In 2000 slightly more than one-third of Oklahoma's 3.4 million population adhere to the Baptist denomination. The vast majority are members of churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) and the Southern Baptist Convention. The next-highest numbers are found among black Baptists, who number 2.66 percent of the population. Still others include Free Will Baptists (.81 percent) and a host of small groups such as Independents, Missionary or American Baptists, and the General Association of Regular Baptists. Despite the differences represented by their varied organizations, Baptists also share commitments to basic doctrines and practices. These include baptism of converts by immersion, an absence of sacraments, and an emphasis on individual soul competency, and most have been evangelistic and revivalistic through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Local congregations frequently join with other Baptists in associations, conventions, or comparable organizations but retain their autonomy.
The Baptist chronology in Oklahoma may be divided into four principal eras: from Indian Removal to the Civil War, from Reconstruction to Statehood, from 1907 to 1950, and from 1950 to the present. The denomination's present prominence reflects their historic links to the state's people; their churches and corresponding influences have both shaped and been shaped by the state's history. A combination of beliefs and practices permitted Baptists to flourish on the nation's frontiers, with local churches, associations, and convention-based organizations promoting the spread of their message. Baptists were at the forefront of groups evangelizing the Indian tribes of the eastern United States in the early nineteenth century.
Their successes among the Five Civilized Tribes established the foundation for subsequent growth in Indian Territory. Isaac McCoy led in the establishment of the first Baptist church within the present Oklahoma region at Ebenezer Station in the Muskogee Nation on September 9, 1832. Even before that event, a Creek convert, John Davis, had been evangelizing within a group of Georgia Creeks who had migrated to Indian Territory a few years earlier. The first church among the Cherokee was established two months later about seventy miles northwest of Fort Smith on the Illinois River. That congregation, like numerous others that followed, was actually a relocation of a group that had been organized as a church in Georgia since 1825.
The Baptists' greatest successes were among the Cherokee, particularly in conjunction with the work of Evan Jones and Jesse Bushyhead, a Cherokee convert. Both began their work in Georgia, and each served as caravan leader for about a thousand Cherokees on the 1839 trek to Oklahoma. The mission center they established near present Westville soon included a church, shops, the Cherokee Female Seminary, and related efforts. Jones also initiated extensive publication efforts, including bible translations, religious tracts, hymn books, and similar materials. He began publishing the Cherokee Messenger in 1844. The first Choctaw Baptist church was organized in Kiamichi County in 1836. A Choctaw convert, Peter Folsom, facilitated subsequent mission efforts, including Baptist schools such as Armstrong Academy. At that site the first association in Indian Territory formed in October 1848 from thirteen churches representing 854 members in southern Indian Territory.
Creek-Seminole resistance to missions after 1836 delayed further church growth in those nations until 1842, when Jones and Bushyhead began work toward the resumption of Baptist work among the Creek. That year, the American Indian Mission Association organized in Kentucky and ordained Joseph Island, a Creek, to the ministry. By 1851 Creek work was so well established that a group of Creek Baptist churches formed the Muskogee Baptist Association. Creek churches continued to grow, especially after Joseph S. Murrow's arrival among the Creek and Seminole in 1857. He organized the first Baptist church among the Seminoles in 1860 at Sasakwa. The first Baptist church in the newly recognized Chickasaw Nation was established in the same period.
Mission work among all denominations was disrupted by the tensions that produced the Civil War. Earlier, the Baptists had split nationally with the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, but that development did not immediately affect Indian Territory missions. By the next decade, however, the slavery issue began to disrupt missionary programs, often leading to divisions among workers and within the tribes they served. Jones, for example, was a strong advocate of the Union cause and a political ally of John Ross. In contrast, Murrow led his followers in support of the Southern cause.
The war devastated Indian Territory, and mission efforts accordingly suffered. Jones and his son, John, worked together to restore divisions among the Cherokee and rebuild Baptist work, but even they were unable to immediately restore the strong institutions that previously had existed. Baptist work was especially hampered because much of the prewar support had come from the South, now burdened by a war-devastated economy.
As a result, Indian Territorial Baptist groups began seeking other sources of support. That goal was achieved in 1876 when the Home Mission Society of the Northern Baptist Convention entered the field, soon dominating work among the tribes. In 1883 delegates from the Cherokee, Muskogee, and Choctaw-Chickasaw Associations met to organize a territorial tribal association to foster cooperation with the Northern society. The Southern Baptist Home Mission Board then urged Murrow to organize a competing convention, but he refused. This led to a bitter division among Southern Baptists. Murrow resigned from the Home Mission Board and then allied with the Home Mission Society. Native Baptist leaders from this era included a number of prominent figures in their respective tribes. These included Lewis Downing, Charles Thompson, and Dennis Bushyhead, Cherokees; Chilly McIntosh, Creek; and John Jumper and John F. Brown, Seminoles.
