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No institution has had a more profound role in Arkansas history than the Baptist church. Practically every crossroads in Arkansas is home to a Baptist church of some sort -- Southern Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Primitive Baptist and African American Baptist, among others. The fact that there are so many denominations indicates the intense discord and schisms which have rent the Baptist movement on many occasions.

The Baptist story is much too complicated to summarize in a single newspaper column, so I am breaking the topic into three parts. Let's start with an overview of the Baptist church in Arkansas, with a future column to address the Landmark Movement which resulted in the creation of the Missionary Baptist Church and a final column on black Baptists.

The names of most early Baptist preachers in Arkansas have been lost, but Baptist historian E. Glenn Hinson has written: "The first Baptist preacher to pass through what became Arkansas Territory was probably John Clark ... who traveled on foot about 1810 from the extreme frontiers of Missouri to Florida."

Clark's religious zeal is probably a manifestation of the widespread impact of the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival movement during the early 1800s which was especially felt in the southern states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Most sources agree that the first Baptist church in what is today Arkansas was created in 1818 on the Fourche de Thomas Bayou in what was then Missouri Territory but is now Randolph County. The extended family of Caleb Lindsey helped found the church. Later, one or more of the Lindsey sons moved to central Arkansas where, in 1822, John Lindsey helped establish Kentucky Baptist Church in what is today Saline County, one of the oldest functioning churches in the state.

The Baptist church grew slowly at first. By 1836, when Arkansas became a state, 40 Baptist churches existed in the area, with membership of fewer than 1,000. By 1848, when the Arkansas Baptist State Convention was organized, churches had grown to 73 congregations and a total membership of 2,355.

The early Baptist church in Arkansas was racially integrated. A free black woman, Hannah Flanigan, was one of the 10 charter members of First Baptist Church of Pine Bluff in 1853. Within a year, the church had 195 members, 57 of whom were black and mostly enslaved.

Estimates of black Baptist membership vary greatly, but one historian calculates that 20 to 25 percent of Arkansas Baptists on the eve of the Civil War were black. Black Baptists would break away and create their own church following the Civil War.

Long before the founding of the State Convention, Arkansas Baptists created "associations" -- groups of churches which cooperated in promoting mission efforts and educational projects and enforced church discipline.

This would be the source of great strength for Baptists as they spread the gospel by sponsoring missionaries. Associations of churches could more efficiently sponsor missionaries. However, not all early Arkansas Baptists accepted associations, believing they impinged upon another primary Baptist belief: autonomy of the local congregation. Some early congregations became known as "Hardshell Baptists for," among other differences, their rejection of collaborative work.

Baptist historians Fred Williams, Ken Startup and Ray Grenade, authors of an extraordinarily fine history of the Southern Baptist church in Arkansas, summarized the conflict this way: "The State Convention's pre-war story would be that of a struggle between 'system men,' who believed that some centralized system was needed, and 'individualists,' who clung to the Hardshell tradition of each church carrying out its own individual efforts under God's direction without hindrance or help from hierarchy or organization."

The early church also faced challenges from the Campbellite movement, as well as a growing acceptance of the Landmark Doctrine.

The Campbellite movement arose on the southern frontier around 1800 as an effort to abandon denominationalism (to put it simply and incompletely). This new movement was welcomed by many Baptist congregations. The first Baptist church formed in Little Rock was taken over by the Campbellites in 1832 -- "renouncing their creed, rules of decorum, their name and every other appendage of human invention ..."

The Landmark movement would later cause a severe split within the Southern Baptist denomination.

Early Baptist church discipline seems awfully strict by modern standards. Nonattendance was frowned upon. One Little River County church "excluded" members who missed more than three consecutive services. Profanity could bring exclusion, as could drunkenness, marital infidelity and other offenses, such as dancing. However, "restorations" were common too. In 1880, 460 members were excluded; 298 were restored to full membership.

During the Civil War no group supported the Confederacy more than Baptists. One of the great leaders of the post-bellum Baptist church in Arkansas was James P. Eagle of Lonoke County, who served as a colonel in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, sustaining a wound during the Atlanta campaign which later played no small role in his election as governor.

Eagle served as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention for 21 years starting in 1880. With the help of other Convention leaders, he set about to rebuild a church which had not fully recovered from the Civil War.

Eagle valued education and worked hard to establish Baptist schools and colleges. Remarkably, in 1883, the State Convention provided a small subsidy for the newly organized black Baptist college in Little Rock -- the still existing Arkansas Baptist College.

Early attempts to establish white Baptist colleges all ultimately failed, but in 1886 Ouachita Baptist College opened its doors and over time became a highly regarded educational institution. The OBC seminary over time dramatically improved the quality of Southern Baptist ministers. Central Female College in Conway was another early Baptist educational institution, but it eventually failed. Mountain Home Baptist College, established in 1892, seemed to be a success but folded in 1933. In more recent years, the State Convention has assumed ownership of Williams Baptist University in Walnut Ridge.

Following a split in the Arkansas church in 1901, the State Baptist Convention had to rebuild. Progress took a while, but the church grew steadily. For example, spending on missions grew from $13,000 in 1901 to $325,000 in 1925. Sunday School enrollment grew from 21,000 in 1901 to 87,000 in 1925.

Many Baptists became prominent political leaders during the last century. Jeff Davis, a state attorney general, governor and U.S. senator, was something of a reprobate, given to drinking whiskey and admitting to being a "pint Baptist."

Dr. Charles H. Brough, who served as governor during the World War I era, was a leading Southern Baptist and our only governor with a doctorate degree.

No Baptist politician, however, took his religion more seriously than U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays of Russellville. Hays served as president of both the Arkansas State Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Perhaps the best known Baptist leader in recent Arkansas history is the Rev. Mike Huckabee, who served as governor from 1996 to 2007.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

NAN Profiles on 06/23/2019

Print Headline: A complex history lesson

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