Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The people called Baptists represent the largest Protestant religious tradition in the United States, claiming more than 30 million members. The Southern Baptist Convention, with its 16 million members, is the largest Baptist denomination, yet there are more than eighty other groups in the United States that claim the appellation "Baptist." Baptists span the theological spectrum from Calvinist to Arminian, from liberal to conservative to fundamentalist, and are deeply divided into three major parties –mainline ecumenical, conservative evangelical, and separatist fundamental–a division found within the Baptist family around the world. There are approximately two million Baptists in the Great Plains, mostly located in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. There are relatively few Baptists in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and in the Prairie Provinces. In these areas combined, there are only about 140,000 total adherents. Southern Baptists are by far the strongest Baptist body in the Great Plains.

Despite the differences and disputes that have created numerous variations, the Baptist faith remains an experiential religion, embracing differing ethical, cultural, and doctrinal tenets. Nevertheless, throughout their history Baptists have held to a number of basic principles that set them apart from other Christian bodies. Commonly held Baptist beliefs and doctrines include the following: scripture alone as the authoritative guide for life; church membership that is predicated upon personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; baptism by immersion and the Lord's Supper as the ordinances of the church; the autonomy of each local congregation in its decision making; congregational church government; the priesthood of the believer, or soul competency; and religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

Baptists have long been concerned with bringing persons to faith in Jesus Christ. Thus, Baptists have tended to view the Central and Northern Plains region as a mission field. Originally, Baptists targeted Native Americans and new settlers. In 1842 the Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy founded the American Indian Mission Association in Kansas. Through this organization, which later came under the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention, McCoy worked to see that Native Americans were fairly treated by the government. He also defined areas for relocation of tribes, laid out plans for cities, and initiated Baptist missions at Topeka and Paaoli. The first Baptist work in Nebraska was begun in 1833 by Moses Merrill and his wife when the two started a mission with the Otoe-Missouria Indians. Merrill published a book of hymns in the Otoe language.

The first known Baptists in Dakota Territory, Elijah Terry and James Tanner, arrived in 1852 at Walhalla, in present-day North Dakota, and started a church there. By 1881 the American Baptist Home Mission Society had appointed forty-eight missionaries in the territory who helped establish various foreign-language churches among Swedes, Germans, Norwegians, and Danes. In Canada, Alexander Mc-Donald was sent by Ontario Baptists to Manitoba in 1873; in 1875 he formed a church of seven members. By 1900 there were ninety-nine churches and 170 preaching stations in the Prairie Provinces. As Native Americans and ethnic populations became Americanized and adopted English for their worship services, the bilingual witness of Baptists in the Plains diminished. Church planting continues as the most significant feature of Baptist mission activity in the Great Plains.

Theological education has also been an important facet of Baptist endeavors in the Great Plains. The Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, founded in 1901, was jointly sponsored by Southern and Northern (American) Baptist Conventions until Southern Baptists started their own school across the river in Missouri in 1957. The library at Central contains materials related to Native American missions, including a collection related to Charles Journeycake, a Baptist minister who was the last chief of the Delawares. The North American Baptist Conference, the only surviving transborder union of Baptists and the leading Baptist group in the Prairie Provinces, supports the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Edmonton Baptist Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta. The Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists, which was organized in 1985, supports the Canadian Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Cochrane, Alberta. While neither a college nor seminary, the Baptist Leadership Training School, located in Calgary, has provided basic training in biblical and pastoral studies since 1949. The institute operates under the auspices of the Baptist Union of Western Canada.

Jerry L. Faught II Oklahoma Baptist University

McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987.

Thompson, Margaret E. The Baptist Story in Western Canada. Calgary: Baptist Union of Western Canada, 1974.

Wardin, Albert W., ed. Baptists around the World. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1995.

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