Blog Archives

How one man started the Mississippi Baptist Convention

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

Mississippi Baptists organized a state convention in 1824 that failed. Internal discord and dissension from the anti-missions movement and teachings of Alexander Campbell resulted in the dissolution of this convention in 1829. As the Primitive Baptists and Disciples of Christ separated themselves from Mississippi Baptist churches, the mission-minded Baptists who remained were ready to try the experiment again. All they needed was a leader to galvanize them to action.

Ashley Vaughn, the man with the vision

  The leader who inspired Mississippi Baptists to action was Ashley Vaughn. This dedicated Baptist minister was born sometime in the early 1800s and came to Mississippi in 1833 “compelled by ill health and on the advice of physicians,” after a two-year pastorate in New York. He became pastor of Clear Creek Baptist Church in Washington, near Natchez, on December 12, 1834. He presented letters for membership for himself and his wife from the Particular Baptist Church of Gibbonville and West Troy, New York.1

   Although Vaughn did not come to the Natchez District as an officially appointed missionary, he did take on the role of a missionary. He visited the Baptist churches in the area and reported in a letter to the American Baptist that the churches were barren. He blamed this condition on the migration of settlers to the land recently vacated by the Indians in North Mississippi, as well as the inroads made by the Disciples of Christ, followers of Alexander Campbell. Vaughn immediately set about correcting this destitute situation. In addition to preaching at Clear Creek Church in Washington, in January 1836 he also began preaching at the site of the Old Salem Baptist Church, which had dissolved. In March 1836, Clear Creek Church purchased a parsonage for $1500. At the 1836 Union Association meeting, only Clear Creek Church was not complaining of a low state. With 115 members, Clear Creek was the only Baptist church in the state of Mississippi that reported more than 100 members in 1836. In September Vaughn began publishing the Southwestern Religious Luminary at Natchez, the first Baptist newspaper in Mississippi. The first issue of the paper called for the organization of a state convention to “combine the counsels, concentrate the energies, and unite the efforts of the denomination.” Vaughn traveled four to five hundred miles on horseback that autumn to associational meetings to get support for a state convention, and he was so successful that the Mississippi Baptist Association suggested a gathering at Vaughn’s church in December 1836 so that “the Baptists of this State should meet in convention by delegation, to take into consideration the adoption of some systematic plan, by which the efforts of our denomination may be united….”2 

Organization of the Mississippi Baptist Convention

Vaughn’s tireless dedication paid off. A small but influential group of ten delegates met at Clear Creek Church two days before Christmas, December 23-24, 1836, and organized “The Convention of the Baptist Denomination of the State of Mississippi.” The delegates got to work immediately, unanimously approving a constitution, electing officers, electing a delegate to the Triennial Convention (the national organization of Baptists at the time), passing resolutions, and taking up an offering of “near two hundred dollars.” They correctly assumed the support of many others not in attendance. This can be inferred by the fact that these ten men elected 40 men to positions of office and a board of directors! These officers included one man who was not in attendance, Benjamin Whitfield, who would later serve as convention president. They directed Ashley Vaughn to publish 700 copies of their proceedings, indicating the size of the audience they expected. While 700 copies may have seemed like a lot in 1836, the Mississippi Baptist Convention has since grown to a over 700,000 members in 2,100 churches today.3

Above: Meeting house of Clear Creek Baptist Church, Washington, Adams County. Built in 1828. Here the Mississippi Baptist Convention was organized in 1836. The congregation dissolved in the 1880s and the building was later demolished. – Richard J. Cawthon, Lost Churches of Mississippi (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2010), 149.

SOURCES:

1 Minutes, Clear Creek Baptist Church, Adams County, Mississippi, December 12, 1835; Southwestern Religious Luminary, December 1837; C.B. Hamlett, III, “Ashley Vaughn,” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, II, 1442. Hamlett incorrectly states that Vaughn “served as a missionary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society.” However, the society did not record an appointment of Vaughn nor correspond with Vaughn and did not begin work in Mississippi until after his arrival. Vaughn himself criticized the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1837 for having only one missionary in Mississippi under appointment, saying, “nor do we know indeed that he has accepted of the appointment.”

2 John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists of Mississippi, (Unpublished manuscript, 1924), 124; Minutes, Clear Creek Baptist Church, January 9, 1836, March 12, 1836, July 10, 1836; Frances Allen Cabaniss and James Allen Cabaniss, “Religion in Ante-Bellum Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History 6 (October 1944): 205; Southwestern Religious Luminary, September 1836, November 1836; T. M. Bond, A Republication of the Minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association (New Orleans: Hinton & Co., 1849), 172; Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1837, 25-28.

3 Proceedings of a Meeting to Consider the Propriety of Forming a Baptist State Convention, held in the Baptist Meeting House at Washington, Mississippi, 23rd and 24th December 1836 (Natchez: Stanton & Besancon, 1837), 3-8; “Southern Baptist Statistical Data by State,” accessed on the Internet 3 May 2022 at http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/baptist/sbcstatedata.html.

