William Loyd Allen
Lecture, Baptist Heritage Lecture Series
March 3, 2015
In 2006, the Georgia Baptist Convention severed its ties with Mercer University, ending a 170-year-old relationship between the two. When the news broke, a student in one of my classes asked: “Dr. Allen, what happens now that Mercer is no longer a Baptist school?” Tonight’s lecture grew out of that question. The Baptist ministerial student who asked it did not understand Baptist affiliation. Baptist affiliation is how Baptist churches work together to get things done.
I thought this would be a good topic for tonight’s lecture because in July 2014 Campbellsville University stopped letting the Kentucky Baptist Convention choose your trustees and the Convention responded by escrowing Kentucky Baptist funds designated for the university. I hope this lecture will clarify what this separation means for Campbellsville’s Baptist identity. This lecture is not about Campbellsville University, but I hope to place your current situation into context by explaining the nature of Baptist affiliation historically, particularly Southern Baptists’ affiliations.
First, let me affirm that Baptists have always considered affiliation with other Baptists essential to being Baptist. Every Baptist congregation is connected to every other Baptist church through Christ. In 1611, original Baptist pastor Thomas Helwys wrote: “In respect of Christ, the Church be one.” Throughout history, Baptists have not questioned whether Baptist churches should affiliate with each other, but how they should do so.
In the 1600s, autonomy of the local congregation was the guiding principle of affiliation. The 1700s was the century of Baptist associations, and the 1800s the age of the societal method of Baptist affiliation. The twentieth century brought the era of hierarchical conventions. The primary means for Baptist affiliation in our current century, the twenty-first, is not yet settled, but it is clear that the denominational convention method is past its prime.
1600s: The Age of Autonomy
Since their beginnings in the 1600s the starting point for Baptist affiliation has been local church autonomy, what Walter Shurden calls “church freedom,” in his book Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Baptist congregations have always demanded freedom from outside authorities. This local congregational autonomy means every Baptist congregation is completely self-governing and thus free to obey Christ without interference from other church institutions. In most denominations, it is normal for higher authorities to control the identity and operation of their local congregations through bishops, presbyteries, popes, or other hierarchies, but it is not normal for Baptist congregations. In the words of the Baptist World Alliance Commission on Baptist Heritage: “A local church . . . is fully the church, not a branch of some national or wider institution.” Baptist churches are not franchises subject to some larger ecclesiastical corporation. Baptist churches are more like a locally owned mom and pop bookstore than a branch of Barnes and Noble. A Baptist congregation has everything it needs to do and be church without any outside help, including that of associations, state conventions, or national conventions. No outside person or group has authority to direct a local Baptist congregations’ ministry or mission.
This does not mean Baptist churches cannot affiliate with associations, state conventions, or national conventions to do things such as support Baptist universities, but it does mean they do not have to do so in order to be Baptist. It is their choice whether or not to affiliate, because each congregation is free to cooperate as they feel led by the Holy Spirit expressed in congregational discernment. John Smyth, co-pastor of the original Baptist church wrote in 1610: Each “little company of the faithful” is “endowed with the power of Christ” so that the “last appeal” is to “the body of the church.” There is no higher appeal for the local Baptist church than the decision of the congregation. Period.
John Smyth and Thomas Helwys’s original Baptist congregation, founded around 1609, believed this principle was in line with New Testament churches. They asserted this church freedom in the face of persecution from the English government and the established English church, both of which thought the state and higher church authorities had the right to rule over local churches. Helwys died in King James the First’s prison for refusing to accept the authority of the king or the Anglican church in local church matters. The 1600s are the century of Baptist struggle to affirm the principle that Baptist affiliation must be voluntary if it is to be biblical.
So far, I have asserted two principles of Baptist affiliation: first, that Baptist identity requires affiliation between congregations. Baptist churches are not independent churches but cooperative churches. Second, each Baptist church or organization affiliates from a stance of voluntary freedom, not submission to the rule of a higher organization, be it church or state.
