It was 1823 and the state of Alabama was still in its infancy. Thousands of settlers were flocking to Alabama in hope of a new life on the frontier. By the 1820s it is estimated that 5,000 Baptists ministered and worshipped throughout the state. Baptist churches were being built and new organizations were being founded at breakneck speed. Assistance in funding missionary endeavors and educating young Baptist ministers was greatly needed. It was in this environment that a statewide convention in Alabama was born.
Prior to the formation of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, two other southern states had formed Baptist conventions (South Carolina in 1821 and Georgia in 1822). In fact, many pastors from these two states eventually called Alabama home. It has been suggested that many of these out-of-state pastors provided the inspiration to organize a state convention in Alabama. Another catalyst in starting a state convention was the widespread antimission movement. To counter this movement, many pastors sought to coordinate mission and educational efforts through a state convention.
In 1822 at the Cahawba Association meeting, a man by the name of Hosea Holcomb expressed the need for a statewide Baptist convention. That very next year in 1823, James A. Ranaldson, a native of Scotland, initiated the creation of the Alabama Baptist State Convention by mailing letters to missionary societies inviting them to elect delegates to a state convention. The meeting was held in October 1823 at Salem Baptist Church near Greensboro, Alabama, where fifteen visionary men representing seven missionary societies officially formed the Alabama Baptist State Convention. It is important to note that these seven missionary societies were founded by women.
Women played a significant role in the founding of the Alabama State Convention. While only one woman attended the convention, other women contributed greatly to the convention’s creation. Nancy Lea attended the convention with her husband, who represented the Perry County Missionary Society. Some records list her as an elected delegate to the convention. Many important women’s societies contributed financial support. Harriet Harrison and Cassey Holcombe (wife of Hosea Holcomb) mailed a letter with a clear message: the women of their society strongly believed in the importance of missions and their desire to be a part of this new undertaking. Seven other women’s societies lent financial support to the newly founded convention. In a message written by Harriet Harrison and Cassey Holcombe to the delegates of the first Convention in 1823: “as Phoebe was bearer of the epistle of Paul to the Romans, and Priscilla and Chloe were helpers, so would we also reach forth a helping hand, and assist in carrying into effect your laudable design.”
Charles Crow was elected first president of the convention and James A. Ranaldson served as secretary. Fifteen domestic missionaries were appointed and were tasked with educating the public. A constitution was soon drafted. In it, the priorities of religious education and the promotion of missionary work were made clear. It was the task of the missionaries to tame the Alabama wilderness through the spreading of God’s word. However, this sense of excitement of new opportunities would soon flounder.
Alabama’s regional differences provided obstacles for Baptists. The northern part of the state believed that their compatriots to the south controlled too much power in the convention. In fact, in the first half-century of the convention’s existence, forty-two sessions were held in south Alabama and only eight were held in north Alabama. These regional differences and problems would persist. As a result, other conventions were organized as well, including the General Association of Middle Tennessee and North Alabama in 1841, and the East Alabama Baptist Convention in 1856. However, the Alabama Baptist State Convention would eventually be the only one to survive.
- Flynt, Wayne, Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1998.
- Morrison, Troy, Lance, Rick, Hamilton, Frances, and Leon Ballard. Alabama Baptist State Convention, 1823-1998 : 175 years : people of light, celebrating the Alabama Baptist experience. 1998
- SCAV 1004 Samford University Special Collection.
- SCAV 936 Samford University Special Collection.
- ABSC Marker photo courtesy of the Alabama Baptist Historical Commission.