Missionary Baptists vs. Primitive Baptists

Today’s random thought about religion in America is inspired by the road trip I took last weekend from Ohio to North Carolina. We passed I don’t know how many Baptist churches on the way. There was nothing really noteworthy about that, of course. But on two or three occasions, we passed a Primitive Baptist church and a Missionary Baptist church within a few hundred feet of each other. That piqued my attention. I wondered what juicy stories of local schism might explain that proximity. At the very least, you figure there must have been Sunday after Sunday of furrowed brows as people drove past the opposing church–deliberately staring straight ahead, perhaps, or alternatively glancing at the parking lot for a quick jealous car count (or buggy count, depending on how far back we’re talking).

Baptists bring out the schadenfreude in me. I’m not proud of it, but I do indulge in the guilty pleasure.

For those not familiar with this particular religious conflict, Missionary Baptists and Primitive Baptists split in the nineteenth century over whether or not to adopt newfangled modern institutions like Sunday School and missionary societies. The Primitive Baptists rejected these because they hadn’t been around in New Testament times. They were restorationists of a sort, trying to recover the purity of the early, hence “primitive,” Christian church. (The twelve apostles didn’t go around founding missionary boards…) The Missionary Baptists were trendy innovators–at least what passed as trendy innovation in the early 1800s. Think of them as an early nineteenth-century equivalent to the evangelical churches of today that call themselves “worship centers” or “faith centers” because they want to be current. We passed some of those on the drive to North Carolina, too.

Lest I make this particular conflict sound too trivial, I should acknowledge that a larger stake was the question of how bureaucratized or professionalized these churches were going to be. Here’s another anachronistic, presentist analogy: Think of Primitive Baptists as being anti-“big government” and anti-elitist in the realm of religion. (I’m guessing they tend to be those things, literally, on the contemporary political landscape, too.)

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