The Mississippi Baptist revival during the War of 1812

Photo by Michael Morse on Pexels.com

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

   On December 16, 1811, the New Madrid earthquake, with its epicenter in New Madrid in southeast Missouri Territory, was felt over a million square miles, including Natchez, where clocks stopped, houses were damaged, and the river rose and fell rapidly. A New Orleans writer said, “the shake which the Natchezians have felt may be a mysterious visitation from the Author of all nature, on them for their sins.” It would seem that many people were truly shaken to their core, not only by the earthquake, but also the War of 1812. The United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812. In Mississippi the focus of the conflict was on the Indian tribes, especially the Creeks, who were supported by the British. In 1813, the Creeks attacked Fort Mims, north of Mobile, and massacred at least 250 people. The Creeks were eventually crushed by an army under General Andrew Jackson, but these dramatic events shook the souls of Mississippians. The annual Circular Letter of the Mississippi Baptist Association of October 1813, was on the subject of “The War.” It was a circular letter received from Ocmulgee Association in Georgia, republished with edits made by Mississippi pastors Ezra Courtney and Moses Hadley, because of “the distressed situation of our territory, and the nation in general.” It warned readers that perhaps “Divine Providence” had allowed Europe to “invade our rights” because of “our ingratitude, our avarice, and abuse of the rich blessings we have enjoyed.” It declared the war to be “a war of just and necessary defence [sic]; justifiable on every sound political and moral principle.” It called for unity to defend “the rich inheritance of freedom we possess,” and stressed how American liberty was unlike that of France, which had fallen into ungodly apostasy and lost its freedoms. “If history ever proved any one truth clearly, it is this: that no nation, without public and private virtue, ever retained its freedom long.” The message was clear: their freedoms were in danger, and if they wanted to keep their freedoms, Mississippians needed a fervent devotion to both God and country. It is not known how many people in the town of Natchez were shaken from their sins, but we do know that the territory experienced a religious revival. In 1813, 246 people were baptized into membership in the churches of the Mississippi Baptist Association, far more than any year in the decade before or after, and the total membership nearly doubled that year, from 494 to 914!

How a Baptist preacher helped America take Natchez from the Spanish

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

(In previous posts, I told the stories of how Baptists from South Carolina settled the Natchez District about the same time that the Spanish took control of the area from the British, and how the Baptists started Salem Baptist Church on Cole’s Creek, 20 miles north of Natchez.)

Concerned about so many English-speaking American emigrants to the Natchez District, who were not Catholic, the Spanish issued a religious edict in 1795. It declared “that if nine persons were found worshiping together, except according to the forms of the Catholic Church, they should suffer imprisonment.” They sent a man named Ebenezer Dayton to spy on the Baptists, pretending to be in sympathy with them as he was Presbyterian, and Dayton reported that their pastor, Richard Curtis, Jr. continued defend his right to preach the gospel and obey God rather than man. The Spanish Governor, Manuel Gayoso, arrested Curtis in April 1795, and forced him to sign a pledge not to preach. At the urging of his congregation, Curtis continued to preach, so Gayoso sent an armed posse to break up the house church in August 1795, but this time Curtis fled to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the American government began the process of taking control of the Natchez District. The months between the signing of the Pinckney’s Treaty of San Lorenzo in October 1795, until the surrender of the area to the United States on March 30, 1798, were a period of turbulence and disorder in the Natchez region. The Spanish authorities controlled the government and exercised the legal authority that existed. The control of the Spanish was weakened by a large influx of American settlers and by the knowledge that the Spanish authority was of a temporary nature.

    In February 1797, Louisiana’s governor sent orders to Gayoso to prepare dismantling the fort at Natchez in compliance with the treaty, but soon afterward, Gayoso received orders from Spain to postpone the departure, as Spain hoped to talk to the Americans about alterations to the treaty. The same month, Andrew Ellicott arrived with a commission from the American president to mark the southern boundary of the United States at the 31st parallel, which was about 30 miles south of Natchez, in accordance with the treaty to give to America all lands on the east side of the Mississippi River, north of the 31st parallel. He had a small army escort under Lieutenant Percy Smith Pope, and two dozen woodsmen from Fort Pitt. Ellicott, Pope and their party of Americans docked at Natchez on February 24, 1797. They camped on a knoll overlooking the town. At Patrick Connelly’s tavern atop the hill, the Americans boldly raised the United States flag, so that it could be seen by the Spanish in their fort. Gayoso and his garrison of 60 Spanish soldiers refused to leave. Ellicott and Gayoso wrote letters back and forth, neither party willing to give in, as the standoff continued for months. Lt. Pope preferred a direct attack, and even recruited 200 men from Cole’s Creek, which likely included some of the Baptists, to assault the Spanish fort, but Gayoso arrested the leaders and broke up the plot. Commissioner Ellicott, who was a Quaker, preferred negotiation and political maneuver to get the Spanish to leave. He counted on the loyalty of the majority of the American settlers, since it was only a few wealthy landowners who were solidly loyal to the Spanish. He got the leverage he needed from a Baptist preacher.

