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Religion Library: Baptist

Missions and Expansion

Written by: David Buschart

As the United States grew, so did Baptist evangelism and mission efforts.This included some mission efforts to one of the groups--Native Americans--who were kept "outside" the emerging American society.In 1795, Elkannah Holmes was appointed by the New York Baptist Association as a missionary to the Iroquois Indians.This kind of vision for carrying Christianity into the expanding frontiers of the United States, including the Native American peoples who lived there, led to the creation of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society in 1832.Missionaries included Almon C. Balcone, a Native American, who was appointed to minister to native peoples in the southwest.

Also to be noted is the history of the relationship of the Baptist tradition with the other major "outside" people group of North America--African slaves, and then later African Americans.The first African American Baptist church was established by George Leile (c. 1750-1800) in Georgia in 1778.Leile was a freed slave who had been taken from his home in Jamaica.As noted above, shortly after founding this church, he returned to Jamaica as a missionary and pastor.In contrast with more centralized and more formal (particularly liturgically more formal) Christian traditions, the Baptist emphasis on local autonomy and relative informality made the tradition more accessible to slaves and African Americans.As a result, there were numbers of African American independent (and segregated) Baptist congregations, even in the south, by the beginning of the 19th century.

The majority of Baptist churches in the United States formed the General Missionary Convention in 1814.The convention largely disintegrated in 1845 over the issue of slavery.Some Baptists recognized the evil, others did not.It was at this time that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, and, in the north, the American Baptist Missionary Union (1846-1907).In the 1880s, African-American Baptists began to establish their own churches and organizations, often including "National" in their organizational names and plans.In 1907, the Northern Baptist Convention was formed.

Also in the 19th century, overseas missionary work was a major catalyst to and expression of growth for the Baptists.Within a decade of the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society in England, the first Baptist missionary society in the United States was formed in Boston, largely due to the work of a layperson, Mary Webb (1779-1861).The first missionary convention for African American Baptists, which placed greater emphasis on mission to Africa, convened in 1840.

In addition to carrying the Baptist message overseas, mission work served as a catalyst for cooperation among Baptist congregations in the United States.In fact, there was so much cooperative activity that some Baptists opposed the idea of extra-church societies (that is, societies that transcended individual local congregations), among the most visible of which were various mission societies.Some Baptists also opposed mission endeavors in general, believing that they posed a challenge to divine sovereignty, which would save those whom God chose to save (and not save those whom God did not choose to save) without aggressive missionary endeavors.

In the long run, the Baptist tradition found a genuine home in North America.The early persecution Baptists experienced in the American colonies only deepened their commitment to religious freedom, and they in turn were a major force in seeing that the principle of religious freedom became embedded in American law and society.And, the Baptist emphases on freedom, on individual conscience, and on local autonomy proved to be a perfect "fit" in a country and society where analogous democratic values and principles prevailed.


Study Questions:
     1.    Where did the first Baptist Mission efforts take place? What was the outcome?
     2.    What is the Baptist Missionary Society? Where does it operate, and what is its goal?
     3.    Describe the Baptist mission efforts to the native population of North America.
     4.    How did mission work operate abroad, and domestically? Why were some opposed to it?
     5.    Why could it be said that the Baptist tradition found a home in North America?


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