Great Commission Resurgence Missouri style, 1834
Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles telling the story of the anti-missions movement in 19th century Missouri.
When Missouri Baptists met at Providence Church in Callaway County on Aug. 29, 1834, to pursue the idea of a cooperative mission enterprise, there was a controversial issue overshadowing the official agenda of the meeting. The anti-missions controversy was raging through Baptist Associations severing friendships and diminishing Baptist fellowship. As is the case with most controversies in Baptist life, misunderstandings, misinformation and much mistrust abounded.
The anti-missions controversy that grew to divisive proportions in the 1800’s was in its early stages more about methods, money, control and jealously than it ever was about doing or not doing missions. The early objections to mission societies and paid missionaries were recorded by at least one early Kentucky Baptist pastor who had deep ties to Baptists in Missouri.
John Taylor, the premier anti-missions spokesman in Kentucky, thought that the agents and missionaries of the mission societies put too much emphasis on gathering funds. He predicted that no amount would ever satisfy their demands. Secondly, he saw the missions movement as the beginning of a Baptist aristocracy which would undermine the foundation of Baptist republican government. Thirdly, he did not approve of seminary-trained ministers because they would of a necessity demand paid salaries from the churches they pastored. Based on his own experience with two missionaries who had stayed overnight in his home, he had concluded, however wrongly, that the young crop of educated ministers were more interested in salaries than they were in preaching. And finally he was personally offended by missionary stories of privation and suffering because he himself had seen firsthand privation and suffering among his Baptist brethren on the Virginia and Kentucky frontiers, according to Frank Masters’ A History of Baptists in Kentucky published in 1953.
Taylor’s connection to Missouri Baptists is noted in his pamphlet “Thoughts on Missions” in 1819, when he wrote, “Perhaps I might not use the freedom I do, but for two tours I have taken in the Missouri country within a year past. The marvelous tales, coming from that country, about the mission there, were some inducement to my enterprise. To read, or hear the Reports of Peck and Welch, it would seem as if the whole country was almost a blank as to religion. But the fact of the case contradicts their Reports. From their statements, one would think, there was not surely a preacher in the country that deserved the name, and hardly a church there that was in good order, whereas the fact is, there are three Baptist associations in the territory, and as many preachers, perhaps, as there are in Kentucky according to the number of the people, and many of them respectable …”
Many Baptists today wrongly assume that all anti-missionary proponents were uneducated and illiterate and totally opposed to trying to evangelize or convert the lost because of their Calvinism or hyper-Calvinism. Those assumptions might have been true of isolated individuals but would not have characterized most Missouri Baptist pastors of the 1820’s and early 1830’s. The reality was that most anti-missionary proponents believed that mission societies were unscriptural and that man-made establishments such as Sunday schools and theological seminaries were dangerous departures from Baptist norms. They also feared that an embracing of eastern mission societies and theological seminaries would lead to a loss of local and regional autonomy.
By August, 29, 1834, when the buggies, wagons and horses began arriving at the Providence Church of Callaway County carrying the founders of today’s Missouri Baptist Convention, both sides to the controversy were represented. As the meeting convened it was soon apparent that anti-missions detractors were mere observers as the men of the hour forged ahead to implement the vision of a united Baptist effort to reach the 13-year-old state of Missouri for Jesus Christ. (Jim Shaver is pastor of Providence Baptist Church, New Bloomfield.)