From its beginnings in the seventeenth century, the Baptist denomination has emphasized certain key tenets, including the leadership of God as revealed through Jesus Christ, the authority of the Bible over ecclesiastical tradition, believer’s baptism, individual responsibility toward God, the congregational church, local church autonomy that encourages cooperation between congregations, the separation of church and state, and religious liberty. Nevertheless, diversity has also marked Baptist denominational life in Georgia. Because membership figures change constantly, and there is some overlap between Baptist groups, the exact number of Baptists in Georgia is unknown. The best estimate as of 2005 is that there are approximately 8,190 Baptist churches and missions with more than 2,100,000 members.
In 1733 one or two Baptists arrived in Savannah with James Oglethorpe, and others soon followed. Tiny Baptist centers were formed in the Savannah and Augusta areas. The first Baptist church, Tuckaseeking Seventh-Day (in Effingham County), existed from 1759 to about 1763. In 1772 the first continuing Baptist church, Kiokee, was founded near Appling; twelve years later the first Baptist association in the state, the Georgia Association, appeared with a membership of five churches in two counties. Thereafter other churches and associations were constituted as the population spread throughout the state.
Major Baptist Bodies in Georgia
Georgia Baptist Convention
After several failed attempts at union early in the nineteenth century, in 1822 the largest group of Baptists formed a general body that gradually encompassed churches statewide. Today called the Georgia Baptist Convention, this body supports Brewton-Parker College, Shorter University, and Truett-McConnell College; provides scholarships to Baptist students at Mercer University; and supports the Christian Index (a periodical now published in Atlanta), as well as various state and national Baptist mission, educational, and publication projects. Georgia Baptists participated in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was organized in Augusta in 1845. The Civil War (1861-65) and its aftermath severely curtailed all of the convention’s efforts.
The founding of the State Mission Board and the employment of a professional leader, J. H. DeVotie, in 1877 proved to be significant as a means of rejuvenating broader ministries. Except for the depression years of the 1930s, financial expansion was steady. Numerically the convention grew year by year, although in comparison with Georgia’s population, it reached a peak in the 1950s. Since the early 1990s the convention has become increasingly conservative in its theological and social statements. Membership in 2005 included 90 district associations composed of churches in one or more counties; 3,615 churches, including about 481 African American and ethnic congregations; and 1,393,832 members. Most of these members cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant body.
African American Baptists
The earliest all-Black congregations in Georgia, all founded in the late eighteenth century, were First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, and Beaverdams Baptist Church in Burke County. Early leaders in the state were David George, George Liele, Jesse Galphin, and Andrew Bryan. However, most African American Baptists in the state before the Civil War were enslaved, forced to hold membership in white-dominated churches. With the coming of freedom, the Zion Baptist Association (founded in the Savannah area in 1865) was the first African American general body in the state; it was followed, over the years, by about 200 other associations.
A statewide convention was organized in 1870 and is perpetuated to some degree in two existing groups: the large General Missionary Baptist Convention and the smaller New Era Baptist Convention. Black Georgia Baptists were significantly involved in the 1895 formation of the National Baptist Convention of the United States of America, which was organized in Atlanta.
There are now about 2,202 African American churches with about 526,318 members in Georgia. Many are identified with national and state conventions sponsoring missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries.
Some Baptists in Georgia have chosen not to participate in any association and/or convention. Shortly after the Georgia Baptist Convention was initiated, some churches and associations identified themselves as missionary but opted to remain independent from the convention. Over the years at least 44 associations have occupied this classification; 8 of these associations remain, comprising about 124 churches and about 20,125 members. Many independent churches are located in rural areas and favor temperance, feet washing, ministers without theological training, and associational missions. Their primary focus is on worship, mutual encouragement, and localized benevolences.
More recently, some independent churches and pastors have begun identifying themselves with one or more national or regional fellowships—chiefly the Baptist Bible Fellowship International and the Southwide Baptist Fellowship. Usually urban, these churches emphasize missions, evangelism, education, and publications. Since the 1990s an annual fellowship and preaching conference has been held that attempts to include all independent churches and pastors. The Georgia Baptist Bible Fellowship sponsors a monthly fellowship meeting, held at churches throughout the state, and maintains a Web site. An estimated 1,000 churches in Georgia, with 150,000 members, are in this category.
A third group is composed of thoroughgoing independents who remain completely separate from other churches. Around 500 congregations with 50,000 members make up this category.
