Post-Schism Effects on Northern and Southern Baptist Churches in 1845


Leon McBeth attributes the schism of 1845 as the main event which divided Baptists into Northern and Southern branches.”[1] The final two straws that led to this were the “Georgia Test Case” and the “Alabama Resolutions” and while 1814 marked the beginning of an era for Baptists, 1845 marked its end.[2] Part of the problem was rooted in the fact that Baptist churches were scattered with very few associations and no general organization. While the rise of the mission movement moved Baptists to begin forming structures, neither the south nor the north could agree on theology, let alone denomination and this tension was only made worse by the slavery controversy. Even after talks aimed at reunion, McBeth illustrates, “The chasm seemed wider in 1900 than it had in 1845, [and] the impact of different socioeconomic forces shaped the Baptists in the two regions into separate molds. While both entered the twentieth century with strengths, their strengths were just as different as their weaknesses.”[3]

In the north, McBeth explains the Baptist decline was a result of, “massive European immigration, the rise of organized labor, and the development of an industrial economy. In that environment, they developed different methods of evangelism and different emphases in theology, particularly in the Social Gospel which emerged late in the century”[4] With over 250,000 immigrants coming to America between 1790 – 1820, the north faced a unique challenge as 20 million new immigrants arrived between 1880 and 1900 for an average of 1 million per year.[5] When you take what the north faced and how they reacted and compare that with what was going on in the south, McBeth illustrates, “Baptists in the south confronted a newly freed black population of about four million whose physical and spiritual needs were overwhelming. [In addition,] political turmoil, economic devastation, sharecropping, and poor healthcare were facts of life in the postwar South.” The way the Southern Baptists handled these conditions is what largely contributed to their numerical growth. For example, McBeth demonstrates, “Most of the blacks who accepted Christianity became Baptists, the influx of freed blacks and Scotch-Irish immigrants provided educational opportunities, and the camp meetings tended to fix a certain evangelical style upon Southern religion which Baptists turned to their own advantage.”[6] These factors faced by the Southern Baptists and how they were able to adapt and thrive is what most significantly led to their numerical growth.

As time went on, regional isolation, war bitterness, and different emphases in theology created a larger chasm, which could no longer be crossed. Interestingly, one would think the north would have been poised with the potential for growth and expansion given the circumstances of a rising economy and conceivable prosperity. Given this paradigm, another potential explanation for the decline of Baptists in the north could be contributed to a materialistic mindset instead of being mission focused. While the north did form the American Baptist Missionary Union (AMBU), there was and still continues to be much debate over home office versus field direction, education versus evangelism, the development of indigenous churches, and the role of women in missions. In the south, the formation of the Foreign Mission Board (FMB) got off to a great start and for years dominated other agencies partly due to it being autonomous. An early focus was on China, which eventually led to mission’s work in Liberia, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, and Japan. The FMB took missions to a new level and by 1900, McBeth notes, “They reported 6,537 members in 113 churches in six nations, with a total of 94 foreign missionaries.”[7] Ultimately, the south stayed mission focused and the north lost sight of their God-given purpose, which led to the numerical growth in the south while the materialistic north faltered. Throughout history, and even in present times, when the people of God are most persecuted and facing the harshest of circumstances, there exists a great opportunity for spiritual growth and that is exactly what happened as the north declined and the south grew numerically.


McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987.

[1] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987), 392.

[2] Ibid., 388-391.

[3] Ibid., 463.

[4] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 393.

[5] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 405.

[6] Ibid., 392.

[7] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 423.