Baptists faced still more pressures as white populations began to flow into Indian Territory and into Oklahoma Territory after land runs began in 1889. Despite related problems, the decades preceding statehood included numerous accomplishments: the organization of Bacone College in 1879; the founding of newspapers, including the Indian Missionary, a general circulation newspaper that published from 1884 to 1895; the establishment of women's work; the construction of the Murrow Children's Home in 1902; and the opening of Oklahoma Baptist College at Blackwell in 1900. Baptists also sponsored schools for freedmen, such as the Dawes Academy (1891-99). Baptist missionary work among the Plains Indians began in 1874 when the Texas Baptist Convention facilitated a visit to the Wichita Agency by John McIntosh, a Creek preacher. Adonirum J. Holt worked with the tribe subsequently, and the Muskogee Baptist Association sponsored further efforts that led to the organization of Rock Springs Church about 1880. In the meantime, a plea from a Kiowa leader, the younger Lone Wolf, drew Murrow's attention and stimulated the establishment of a number of missions in the next decade. Primary examples included Rainy Mountain and Saddle Mountain Missions to the Kiowa and Deyo Mission serving the Kiowa and Comanche. Women had always been important to the missionary effort, but their contributions were especially evident at the western missions. Isabel Crawford at Saddle Mountain and Cora Dunn at Rainy Mountain illustrate women's leadership in this era.
Black Baptist churches also began separate organizations during the Reconstruction era, forming their first association in 1877. Growth built upon the pioneering efforts of Monday Durant, Harry Island, and others who had first preached among the slaves of Indian Territory. By 1883 Black Baptists formed their first convention in the state. The late territorial and early statehood years also saw the beginnings of Free Will Baptist work in Oklahoma.
Much of the denomination's effort among Indians and whites was accomplished by seven different associations that existed in Oklahoma prior to statehood. In 1900 the bodies in each of the two territories united. In 1906 delegates from both territorial conventions met at Shawnee, adjourned sine die, joined and marched together to the opera house, and organized the BGCO. The Home Mission Society and Home Mission Board both remained active in support of Indian and other mission efforts until 1914, when the BGCO abandoned dual alignments in favor of a cooperative relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. Since that time, Northern Baptist presence in Oklahoma has been largely confined to a few Indian missions and support of Bacone College.
By the time of statehood, then, the Baptists' organizational flexibility and evangelistic focus had made them a significant denomination in the state, but the greatest growth lay ahead. Membership more than doubled between 1910 and 1930 because of expanded evangelistic efforts, often sponsored by associations or local churches, and the organization of the state Sunday School and youth programs. This success was augmented by denomination-building achievements that included the establishment of a state Baptist newspaper, a university, a children's home, and the Falls Creek Assembly within a decade of statehood. Later, hospitals, student work, expanded services for children and senior citizens, and other ministries consolidated the denomination's strengths. Black Baptists attempted a number of universities after statehood but were unable to sustain one until the creation of the Oklahoma School of Religion at Langston in 1936. The school was supported by the Oklahoma Baptist State Convention (Black), the BGCO, and the Home Mission Board until 1964. At that time, a Baptist Student ministry began adjacent to Langston University.
By 1950 there were slightly more than eleven hundred Baptist churches affiliated with the BGCO. Another surge of expansion followed the migration of Oklahomans from the country to the cities. While many rural churches began a slow attrition, their swift replacement by rapidly growing suburban churches continued to strengthen the Baptist position in the state. By 1990 this growth was seen in the presence of more than fifteen hundred Baptist churches. Southern Baptists in Oklahoma have not divided as sharply as those in other states since a series of doctrinal disputes began in the 1980s. However, new worship styles and the emergence of urban "super churches" point to Baptists' continuing adaptations. Besides the doctrinal diversity seen in their varied conventions, Baptists increasingly reflect the state's ethnic and cultural diversity as well.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1958). J. M. Gaskin, Baptist Milestones in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Messenger Press, 1966). J. M. Gaskin, Black Baptists in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Messenger Press, 1992). J. M. Gaskin, Trail Blazers of Sooner Baptists (Shawnee: Oklahoma Baptist University Press, 1953). Louise Haddock and J. M. Gaskin, Baptist Heroes in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Messenger Press, 1976).
Alvin O. Turner
© Oklahoma Historical Society