The 1700s: The Age of Baptist Associations
Associational life characterized Baptist affiliation in the 1700s. Baptist associations began as groups of Baptist churches voluntarily associated together for fellowship, consultation on doctrinal and practical matters, and pooled resources to do together what no one church could do alone. For example, Baptist churches affiliated to form the Russell Creek Baptist Association in Kentucky in 1804, which founded Russell Creek Academy in 1906, now called Campbellsville University. Before 1800, though, Baptist associations were more likely to consult on issues of how to do church or what Baptists believed than to found other institutions. Associational minutes contain these questions under the name queries and report the association’s advice after discussion. Queries about the mode of baptism, the doctrine of hell, whether a guest preacher needed a letter of recommendation, slavery, and a myriad of other questions are addressed in Baptist Associational minutes. In the 1789 Salem Association minutes, the following query from Rolling Fork Baptist church, where Campbellsville University’s Dr. Dwayne Howell is now pastor, is recorded: “Query: from Rolling Fork, ‘Is it lawful for a member of Christ’s church to keep his fellow creatures in perpetual slavery?’ Answer: “The Association judge it improper to enter into so important and critical a matter, at present.”
In the 1700s, associations were the most influential institutional affiliations in American Baptist life. No national Baptist organizations existed in the United States until the 1800s. In the eighteenth century, regional associations, including the Philadelphia Association (1740), the Charleston Association (1751), and the Sandy Creek Association (1751) in North Carolina, were all essential to the organization, identity, and growth of Baptists in America. Such associations clarified normative Baptist ecclesiastical policies, social norms, and doctrinal standards for Baptist churches. They also served as reference resources for churches seeking pastors.
It is Important to note the things these Baptist associations did not do. For one thing, associations did not and could not set rules for Baptist churches. They could only give advice. As locally autonomous congregations, the churches could decide whether or not to follow that advice. Disagreeing with an association’s opinion might mean being disfellowshipped from that association, but had no bearing on the church’s Baptist identity. Second, associations seldom or never cooperated beyond their membership for Baptist causes. In the 1700s there were no Baptist state or national conventions.
The 1800s: The Era of the Societal Method
National Baptist organizations affiliated for particular causes appeared in the 1800s. The mission impulse gave rise to this next level of Baptist affiliation, the mission society. This innovation in affiliation radically changed how Baptists understood what it means to be Baptist. It shifted Baptists’ core identity away from their local autonomous congregations toward large and wealthy institutions organized on the society method, a shift that has lasted for two hundred years.
This is how it happened. At the close of the 1700s, an English Baptist named William Carey felt the call to take the gospel to people in other countries, but he was a simple shoe cobbler in a small Baptist congregation that could not afford to send him on this foreign mission. Carey developed the mission society method to fund his calling. He proposed that Baptists form a society run by a board of trustees or board of directors legally responsible for the society’s financial holdings. Membership was based on financial donations. Baptist individuals, groups, congregations, and/or associations would donate monies for a particular cause—sending missionaries in Carey’s case. The trustees would decide who to spend it on—Carey in his case. By this method, Baptist congregations affiliated in societies beyond associations in order to finance a particular cause or causes.
The society method proved fabulously successful. The first nation-wide Baptist institution in the United States, the Triennial Convention, formed in 1814 along societal lines to support Adoniram and Ann Judson’s mission in Burma. (In 1845, the Triennial Convention split over slavery, resulting in the formation of the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.) African Americans followed suit in 1895, founding the National Baptist Convention. By 2015, about twenty such institutions, or Baptist denominations as we call them, formed the North American Baptist Fellowship with a combined membership of about twenty million Baptists. (Neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor the Kentucky Baptist Convention participate in this fellowship, for reasons I will address later.) First used to send international missionaries, Baptists soon adapted society affiliation method to fund other causes such as home missions, Baptist colleges, ministerial retirement funds, religious literature and a myriad of other ministries. In 1829, the Kentucky Baptist Education Society founded Georgetown College, the first Baptist college west of the Allegheny mountains. In 1833, the Kentucky Baptist Convention was founded on the societal method.
Notice three things about Baptist affiliation in its societal or convention form. First, a Baptist society or convention is not a church. It is an organization based on voluntary financial participation in one or more causes. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), then, is not a church, though Baptist churches constitute its membership. The SBC and other such institutions exist as financial affiliations of like-minded churches. They are not a church in the sense that the United Methodist Church or the Cumberland Presbyterian Church is.
