely indispensable for the prosecution of the business of the denomination.” It can “educate and incite our people” in supporting education, missions and convention institutions. The convention adopted Ramsey’s report, urging “one ventures nothing in affirming that The Baptist Courier is one of the ablest religious papers in the South,” and that all means should be used to place it “in the home of every Baptist family.” The report suggested that the SCBC join in financial support with The Courier.

In 1916, the SCBC decided to do just that. It voted to appoint a committee consisting of a representative from every association in the state to double the circulation of the paper. At the meeting of 1918, which was held in January 1919 because of an influenza outbreak the year before, the Report on Religious Literature again beats the drum of the importance of the paper, this time louder than before.

The report, given by J.S. Dill, listed three reasons why the newspaper must receive the support of South Carolina Baptists. First, it was the place for the Baptists in the state to find the news reported about their interests. Second, it was the “best publicity agency” for the ministry going on in the state. Third, it drove the “leadership in our denominational life,” which means it helps to “clarify thinking and give balance to our judgment.” The report closed with “the supreme plea” for “South Carolina Baptists to rally to THE BAPTIST COURIER, and give it the support it so richly deserves.”

Subscriptions grew over the years, but the financial situation remained grave. In 1919, the convention adopted J.E. White’s resolution:

“Whereas, the Convention considers The Baptist Courier a vital factor in the progress and development of our people;

Whereas, it is especially important to make permanent as far as possible the present greatly extended circulation and service of the paper among our people; therefore, it is

Resolved and herewith ordered, that the General Board as soon as possible consult the proprietors of The Courier with reference to some equitable arrangement by which the Board can directly promote its use by our people and its value as an organ of enlistment.”

After the meeting, the General Board believed it would be in the best interest of the SCBC to purchase The Courier. The price was $24,000, paid over five years. The motion was adopted after little discussion, and on Dec. 31, 1920, The Baptist Courier officially became a part of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The financial support that the convention could offer would solidify the standing of The Courier for the next 100 years. Thus, South Carolina Baptists now supported the paper that had so greatly supported them.

— Josh Powell is the pastor of Lake Murray Baptist Church in Lexington and is currently writing the updated history of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.