The term “National Baptists” refers collectively to the three largest African American Baptist denominations in the United States and in South Carolina. These bodies include the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. (1895), the National Baptist Convention of America (1915), and the Progressive National Baptist Convention (1961). All are historically intertwined, with the latter two emerging from the first because of internal controversies. Membership figures are estimates only, but in 2000 the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. numbered around 7 million adherents, while the National Baptist Convention of America counted approximately 3.5 million members. In 1995 the Progressive National Baptist Convention numbered around 2.5 million.
National Baptists, with other African American denominations, have been associated with the Palmetto State from their earliest days. During the Great Awakening of the mid–eighteenth century and the steady growth of an evangelical presence in the South that followed, African Americans were drawn to both Baptist and Methodist styles, with their emphasis on religious experience and more emotional expression of spiritual fervor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, long before separate denominations existed, an independent African American Baptist congregation formed on the Silver Bluff plantation in South Carolina, near Augusta, Georgia.
The surge toward racially separate congregations came during the Reconstruction period, with most in South Carolina identifying with either the Methodists or the Baptists. The number of African American Baptist churches in the state multiplied significantly through the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and institutions such as Benedict College, which was founded in 1870 to train African American men for the ministry.
Historically, Baptists have encouraged the independence of local congregations, with denominations serving more to coordinate shared activities in areas such as missions and education than to control local church programs. But by 1895 efforts under way nationally to bring together African American Baptist congregations led to the organization of the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. Most South Carolina African American Baptist churches are affiliated with this group, although there are some loose ties to the bodies that broke away from the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A. All of them, however, are more connected to each other than the African American congregations affiliated with the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina, organized in 1876.
Within South Carolina, in 2000 National Baptists had approximately 500,000 adherents in some fifteen hundred churches. Some South Carolinians, such as Dr. Willie Givens, Jr., and Dr. Arabella Rich, have held executive offices at the national level. All three National Baptist bodies hold membership in the National Council of Churches.
Hill, Samuel S., ed. Encyclopedia of Religion in the South. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984.
Pelt, Owen D., and Ralph Lee Smith. The Story of the National Baptists. New York: Vantage Books, 1960.