Second, as a voluntary organization of Baptist congregations based on financial contributions, a convention, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the Kentucky Baptist Convention, has no intrinsic authority over its constituent churches or over other autonomous Baptist institutions with which it affiliates for common cause. So, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Kentucky Baptist Convention affiliate closely with one another on common causes, but one has no legal authority over the other. Similarly, Campbellsville University is a Baptist entity owned and operated by its board of trustees, which has had a long, voluntary affiliation with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, but the Kentucky Baptist Convention has never owned or operated this university, nor has the Southern Baptist Convention. Unless legally and constitutionally formed as institutions owned and operated by another Baptist entity, Baptist affiliation does not imply authority of one institution over another.
Third, some Baptist institutions are related to others in a hierarchical manner, some are not, and Baptist congregations are NEVER under the authority of another institution. For example, Campbellsville University is an autonomous Baptist institution that may or may not choose to affiliate with other Baptist institutions, such as the Kentucky Baptist Convention. On the other hand, the Southern Baptist Convention owns and operates the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, due to that seminary’s legal constitution. The SBC elects Southern Seminary trustees and the school cannot change that. Shorter, a Baptist college in Georgia, is under the authority of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Mercer University in Georgia is not, due to Mercer’s charter documents. Most importantly, no higher entity owns or operates any Baptist congregation. Congregations always affiliate voluntarily or not at all. Other Baptist entities, like national conventions or state conventions or associations, can vote a Baptist church out of their organization, but they cannot remove their Baptist identity, change their ministers, or repossess their property (unless they default on a debt to another Baptist institution).
By the end of the 1800s, the most influential Baptist ministers were no longer pastors. They were employees of Baptist conventions, where the money and influence had accumulated through the society method. Baptist identity had shifted toward non-congregational, non-church structures, though Baptist congregations remained autonomous and still affiliated voluntarily.
The 1900s: The Age of Convention Hierarchy
The twentieth century was the age of centralized convention hierarchy as Baptist affiliation continued to concentrate power, money, and influence higher and higher up in denominational structures. Hierarchy in this context means a system in levels of authority, or ordered from lesser to greater from bottom to top. You might picture a hierarchy as an institutional pyramid with rising levels of authority from the lower levels to the capstone. The Roman Catholic Church has such a hierarchy of clergy ranging from the local priest to the bishop to the archbishop to the pope. An example of a government hierarchy is the county government, which is subordinate to the state government, with the federal government ruling over both.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the prime example of this hierarchy trend in Baptist affiliation. Many Southern Baptists to this day believe the nature of Baptist authority and identity flows from the top down: from the Southern Baptist Convention to the state conventions to the associations down to the local church. This misconception is the source of my student’s question when the Georgia Baptist State Convention severed ties with Mercer University: “Dr. Allen, what happens now that Mercer is no longer a Baptist school?”
I say a misconception, for in fact, none of these Baptist institutions—the national convention, the state convention, the association, nor the Baptist university—has any organic authority over any of the others, least of all the local Baptist congregation. All affiliation between them is voluntary.
How did this reality come to be lost among Southern Baptists? It was lost in the efficient streamlining of fund raising through the Cooperative Program. The Cooperative Program is a method of eliciting contributions by asking local congregations to voluntarily give a certain percentage of their offerings to their state convention, which then gives a voluntary percentage of those monies to the national convention, the SBC. Finance committees in the state and the national convention plan the budgets for all their respective ministries and fund those budgets primarily from the Cooperative Program funds. This method, begun in 1925, made Southern Baptist institutions the envy of the Baptist fundraising world. This system established in 1925 has since funded great numbers of missionaries and underwritten the higher education of many thousands of Baptists.
At the same time, the Cooperative Program became the touchstone for Baptist identity for many Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists taught that a good Baptist was one who gave to the Cooperative Program. Baptist identity for many became synonymous with the channels of giving. Southern Baptists gave scant attention to teaching their own essential principles, such as local congregational autonomy. The denomination assumed Baptist ways were somehow fixed and could never change. But they did.
