Baptist settlers from South Carolina moved into the Natchez area in the late eighteenth century. Their first church was probably Salem Baptist Church (1791), located on Cole’s Creek in what became Jefferson County. By 1806 five churches in the region formed the Mississippi Baptist Association. The Baptist polity is fiercely independent, and associations or conventions exert no control over member churches apart from the power to expel them. This impulse toward independence prevented the association from gaining strength. Likewise, an early shortage of trained clergy not only impaired growth but also instilled a desire to develop educational opportunities. These restraints, however, did not keep the Baptists from developing an early influence on politics through leaders such as George Poindexter.
By 1824 enough churches and associations existed to generate the first statewide convention. That convention dissolved in 1829, only to re-form permanently in 1836. At that time there were 9 associations, 122 churches, and 4,287 church members. The events leading up to the Civil War generated controversy over the control of missions agencies and slave ownership among American Baptists, leading to a denominational schism in 1845. Most Baptists in the South affiliated themselves with the Southern Baptist Convention.
In 2001 the state convention reported 2,080 churches, with 1,723,149 total members. Current denominational structure involves a full-time staff headed by the executive director–treasurer. Annual conventions meet in Jackson to elect a president and various committees and boards, all of which work with the professional staff to oversee convention activities. The missions enterprises encompass work within the state, across the nation, and internationally. The early interest in providing educational training in a Baptist context led to the 1850 acquisition of Mississippi College along with several other institutions of higher learning. Current colleges include Blue Mountain College in Blue Mountain, Mississippi College in Clinton, and William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Gulfport, and New Orleans. The Mississippi Baptist Convention maintains close ties with Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis and the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center in Jackson. The Baptist Children’s Villages are important providers of child welfare. The Christian Action Commission leads in campaigns concerning issues that influence the moral climate of the state, including recent campaigns against gambling and in favor of improved race relations. The Baptist men’s association, the Brotherhood, and the ladies’ auxiliary, the Women’s Missionary Union, provide social action through literacy, job skill, and disaster relief activities. Since 1887 the means of communication among Baptist churches and members has been the Baptist Record, the state’s largest-circulation weekly newspaper.
More than a third of Mississippi’s population is Baptist, and the denomination wields considerable political influence. Most of the state’s recent US senators, representatives, and governors have been Baptists. The historical archives of the Mississippi Baptist Convention are located at the Speed Library at Mississippi College.
- R. A. McLemore, A History of Mississippi Baptists, 1780–1970 (1971)
- Mississippi Baptist Convention, Book of Reports (2001)