On May 8, 1845, 293 Baptist zealots from the South marched into a meeting hall in Augusta, Ga., to address a crisis created when American Baptists refused to appoint a Southern slaveholder as a missionary.
The next day, the distressed leaders decided to secede, and on May 10, 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was organized.
This month a record 30,000 of the faithful will descend on Dallas for the SBC's annual meeting. Most will be "messengers," the Baptist term for voting delegates.
Unlike past conventions, which bore resemblance to family reunions, this year's meeting is expected to be played out in a bitter climate of distrust. Messengers will confront issues emerging from a divisive six-year battle over an appeal to swing the convention toward fundamentalism.
However painful the division from which it was born, the SBC thrived in the catfish-and-cotton country of America's Southland. For nearly 100 years, churches related to the SBC were located primarily in the South and Southeast. But the upheaval of World War II scattered Southern Baptists to other parts of the nation. Today they are in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. In 140 years, the SBC has become the nation's largest Protestant body, with 14.3 million members.
The SBC is considerably more diverse than is commonly recognized. Its pattern of unity in diversity was forged in Georgia a century-and-a-half ago.
Although slavery was the main issue, another factor sparked the 1845 Baptist schism. American Baptists were organized on a mission society pattern, with an independent society for each mission ministry of the church. From the SBC's beginning, its local churches have voluntarily cooperated in missions, education and benevolences.
It adopted no creed, claimed no test of orthodoxy and avoided establishing a hierarchical structure. The church's ministries and missions are dependent upon the voluntary support of autonomous local congregations.
There have been other controversies in SBC history, but the denomination has escaped a major schism mostly because of two events. In 1925, the annual meeting set in motion what became the SBC Cooperative Program, a unified means for raising and dispersing voluntary funds. That was the same year as the Scopes "monkey trial" and Southern Baptists were troubled over evolution. But convention messengers defeated a motion rejecting the scientific theory in favor of a "Baptist Faith and Message" statement affirming God as creator.
A doctrinal dispute arose again, and the 1963 convention revised the statement, keeping it broad enough not to be creedal, and avoiding dogmatic pronouncements.Other mainline churches lost members by the droves in the 1960s and 1970s, but the SBC grew from 3.6 million members in 1925 to 14.3 million in 1984.
But in 1979, the glue that held the SBC together -- a zeal for evangelism and mission -- began to soften when a group of fundamentalists perceived what they called "a liberal drift in the seminaries." They called for a stronger doctrinal statement that would affirm the inerrancy (literal interpretation) of the "original autographs" of the Bible. Vowing to take control, the group won the presidency of the SBC for five years.
Slow to react, convention moderates began forming a coalition to oppose a takeover, claiming that rigidity of doctrine would stifle "wholesome diversity."
There is a crack in the unity of the SBC as fundamentalists rally around doctrine and moderates around missions. Fundamentalists say the Bible does not authorize ordination of women; moderates say that such decisions should continue to be made by local churches.
Some speculate that there will be a schism in the convention.
Whatever the outcome, many agree that the primary reason for the fray is, ironically, success. Unity was easier when the SBC was a regional body of isolated and less-educated all-white southerners, with compatible cultural and doctrinal beliefs.
The Southern Baptist Convention has become mainline, successful and diverse.
"The men just don't believe alike, they don't preach alike," said Dr. W.A. Criswell, pastor of 26,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, the largest SBC congregation. "They just aren't alike."