Faced with the question of the abolition of slavery—which was everywhere and in every way a religious movement—many Christian denominations in the United States of America experienced bitter factionalism over the question of slavery. Before long, the splintering of denominations into branches North and South was a widespread and common phenomenon. In 1860, over 80% of Southern Christians self-identified with one of just four denominational families: Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. The Episcopal church was prominent predominantly in the South, and had been since Colonial days, so it had no major North-South tension. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were the three major denominations transcending the Mason-Dixon Line. All three of these denominations split in the years leading up to the War Between the States.
We sometimes think about Southern Baptist history with blinders on, as though the histories of other denominations do not matter. But they DO matter. The fact that every major denomination of Christianity in the South made a break with abolitionists and sided unequivocally with manumission is tremendously important. It shows that the explanation for this phenomenon is nothing unique about Baptists. This is a story about Southern culture, in which Southern Baptists have participated deeply, but only as one culture-bound denomination among others.
That the Southern Baptist Convention came into existence over the question of slavery and adopted for itself such a regional name is, you see, really not that interesting of a question and says very little that is unique about the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists, to their shame, and in the same way as every other denomination, were swept along with the culture to embrace racism. All we Southern Christians became Jonah.
The cause of the SBC's racist past was, at its root, the intense longing to keep pace with culture that is ever our temptation. The great need of the hour in the 1840s was for Southern Baptists to dare not to do what would make the denomination more acceptable in the culture and gain us favorable ratings from the outside. We needed to take a poll, find out what people wouldn't like for us to do, and then do precisely that.
The Methodist Episcopal Church South remained separate from 1844 until 1939, when it reunited with Northern Methodists (among others) to form The Methodist Church (a precursor of the present-day United Methodist Church). The Presbyterian Church in the United States lasted longer, waiting from 1861 to 1983 before merging with the PCUSA. Of course, one might argue that the Presbyterian Church in America represents a continued separate existence of Southern Presbyterianism.
For a while, some Southern Baptist leaders seem to have been presuming that Baptists North and South would eventually repair the breach. It might be accurate to label this the "Southern Baptist Theological Seminary" faction of the convention, although such a name would necessarily refer to SBTS in the long-ago past and would be no reflection on the current state of the seminary. Southern relocated after the war to Louisville, a border-state city just a vigorous swim from indisputable Yankeedom. Edgar Young Mullins came to the helm of Southern from a lengthy tenure among the Northern Baptists. Southern Baptists authors at the Louisville campus around the turn of the century sometimes published works with the northern American Baptist Publication Society, from which a number of Southern churches purchased material as well. Mullins's adaptation of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession to serve as the SBC's Baptist Faith & Message came just as Northern Baptists were considering the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession themselves (a proposal which eventually failed on the floor of the Northern meeting). The New Hampshire confession was the most likely doctrinal statement to serve as a reunification platform for Baptists North and South.
Southern and Northern Baptists jointly negotiated their missions work through comity agreements at Fortress Monroe, VA; Washington, DC; and Old Point Comfort, VA. Although the breaches of these comity agreements by the SBC's membership probably contributed to the widening gap between Southern and Northern Baptists, the initial negotiation of them revealed the desire among the SBC's leadership to maintain more than harmony with the Northern Baptists—a desire to keep the door open for eventual reunion.
But, although the other North & South denominations reunited, Baptists remained separate. Why?
That, in my opinion, is indeed an interesting question. If you came to this post expecting an essay arguing against or for a name-change for Southern Baptists, then I guess you're beginning to be disappointed at this point. As interesting as the question of our name might be, I'm far more intrigued by the question of why we've managed to maintain this separate existence for so long (and with such apparent success). A number of explanations are possible.
Maybe it's still about slavery, and we Southern Baptists are just more perniciously and persistently racist than the Methodists and the Presbyterians in the South. Certainly, there are any number of people who think this of the Southern Baptist Convention (among those both without and within our denomination). There's a certain desperation today to wash our denominational hands clean of the blood of the slaves. And although measure after measure passes in the affirmative by the strength of just that promise, none of those adopted measures ever seem to satisfy anybody. "We need to do something! Let's apologize. OK, good. But I'm still not satisfied. We need to do something! Let's adopt quotas for representation in our leadership. OK, good. But I'm still not satisfied. We need to do something. Let's change our name to break with the past…"
And if any of these things would really undo the past, they would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, if they would successfully cover over past sin, then the cross of Christ would be only one among other options. The only remedy for past sin is found in the grace of Jesus Christ, and not in resolutions or programs. The best response we could make to those who recall what past Southern Baptists did would be to proclaim that, by the grace of God, we've been forgiven, and that in that, praise be to God, we're not alone.
Does our past racial sin explain why we never reunited with the Northern Baptists? To explain our separate existence as Southern Baptists, one must demonstrate that Southern Baptists have been and are significantly MORE stubbornly racist than are Southern Presbyterians and Southern Methodists. One must show that Southern Methodists in 1939 held remarkably progressive views on race vis-a-vis their Baptist neighbors, and likewise for Presbyterians in 1983.
That's a tall order, and I've never seen any evidence supporting such a theory. I don't think this is the answer.
