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“300 Years of Baptist Associations in America” series by Frank Lay

Following is a series on the history and significance of Baptist associations in America by Frank Lay, Associational Missions Director (AMD) for Carroll-Montgomery Association. These special articles were first printed in the Baptist Record each week from May 10, 2007, to June 21, 2007.

300 Years of Baptist Associations in America (1707-2007)Baptist associations – early models of cooperation

First in a series
(originally printed 5/10/07)

By Frank Lay

Baptist associations in America have existed for three hundred years. However, the roots of associational life can be traced back to the New Testament and to Baptist associations in Great Britain.

One can discover examples of churches cooperating together in the New Testament. When the first Christian church at Jerusalem heard that Gentiles had received the Gospel in Antioch of Syria, they sent Barnabas to investigate and to encourage the new believers (Acts 11).

Later, the church at Antioch looked to the Jerusalem church for assistance in answering doctrinal questions. False teachers had disrupted the Antioch church by insisting that Gentile believers be circumcised according to the Law of Moses in order to be saved. The church at Antioch sent messengers to consult with the Jerusalem church regarding this issue.

After considerable discussion (Acts 15), the Jerusalem conference decreed that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that Gentile circumcision was not necessary for salvation.

During Paul’s ministry at Ephesus, the Gospel penetrated much of Asia (see Acts 19:10). Churches were also planted at Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae. A careful study of Scripture reveals a connection between these four churches (see Colossians 4:14, 16). Paul wrote to the church at Colossae, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16).

While the letter to the church at Laodicea has been lost, many Bible students believe that the letter to the Ephesians was actually a circular letter intended to be read by all the churches in the region.

Further examples of cooperation among believers can be found among 17th century British Baptists. In 1624, General Baptists took the lead in organizing for fellowship and to repudiate Mennonite views with which they disagreed. However, by 1626, they sought fellowship with the Waterlander Mennonites.

In 1644, seven Particular Baptist churches, which were more Calvinistic in their doctrine, adopted a confession of faith to distinguish themselves from the Armenian theology of the General Baptists. This confession known as the First London Confession was very influential in early associations in America.

In 1651, thirty General Baptist Churches met and formed a pattern for future Baptist associational meetings. By 1655, the title “Association” became widely recognized by both General and Particular Baptists.

Seventeenth-century British Baptists held to three primary beliefs that carried over to associational life in America. First, they strongly believed in the priesthood of the believer. Secondly, they believed in the authority of the local church to handle its own matters. Thirdly, they believed that local church autonomy did not negate the value of cooperation.

Though each church was independent, like-minded churches were willing to cooperate with each other. Baptist historian Walter Shurden points out four unifying factors which contributed to Baptist cooperation:

In time, Baptists from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland began migrating to New England. In Great Britain, Baptists had shared persecution with the Puritans. However, Baptists were persecuted by the Puritans in New England. In time, many Baptists left New England and found religious freedom in the Middle Colonies.

The first Baptist association in America was organized in 1707. From there, Baptists began proclaiming the Gospel to different parts of the young nation.

Associations gain foothold in growing Baptist movement

Second in a series
(originally printed 5/17/07)

By Frank Lay

Religious persecution was often severe towards Baptists in New England. It was illegal for Baptists to preach about the New Birth or to practice believer’s baptism. The predominant Puritans demanded religious liberty for themselves but denied it for others.

Early Baptists in New England were often forced to pay tithes to the state-controlled church. Since Pennsylvania and New Jersey offered religious liberty, a number of Baptists migrated to the middle colonies in search of freedom. Most of these Baptists were English, though a number were from Wales and Ireland.

Irish preacher Thomas Dungan and Englishman Elias Keach soon started Baptist churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersery. Keach was the son of well known London preacher Benjamin Keach. Although he wore the garb of a clergyman, Elias Keach was apparently not a Christian upon his arrival from London. Because he was the son of a famous preacher, Keach received an invitation to preach newly organized Pennepack Church in Pennsylvania. However, Elias Keach soon came under conviction by his own preaching and was genuinely converted and baptized by Thomas Dungan.

Afterwards, Keach became such an effective preacher that the membership of the Pennepack church extended to towns throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Soon daughter churches were formed including what became the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia.

