What reasons account for the growth of the Southern Baptist churches and the decline in Northern Baptist churches in the years following the split? Comment on which reason(s) seems most significant.

Response

The growth patterns of Southern Baptist churches and Northern Baptist churches diverge significantly after the 1845 split. A brief explanation of the growth patterns is necessary prior to analyzing the reasons for the divergence. Winthrop Hudson provides comparative statistics that contend that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) were equivalent in size in 1850, but the SBC outpaced NBC growth from 1850-1870, was functionally equivalent from 1870-1900, but then SBC dramatically outpaced NBC from 1910 to 1965.[1] The initial growth from 1850-1870 of the SBC is difficult to determine. However, H. Leon McBeth notes that, under the leadership of James Taylor, the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board expanded its influence among churches.[2] Furthermore, the Home Mission Board simultaneously conducted extensive ministry among spiritually hungry Confederate soldiers.[3] Finally, Hudson conjectures that, soon after the Civil War defeat, people of the South may have found solace in the gospel.[4] All three reasons may have contributed to the early relative growth of the Southern Baptists.

Between 1870 and 1900, the country was recovering from the Civil War. Accordingly, the Northern Baptists continued to strengthen, while the growth of the Southern Baptists waned as the South contended with labor shortages, worthless currency, and a decimated infrastructure.[5] However, the difference in growth rates between the SBC and NBC became quite pronounced after 1900 as the Southern Baptist churches significantly outpaced those in the North. The reasons for the disparity are numerous. First, Hudson explains that several factors contributed to the growth of Southern Baptists including “evangelistic zeal, relative isolation from the corrosive effects of ‘modernity,’ a homogeneous population, carefully devised ‘growth techniques,’ and a constituency with a relatively high birth rate.”[6] Furthermore, McBeth highlights the benefit of the SBC’s geographical expansion across America along with significant fundraising efforts, which included both the Seventy-Five Million Campaign and the Cooperative Program that provided financial and spiritual renewal during the twentieth-century.[7] Alternatively, the Northern Baptists faced problems of secularization, a lack of denominational identity, controversy surrounding the ecumenical movement, and the aggressive geographical expansion of the SBC, all of which contributed to Northern Baptist decline in the twentieth-century.[8] Furthermore, Hudson asserts that the “Northern Baptists were more deeply divided, distracted, and immobilized by the Fundamentalist controversy than any other denomination.”[9]

The most significant reason for the decline of Northern Baptists was its unresolved rift between conservative and liberal members. As certain Northern Baptists began to embrace concepts such as Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel and George Foster’s more liberal view of Scripture, McBeth explains that Northern Baptist conservatives became agitated.[10] It would be an oversimplification to blame the decline of Northern Baptists on Fundamentalism, which was simply a reaction against the theological movement of the Northern Baptists. However, due to the societal nature of the Northern Baptists, Hudson points out that no strong organizational vehicle existed to provide denominational unity for or against the attacks from conservative members.[11] Accordingly, the controversy not only immobilized the denomination, but also created a bitterness that gave Northern Baptists a bad public image, which continued to haunt Northern Baptists throughout the twentieth-century.[12] According to McBeth, the result of the bitter infighting was a “draining off of conservatives” that left the Northern Baptists “without effective brakes on leaders who wanted to veer sharply to the left.”[13] Alternatively, the most significant reason for Southern Baptist growth was likely evangelistic zeal, which took the form of successful territory expansion, church planting, and fundraising.

Bibliography

Hudson, Winthrop S. “Divergent Careers of Southern and Northern Baptists: A Study in Growth.” Foundations 16, no. 2 (April 1973): 171–83.

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

[1] Winthrop S. Hudson, “Divergent Careers of Southern and Northern Baptists: A Study in Growth,” Foundations 16, no. 2 (April 1973): 180–83.

[2] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1987), 413.

[3] Ibid., 427.

[4] Hudson, “Divergent Careers,” 173.

[5] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 427.

[6] Hudson, “Divergent Careers,” 173.

[7] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 618–24.

[8] Ibid., 563–64.

[9] Hudson, “Divergent Careers,” 173.

[10] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 570.

[11] Hudson, “Divergent Careers,” 173.

[12] Ibid.

[13] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 578.