Ezra Courtney was an important Baptist frontier missionary and theologian, yet certainty about his life continues to elude historians. Courtney’s tombstone and most scholarly accounts say that he was born in 1775 in the Darlington District of South Carolina, but other sources suggest that he was born in 1771 in Pennsylvania. Courtney must have heard the call early in life because records from the Bethel Black River Church in Burnt County, South Carolina, list him as working for the church by 1790. Soon thereafter, he married Elizabet Dearmond, and on 25 August 1792 their first child, Sarah, was born.
Courtney moved to Amite County, Mississippi, around the turn of the nineteenth century. Just to the south lay West Florida, where Spanish Catholics had established a powerful presence. Early evangelical Protestant orators on the frontier commonly faced arrest, a situation in which Courtney found himself after ministering to a group nine miles west of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A Spanish government official interceded on Courtney’s behalf, however, and the young minister avoided incarceration.
Courtney established several churches in South Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1806 he helped found the Mississippi Baptist Association, which covered what is now southwestern Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana. He went on to serve as the association’s moderator for eight consecutive terms.
Courtney played a fundamental role in developing the frontier Baptist theological worldview. He opposed the antimission sentiments of American and English Baptists, who had been reluctant to support William Carey’s work in India, and rallied support for the mission system. When some Baptists began to espouse Campbellite doctrine, practices Courtney considered heterodox, he outspokenly criticized their ideas. Glenn Lee, an early Baptist historian, described Courtney as “a vigorous and faithful Calvinist, unrelenting in his stance.”
Courtney’s faith was rooted in the salvation of the individual soul, an ideology that became synonymous with southern evangelical faith later in the nineteenth century. He taught the depravity of man, election, ministerial calling, and salvation by grace solely for the elect. He eventually drafted the Mississippi Baptist Association’s Articles of Faith, which are clearly indebted to the theological view of the Calvinistic reformers but also demonstrate Baptist ecclesiastical influences. Courtney and other early Mississippi Baptists ascribed to the five soteriological statements of the Synod of Dort, as the Articles of Faith demonstrate.
The last years of Courtney’s life, like his youth, remain murky. As late as 1832 he was still defending and spreading his style of theology, which would become orthodox, mainstream, evangelical theology. He died in 1855.
- David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World (1848)
- Jessie Laney Boyd, Popular History of the Baptists in Mississippi (1930)
- Founders Journal (Summer 2001)
- Rev. John G. Jones, A Concise History of the Introduction of Protestantism into Mississippi and the Southwest (1866)
- Joe B. Nessum, Founders Journal (Winter 1993)