Baptist History Spotlight: The First Baptist Association

November 17, 2014

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

Baptists formed an association of churches in 1707 to give support and encouragement in New England. Freedom of Religion had not been realized by Baptists the way they would have liked. We have noted persecution in America at the hands of the Puritans and continuing in New England as well as Virginia. Baptist came together for their survival. They wanted to clearly state what they believed which came a few decades later with the Philadelphia Confession. They would also take action against any church which had aberrant doctrine.

Through the association they gained strength in the fact that they were not alone. A movement began without any government support and oppression. It spread to the south where it gained support like a prairie fire in the establishment of new churches and the forward advance of the gospel. The formation of the association was seminal in the establishment of the Baptist Movement in America.

After almost a century of existence in America some of the colonies were still very provincial in their allowing other groups to practice their faith openly. Baptists were among the emerging groups who served the brunt of suppression to their beliefs primarily in New England but also in Virginia. The Baptist movement was moving forward in Pennsylvania due to the work of Thomas Dugan and Elias Keach in establishing the Cold Springs and the Lower Dublin church. Through these churches other churches spread throughout the area so that Baptist churches arose at multiple locations. Suddenly instead of isolated locations Baptist churches were in close proximity to one another. The forming of an association seemed right for their protection as well as their fellowship with one another.

Churches had been meeting jointly since 1688 that featured preaching, ordination of ministers, and common fellowship in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. The meetings were held yearly. The formation of an association was a logical evolution into this new avenue of co-operation between like-minded churches.

On July 27, 1707 five churches from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware organized the Philadelphia Association patterned after the British associations. It was loosely organized but still respected the cherished Baptist belief of local church autonomy. The churches were small and struggling. The association gave a measure of stability to the churches that they were not alone. Fifty years after the formation of the association 29 churches had over 100 members and 19 churches had less than 50 members. They were also limited in educating the clergy, religious writings, and religious education. The association did send missionaries to southern colonies and Canada. Although the association was concerned with survival they also began with a missionary spirit. The education of clergy and missions developed later in the second half of the 18th century. The Philadelphia association became the model for cooperation and structure for other early associations in Charleston and Sandy Creek. Their model became known as the Philadelphia Tradition.

The churches agreed to meet yearly at a certain time. A preacher from among them would be selected to preach an annual sermon according to the minutes of the Pennepeck Baptist Church. The first meeting of the churches met generally in Salem, New Jersey in 1688, later in the Lower Dublin church, and the church in Philadelphia. These meetings were spread out for shared fellowship even before the Association was formed.

The churches that comprised the first association came from Lower Dublin (Pennepeck), Middletown, Piscataqua, Cohansey, and Welsh Tract. The Philadelphia congregation, though giving its name to the association, is not represented as a constituent member, because it was regarded as a branch of the Lower Dublin church. Morgan Edwards, the great Baptist historian of the 18th century, records how the association increased to 34 churches by 1770. Most of the Baptist churches in the New England area begun in the 18th century owe their sponsorship to the churches in this historic association.

I’m sure the first association did not envision a large bureaucracy that many denominations have today. The fact that churches have increased of course have necessitated larger organizations to handle missions and working in a more efficient way. The simple roots of the Philadelphia association must be remembered by all however to see how far God has brought Baptists and what it was that made our churches strong and stable in the beginning of the movement here in America.