The largest concentration of African American Baptist congregations in Mississippi identify as Missionary Baptist. A recent estimate has the total number of Mississippians who attend Missionary Baptist churches at more than 350,000. Most of these churches were formed in the immediate postemancipation years when African American congregations separated from their primarily white mother churches, which were often affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
In keeping with the evangelical spirit of the white Baptist faith tradition in the South, newly formed and independent African American congregations across the state adopted the title of Missionary Baptists. Missionary Baptists believe in the classic tenets of the historic Baptist polity: the autonomy of local congregations and the view that baptism and church membership are reserved for mature congregants. Missionary Baptist services are characterized by the dynamic and expressive style of black Baptist worship.
The defining characteristic of Missionary Baptist churches remains the enduring insistence on church autonomy. Each church is led by a pastor and in most cases his wife, the first lady. Laypeople account for the remainder of the church leadership. Men can become deacons and ushers. Women hold the titles of church mothers and sisters. Few Missionary Baptist churches allow women to serve as pastors. Unlike other denominations, Missionary Baptists do not have required allegiances to national or state organizing bodies, and most choose to remain independent.
Nevertheless, statewide organizations have had an important historical presence. The most notable statewide organization is the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi. Founded in 1890 by Rev. Randle Pollard, “the Father of Negro Baptists in Mississippi,” the Baptist State Convention arose from the merger of two earlier organizations, the General Missionary Baptist Association of Mississippi and the General Convention, and originally included four hundred churches with more than seventy thousand members. The convention soon established Natchez College to provide African American youth in Mississippi with the opportunity for a private, religious-based education. Pres. Samuel Henry Clay Owen and his wife, Sarah Mazique, led Natchez College for many years before it moved to Jackson and subsequently evolved into Jackson State University. Headquartered in Jackson, the Baptist State Convention continues to promote Christian education, wellness, and community enrichment across the state.
Mississippi boasts an impressive roster of historically influential Missionary Baptists. Born in Noxubee County, Richard Henry Boyd (1843–1922) received theological training in Texas before establishing himself as a major figure in the first national African American Baptist convention, the National Baptist Convention, USA. His “Boyd Faction” later divided the National Baptist Convention over the issue of the development of a publishing board, and Boyd’s successors ultimately founded the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, which boasts more than 2.5 million congregants. Other prominent Mississippi Missionary Baptists have included Joseph Harrison Jackson (1900–1990), who was born in Rudyard and served as president of the National Baptist Convention USA from 1953 to 1982, and Clarence La Vaughn Franklin (1915–84), a Sunflower County native who became a pioneering radio broadcast preacher and was the father of legendary songstress Aretha Franklin.
Whereas the majority of Mississippi’s churches and individuals identifying as Missionary Baptist are African American, the state also has some primarily white Interstate and Foreign Landmark Missionary Baptist Churches, whose memberships exceeded 100,000 in 2000.
- Association of Religion Data Archives website, www.thearda.com
- C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mimaya, The Black Church in African American Experience
- Marvin A. McMickle, An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage