If you could go back in time to one event in history what would that be? Undoubtedly, for most Christians it would be the morning of the resurrection ... although ... we were there.
As a researcher and writer of Georgia Baptist history a question that has crossed my mind is; If I could attend any Georgia Baptist Convention meeting, which would it have been? The upcoming meeting will mark the 199th anniversary and the 200th time this body has assembled, so there are plenty to choose from.
The Convention organizational meeting was in the bustling village of Powelton, Georgia in 1822. The Convention did not meet in May of 1865 when the state was under Union occupation following the Civil War. It met twice in 1901 when the decision was made to move the annual meeting from spring to fall. The location was changed at the last minute to a larger venue in 1918 due to the influenza gripping the county at the end of World War I and the need for more lodging.
The GBC had an abbreviated session in 2020 because of COVID 19. The 175th Anniversary meeting in 1997 was interrupted by a bomb threat, exiting the building, some stood in the parking lot in tears lamenting the divisiveness that had created such a moment . . . but the meeting continued, business was conducted, delayed but not unabated.
Current conventions are markedly different than earlier ones, especially those in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Two messengers were elected by each affiliated Association or Missionary Society, churches did not directly send messengers until the 1870’s, so early registration numbers were smaller. Although overall attendance was often much larger, sometimes numbering into the thousands, because Camp Meetings were held in conjunction with the Conventions. Conventions were held over a weekend, with no official business taking place on Sunday other than preaching.
Singing was acapella and preaching was expected to be extemporaneous and full bodied! In the early days preaching assignments were not made until after the Convention had been called to order. Sermons were normally an hour in length and a preacher was not considered “long winded” until he had gone over two hours. In the 1840’s complaints began to circulate that some preachers seemed to be “reading sermons” (using notes).
Early transportation was by foot, wagon, stagecoach, or horseback. In the 1850’s as railroads were expanding across the state, they began offering half price fares. Messengers paid the fare to the convention, showed GBC credentials at the station, and received free passage home.
Hosting a Convention was a community event especially before changes were made following the 1918 pandemic. The host church working with an “arrangements committee” scheduled housing and organized meals. Messengers contacted the arrangements committee to reserve accommodations. They were assigned lodging in local homes and breakfast was provided by the host each morning. As the Conventions grew larger Methodist, Presbyterians and others opened their doors to the hungry hoard of Baptists descending upon their community. For lunch and dinner large tables were spread on the grounds and food was provided by local churches and associations.
By the time the Convention met in Commerce in 1915 the local arrangement committee had developed hosting to an art form. Messengers arrived on the Northeast Georgia Railroad and were met at the station by a car which sped them to their host home for supper. They were then taken to the Convention meeting at the Baptist Church. Ground transportation and meals were provided for the remainder of the stay. It was an impressive, well-organized, and efficient operation.
Following the 1918 pandemic the convention made the decision that messengers in the future would be responsible for their own meals and lodging. This meant the location must be large enough to have adequate hotel accommodations. One tradition which continues from those early days, is a resolution passed by the Convention expressing appreciation for the local host community/church/association.
Through the years the Conventions have encountered many highs and lows. Arguably the very existence of the Convention was in doubt until 1833 with anti-missionary forces pushing against it. Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction all put their peculiar strains on the efforts to promote missions and education. The struggles of the Conservative Resurgence which resulted in the 1997 bomb threat was another difficult season in the life of the Convention. The 1929 meeting, just a few weeks after the Wall Street Crash, was a season of fear and uncertainty, as Arch Cree the Executive Director under doctors’ orders resigned.
On the other hand, there have been moments of exuberant celebration. In 1833, “The Year the Stars Fell” the Convention celebrated a new school (Mercer), new support (new missionary associations joined) and a new voice (The Christian Index purchased and moved to Georgia). In 1943 the Convention celebration of the elimination of debts dating back to WWI. In 1972 the 150th Anniversary of the Convention was celebrated during the highest year of recorded baptisms in Georgia Baptist history.
Yet if I had to choose one Convention to attend it would have been the 1837 Convention held at the Vann’s Creek Baptist Church in Elberton, Georgia. It was described as “a Convention we should never forget.” Yet sadly it would be forgotten.
After years of conflict with anti-missionary (Primitive) Baptists, the division of families, churches and associations, a formal division was made between the two factions. It would seem there would not be much to celebrate after the bitter struggle and division. If weary Georgia missionary Baptists affiliated with the Convention wondered if the struggle over missions had been worth it, God provided an answer.
The answer was a young man named Edward Able Stevens, from Sunbury, Georgia who had just completed his education in Massachusetts. Age 22, he returned to Georgia seeking Georgia Baptists support to go to Burma and serve as a missionary with Adoniram Judson. Judson would become Stevens’ neighbor, mentor, and friend. For months Stevens had traveled the state speaking in churches and associational meetings sharing his need . . . and Georgia Baptist responded!
At his home church’s request, Stevens was ordained on the Sunday set aside for worship during the 1837 Convention. The ordination sermon was preached by Jesse Mercer who had helped fund his education. Other leading Georgia Baptists took part. It was reported there were few dry eyes by the end of the service and the clerk summarized the memorable day with the statement, “and a general good feeling prevailed.”
Who knows what the next annual meeting might bring? God might show up in an unexpected way. Just as Georgia Baptists in 1837 had reason to be weary, today they are weary of dealing with Covid, declining baptisms, declining giving, and a larger society that is increasingly polarized and characterized by incivility.
It was during a weary season in 1837 that God reminded Georgia Baptists that the struggle for missions and the drive to support them was worth the effort. Maybe in the future someone will look back and say of the 2021 Convention that’s the one I would like to have attended. God showed up and reminded Georgia Baptists that working together and encouraging one another to support missions is what we are about … and may it be said, “and a general good feeling prevailed.”
Charles Jones is a retired Georgia Baptist pastor, church historian, and newspaper columnist.
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