As early as 1688, joint meetings of the regional churches were held for the purposes of baptizing, ordaining ministers, and providing inspirational preaching. These meetings became known as the “yearly meeting” since they were held annually. Then at the annual meeting held at Philadelphia on July 27, 1707, five churches from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware met and organized the Philadelphia Baptist Association.

The first Baptist association in America was patterned after earlier British associations. Like their British counterparts, the Philadelphia association was loosely organized and placed a strong emphasis on the autonomy of the local church.

During its early years, the Philadelphia association was primarily concerned for the survival of the small, struggling churches. Even after fifty years, only three of the 29 member churches had more than one hundred members. Nineteen of those had less than 50 members.

There was also limited education among both clergy and laity. Churches often had to look from within their own membership to call out ministers. Religious education was limited to sermons and Bible reading. Very few books and pamphlets were available.

Early minutes of the association contained practically no references to mission activity because the main focus was on survival. Through the association, the stronger churches were able to assist the weaker ones.

During the second half of the 18th century, however, the Philadelphia association began appealing for the churches to cooperate in fulfilling the Great Commission. Through cooperation, the association could accomplish what no single church could do alone. This gave rise to an emphasis on ministerial education, religious liberty, and missions.

The Philadelphia association soon began sending itinerant missionaries into the southern colonies and into Canada. As a result, Baptists soon gained a foothold in the middle colonies. In time, the Philadelphia Baptist Association included churches from Connecticut to Virginia.

The model of associational life developed by the Philadelphia association became known as “The Philadelphia Tradition.” Subsequent associations including Charleston in South Carolina, Sandy Creek in North Carolina, and the Mississippi Association followed The Philadelphia Tradition.

After three hundred years of existence, the Philadelphia Baptist Association is comprised of 123 member churches and is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches (USA).

Over 1200 associations are currently connected with Southern Baptists.

Baptist associational movement takes southward turn

Third in a series
(originally printed 5/24/07)

By Frank Lay

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Philadelphia Baptist Association began sending missionaries into different parts of the American colonies. The Philadelphia association played a vital role in the formation of other associations. In 1751, the second Baptist association in America was organized in Charleston, South Carolina. The Sandy Creek Baptist Association was organized in North Carolina in 1758. Both the Charleston and Sandy Creek Baptist Associations continue to be active today.

The first Baptist church in Charleston, South Carolina, was actually organized in Kittery, Maine, under the leadership of Pastor William Screven. Screven had been a member of the Baptist church in Boston, but because of persecution from the Puritans, he led a group of believers to southern Maine in 1682 and formed the first Baptist church in that colony.

However, persecution from the state church continued. In 1686, Pastor Screven and twenty-eight members of the church in Maine emigrated by boat to Charleston and established the first Baptist church in the southern colonies.

In 1749, a young minister named Oliver Hart left the Philadelphia association and became pastor of the Baptist church in Charleston. Influenced by his connections with the Philadelphia Baptist Association, Hart invited representatives from Charleston, Welsh Neck, Ashley River, and Euhaw Baptist churches to meet and organize the first association in the South.

The Charleston Baptist Association was organized in 1751. Hart introduced to the fledgling association the principles he had learned from the Philadelphia association. In the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth century, Baptists from the Charleston association would play a prominent role in introducing Baptist work in the Southwestern part of the Mississippi Territory.

Shubal Stearns was a Baptist preacher who had been converted under the preaching of George Whitefield. Stearns received a letter from a friend inviting him to North Carolina where there was not a Baptist preacher within a hundred miles. Accepting this as from the Lord, Stearns and several others journeyed through the Shenandoah Valley and across the Blue Ridge into North Carolina. Settling at Sandy Creek in 1755, they organized the Sandy Creek Baptist Church and built a church building even before constructing their own homes.

Stearns was a fervent preacher who preached hard against sin and followed the example of George Whitefield in proclaiming the necessity of the new birth. Stearns had a dream of sending out preachers and planting churches throughout the South. By 1758, the Sandy Creek Baptist Association was organized. The Sandy Creek association was birthed during a period of revival known as the Great Awakening. From its beginning, the association had a heart for missions that reached far beyond their local geographic area. In 17 years, the Sandy Creek association became the mother, grandmother, and great grandmother of 42 churches from which sprang 125 ministers of the Gospel. In fact, by 1770 the Sandy Creek association had grown to the extent that they formed two new associations, one in South Carolina and the other in Virginia. The churches in North Carolina preserved the Sandy Creek name.

