In the 1921 centennial edition of The Baptist Courier, Professor H.T. Cook wrote, “The Baptists in South Carolina have an enviable reputation as a missionary minded people.” Passion for the salvation of the lost led Luther Rice and South Carolina Baptists William B. Johnson and Richard Furman to call Baptists to unite for missions. It was Johnson who proposed the meeting that formed the Triennial Convention in 1814, the first national organization of Baptists in America. When Johnson summoned Savannah-area Baptists to support the new Foreign Missions movement, one hearer called it “the most able appeal in behalf of Baptist missions which was written by anyone in that period.” The delegates from the various associations and mission societies met in Philadelphia in 1814, and they elected Richard Furman as their first president.
The Triennial Convention met every three years but had limited success in promoting the missionary cause effectively. A state convention was needed in South Carolina to elicit support for missions and to establish cooperation in the work. In 1821 there were seven associations in the state, and the call was sent out to all of them to join together in one statewide convention. According to historian Victor Masters, the formation of churches cooperating together is “a remarkable achievement.” However, that did not come easy.
Of the seven associations in South Carolina, only three sent delegates in 1821, nine in all. The formation and growth of the state convention was an uphill battle among Baptists. Masters argued that many pastors were “fearful of centralization” and “abounding in individualism.” He suggested that “nine-tenths of them looked upon a state convention with indifference, while many of them regarded it a dangerous innovation.” Historian Joe King claimed that “strong faith was required to go on” with the plan for cooperation.” They would assign Johnson to write a letter to encourage support for their endeavor.
In his “Address to the Churches,” Johnson tried to arouse South Carolina Baptists out of their indifference. “We would excite you to exertion,” he wrote, “Be active. Quit yourselves like men. For great will your reward be here; far greater your reward in heaven.” Johnson pleaded: “We have proposed to you a plan” and “invited your cooperation.”
According to Masters, “the prime thought of the fathers in organizing associations was fellowship, but the chief intent which led to the state organization was service.” Sure, the “internal needs” of the state are “first in its heart,” but the convention has always “looked outward toward Samaria and the uttermost part.” With this as their noble aim, the Baptist leaders in the state pressed on with their plans to form the convention and sought to make sure that it would not die. They fought to prove their integrity to doubting pastors and churches, and they persevered for the sake of “missionary service among the destitute.”
This is the noble task of the state convention. It unites the churches to seek and to save the lost in its borders and beyond. “The State body is central in our Southern Baptist scheme of co-operative organization,” Masters wrote, for “the State Convention fills a crucial and indispensable place.” It would be 1835 before another association would finally join in with the work. Innovations do not always catch on quickly, and some should never catch on at all, but things that are worthwhile are worth our every effort. Cooperating together in a way that helps reach more lost people with the gospel is profoundly worthwhile. South Carolina led the way in the innovation of state conventions, and the task was worthwhile. The state convention still stands in “a crucial and indispensable place” in the critical work of gospel proclamation and kingdom advance.
— Josh Powell is senior pastor of Lake Murray Baptist Church in Lexington and president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.