In the 1980s the essential unifying glue of the SBC changed from voluntary affiliation in support of common ministries to solidarity by uniform doctrinal agreement. Missions had been the essence of the societal method of affiliation since the early 1800s. In the Southern Baptist Controversy of the 1980s, theological uniformity grounded in the doctrine of inerrancy and its accompanying ultra-conservative views toward such things as evolution, the place of women in ministry, and other social issues became the glue holding the affiliation together. The majority of Southern Baptists voted to approve this emphasis on doctrinal uniformity as the glue for Baptist affiliation in the SBC, and acquiesced to positing the power for enforcing it in a hierarchical Baptist structure using the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as the confessional standard. This is the nature of affiliation in the SBC today, for better or for worse. Most Baptist state conventions, including the Kentucky Baptist Convention, supported the shift to new doctrinal standards and the hierarchical affiliation model that enforces them. (Exceptions are the Virginia Baptist convention and the Texas Baptist convention.) Baptists who do not affiliate by consent to the inerrancy-based theology of the current SBC and state conventions are deemed liberal. The current hierarchy has considered support for women pastors, modern historical-critical Bible scholarship, and teaching that the universe is billions of years old evidence of unacceptable liberal theology and grounds for severing affiliation. This theological narrowing is visible in the SBC withdrawal from affiliation with the North America Baptist Fellowship as well as the Baptist World Alliance, a global Baptist organization of 231 conventions and unions in 121 countries and territories.
Baptist affiliation by doctrinal uniformity under a concentrated hierarchical structure has resulted in fragmentation, which signals an end to the dominance of the old convention institutions. Some Baptist congregations and institutions chose not to give up the diversity of views inherent in the pre-Controversy era. Examples are the churches in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Virginia State Convention, Mercer University, and Campbellsville University. This trend away from centralized denominational institutions among Baptists is part of a larger decline of denominational loyalty among mainline denominations in the United States. For the first time since the introduction of the societal method, Baptist affiliation is moving toward less centralization, even as the more centralized Baptist convention structures strive to preserve their prerogatives by doctrinal uniformity.
The future of Baptist affiliation is uncertain. The bedrock principle of local congregational autonomy is a sign of hope in these difficult and transitional times. Congregations retain the power to determine their affiliations. Hierarchical authorities cannot take away the freedom of Baptist churches (or autonomous Baptist universities). Yet dangers persist. The dangers are two-fold: the first is that Baptist institutions will give that freedom away and lose their Baptist heritage; the second is that Baptists will neglect affiliation with other Baptists for common causes.
 Bob Allen, “Campbellsville Inks Pact with American Baptists,” Baptist News Global, October 22, 2015, https://baptistnews.com/article/campbellsville-inks-pact-with-american-baptists/.
 Thomas Helwys, “Thomas Helwys’ Confession,” 1611, http://baptiststudiesonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/helwys-confession.PDF.
 Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 1993). See chapter three.
 “Baptist World Alliance Heritage and Identity Statement Adopted in Zagreb, July 1989,” BWA Heritage & Identity Commission – News and Information, accessed July 19, 2016, http://www.bwa-baptist-heritage.org/HIC-ident.htm.
 John Smyth, “A Short Confession of Faith, 1610,” 1610, http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/scf1610.htm.
 See John R. Burch, Jr., and Timothy Q. Hooper, Campbellsville University (Arcadia Publishing, 2007).
 J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists: From 1769 to 1885, Including More Than 800 Biographical Sketches (The author, 1886), 42.
 See Walter B. Shurden, Associationalism among Baptists in America, 1707-1814 (New York: Arno Press, 1980).
 The official title was the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions. It met every three years, hence the nickname, Triennial Convention.
William Loyd Allen holds the Sylvan Hills Baptist Church Chair of Baptist Heritage and is Professor of Church History and Spiritual Formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He has published extensively on Baptist heritage and spirituality. His most recent publications are Crossroads in Christian Growth: The Bible and Personal Crisis (2014) and “Baptist Baptism and the Turn Toward Believers Baptism by Immersion,” in Turning Points in Baptist History: 1641 (2008). He is currently working on a short history of Christian spirituality and a comparison of spiritual formation in different religious traditions.