Northerners have been moving south for centuries. They come seeking a new life and new opportunities.
Such was the case with a group of Baptists from Maine more than 300 years ago.
Pastor William Screven and some of his congregants, looking to cash in on a strong shipbuilding economy, arrived in Charleston in 1696. As they had done with other religious groups, the staunchly Anglican city welcomed the Baptists so long as they could make a positive contribution to the financial health of the colony.
Given the relatively recent formation of the Baptist movement, Screven’s group was not permitted to establish a meeting house on Church Street as the Presbyterians and Lutherans had done. Instead, they opened their doors a block away. In short order, however, the erstwhile church planters launched a church that would soon become a movement, one that now spans the globe.
The church that was the first Baptist church in the South, and would one day become the First Baptist Church of Charleston, found a ready audience in Charleston. As the only Baptist church in the area, the group brought together believers representing two doctrinally different Baptist traditions. Those of a General Baptist background gladly worshiped with those whose soteriology firmly placed them in the Particular Baptist camp. This unity remained in place until the church drew up its first confession of faith, at which time the General Baptists withdrew and formed their own church in Stono a few decades later.
While such division seems counterproductive, such healthy attention to theological convictions and corresponding statements of faith served the kingdom of God well, preserving the faith commitments of both groups while advancing the Baptist cause across the region.
FIRST BAPTIST ASSOCIATION IN THE SOUTH
As this was taking place in the South, Baptists in the Middle Colonies were also coming together for the sake of the gospel. Churches along the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania began to form about the same time as the one in Charleston. By 1707 these congregations did something very Baptist: They united under a common cause and formed the Philadelphia Association.
Their stated goals, like those of our own associations today, were to provide guidance for the associated churches, to aid in the identification and education of a qualified body of ministers, to advance the cause of missions, and to promote unity and fellowship among a group of like-minded Christians. Key to the fulfillment of these goals was a common confession of faith. The Philadelphia Association introduced a modified version of the Second London Confession of Faith in 1724 and formally adopted it in 1742.
These two stories merged a decade later. Following decades of slow growth that saw the planting of other churches in Charleston, Pastor Oliver Hart of First Baptist led the churches in the region to follow the example of their northern brethren. In 1751, they formed the first Baptist association in the South — the Charleston Association — on the model of the Philadelphia Association. They adopted their confession of faith, a slightly revised version of the Second London Confession of 1689.
BAPTISTS IN THE SOUTH FOLLOW CHARLESTON’S EXAMPLE
Other Baptists in the South did the same. Virginians asked the Philadelphia Association for help and followed its lead in forming an association united around a common statement of faith.
Baptists in North Carolina, emerging largely from the General Baptist tradition, followed suit and joined the others as well. Even the now well-known Sandy Creek Church, which experienced explosive growth in the 1750s, planted churches, formed an association, and published their confession of faith — one that shared many similarities with their neighbors to the North and South.
GROWTH AND TAKING THE GOSPEL TO THE NATIONS
This growing sense of theological unity among Baptists continued into the next century. Propelled by exponential growth that accompanied the Second Great Awakening and a new commitment to global missions exemplified by the Baptist Missionary Society in England, Baptists in America began to form their own missionary societies in the early 1800s.
By 1814, Baptists from the North and the South saw the value of closer cooperation for this cause and formed the General Missionary Convention. A common concern for evangelism and a common theology held the group together for decades, until the tension that eventually sparked the Civil War became too great to overlook any longer.
RISE OF THE SBC
Thus, in 1845, Southern Baptists came together in Augusta, Ga., to plot a new course for global missions. Led by William B. Johnson, one-time president of the General Missionary Convention, delegates from across the region voted to form a new convention — the Southern Baptist Convention — around the principles of cooperation for the purpose of reaching the unsaved, both at home and abroad.
While Johnson himself denounced creeds, the 4,000-plus churches that constituted the new convention shared a common cause and a common faith — one that would find its expression in various confessions faith beginning in 1859 and finally culminating in 1925 with the publication of the Baptist Faith and Message. In spite of a history of theological skirmishes along the way, like the first Baptist association in the South, it is these two features — a common mission and common doctrine — that hold the SBC together today.
— Peter Beck (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor of Doorway Baptist Church in North Charleston and as associate professor of Christian studies at Charleston Southern University.