   The Baptist preacher whom Ellicott needed was named Barton Hannan, who had previously been active at Salem Church on Cole’s Creek. Hannan arrived in Natchez preaching fiery words, damning the pope and recruiting volunteers for a revolt. Hannan got into a drunken brawl with some Irish Catholics on June 9, 1797, and the irate Irish Catholics mauled him. Governor Gayoso arrested Hannan for disturbing the peace, which only led to more disturbances. His wife marched to Natchez, baby in her arms, and demanded that Governor Gayoso release him. Gayoso tried to calm her by caressing the baby and giving her presents. “I don’t want your presents; I want my husband,” she said. He replied, “I cannot grant your request, madam.” She answered, “I will have him before tomorrow morning, or this place shall be deluged in blood; for there are men enough who have pledged themselves to release him before morning, or die in the attempt, to overcome any force you have here.” She was not making an idle threat, for on June 12, over 300 armed men assembled at William Belk’s tavern on the Natchez Trace to organize a rebellion. The governor released Hannan, and from that point forward, the Spanish lost real control of Natchez. In December 1797, Captain Isaac Guion arrived in Natchez with a large unit of American troops, and put greater pressure on Gayoso to leave. The Spanish finally departed on March 30, 1798.

   Immediately after the Spanish had withdrawn, the American officials raised the “Stars and Stripes” over Natchez, and invited Bailey E. Chaney preach. He was the son of William Chaney, the deacon who, in Richard Curtis’s absence, was leading Salem Baptist on Cole’s Creek. Chaney preached before a large gathering, the very first sermon under the United States flag in the new Mississippi Territory. At long last, religious freedom was allowed in Natchez, and a Baptist was called on to celebrate it with God’s Word.

Book review: “Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860”

Menikoff, Aaron. Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publicaitons, 2014.

Aaron Menikoff fills in important gaps in Baptist history with this well-researched study of Baptist involvement in social reform between the American Revolution and Civil War. He is well-prepared to write on the subject, with a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and experience as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, a Baptist.
This book debunks the common idea that Baptists in the 19th century were only concerned about personal salvation, and neglected social issues. He first examines the overall attitude of Baptists toward salvation, morality, politics, and church and state, with particular emphasis on how Baptists held in tension the idea that church and state should be separate, yet a nation needed to be virtuous to survive. In other words, the Baptist understanding of separation of church and meant the government had no right establishing a particular religion, but this did not mean a separation between church and society– far from it.
Next, Menikoff examines how this Baptist attitude played itself out in five major issues of the time: political parties, slavery, the Sabbath Mail Controversy, poverty, and the temperance movement. He shows the majority Baptist approach to each issue, while also revealing how different Baptists took different sides on each of these issues. ]
On political parties, Baptists usually avoided endorsing candidates or parties, yet spoke out on political issues, and some were more directly involved as candidates and supporting parties.
On slavery, Menikoff shows the complexity and diversity of Baptist views, including the colonization movement to resettle slaves in Africa. While Northern Baptists generally joined the abolitionist movement and southern Baptists opposed it, he shows how there were southern Baptists opposed to slavery in the south as late as the 1830s, and Baptist leaders like Richard Furman called upon slaveholders not to neglect the spiritual needs of their slaves.
The Sabbath Mail Controvesy is largely forgotten today, but at the time there was great religious opposition to the delivery of mail on Sunday, including most Baptists. He tells the fascinating story of how a Baptist Senator, Richard Johnson, gave the Congressional report supporting the delivery of mail every day, calling his fellow Baptists hypocrites for trying to unite church and state over the issue.
On poverty, the author shows how Baptists were active in relief efforts for the poor, although they often blamed the poor for getting themselves into their situation and focused on targeted giving of the “deserving poor.”
The temperance movement to abstain from alcohol was the most popular Baptist cause, as all Baptists saw alcohol abuse as a major social problem. However, Menikoff shows that Baptists also had different opinions over the temperance issue, especially defending the liberty of conscience for individual Baptists who drank moderately, and those Baptists who opposed to political efforts at prohibition on the grounds that it mixed church and state.
This book gave me a new perspective on several issues, especially the fascinating Sabbath Mail Controversy as well as how complex and diverse Baptist opinions were on slavery in the south. Menikoff’s research is carefully documented, with hundreds of footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography, leaving a rich resource for further study on the subjects covered. It is not light reading, but for those interested in Baptist history, it is rewarding, indeed.