SBC Life Articles

Baptist Associations Celebrating 300 Years

The first Baptist association in America will mark its 300th anniversary in September, and Southern Baptists will join in the celebration at a special associational missions rally June 10 prior to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in San Antonio. The rally, which will promote the continuing need for associational work, will be held at San Antonio's First Baptist Church.

Founded in 1707, the Philadelphia Baptist Association — now affiliated with the American Baptist Churches (USA) — has assisted countless churches in starting, developing, growing, and extending the Gospel through a unified message and effort. Today, however, the constituency that the Philadelphia association reaches is vastly different. They are no longer mostly white and scattered across the countryside as they were in the Colonial era.

James McJunkin Jr., executive minister for the association, said the churches that make up this American Baptist region are ethnically and economically diverse. "The mix is continuing to increase," McJunkin said. "We have congregations in the inner city and some in more wealthy areas. The congregations speak thirteen different languages as the demographics shift in America and people come from around the world. The makeup of the association today reflects that — from the Haitian churches, to the Russian, Lithuanian, Chinese, Latino, Liberian, and African American."

The Philadelphia Baptist Association today represents 128 churches in its region, but in its line of descendants are more than 1,200 Southern Baptist associations representing more than 43,000 churches with 16.4 million members around the country.

And Southern Baptists have learned a great deal from the history of their progenitor, especially in the area of cooperative missions and church planting. The first association in America proved at a time when being Baptist was not popular that "churches can do far more by working together than any size church can do working alone," Tom Biles, president of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Directors of Missions, said. Biles is director of the Tampa Bay Baptist Association in Florida.

"Associations are missionary to the core," Biles said "They are a channel for missions service, education, fellowship, information, and strategy. God has used associations to serve as a vital tool in planting new churches, raising up new leaders, and giving further support of His work in the churches locally and globally."

Southern Baptists also have a Greater Philadelphia Baptist Association, which functions in cooperation with the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania-South Jersey.

Humble Beginnings

When Elias Keach formed the Pennepek Baptist Church near Philadelphia in 1687, his church members were scattered across the countryside. Members of the rural community met only irregularly as farm work and harvests allowed. But Keach — who was converted under his own preaching — carried the ministry of the church into the woodlands, holding quarterly meetings with other Baptists in the area. To some, who were only able to gather for fellowship in an area once a year, these meetings became known as "annual meetings."

Baptists had been in Pennsylvania since 1684, finding in William Penn's Quaker colony a tolerant home for dissenters. Penn's "Holy Experiment" allowed small congregations to flourish, free from the watchful eye of the religious authorities in Massachusetts. The colony's charter provided for religious liberty, a provision quite different from many sister colonies.

"Persecution, prejudice, and difficult living marked the time leading up to the founding of the Philadelphia Association," Thomas White, vice president for student services and a professor of Baptist and free church studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said.

"Persecution can be seen in the fact that Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his views on separation of church and state. John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes were imprisoned and whipped for preaching against infant baptism. Prejudice demonstrated itself in other ways like the first president of Harvard College, Henry Dunster, being forced to resign for accepting Baptist views and refusing to remain silent about his beliefs," White said.

The American colonies' independence from Great Britain was still two generations away when five small congregations formed the Philadelphia Baptist Association. From its first year, the association focused on the unity of Baptist congregations for a greater purpose, but without surrendering the autonomy of the local church. In time, the association grew to include churches from Connecticut to Virginia, and later the Philadelphia Association birthed other associations in Maryland, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey.

In 1742, the Philadelphia Association adopted its own confession of faith, a restatement of the 1689 confession of English Particular Baptists in London with two new articles on hymn singing and the laying on of hands. Churches indicated their agreement with the Calvinistic document, and by 1762 the Philadelphia Association had grown to twenty-nine churches with some four thousand members. With the growing number of churches and church members, leaders of the Philadelphia Association thought cooperation all the more essential.

Moderator Samuel Jones wrote to James Manning in Rhode Island in 1767 that an association was essential because a "collection and union of churches into one associational body may easily be conceived capable of answering those still greater purposes which any particular Church could not be equal to." Jones also encouraged the loose union of associations, arguing that the cooperation of associations would "still increase the body in weight and strength, and make it good that a three-fold cord is not easily broken."

Baptists, however, were either prevented from or did not desire to create a larger structure during the period. In 1776, a call for a "Continental Association" was sidetracked by the Revolutionary War. A second call for a larger body at the turn of the century also failed, with Baptists fearing that any national association might adversely affect the autonomy of each local congregation.

