Baptists are by far the largest religious group in South Carolina, and in many ways they are the most diverse. They are black and white, Asian and Hispanic, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, and liberal and conservative in their politics, their social views, and their theology. Some Baptist congregations are among the largest in the state, with thousands of members, but most churches have fewer than three hundred congregants. Southern Baptists are the largest denominational group, but National Baptists and Independent Baptists are also numerous. Other smaller groups of Baptists, such as Two Seed in the Spirit or Primitive Baptists, come and go.
As different as Baptist groups or even churches within a group may be from each other, almost all Baptists share a commitment to believers’ baptism by immersion, the Bible as the primary source of faith, and a congregational church polity. Most could be identified theologically as evangelical Calvinists, but they have traditionally been noncreedal. Although ministers may have a great deal of influence within their own congregations, and some have influence beyond that, Baptists have no formal hierarchy, which in part accounts for their diversity.
Baptists were relatively few during the colonial era, and their membership has always been largely working and middle class, but the denomination has nevertheless had a profound influence on South Carolina and its development. The commitment and zeal of these average folk, who believe that all church members have an obligation to minister, led to tremendous growth in their churches. Based on the group’s enthusiasm for counting their baptisms, some have said that “there are more Baptists than people” in the state.
But Baptist influence does not stop with their sheer numbers. Baptist evangelical zeal and commitment to service have profoundly influenced the nature of life and religious practice in South Carolina, which has been integral to the state’s identity as part of the Bible Belt. The rugged independence of Baptists undoubtedly influenced the formation of South Carolina’s particular brand of politics. This same sense of independence, along with a belief in the all-sufficiency of the Bible, led many Baptists to be far less concerned with having an educated clergy than other groups were. Over the years, despite the existence of respected Baptist educational institutions such as Furman University, these attitudes may have contributed to a lack of emphasis on education in some circles, not only in the pulpits but also in the larger society.
The tensions over issues such as the importance of education and the independence of local congregations were present almost from the beginning and are reflected in the state’s two earliest Baptist groups, Regular Baptists and Separate Baptists. Regular Baptists, more than the Separates, were inclined toward educated ministers and organizational structures that extended beyond the local church. Eventually these differences were ingeniously overcome. Under the creative leadership of men such as Richard Furman and William B. Johnson, most Baptists in the state were united, beginning in 1821, in what was in many ways a novel organizational form, the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Its loose institutional structure encouraged cooperation in the support of missions and education while still allowing a great deal of congregational independence.
This same strategy would influence the structure of the regional (now national) body of the Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845 after Baptists of the South broke with the Triennial Convention (founded in 1814), a break that was one of many early signs of the coming Civil War. Today the largest percentage of white Baptist churches in the state are affiliated with both the South Carolina Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention, although membership in one does not necessarily involve membership in the other.
In the nineteenth century, African slaves often attended church with their masters, most of whom were not Baptists. But after the Civil War, freed Christian slaves were attracted to Baptist polity because of the congregational autonomy, the flexibility in worship style, and the absence of ordination requirements. Hence, the number of African American Baptists grew quickly. Eventually many of these churches affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, but many others remained small and independent.
Beginning as early as the 1950s, the same sense of autonomy and freedom that characterized Baptists placed African American Baptist churches and ministers at the forefront of the civil rights movement, not only nationally but also in South Carolina. Integration was eventually achieved, but not usually in the churches. Despite their many similarities, black Baptists and white Baptists have remained largely separate groups, and some white Baptists opposed the civil rights efforts of their African American brothers and sisters.
Just as the Baptist ideal of the priesthood of the believer inspired independence and social action among African American Baptists, so too it inspired Southern Baptist women to move out of their traditional domain to act independently on behalf of missions. In South Carolina, as in most states, the Woman’s Missionary Union was a powerful force, raising much money for traditional missions. But sometimes these same forces led to unexpected consequences. The second woman ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention was ordained in Columbia in 1971. This event signaled the changing times ahead.
Baptists have usually been conservative, but contrary to popular opinion, until recently most have not been fundamentalists. Indeed, independent fundamentalist Baptists, such as those associated with Bob Jones University, were the exception rather than the rule until the late twentieth century. Baptists were so much at the center of South Carolina culture that when the first wave of fundamentalism developed at the turn of the twentieth century in the urban Northeast, South Carolina Baptists had no need to acquire the militant exclusivism so much identified with that movement.
With the burst of growth and urbanization associated with the rise of the Sunbelt, along with all of the other upheavals of the 1960s, this began to change. By the 1980s fundamentalists began to gain influence in the South Carolina Baptist Convention, which led to calls for more uniformity in belief and practice, especially on issues such as the ordination of women. Tensions with so-called moderate Baptists increased, and in the 1990s events such as the organization of the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the convention’s break with Furman University made it clear that Baptist identity had become polarized.
King, Joe M. A History of South Carolina Baptists. Columbia: General Board of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, 1964.
Owens, Loulie Latimer. Saints of Clay: The Shaping of South Carolina Baptists. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1971.
Turner, Helen Lee. “The Evangelical Traditions I: Baptists.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.