The first three associations in America contributed greatly to the rapid increase of Baptist churches in America. In time, Baptist associations encouraged the formation of state conventions. In 1821, representatives from three associations met and organized the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Six of the nine representatives present at that meeting were from the Charleston Baptist Association.

Nine state Baptist conventions were in existence prior to the organization of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.

Baptists settle in Miss., start association

Fourth in a series
(originally printed 5/31/07)

By Frank Lay

To escape the ravages of the Revolutionary War, a group of Baptists led by Richard Curtis, Sr., fled their homes in South Carolina, and migrated to the Natchez Country in what is now Mississippi. Because of the strong Catholic influence of the ruling Spaniards in Natchez, the immigrants settled along Cole’s Creek about 20 miles north of Natchez.

Following the death of Richard Curtis, Sr., his son Richard, Jr., became the spiritual leader of the settlers and led religious services in homes throughout the community. In October, 1791, seven Baptists met in the home of Margaret Braid Stampley and organized the Salem Baptist Church in the village of Stampley. Richard Curtis, Jr., who had been licensed by the Welch Neck Baptist Church in South Carolina, was called as pastor. Because of its location, the Salem Baptist Church has often been referred to as Cole’s Creek Baptist Church.

William Hamberlin, a prominent citizen, and Stephen DeAlvo, a Spaniard, were among Richard’s first converts. Since Richard was not ordained, his home church in South Carolina granted permission for the Salem church to designate someone to conduct the ordinances. The members at Salem appointed Curtis, who then baptized Hamberlin and DeAlvo.

The baptism of DeAlvo, a former Catholic, infuriated the Spaniards. Curtis later presided over the marriage of his niece which further incensed the Catholics against the tiny congregation. Because of persecution the Salem church often conducted secret services away from the prying eyes of the authorities. Lookouts were posted to warn the congregation whenever the authorities were approaching.

Curtis, Hamberlin, and DeAlvo were forced into exile or else face imprisonment in the silver mines of Mexico. For a time they hid in the home of a friend in Bayou Pierre near Port Gibson. Fearful of the Spanish threats, the members at Salem were afraid to help the exiles with their escape. Thanks to the heroic efforts of a courageous lady named Chloe Holt, the fugitives received horses and supplies and began their journey up the Natchez Trace and on to Curtis’ former home in South Carolina.

During his exile, Richard Curtis was ordained and duly authorized to constitute a Baptist Church upon returning to the Cole’s Creek.

When the United States gained control of the Natchez Country, religious freedom was granted in the Mississippi Territory. The members of Salem quickly built a house of worship constructed with logs. Upon his return in 1798, Richard Curtis led in a formal constitution of the church which had existed since 1791.

By 1805, five new churches had been planted in the southwestern Mississippi Territory. In September 1806, representatives from five of the six churches gathered at Salem and organized the Mississippi Baptist Association.

Mississippi Baptists in the 21st century certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Curtis, Jr. and to the Salem Baptist Church. By the grace of God, the mother church for Baptists in southwestern Mississippi survived tremendous obstacles during her first years of existence.

Other churches came into being as a result of her influence. Moreover, Salem took the initiative in organizing the first Baptist association in Mississippi.

Though Salem Baptist Church had triumphed over the persecution of the Spaniards, it was internal conflict which ultimately led to her demise. Twice, Salem petitioned the association for assistance in resolving conflicts. When over half the membership withdrew from the church in 1823, Salem never regained her influence.

On August 29, 1834, the mother church of Mississippi Baptists officially disbanded.

Associations flourish as Miss. gains statehood

Fifth in a series
(originally printed 6/7/07)

By Frank Lay

Under the administration of the United States, religious freedom was granted in the Mississippi Territory. This opened the door to a new wave of immigration into southwestern Mississippi. From 1800-10, the population increased from 8,850 to 40,352. A number of the new immigrants were Baptists and soon helped organize new churches.