Fears of a larger church structure were nonetheless set aside when it came to the cooperative practical work of associations. Churches collectively provided for the education of new ministers at Rhode Island College, later named Brown University. And they participated in social issues such as a national temperance movement.

The Philadelphia Association was best known for missions in the American colonies. In 1751, a minister named Oliver Hart transplanted the work of the Philadelphia Association to the American South, forming the Charleston Association in South Carolina with four churches. Forty years later, Baptist work had taken root in the South. The Baptist churches grew, became involved in foreign missions, and in 1845 saw the birth of a new Baptist body — the Southern Baptist Convention.

"It would not be an overstatement to say that the forming of the Philadelphia Association led to the formation of all following Baptist associations and conventions," White said. "With Baptists experiencing the benefits of an advisory body for doctrinal issues, fellowship, and cooperation for missions, the Triennial Convention and all modern conventions including the Southern Baptist Convention owe a debt of gratitude to the founders of the Philadelphia Association.

"The largest contribution of the association was the Philadelphia Confession with which most Baptist churches of the time agreed. Some including myself believe the general consensus with this statement is the primary reason that a statement of faith was not developed in Southern Baptist life until 1925. With the possible exception of the New Hampshire Confession in 1833, the Philadelphia Confession had more influence on Baptist than any other during the 19th century."

Twenty-first Century Service

Larger missions-sending agencies and state and national denominations eclipsed associations in importance in the modern era. But while they no longer serve primarily as a framework for sending missionaries, Southern Baptist scholars say associations can still play a vital role in keeping churches healthy and in encouraging evangelism. Associations also continue to play a key role in educating Southern Baptists on the need for cooperation and for promoting unity.

That means that associations should play an active role in the lives of churches, Greg Wills, professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, said. Associations can preserve churches if they exercise "their responsibility as stewards of doctrine and church practice in their membership, since membership in the association is an endorsement of the acceptability of the doctrine and practice of all the member churches," he said.

Wills said the Philadelphia Association modeled unity based on a shared commitment to the same views of biblical doctrine, biblical morality, and biblical ecclesiology. The formation of the association in 1707 represented "their shared commitment to zealous action and effort in missions, evangelism, and theological education. The Philadelphia Association sent out Gospel preachers as missionaries to other colonies as early as the 1750s. The association was the expression of scriptural fidelity in doctrine and church practice, and it was the agency of cooperative missions and theological education."

Today, most Southern Baptist associations have adopted the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as a means of maintaining healthy, cooperating churches. David Waltz, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania-South Jersey, said the associations in his convention use the confession to inform churches that wish to participate in associational life.

"Many of the associations have adopted the statement, not as a binding document, but to say, 'If you want to know who we are and what we believe, this is it,'" Waltz said. "It's our way of making sure that they are not all over the map in our beliefs and doctrines."

In his state, the makeup of associations is changing as the proximity of churches is no longer a reason or a prerequisite for fellowship, Waltz said. Some churches now associate with each other by size, worship style, and whether they are traditional or "emerging churches." That may or may not be a positive change, Waltz said. But one positive change is that associations have again begun to serve as the primary decision-makers about how many churches will be planted and where. In this way, associations are reclaiming their missional role and not simply serving as another level of bureaucracy, Waltz said.

"This is part of our new regional strategy, which has been more successful," Waltz said. "We've moved that decision on church planting out of the state offices, and it's created a sense of teamwork. That's one way we can build a bridge between the state convention and the association."

The associations in Pennsylvania also are serving in a "catalytic role," training leaders, working toward improving Sunday Schools, and assisting churches in locating evangelistically-minded pastors. "In other words, we want to make churches want to grow," Waltz said, adding that if associations are not evangelistic, they will face an ongoing struggle of relevance. For that matter, churches will face the same struggle, he said.

That is why the efforts of the Philadelphia Association — formed to protect and expand the local church — should be modeled again today, White said.

"From even a cursory reading of the minutes of the Philadelphia Association, one understands the commitment to the local church and to each other the members of the Philadelphia Association demonstrated," White said.

"Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Philadelphia Association is the dedication to cooperation for the fulfillment of the Great Commission," White said. "If Baptists can continue to demonstrate the same passion and cooperative spirit as early Baptists did, then our future will be as bright as our past."

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin