Type of Culminating Activity
Master of Arts in History
Jill Gill, Ph.D.
The Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century brought significant changes to the American religious landscape. In addition to inspiring the creation of new denominations, the Awakening’s emphasis on religious democracy and the era’s prevalent postmillennial ideology motivated Protestants to establish numerous mission societies and other “benevolent” organizations to aid in the spreading of the Christian gospel. Baptists, too, were launched to a level of evangelistic fervor in the early 1800s that the denomination had never before witnessed. While many Baptists embraced the nineteenth-century mission movement, a significant number of “anti-mission” Baptists rejected it as antithetical to “pure” Baptist doctrine. Anti-missionists’ opposition to missions was ideologically motivated and stemmed from their understanding of Baptist history and theology. They felt that mission organizations imposed hierarchy upon a faith that was democratic in nature and thereby threatened religious liberty—a cause to which American Baptists had devoted themselves since the colonial era. In addition, antimissionists perceived in missions a fundamental contradiction of the basic Calvinist doctrines that they held dear, because evangelism implied that human effort—not God’s grace alone—was necessary to spread the message of salvation to all.
By the 1820s, Baptists had become bitterly divided over the issue of missions. Individual churches and regional associations split ideologically and physically during the controversy. As the mission spirit became more prevalent among Baptists, the denomination’s doctrinal and structural priorities shifted to emphasize collective cooperation in evangelistic efforts over predestination and the authority of local churches. Proponents of missions and anti-missionists assailed each other in sermons and periodicals that now bear witness to the intensity of the debate—and to the deep-seated ideological motives of the anti-missionists, who refused to accept the theological foundations supporting the mission movement. By the mid-nineteenth century, antimissionists declined significantly in number. On the other hand, those Baptists who embraced missions eventually grew into the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. This episode sheds light on the origins of modern-day Protestantism’s evangelistic focus and reveals the effects that this focus has had on religious denominations in America—namely, an ever increasing bureaucratic structure.
Holdorf, Anna B., "Galvanized by the Gospel: Nineteenth-Century Baptist Missions and the Anti-Mission Response" (2012). Boise State University Theses and Dissertations. 304.