Much Baptist history is written in controversy. This tendency often invokes sadness in us. But it should be no surprise that Baptists who hold a high view of Scripture would fight for and even divide over what they contend Scripture teaches. The Southern Baptist Convention was not only birthed in controversy, but also developed in it. From 1845 to the present Southern Baptist Christians have held out for their own particular vision of the forward biblical march. Along the way some conflicting visions were bound to arise.
Several dissensions early threatened the peace of the Southern Baptist Zion. None shattered its union until the end of the 19th century. The Landmark controversy surrounding J. R. Graves and unrest over the theological positions of seminarians Crawford Toy (circa 1880) and William H. Whitsitt (circa 1895) provide some background for late 19th century SBC problems. Nevertheless, some who stood together against Howell and Whitsitt would stand against one another in the later controversies. Hence we begin.
The Gospel Mission schism (circa 1885—1900) became a problem toward disunion. Whether or how many churches actually left the SBC immediately due to Gospel Missions is an undetermined factor. Regardless, Gospel Missions revealed an area of discord and paved the way for later schisms. This division centered on the mission methods promoted by a veteran Southern Baptist missionary to China, one Tarleton Perry Crawford. He and those who agreed with him promoted a change in SBC mission methods. Sides were taken – some for Board methods and some for Gospel Mission methods. Local Baptist associations tried to keep peace and stave off division. Into the 1910's and even later some associations allowed both Mission Board reports and Gospel Mission reports to be presented at their meetings. In 1892 the SBC Foreign Mission Board removed Crawford as missionary, setting the stage for more problems to come.
The first major division within the Southern churches occurred in the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Several years of dissension led up to this. The Baptist Missionary Association of Texas was organized in 1900. Aside from personalities, the struggle featured the issue of church sovereignty and how it relates to the organized work. This is considered a landmark influenced controversy. But leaders on both sides held landmark positions on the church and baptism, so this consideration is probably overemphasized. Gospel Missions was not a strong influence on the BMAT leadership as it was in the later division in the Baptist State Convention of Arkansas. The chief antagonist against the BGCT, Samuel A. Hayden, opposed withdrawing from the convention. The view presented by Joe Early in A Texas Baptist Power Struggle: the Hayden Controversy captures the greater truth of the matter – the “Hayden Controversy” in late 19th century Texas was a power struggle for the heart of the Convention between (mainly) S. A. Hayden and B. H. Carroll. Carroll won; Hayden supporters withdrew. Many people have failed to realize the scale of this division. Major leaders and large churches of the BGCT left and went into the Baptist Missionary Association. The BMAT had about as many churches after its first few years of organization as it has today. Lack of organization, internal dissension within the new association, and vigorous efforts used by the BGCT to “stop the bleeding” and get churches & preachers to return combined to keep this new group from possibly outgrowing the BGCT.
Several other divisions occurred in the South about this time. The next of any large scale would be in Arkansas. Led by Ben M. Bogard, Landmark and Gospel Missions Baptists asked for several concessions in policy and method on the part of the State Convention. When the Convention did not accept the proposals, nearly half of Arkansas churches withdrew and formed the State Association of Missionary Baptist Churches of Arkansas in 1902. As late as 1924, the SBC was still listing these "Landmark" churches in the Convention annual, though few if any were likely still cooperating with the Convention. Unlike many of the Texas leaders, Ben Bogard had a view for a work beyond the state level and apart from the SBC.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, several other smaller divisions occurred within state Southern Baptist organizations. Alternative associations were organized on at the state level in Mississippi (1908), Oklahoma (1903,1920/merged 1925), Florida (1920), Louisiana (1924), Georgia (1925), Alabama (1927), Missouri (1928), California (1933), and Tennessee-Carolina (1938). In 1905, several Landmark Baptists, mostly from Arkansas, organized a General Association of Missionary Baptists for the purpose of carrying on foreign mission work separate from the SBC. The BMAT had their own foreign mission work and most Texas churches did not participate in the new group. A unification movement finally brought these scattered missionary Baptist churches under one organizational umbrella. The result of that effort was the formation of the American Baptist Association in 1924. The ABA, the successor to the old General Association, gathered into one organization many churches that left the Southern Baptist Convention as a result of this late 19th and early 20th century foment and unrest.
The fundamentalist movement gained steam in the early 1900s. The drive of independent fundamentalists, especially under the aggressive guidance of Southern Baptist Texan J. Frank Norris, would slough off another chunk of churches from the Southern Baptist fold. This effort produced the World Baptist Fellowship (Norris’s group), the Orthodox Baptist Fellowship, and, eventually, numerous other independent Baptist fellowships. Both the Landmark and Fundamental movements provided the incentive for a number of other churches that would remain wholly independent and unaffiliated with any conventions, associations or fellowships. Interestingly, Fundamentalist J. Frank Norris (TX) and Landmarker Ben M. Bogard (AR) moved in some of the same circles in the 1930's, having common purpose yet never achieving agreement.
Finally, there is what might be called "silent splits." These are divisions that are considered minor, that go unmentioned, were confined to smaller geographical areas, or that left little lasting evidence that they occurred. These splits certainly were not silent while they were happening! The Kelleyite division in Arkansas left little on the radar screen and is usually only known to people in the affected geographical area. George M. Fortune appeared in Paris, Texas and produced quite a stir around the state over his heresies. After he moved on to Oklahoma, Fortune and “Fortuneism” would be almost forgotten by future generations. At least twenty or more local or district associations scattered through Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi dropped out of the SBC in the mid-20th century. Today they are mostly known as “Old Time Missionary Baptists.” The theological aberrations of M. T. Martin, known as “Martinism,” caused serious discord and division throughout the 1890’s for Southern Baptists. Evidently it left little or no permanent mark that is noticeable among Baptists.
Unlike the modern schisms that pitted moderate/liberal versus conservative, most of the late 19th and early 20th century divisions in the SBC pitted conservatives against conservatives. One conservative vision prevailed and the others moved on to pursue their own distinct visions. A drink of the sometimes murky waters of Baptist history will help provide lasting insight for the present, of who we are, where we’ve been and what concerns we have.
A Baptist Source Book by Robert A. Baker (Broadman Press, 1966)
“Arkansas Baptist State Convention” by Kenneth M. Startup in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (online)
A Texas Baptist Power Struggle: the Hayden Controversy by Joseph Early, Jr.
History of the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas by W. H. Parks
 E.g. Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship