On July 27, 1707, representatives of five churches formed the Philadelphia Baptist Association. It was the first Baptist association in the United States. Earlier, there were “yearly meetings” and occasional gatherings among the scattered churches; but in 1707 the urge was strong to form “a body of delegates representing churches.”
The movement to establish local district associations among Baptists was a stroke of genius. Otherwise, these independent, autonomous congregations had no cohesive form, no means of communication, no interchange of ideas. It was at the root of denominationalism. It brought the several into one while preserving the uniqueness of each church. For Baptists, there never would be “the Church” but many churches. And it was more than mere semantics.
It was in the annual meetings of the associations that wider community was built. The Baptist people from one hollow met their cousins from the next hollow. The Baptist people from over the mountain glimpsed another perspective by crossing over, sharing in a great meeting and breaking bread together. They heard some of the choice preachers of their day. When the missions movement took hold, they personally encountered missionaries at the ‘ssociation meetings. When churches had doctrinal questions, they sent queries to sound out their fellow baptized believers. In time, the associations became great training grounds for the churches and allowed local leadership to develop.
Mill Creek, Ketocton and Smith’s Creek—three of the pioneering churches among Virginia Baptists—had close contacts with the distant Philadephia Association. They sent delegates from frontier Virginia on what must have seemed trips around the world to get to one of young America’s true cities. They petitioned for advice on occasion. In 1766, when it became impractical to look to Philadelphia for assistance and connection, the Virginians formed the Ketocton Association in Northern Virginia, the first Baptist association formed in Virginia.
The Philadelphia Association had an influence upon early Virginia Baptists; but it also had a far wider influence which has remained over the centuries. Directly or indirectly, the Philadelphia touched all of Baptist life in Virginia and America primarily because its Confession of Faith became the basis of much of the doctrinal thought of Baptists.
Cathcart’s Encyclopedia (1881) said it best: “The influence of the Philadelphia Association has been greater in shaping Baptist modes of thinking and working, than any other body in existence. It has been the warm friend of missions at home and abroad, its ministers making missionary tours all over our country. It has always been the friend of Sunday schools. It was a tower of strength to our persecuted brethren in other colonies in times when they suffered great legal oppression. It gave them financial aid and good counsel, and lent the weight of its great influence in seeking a redress of grievances from men in power, and it has ever demanded liberty for all men to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences.”
In referring to “our persecuted brethren,” William Cathcart was referring to our forebears, the Virginia Baptists of the 18th century. No group suffered more for their faith. No group faced more social ridicule. No group insisted more upon full freedom from all governmental restriction in the affairs of the soul. No group kept a louder and longer plea for no state aid towards support of religious societies. The Virginia Baptists found kindred minds to the north in Pennsylvania.
The Philadelphia led the way in support of Baptist seminaries and schools of higher learning. They supported what became Brown University in Providence, R.I. They set a noble example; and the Virginia Baptists as early as the 1780s were hoping to emulate in the areas of education. In 1830 they formed an Education Society which supported private academies of learning for ministers. In short order, the Virginia Baptist Seminary was formed, which evolved into Richmond College and eventually today’s University of Richmond. Others followed.
The Philadelphia recognized the importance of an emerging civil liberty. Again from Cathcart: “On the 19th of October, 1781, our army made its victorious entry into Yorktown; on the 23rd the Association was in session; on the night of that day the old watchman of Philadelphia cried, ‘Twelve o’clock and all is well, and Cornwallis has surrendered.’ The next morning the Association met at sunrise to bless God for the glorious news, and to record their gratitude in appropriate resolutions.”
The Virginia Baptists sent congratulations to Gen. George Washington upon his election as president; and he replied: “The religious society of which you are members, have been throughout America, uniformly, and almost unanimously, the firm friends to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution.” The Virginia Baptists made certain that Washington understood their views on the oppressive side of religion. In their resolution, they stated: “It was feared that we might be accessory to some religious oppression, should any one society in the Union preponderate all the rest.” They added that “liberty of conscience” was “dearer to us than property and life.”
In the essentials, Baptists have not wavered much from the same concept of associationalism of 300 years ago. We have not surrendered one whit of our independence while embracing other Baptists and enlarging our tent. We have not ceased in our understanding that we can do more together than separately. We have not abandoned an appreciation for the educated mind, although some of our educational institutions have abandoned us while we were fussing with each other. We have not lessened our enthusiasm for the practical value of Sunday schools and church training.
What we may have lost is the spirit of adventure. Our annual and semi-annual gatherings of local and state associations have waned in enthusiastic attendance. Our professional staffs have struggled with decreasing dollars. Our sense of associational purpose—ah, that single inspiring word of our times—has not been quickened as it has on the individual and the church levels. It takes a lot of air to blow out 300 candles. Let’s choose to keep them shining brightly and ignite a new sense of associational purpose for our day.
Fred Anderson may be contacted at [email protected].