The mother of all conventions
By Fred Anderson
In the spring of 1814 – 200 years ago – the first national Baptist organization in the United States was founded in Philadelphia. The many Baptist bodies in today’s America can trace denominationalism back to the founding of what soon became known as the Triennial Convention.
It was given a long formal name: The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. It is understandable why the nickname “Triennial” stuck, a reference to its meeting once every third year.
In a time of poor communication and transportation, it is amazing that 33 delegates assembled on May 18 from “associated bodies of the baptist denomination formed in various parts of the United States.” They came from 11 states along the East Coast as well as the District of Columbia. They gathered “for the purpose of diffusing evangelic light, through benighted regions of the earth” and were supportive of foreign missions.
Richard Furman of South Carolina served briefly as the first president, but the leading spirit behind the movement was Luther Rice, who listed his residence as the District of Columbia. Rice, the pioneer missionary, traveled so widely up and down the Eastern Seaboard that he came to be identified with all Baptists, North and South. He particularly aided in the formation of local missionary societies.
Rice was appointed as a missionary of the Triennial Convention “to continue his itinerant services with a view to excite the public mind” towards missions. Adoniram Judson, then in India, immediately was adopted as a missionary of the new organization, and financial support was sent to him.
In his first report of collections, Rice carefully detailed each of the many contributions, including some from congregations which met with Presbyterian ministers and from some of the female mission societies — including $44 from the Wadmelaw and Edisto Female Mite Society in Charleston, S.C., and $71.51 from Fredericksburg (Va.) Baptist Church, whose women had just organized.
There were gifts from notables as well as 25 cents from “two or three blacks” at Sunbury, Ga. Of that small gift, Rice noted: “These blacks were professors of religion. They had voluntarily rowed me several miles in a boat, when, instead of receiving compensation which I offered them for their services, they gave me their willing contribution. I thought of the widow’s two mites and the Saviour’s approbation.” He also noted a $10 contribution from “the lst coloured Baptist church, Savannah, Georgia, from the pastor of that church [after] having preached an evening lecture in the meeting-house.”
The Triennial Convention soon broadened its interests to domestic missions and in 1817 appointed John Mason Peck and James Welch as missionaries to Missouri. The next year Columbian College — now George Washington University — was founded in the national capital to educate Baptist ministers. Separate societies were soon formed for publications and for home missions.
In 1845 Baptists in the South broke with the Triennial Convention when the latter decided not to appoint slave owners as missionaries. The Southerners felt deceived, believing that an agreement had been made to keep the slave question out of the convention. Growing sectionalism combined with slavery led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention and the tear in the fabric of the national Baptist movement.
The Triennial Convention took a new name, the American Baptist Missionary Union. Its successor was the Northern Baptist Convention (1907-1950), which became the American Baptist Convention (1950-1972) and eventually the American Baptist Churches USA.
There may be as many as 67 major denominational bodies in the United States which carry the name “Baptist.” All can trace their lineage in one way or another back to the Triennial Convention and its beginning in May 1814.
— Fred Anderson is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society and Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies in Richmond, Va.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.