Salem Church had already begun a new church at Bayou Pierre near present day Port Gibson. In 1800, New Hope Church in Adams County and Bethel Chruch at Bayou Sara near Woodville were organized. In 1805, New Providence Church and Ebenezer Church were begun in Amite County.

Several of the immigrants were acquainted with the Charleston Baptist Association and encouraged the formation of an association in Mississippi. Salem Church invited representatives from the churches to a meeting for the purpose of organizing an association. Representatives from five churches met in August or September 1806, and formed the first Baptist association in Mississippi. Unfortunately, no minutes were kept of the first meeting. The new organization became known as the Mississippi Baptist Association, and celebrated 200 years of existence in 2006.

Five churches were represented at the next associational meeting at Bethel Church in 1807. Saturday and Sunday were spent in public worship and concluded with the Lord’s Supper. The business session began on Monday at 10 a.m. with the associational sermon. Moses Hadley was elected moderator, and Robert Tanner was elected clerk.

It is interesting that the five churches in attendance represented less than 100 members. By 1812, the number of churches had increased to 14. By the time Mississippi became a state in 1817, there were 33 churches in Mississippi Association.

Mississippi Association was very mission minded from its inception. In time the association included churches in Louisiana and in all 14 counties which then comprised Mississippi.

The Bayou Pierre church organized the first African church in Mississippi. However, the state legislature forced its closure. Members of the African church were integrated into the white churches. In 1817, the association sent Thomas Mercer and Benjamin Davis to work with the Creek Indians. However, Mercer died on the journey, and the project ended.

As the association covered such a large territory, it became necessary to divide. In 1817, churches west of the Mississippi River were dismissed from the association to continue Baptist work in Louisiana. By 1820, the churches north of the Homochitto River petitioned for dismissal from the association in order to form Union Association (September 1820). Churches east of the Pearl River also petitioned for dismissal from the association, in order to organize Pearl River Association. Pearl River Association grew rapidly, and by 1836, there were 33 member churches.

In February 1824, representatives from Pearl River, Union, and the Mississippi associations met at Bogue Chitto to organize the Mississippi Baptist State Convention. However, the first attempt at a state convention resulted in failure due to the anti-missionary influence of the hyper-Calvinistic Hardshells and the Campbelites. While these two groups were different in theology, they were united in their opposition of missions.

The associations were forced to deal with the anti-mission spirit. As a result, a number of churches as well as ministers were dismissed for their views.

In September 1836, Ashley Vaughn began publishing The Southwestern Religious Luminary. Vaughn called for the formation of a state convention. Mississippi Association called for a meeting on December 23-24, 1836, at Washington Church for the purpose of organizing a state convention. In spite of inclement weather, ten Baptists met and organized The Convention of the Baptist Denomination of the State of Mississippi.

Associations’ role key in promoting churches, missions

Sixth in a series
(originally printed 6/14/07)

By Frank Lay

Baptist associations have contributed greatly to the development of Baptist work in America. The first association in America began when five small churches came together to organize the Philadelphia Baptist Association. From those humble beginnings, Baptist work began to flourish in America. In time the Philadelphia Association formed additional associations in Maryland, New, York, Delaware, and New Jersey.

The early associations made tremendous contributions to the development of Baptist work in America in several different ways. First, early associations helped strengthen local churches. The first associations were organized to:

Through associations, churches worked together for mutual encouragement.

Secondly, early associations contributed to the formation of new churches and associations across America. In time, the Philadelphia association began supporting itinerant missionaries who planted churches in many states and Canada. The Charleston Baptist Association was formed in 1751 as a result of the influence of the Philadelphia association.

From the beginning, the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina (1758) had a heart for missions that reached far beyond its local geographic area. During her first 17 years, forty-two churches were formed as a result of Sandy Creek. One hundred and twenty-five ministers were called out of the Sandy Creek area. By 1770, the Sandy Creek Association had grown sufficiently to form new associations in Virginia and South Carolina.

The first three associations contributed to the rapid growth of Baptists in America. There were fewer than 20 Baptist churches in 1700. Within 100 years, the number of churches increased to more than 2000.

