Baptist History Spotlight: The Charleston Baptist Association

January 2, 2015

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

The second Baptist association in America was formed in Charleston, South Carolina just before the Sandy Creek movement took off in North Carolina. The association was similar to the Philadelphia Association. Oliver Hart the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston was instrumental in the formation of the association.

The association became a bulwark in bringing Baptists together. Though not as missional as the Sandy Creek Association, it did offer a place of fellowship to further the work of Southern Baptist churches before there was a Southern Baptist Convention. Visionary men like Hart played an important part in establishing Baptists and resulting in the heavy number of Southern Baptist Churches throughout the south.

The year was 1751 and Oliver Hart had just come to Charleston to take the reins of the church at Charleston. He could have concentrated solely on building up the church, which had been down, but instead he sought to reach out to other congregations’ just starting or needing encouragement. He sought to extend the influence of the church and the work in the Charleston area.

Hart had been impressed with the way the Philadelphia Association had functioned in sending out missionaries. He wished something could be done of a similar fashion in the Charleston area. Again, as in Pennsylvania, the struggling churches needed fellowship with one another for survival and encouragement. Hart invited representatives from Charleston, Welsh Neck, Ashley River, and Euhaw Baptist churches to meet and organize the first association in the South.

Hart felt a strong cooperation between churches would strengthen Baptist work in South Carolina. First Baptist Church of Charleston had struggled in the early days of its inception. It had been born through the Baptist Church in Kittery, Maine under the leadership of their Pastor William Screven. They had left the Northeast after persecution from the state church there.

The Charleston church was all alone for years. The only other churches started were a Baptist church in Virginia under the leadership of Robert Norden in 1715 and one in North Carolina under Paul Palmer. In 1740 there were only eight churches in the three southern colonies with about 300 or 400 members. When the church in Charleston began to grow Hart wished to see the work prosper through the whole area given the scarcity of Baptists in the area during the early days. It was essential that a strong Baptist presence be established in the early days of the South Carolina colony.

Later the Charleston Association would be instrumental in starting Baptist work westward of the Carolina’s and into the Mississippi and Louisiana territory. The Philadelphia Association had began other churches; so the Charleston Association began to expand Baptist work to previously uncharted territory.

With the work expanding through the establishment of the Charleston Association, the primary function of the association was examined. Robert Baker in his “History of Baptists” shared: “Associations were to provide a larger fellowship and to allow counsel concerning common problems facing the churches.” Baker goes on to reveal, “By common understanding, associations had no authority over the churches which affiliated with them.” There was still a resistance to associations for fear that the churches would lose some of their freedom. In some way they viewed it as a threat to the cherished Baptist belief of local church autonomy. Even the sending of missionaries by the Philadelphia Association was viewed as a threat to church autonomy. This actually became a good thing—because churches began pursuing what they could do to start new churches. The Sandy Creek Association and church was more centered in this philosophy which led to new congregations all over the south.

The Charleston Association survived and led to other congregations being strengthened and formed in South Carolina. Hart’s steady work as pastor of the Charleston church and his leadership in the Charleston Association led to the work expanding and thriving in the South Carolina area.