During the 19th century in the United States (roughly 1820-1840), there was a controversy – and finally a split – among Baptists over the nature of “missions.” The development of a national missionary society and other types of church auxiliaries gradually festered a sore spot. The “General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions” (more commonly called the Triennial Convention) was formed in 1814. Within a few years Baptists were writing treatises questioning the propriety of and authority for such an organization. In more recent times, this has often been incorrectly framed as a controversy over preaching the gospel. Most, if not all, of the Baptists believed in preaching the gospel to those who had not heard. The objection to the formation of missionary societies was ecclesiological rather than soteriological. One of the early treatises, Daniel Parker’s A Public Address to the Baptist Society...on the Principle and Practice of the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, clearly shows the ecclesiological argumentation.
Once the churches divided into camps favoring or opposing missionary societies, mission boards, and some other church auxiliaries, those who favored the formalized missionary efforts were classed as “Missionary Baptists.” They referred to the other side as “anti-missionary.” Those “anti-missionaries” used Regular, Old School, Primitive, etc. for self-identification. Due to this background, the name “Missionary Baptist” is usually applied to those with historical origins that trace back to the Regular Baptists in the United States and the Particular Baptists in England (i.e., the Baptists among who this split occurred). The name is seldom applied to churches with a background rooted in the General Baptist movement (historically). For example, most Freewill Baptists and General Baptists in the United States favor some type of organized missionary effort but would not normally use “Missionary Baptist” in any kind of official or descriptive way.
The name “Missionary Baptist” still falls in the realm of those churches descending from the “missionary” side of the 19th century U.S. Baptist split. Any of them may be “missionary Baptists” while it is a minority that officially uses “Missionary Baptist” in church and organizational names. Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, the “Missionary Baptists” split over the way to do missions. Some favored missionary societies or mission boards, while others favored Gospel missions or direct missions. Therefore, today there are independent churches and associations who are “Missionary Baptists” who would have greater ecclesiological agreement on the matter of missions with Daniel Parker, for example, rather than J. M. Peck.
Seeing “Missionary Baptist” in a church name will not tell the same story in different regions of the country. In East Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi – and probably Tennessee and Missouri – “Missionary Baptist” likely means one of two things: (1) a predominantly white church that is not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, or (2) a predominantly African-American church that is affiliated with one of the National Baptist Conventions. In my visits to northern Alabama and northern Georgia, I have found that if a church had “Missionary Baptist” in the name it was usually Southern Baptist.
In my outdated list of Baptist Groups in the United States, I believe you will find churches in the following groups who use in some official way the name “Missionary Baptist.” I probably miss some.
- American Baptist Association
- Baptist Missionary Association of America
- Independent Missionary Baptist Associations
- Independent Missionary Baptist Churches
- Interstate and Foreign Landmark Missionary Baptist Association of America
- National Baptist Convention of America
- National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
- National Missionary Baptist Convention of America
- Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.
- Some (probably a small minority) Southern Baptist Convention