Southern Baptist Convention

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Most early Baptists in the British colonies came from England in the 17th century, when the established Church of England persecuted them for their dissenting religious views. Baptists such as Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke immigrated to New England in the 1630s.

The oldest Baptist church in the South, First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina, was organized in 1682 under the leadership of Rev. William Screven. A Baptist church was formed in Virginia in 1715 through the preaching of Robert Norden and another in North Carolina in 1727 through the ministry of Paul Palmer. They operated independently of the state-established Anglican churches at a time when non-Anglicans were prohibited from holding political office. By 1740, there were about eight Baptist churches in the colonies of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, with an estimated 300-400 members.[6]

New members, both black and white, were converted chiefly by northern Baptist preachers who traveled throughout the South during the First Great Awakening. The early Baptist missionaries promoted equality of men and argued for manumission of slaves and abolition of the institution. Baptists welcomed African Americans, slave and free, to more active roles than did other denominations, allowing them as preachers and equal members in some congregations. As a result, black congregations and churches were founded in South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia before the American Revolution. Some managed to keep their independence even after whites tried to exercise more authority after the Nat Turner Rebellion of the early 19th century.[7]

In Virginia and most southern colonies before the Revolution, the Church of England was the state-established church and was supported by general taxes, as it was in Britain. It opposed the rapid spread of Baptists in the South. Particularly in Virginia, many Baptist preachers were prosecuted for "disturbing the peace" by preaching without licenses from the Anglican Church. Both Patrick Henry and the young attorney James Madison defended Baptist preachers prior to the American Revolution in cases considered significant to the history of religious freedom.[8] In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted in 1786 by the Virginia General Assembly. Madison later took his own ideas and the ideas encompassed in this document regarding religious freedom to the Constitutional Convention where he ensured they were incorporated into the national constitution.

Triennial Convention and regional tensions

In 1814, Baptists unified nationally under what became known informally as the Triennial Convention (because it met every three years) based in Philadelphia. It allowed them to join their resources to support missions abroad. The Home Mission Society, affiliated with the Triennial Convention, was established in 1832 to support missions in frontier territories of the United States. By the mid-19th century, numerous social, cultural, economic, and political differences existed among business owners of the North, farmers of the West, and planters of the South. The most divisive conflict was primarily over the deep sectional issues of slavery and secondarily over missions.

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