In the mid seventeenth-century, revivalism first appeared as a phenomenon in American religious life, and few religious groups were more influenced by revivalism than Baptists in the American South. When Baptists had first appeared in the South, as a group they were small, highly Calvinistic and more concerned with congregational purity than numerical growth.
Due to their Calvinism, southern Baptists stressed human inability. The earliest southern Baptists refused to preach directly to the unconverted because they believed that only a small, “elect” number of people would be saved. Salvation was in God’s hands, and human beings could do nothing to affect their own salvation, or the salvation of others.
By the start of the Civil War, things differed dramatically. Southern Baptists had altered their theology and practices to emphasize human instrumentality. They added invitations to their preaching, songs calling on sinners to convert were appended to their hymnbooks, and they shifted their corporate structures to emphasize missions and evangelism. As a result, the Southern Baptist Convention was, at its founding in 1845, among the largest religious groups in the United States.
The shift in Baptist identity which took place among Baptists in the South was largely the result of revivalism. Beginning in the late 1750s, southern Baptists began to modify certain aspects of their identity in ways that reflected the revivalistic emphasis upon securing conversions. This process of modification was always controversial, and sometimes divisive. By and large, however, the shift toward revivalism took place gradually, even when the Great Revival swept across the South at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
A generation later, however, in the late 1820s, another region-wide revival swept through southern Baptist churches. This event increased the pace of the change already taking place in southern Baptist life. As a result, southern Baptists completed the twin shifts from emphasizing primitive purity to emphasizing numerical growth and from proclaiming human inability to practicing human instrumentality.