Missions and Expansion

From its beginnings in England and the Netherlands in the early 17th century, the Baptist tradition soon spread to the colonies of the United States as Baptists sought freedom from religious persecution. Before turning to the United States, however, attention must be given to mission efforts that extended from the cradle of the Baptist tradition--that is, from England.

The first Baptist missionary society was established in Kettering, England, in 1792. Its purpose was simple and straightforward: to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to people in other lands who had not heard, in the hope that they would come to believe and trust in Christ for their salvation. The first persons appointed to fulfill this mission were William Carey (1761-1834) and John Thomas (1757-1801).

Carey was a former cobbler who had become a Baptist pastor. Compelled by a vision to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond the confines of his native England, Carey, his wife Dorothy, their four children, and Dorothy's sister departed for India in 1793. Joining them in their work was a surgeon, John Thomas, who had already done medical work in Bengal. During forty years of service in India, Carey established Baptist churches, founded a college, and became a highly skilled linguist, translating the Bible into Bengali and creating evangelistic literature (pamphlets and booklets presenting the message of Christianity) in many languages, as well as dictionaries and grammars in several languages. Carey's many accomplishments and service are widely known and he is often regarded as the father of modern Protestant (not just Baptist) missions. It should be noted, however, that George Leile, a former slave in America who was freed for Christian ministry, returned as a missionary to and pastor in his native Jamaica in 1778, several years before Carey went to India.

The Baptist Missionary Society has continued its work into today, and is now known as BMS World Mission. The scope of their work has long included a wide range of activities, including evangelization (communicating the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ), education, medical services, and community services. Beginning in the early 19th century, the mission extended its work to countries such as the West Indies, the Cameroons and the Congo, China, Pakistan, Zaire, Angola, and Brazil. Today, they continue their witness and work in over forty countries on four continents.

As noted above, some Baptists pursued freedom for their beliefs and practices in the early 17th century by leaving England for the North American colonies. Upon settling in North America, however, they once again faced persecution, from Puritan colonies in the north and Anglican-dominated colonies in the south. Nonetheless, from the late-1630s, when the first Baptist church in America was formally established, through the late 18th century, Baptist churches and associations were established in most of the colonies and regions in the emerging United States.

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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