Review: Baptist Home Missions in North America (1883)

(image taken from the title page, a stylized logo using each letter of the American Baptist Home Mission Society’s initials: ABHMS)

In 2002, Mark Noll noted that “the history of the Baptists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a subject as scandalously neglected as had been, until very recently, the history of early American Methodism” (America’s God, 149). Nearly twenty years later, Matthew Shrader noted that “though some has been done to fill Noll’s lacuna, Northern Baptists have received significantly less historical attention than their Southern counterparts”(Thoughtful Christianity, 2). Baptist Home Missions in North America is an essential source for anyone attempting to uncover this neglected heritage (and is available for free on Google Books).

Henry L. Morehouse, ABHMS Corresponding Secretary, and editor of Baptist Home Missions in North America

The full title gives a good idea of the setting and occasion of the book: Baptist Home Missions in North America: Including a Full Report of the Proceedings and Addresses of the Jubilee Meeting, and a Historical Sketch of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Historical Tables, Etc., 1832-1882. Baptists had a habit of celebrating the anniversaries of their associations with big commemorative meetings and often published histories in conjunction with these events. The fiftieth anniversary (“Jubilee”) of the ABHMS is what occasioned this lengthy (619 pages!) book. The book has five sections: I. The Annual Report of the ABHMS for 1881–82 (pp. 9–44); II. A detailed account of the Fiftieth Annual Meeting (45–290); III. Henry Morehouse’s “Historical Sketch” (291–540); IV. Addenda (541–56); V. Historical Table covering every missionary in every state for the first fifty years (557–619).

The two largest Baptist associations in the 19th century were devoted to foreign missions and home missions, respectively. While the American Baptist Mission Union was focused overseas in countries like Burma and India, the Home Mission Society was devoted to evangelizing and spreading Baptist principles on the advancing frontier. Along the way they dealt with every issue confronting white American Christians during that time: European immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Mexicans, Native Americans, Mormons, and every other ethnic or religious group they encountered; the slavery question (the ABHMS was the society within which the great split between northern and southern Baptists occurred over slavery in 1845), the Civil War, and then the Freedmen; schools and education; the temperance movement.

In this book you can get an idea of the ideals and motivations of nineteenth century American Baptists. As discussions of Christian Nationalism and race engulf us in 2021, it’s striking to see these same issues on full display back then as well. The “Address of Welcome” gives a good sense of the way Baptist were attempting to assimilate the flood of various immigrant and indigenous groups into a single “civilized” and “Christian” society: 

“This country, that we fondly call our own, you claim must forever belong to Christ. It was founded on this principle. This republic was rooted in religion… It seems as if our country was designed to be the battle ground of conflicting customs and ideas that should gather together from all nations upon its soil for a fair and final fight… We need the infusion of foreign life and blood to make us vigorous and strong. And if with all our God-given advantages we cannot baptize them into our spirit and stimulate them in due time to the life and laws of our commonwealth, we deserve to perish… To foreign nations we say ‘Send us over your poor and degraded you would trample under foot in your overcrowded towns and cities, and on our wide plains and prairies, under the fostering light and care of free institutions, of education and religion, we will make out of them such noble specimens of manhood as never grew on your cramped and narrow soil. We have no doubt this can be done if we will only multiply our schoolhouses and churches.”

(46–47)

This kind of “progressive” Christian Nationalism is found almost everywhere on the pages of this account, and it is important to wrestle with. These Baptists understood themselves to be under “the double inspiration of loyalty to the flag of the Union and the cross of the Christ” (144). “We are aiming to Christianize these immigrants that are coming in from all parts of the earth; the Christianize them, to Americanize them, and to baptize them if we can” (202). Quotes like this could by multiplied at length, as the celebratory nature of the meetings gave expression to the optimism of these white American Christians, and their firm belief that their work had both eternal and political and social purposes in God’s plan. There is almost a Baptist manifest destiny here, as they surveyed the west and saw their duty to spread Christian civilization there.

One particular area of interest that receives full treatment is the establishment of Black colleges in the south following the civil war, many of which would go on to become HBCUs (see also“Missionaries or Presidents”? Newton Theological Institution’s contribution to the founding of HBCUs”). The dynamics involved in this are many and they are very complex. Well-intentioned white northerners moved south to help “uplift” the poor, benighted Freedmen. This was important and necessary work, what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the gift of New England to the freed Negro” (The Souls of Black Folk, 48). However, it often came with a full dose of paternalism (on which, see Derek Chang, Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century). This subject receives multiple treatments throughout the book: “Work among the Colored People” (69–95); “Labors of Baptist for the Negro in America before 1862,” “First Work of the Freedmen,” “Work of the Freedmen–The New Era,” “Work of the Freedmen–The Work Established,” “The Society and Southern Baptists,” “James B. Simmons, D.D.,” “Schools,” “Nathan Bishop, LL. D.” (386–465). As Christians today continue to grapple with questions of race, there are valuable lessons–for good and for ill–that we can learn from efforts to cooperate in the past.

The 1880s was also a time of “reunion” with their southern brethren, and Southern Baptist like John Broadus were present at the meeting and embraced as brothers. White northern Baptists were willing to try to hold two things together: their work among Blacks in the south, and their fellowship with whites in the south, even though these often came into conflict. Baptists believed that, “In some way the Baptist North and South must come together and work together.” Yet, Basil Manly, one of the founders of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, felt that he had to “express his disagreement with some of the delegation and especially with the language of the report concerning the exercise of all the rights and duties of citizenship for the freedmen” (427). Yet, northern Baptists tried somehow to look past this in the hope that “all remembrances of the late deplorable conflict in arms between two sections of this country shall be blotted out by the blood of Jesus” (430). This puzzle of three pieces has never really been solved, and this was already evident then. (For more on the conflict between northern and southern Baptists over the education of Black people in the south, see Barnas Sears, “Objections to Public Schools Considered.”

The Historical Sketch provides an outline of names, dates, and places that are ripe for further historical investigation. Heman Lincoln, William Colgate, Jonathan Going, Benjamin Hill, Jay Backus, E.E.L. Taylor, James Simmons, Nathan Bishop, Sewall Cutting, and many many more all get brief biographical sketches. 

The sixty pages of tables in the final section of the book provide names and dates for every missionary in every state in the country. If you are interested in the history of Baptists in your city or state, you should check here to find out which Baptist Home Missionary first spread Baptist principles to the area. I’ve found the history of Baptists in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Florida fascinating (to name a few).

In all, this book is indispensable to anyone who wants to understand Baptist History, Church History, and the history of race in America, at least from a white perspective. There is a legacy here that white Christians would do well to grapple with, for good and for ill. In all, this book is a historical treasure trove, hopefully not a buried one for too much longer.

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