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History of Arkansas Baptists

Baptists who choose to ally their churches with other Baptist churches for particular purposes (initially and primarily mission work at home and abroad) do so in Associations and Conventions. The former are narrower, the latter larger geographically. As a faith emphasizing local autonomy in its polity, Baptists structure their alliances voluntarily. Baptists who came first into Arkansas in the second decade of the 1800s, either south from the Missouri Territory or north from the Louisiana and Mississippi territories, were either independent or members of the Triennial Convention, the first national Baptist alliance, formed in 1814. Baptists in the South withdrew from their northern brothers over slavery in 1845 and formed the Southern Baptist Convention. Since that time, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, National Baptists (1886), and smaller groups like Landmark (Missionary), General, Particular (“Hard Shell”), and Free Will Baptists have been part of the Arkansas religious scene.

Southern Baptists have constituted the largest portion of Baptists in Arkansas since the formation of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention in 1848, and remain the state’s largest evangelical denomination despite its history of external Baptist competition in the years before the Civil War, and in the postbellum period. Following emancipation, freedmen formed their own churches and allied with American Baptists and then later formed the National Baptists. In 1901 a split produced the General Association of Arkansas Baptists, which later took the names American Baptist Association and Missionary Baptist Association.

In 1860, Southern Baptists comprised about 2.6% of the Arkansas population and ranged from 5.9% to 7.4% between 1870 and 1930. In 1880, Arkansas Southern Baptists made up about 45% of all reporting Baptists and 33.5% of total reported Christians. By 1950, Southern Baptists comprised 12.5% of the Arkansas population, a percentage that increased to 17% in 1960 and 19.3% at the millennium. The growth of Southern Baptist religious hegemony as indicated by these numbers resulted from the Convention focus on local evangelism in addition to that abroad. In keeping with their increasing numbers, Arkansas Baptists have actively engaged in politics and social issues, electing ordained Southern Baptist ministers to the governor’s chair in 1889 (James P. Eagle) and 1996 (Mike Huckabee) and offering reliable support to prohibition and anti-evolution (currently intelligent design), opposition to gambling, and extended debate over the role of women in church and state.

S. Ray Granade, Library Director and Professor of History

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