The question of whether denominations are really necessary often arises in my Baptist History and Heritage classes. Averse to what they perceive as staid institutionalism or red-tape bureaucracy, students tend to categorize denominations as a generational matter and thus look for something new for the present.
These motives are not entirely uninformed or born from ignorance as there are plenty of generational traditions that every new generation discards. We’ve done it and so did our parents and grandparents.
However, in this case it is always a delight to inform students of the primary reason Baptists in this country ever saw the need to form a national denomination. They were motivated by something they called their “one sacred effort” – churches of all sizes cooperating together for the purpose of global missions. And, I quickly argue, that is the foremost reason why we should have, support, build and be proud of a national denomination today.
This question especially comes to mind at this time of year when the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention gather for their annual meeting, happening right now (June 10) in Baltimore.
But it is also relevant because we are at the 200th anniversary of the start of the first Baptist denomination in America, the Triennial Convention. Formed in May 1814, the Triennial Convention would serve as the forerunner to the Southern Baptist Convention that would originate, sadly, in 1845 over a disagreement among Baptists in the North and South over the tragic and evil practice of slavery.
The Baptists of 1814 officially called their denomination “The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America, for Foreign Missions” clearly not yet arriving at the penchant future denominations have for simple and repeatable acronyms. In fact, as this early convention set out to meet once every three years, the more natural “Triennial Convention” rose as the agreed nomenclature instead of GMCBDUSAFM.
So, why did Baptists form a national denomination 200 years ago? Here are the words from the Triennial Convention’s first constitution:
“We the delegates from Missionary Societies, and other religious Bodies of the Baptist denomination, in various parts of the United States, met in Convention, in the City of Philadelphia, for the purpose of carrying into effect the benevolent Intentions of our Constituents, by organizing a plan for eliciting, combining, and directing the Energies of the whole Denomination in one sacred effort, for sending the glad tidings of Salvation to the Heathen, and to nations destitute of pure gospel-light.”
This shared idea of marshaling the energies of churches to take the gospel of Christ to “nations destitute of pure gospel-light” was echoed through the first meetings of the denomination, May 18-25, 1814. The first president, well-known and admired Baptist statesman Richard Furman, underscored in his address that the convention “has assembled in Philadelphia … to devise a plan, and enter into measures, for combining the efforts of our whole denomination, in behalf of the millions upon whom the light of evangelic truth has never shone.”
Taking the light of the gospel to nations in darkness served as the primary motive for early American Baptists to organize and gather on a national level. As Southern Baptists meet in Baltimore, may the bicentennial anniversary of the beginnings of our forebears remind us that the Great Commission remains a good and primary reason around which churches should gather to do more together for the glory of God than we could ever do apart.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jason G. Duesing is vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.)