The Missouri Plan, launched in 1889, was hardly a knee-jerk reaction to monumental developments that divided the nation’s Baptists and threatened to further disrupt Baptist fellowship and missions endeavors.
Forty-four years had passed since the Triennial Convention of Baptists had split over the issue of missions support and slave holding, resulting in the Southern Baptist and the Northern Baptist Conventions.
The Civil War (1861-65) had split the Union, and virtually every facet of American life had been affected, from individual families to churches and denominational bodies.
In the border state of Missouri, the Missouri Baptist General Association — started in 1834 — sided with the SBC following the 1845 split. However, some affiliated churches still supported Northern Baptist missions.
Missouri Baptists sought to work together in the late 1800s, after the brief existence of a second state convention in Missouri. The result, the Missouri Plan, emerged to enable churches to support both North and South missions through gifts to the Missouri convention. Leaders from both Southern and Northern churches served in state convention positions on an alternating basis.
Given the circumstances of the time, the Missouri Plan was considered revolutionary. Leaders hoped it could become a model for Baptists in other states. Many hoped that one result of the plan might be for Northern and Southern Baptists to come back together once again.
In short, the plan was a way for Baptists who held different views to work together, particularly in missions.
Unfortunately, the Missouri Plan began to unravel 25 years later, and the state convention determined to align itself singularly with the SBC.
Some wonder if Baptists today could learn anything by re-examining the history of this innovative initiative and seeking to recapture its spirit.
It is refreshing to see that this effort sprung from the concerns of churches and their members to show reluctance to abandon ongoing missions efforts of both conventions. Many of these congregations had long been convinced of the viability of these efforts that had previously been carried out under a single Baptist umbrella.
After the Civil War, a strong spirit of sectionalism evidenced itself across the country. Churches and church groups were pulled along with the tide. One of the lone exceptions was adherents of the Missouri Plan, which fostered the notion that Baptists on different sides of an issue could cooperate.
That notion has contemporary implications.
For a time, these churches in Missouri refused to be carried along by that current. They set an example for other church people, but they also showed society at large that the work of the church was worth setting aside differences — some of them admittedly petty — to support Kingdom causes, no matter which Baptist group was in charge of them.
Some efforts today reflect the cooperative spirit of the Missouri Plan, but perhaps some never will. The Baptist World Alliance’s North American Baptist Fellowship and initiatives like the New Baptist Covenant offer places for reconciliation miracles and the birth (or rebirth) of joint missions and ministry initiatives.
But the spirit of the plan once launched in Missouri Baptists is still valuable — and still needed.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.