Thirdly, early associations contributed to the society approach to missions. William Carey has been known as the “Father of Modern Missions.” However, Baptist associations were sending out missionaries and planting churches long before William Carey preached his famous sermon to the Kettering Baptist Association meeting in England in 1792.

Carey’s sermon, entitled “Expect Great Things from God, Attempt Great Things for God,” challenged the Kettering association to organize the first cooperative mission society. This led to the formation of The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Heathen. In 1804, this lengthy name was changed to the Baptist Missionary Society. Though the first mission society was not an agency of the association, it was definitely a product of it.

By 1814, Baptists engaged in two basic approaches to mission work. The associational approach involved a denominational body with churches as its base. The society approach was supported by interested people as well as contributing churches. The later denominational approach to missions depended upon cooperating churches as well as special offerings.

Fourth, early associations contributed to the formation of state and national conventions. In 1776, a movement to form a Continental Association failed because of the Revolutionary War. In 1814, Baptist associations were instrumental in organizing the Triennial Convention to support mission causes. The Triennial Convention later divided over the issue of slavery. In 1821, representatives from three South Carolina associations formed the South Carolina State Convention. Nine Baptist state conventions existed at the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.

Baptist associations in the 21st Century continue to contribute to the spiritual health of local churches. In addition, churches in cooperation can continue having a positive impact on local communities. During these days of seeming decline, contemporary associations must recover the missionary vision of the first Baptist associations.

Associations’ authority, role settled early

Seventh and final in a series
(originally printed 6/21/07)

By Frank Lay

Baptists have often grappled with the issue of the power of a Baptist association over a local church. They have often asked and debated the question, “What authority does the association have over local churches?”

In wrestling with this question, the Philadelphia Baptist Association asked Benjamin Griffith, pastor of Montgomery Baptist Church in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to write An Essay on the Power and Duty of an Association of Churches. What Griffith wrote in his essay became a pattern for later Baptist associations in America. In his research, Griffith arrived at three principal conclusions regarding the authority of an association over local churches.

First, the Baptist association must never lord it over the local church. Griffith affirmed that each church is an autonomous body. He stated, “Each particular church hath a complete power and authority from Jesus Christ, to administer all gospel ordinances…, to receive in and cast out, and also to try and ordain their own officers, and to exercise every part of gospel discipline and church government, independent of any other church or assembly whatever.”

Early Baptist associations were much more concerned with local church autonomy than with associational authority.

Second, local church autonomy does not mean that associations have no authority at all. Just as the local church is an independent body, the association is also a self-governing body with the authority to withdraw fellowship from churches and individuals seen to be defective in generally accepted doctrine or practice.

However, Giffith emphasized that associations do not have the power to deliver deviate churches over to Satan. The authority of the association is limited to the right to withdraw fellowship from a church that deviates from acceptable faith. Moreover, the association has the right to withhold membership from churches that do not measure up to the ideals of the association. The association, however, does not have the right to “de-church” a local body of believers.

Baptist associations recognize that the local church has the right to exist apart from the action of the association.

Third, the association can advise churches on proper procedures and beliefs in ecclesiastical matters. The early associations were often called upon to advise local churches with their questions. The local church could choose to accept or reject the counsel of the association. However, rejection of the association’s recommendations, especially concerning doctrinal matters, often led to the exclusion of that church from membership in the association.

As a basis for doctrinal agreement, the Philadelphia Baptist Association adopted the London Confession of Particular Baptist as its statement of faith. Based on the London Confession, the association often served as an ordination council, and examined the credentials of itinerant preachers. Heretical or immoral ministers would be disciplined and even excluded from the association.

Griffith cited the first church council in Acts 15 as a Biblical basis for such actions by the association. In Acts 15, some false teachers had taught the young church at Antioch that circumcision was essential for salvation, and that Gentile believers must be circumcised in order to be saved. The church at Antioch sent messengers to the church in Jerusalem in order to discuss and settle this matter. The council that convened in Jerusalem affirmed that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ.

On September 19, 1749, the Philadelphia Baptist Association approved Griffith’s essay as a model for the association to follow. The essay was signed and affirmed by all of the delegates present at that meeting.

Griffith’s essay became a model for subsequent Baptist associations in America.

Lay is associational missions director for Carroll-Montgomery Association in Winona. He may be contacted at