The formation of the Georgia Baptist Convention resulted in complaints from around the state of a departure from time-honored doctrines and practices. Primitive Baptist congregations emerged during the early nineteenth century in opposition to these departures, which included mission work, seminaries, and Sunday schools. Primitive leaders argued that such developments were not sanctioned by the Bible and contradicted their belief in predestination, which is the Calvinist doctrine that only God, regardless of human effort, determines salvation. After 1828 the movement expanded to a numerical high late in the nineteenth century and has since gradually diminished. After the Civil War, Primitive African American congregations and associations grew.
During the twentieth century, progressive segments, allowing for such practices as extended revival services, regular ministerial support, the use of musical instruments in public worship, and Sunday schools, have surfaced among both white and African American Primitive congregations. Traditional, Old-Line Primitive Baptists continue to gather for worship, mutual encouragement, and the pursuit of limited, localized benevolent ministries, while white progressives sponsor various regional and statewide conferences, two retirement homes, a history archive, the monthly Banner-Herald, and mission work in the Ukraine and south Russia. African American progressives are affiliated with the National Primitive Baptist Convention. In 2005 Primitive Baptists in Georgia numbered about 417 churches with approximately 11,984 members.
Free Will Baptists
Arminian or Free Will Baptist denominations, made up of people rejecting the doctrine of predestination and emphasizing mission work and education, were founded in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From 1791 to 1797 three Arminian Baptist churches existed in the Augusta area; after 1797 there is a three-decade break in credible historical evidence. Since about 1831 congregations stressing free grace and free will have multiplied, chiefly in south Georgia. After the Civil War, a few African American churches and associations were formed. Most Baptists of this variety support both the Georgia State Association of Free Will Baptists and the National Association of Free Will Baptists. The former sponsors church development, ministerial training, summer camps, a children’s home, and a monthly publication, the Promotional Bulletin. The latter sponsors worldwide missions, a college, extensive publications, and a ministerial retirement program. In 2005 Free Will Baptists in Georgia totaled about 11,066 in 173 churches.
Asserting the attainability of sinless perfection in this life, Holiness Baptists appeared in and near Wilcox County about 1894. Gradually three associations were formed in south Georgia and today contain about 50 churches and 1,582 members. Holiness Baptists strictly observe the Sabbath and abstain from tobacco, intoxicating liquors, tea, coffee, dancing, gambling, public ball games, swimming pools, circuses, television, short hair for women and long hair for men, immodest attire, and secret societies. Some Holiness Baptists are pacifist and reject capital punishment, some speak in tongues, and some recognize women as preachers and pastors. At one time two periodicals were issued, although both are now extinct, and two campgrounds continue to be maintained in Coffee County.
After a brief presence in northwest Georgia before the Civil War, Landmark Baptists returned to the state about 1900. They have produced a unique combination of ideas and practices, some of which are common to other Baptists as well, including the priority of the local church in sponsoring missions, the succession of Baptist churches from the New Testament to the present, and baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances of the local church, as well as the refusal to accept open communion, immersion baptisms administered by other denominations, and pulpit affiliation. Since 1946 the majority of Landmark churches in the state have united in the Georgia State Association of Missionary Baptist Churches. Over the years at least 66 Georgia churches have been of this variety. In 2005 the number stood at about 39 churches and missions with an estimated 2,564 members.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Disagreement within state and Southern Baptist conventions produced a national meeting of moderate Baptists in Atlanta in 1990 that resulted the following year in the organization of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The state group, separate in structure but in close cooperation with the national group, holds fellowship and training meetings, cooperates in various social ministries, supports the formation of moderate churches, and publishes the newsletter Visions. Most of its approximately 158 member churches are dually aligned with the Georgia Baptist Convention in a sometimes uneasy relationship.
Within the larger Baptist family, twelve other distinct bodies have existed in the past, and most continue to the present. These groups have usually numbered fewer than 300 members at any one time. The twelve bodies are as follows:
—Seventh-Day: 1759 to ca. 1763, 1938 to the present
—Cherokee: 1825 to 1838
—Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian: 1840s to the present
—American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and its predecessors: 1845 to the present
—Duck River and Kindred Associations: by 1926 to the present
—Pentecostal Free Will: by 1933 to after 1974
—General Association of Regular Baptist Churches: 1957 to the present
—Sovereign Grace; Calvinistic; Reformed: by 1975 to the present
—CBAmerica (formerly called Conservative Baptist Association of America): 1976 to 1993
—Baptist General Conference: 1979 to 1984, 1995 to the present
—Alliance of Baptists: 1987 to the present
—North American Baptist Conference: 2002 to the present