The Move of Baptists Westward

The migration of Baptists in America followed that of the nation as a whole. In 1755, at a time when few settlers yet lived in the Carolinas and further southward, the Sandy Creek Baptist Church was established at a conflux of trails in North Carolina. The church grew quickly, yet at the same time migratory pressures pulled Baptists farther westward. By the thousands in the decades following, they trekked into present-day Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi (the latter Mississippi Territory, at that time). By the end of the century, a handful of Baptists had also pushed into Illinois and Louisiana Territory. Yet the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 turned the trickle of westward-bound Baptists into full-fledged migration. Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Michigan Territory, and Wisconsin Territory welcomed the Baptist faith in the early decades of the nineteenth century. True pioneers, the individuals who comprised these Baptist westward movements sacrificed much to blaze trails that millions of others would follow.

While men were typically looked upon as the leaders of Baptist expansion, the isolation of the westward frontier provided opportunity for women to assume leadership roles. Sarah Gardiner Hale was one such woman. In 1831, the Hale family moved from Tennessee to the area near Hot Springs, Arkansas, purchased property, and soon donated land for the construction of a church. For many years Sarah was a pivotal figure within the church, and her role included that of supply preacher, spiritual advisor, and business leader. “Even in her latter years,” Pam and Keith Durso write in their Story of Baptists in the United States, “when Sarah could no longer attend church services, the deacons often went to see ‘Grandma Hale’ to consult with her about church matters.”

The West, of course, did not stop at Arkansas, and for every Sarah Hale who put Baptist roots down in the present-day Southwest, hundreds of others pushed onward. Leaving Missouri and traveling on the Oregon Trail in 1843, David and Louisa Lenox settled near present-day Portland and in 1844 helped establish the West Union Baptist Church. In 1849, American Baptist Home Missionary Society missionaries Osgood and Elizabeth Wheeler organized the First Baptist Church of San Francisco. And in 1864, ABHMS missionary L. P. Judson established the first Baptist church in Dakota Territory. Thus, in the course of a century, Baptists spread from Sandy Creek, North Carolina, to the coasts of California, transplanting their faith along the way.