Maybe it's just a function of our polity Methodists and Presbyterians are more hierarchical than Baptists are. Maybe it is harder to get the masses to agree to reunion (which Baptists would have to do) than it is to convince the relatively few people in leadership to do so.
There's some evidence to support this theory. Certainly the idea of reunification with Northern Baptists has been, at times, far more popular within certain circles of the SBC elite than it has been among rank-and-file Southern Baptists. E.Y. Mullins and our other leaders might have stitched us back together with the Yankees a couple of generations ago if it had lain within their power (although such speculative history is dangerous).
And yet, our polity has, in most cases, tended not to make us move in a totally different direction from the Methodists and Presbyterians. Usually it just makes us move more slowly than they do, but in the same direction. In the case of reunification with the North, Southern Baptists are steadily moving away from the slightest possibility of that ever happening, and have been moving in that direction for well more than a century. Whatever might have been the case once upon a time, at this moment not even the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention gives evidence of any support for reunification with Northern Baptists.
Polity is not the explanation.
Maybe the factors that caused us to BECOME the Southern Baptist Convention are different from the factors that caused us to REMAIN the Southern Baptist Convention. And I think that's the correct answer. At this date, the dissimilarity between the average Southern Baptist church and the average ABC church is striking.
Being Southern Baptist has, over the past century and a half, consisted of much more substance than simply being "the Baptist group who supported slavery." We derive a portion of our identity from the fact that we are Baptists, and these are items that all Southern Baptists who are true Baptists share with all true Baptists in other places and in other groups. Over the course of our history, however, we have accumulated a number of things that constitute a distinctively Southern Baptist identity. These things exemplify what it means to be Southern Baptist.
The Cooperative Program. The only people I know who don't value the Cooperative Program and recognize it as one of the major distinctives of the Southern Baptist Convention…are people INSIDE the Southern Baptist Convention. This manner of funding cooperative endeavors has been the genius of our missionary efforts—a great gift from God to our convention.
Anyone who does not wholeheartedly participate in the Cooperative Program either does not understand what it means to be Southern Baptist or disdains what it is to be Southern Baptist.
Biblicism. Even in our liberal days, Southern Baptists have (generally) been more conservative than our Northern counterparts, seminally with regard to our view of the Bible. John D. Rockefeller rebuffed repeated attempts by E.Y. Mullins to persuade Rockefeller to make a major donation to Southern Seminary. One factor involved was that the Rockefeller family (eventually pastored by Harry Emerson Fosdick), regarded Southern Baptists as too conservative.
Certainly since 1979 Southern Baptists have earned a strong identification with biblicist, conservative theology. And yet even if one were to take the position that 1979 was the birth of this movement among Southern Baptists, one must concede a lengthy and highly visible period of gestation (and I think that it was something more than that).
Revivalism, Evangelism, and Missions. Northern Baptists have been more closely identified with liberal "social justice" pursuits. Southern Baptists have, since the earliest days of the denomination, been more zealous for the conversion and spiritual vitality of the individual person than with the reform of society or the physical well being of the individual.
There is no nice way to say it: Northern Baptists have been abysmal failures at the spreading of the gospel. Southern Baptists spread (somewhat) into Northern Baptist "territory" not as an army breaches a wall and invades a stronghold, but as nomadic tribes wander into empty space and occupy it. Southern Baptists have come into many of these areas at the invitation of those who lived there and were entirely underserved by Northern Baptist apathy.
Southern Baptists have done much better, now realistically pursuing a goal to adopt every known unreached people group and to mobilize our members to reach them with the gospel. Such an attempt is hard to imagine within the ABC.
Education. Yes, it's true that many people will lampoon Southern Baptists as an unlettered, anti-education people. Such caricatures are not based in fact; they are simply the natural function of Southern Baptist conservatism. The default position of an unthinking liberal is always to denounce conservatives as stupid.
And yet, the fact remains that even today Southern Baptists have one of the most robust and well-populated networks of seminaries in the Christian world. This denomination that does not require ANY educational minima for people to serve as pastors has nevertheless placed a very high value on the formal training of those who serve our local churches.
These passions may not describe every individual Southern Baptist, but they have become part of the fabric of our collective identity. However and why ever we began, we remain and are vital today because of these things (and perhaps others that I did not have the energy to catalog in this post). In our origins, we were wrong. God chose to redeem us and the bless us anyway. There's something of the story of the gospel in those facts, isn't there? Certainly that's my testimony as a believer: a wrong start intercepted by the grace of God and turned into something else.
As an individual believer, it would be anti-gospel and disrespectful of the work of Christ if I were to dwell constantly on the sinfulness of my beginnings. My job today is to praise Jesus Christ and to honor Him for what He has done in my life subsequently, as well as to rejoice in the hope of what is to come. I feel the same way about the Southern Baptist Convention. I do not wallow in remorse over the wrongful things done by Southern Baptists who were my great-grand-ancestors in this family of faith. I celebrate the grace of God. I praise His name for what He is doing among us, and for what He has promised to do among us as we remain faithful. Forgetting what lies behind, I want to press on.
I'm thankful that the Southern Baptist Convention still exists separately. I'm thankful to be a part of this Southern Baptist story. I hope that I can remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and fall asleep in Christ someday as a faithful and grateful Southern Baptist.