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Westward expansion: California’s Southern Baptist churches proliferated after the Great Depression

by Frank E. Lockwood | June 18, 2022 at 9:38 a.m.
Organized in May 1936 and initially known as the Orthodox Missionary Baptist Church, First Southern Baptist Church in Shafter is California’s oldest Southern Baptist congregation, according to histories published in 1954 and 1978 by the Southern Baptist General Convention of California. Decades after its founding, some of the original members posed for this photo. (Courtesy of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, Tenn.)

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- During the Dust Bowl years, desperate Arkansans and Oklahomans flocked to the fertile soil of the San Joaquin Valley, bringing with them their farming abilities -- and their faith, too.

On weekdays they cultivated croplands, and on Sundays they planted churches.

More than eight decades after their arrival, the Southern Baptist Convention is reaping a mighty harvest because of the seeds these migrants sowed during the Great Depression.

In 2021, 2,255 California churches and missions with total membership of 397,457 were aligned with the denomination. That includes Saddleback Church, the state's largest megachurch, pastored by Rick Warren.

Vi Estel, who retired in 2017 as archivist at California Baptist University, said impoverished Southerners flooded into the Golden State during the 1930s, bringing whatever possessions they could with them.

"The joke was, you could tell their financial worth by whether they had one or two mattresses tied on top of their car," she said. "Many of them settled in Bakersfield, which today, is still called Little Oklahoma."

With a population of 5.7 million in 1930, California had plenty of houses of worship, many of them planted by the Northern branches of Protestant denominations.

But the Southern farm workers, underpaid and poorly housed, struggled to fit in, Estel said.

"These folks would go to a Baptist church but it didn't feel like home -- and it wasn't," Estel said. "They didn't feel welcome and they were probably regarded as country bumpkins."

Contemptuous Californians labeled the newcomers "Okies" and "Arkies."

California Baptist churches at the time "were different. They were more liberal. And they had different music," said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.

In the 1930s, there weren't any Southern Baptist congregations in California because the territory had been ceded to the Northern Baptists.

But that would soon change.


In May, 1936, migrants from Oklahoma and Arkansas launched what they named Orthodox Missionary Baptist Church of Shafter, after breaking away from the town's Northern Baptist congregation.

Following a brief interval with an empty pulpit, the congregation called Sam Wilcoxon, a Southern Baptist preacher from Paragould, to pastor.

Though it didn't change it's name to First Southern Baptist Church until 1951, Shafter is now considered California's oldest Southern Baptist congregation.

Eighteen miles northwest of Bakersfield, it was one of four independent but Southern-flavored churches to form the San Joaquin Valley Missionary Baptist Association in April 1939 and the following year, it was the site of the organizational meeting of the Southern General Baptist Convention of California.

Initially, the convention included 14 churches with total membership of 1,039. Of those churches, 13 were less than 5 years old, Elmer L. Gray wrote in "Heirs of Promise: A Chronicle of California Southern Baptists, 1940-1978."

Most of the early churches were in California farm country, inland communities far from the ocean shores.

"That's why the [California] Southern Baptist Convention is headquartered in Fresno because ... the strength of our Southern Baptist population is there in the San Joaquin Valley," said Robin Hadaway, a former missionary and Southern Baptist pastor in California.


Existing Baptist congregations at the time were not wild about their new upstart neighbors.

"From the beginning many Northern Baptists expressed the fear and resentment that Southern Baptists were moving in on their territory. With this attitude they often opposed Southern Baptists in local areas," Gray wrote in "Heirs of Promise."

The state's oldest Baptist congregations generally aren't affiliated with the denomination, Hadaway noted.

"Usually, the First Baptist Church of any city in California will be an American Baptist church. That's why most of our churches have in their name First Southern Baptist Church," he added.

In addition to Northern hostility, the new California Baptists also encountered Dixie indifference.

When they sought recognition from the Southern Baptist Convention at its annual meeting in 1941, the issue was referred to a committee for study.

Returning in 1942, the Californians discovered that the committee had failed to act; no report had even been completed, and no final recommendations made. A majority of committee members requested another year to deliberate, offering to come back with something concrete in 1943.

But one of the committee members, an Oklahoman named J.B. Rounds, filed a minority report. Praising the California efforts he said he'd seen firsthand, he urged that the newcomers be recognized as full-fledged Southern Baptists.


During the debate that followed, skeptical convention delegates -- known as messengers -- voiced their doubts, as did a visiting Northern Baptist Convention pastor who happened to be witnessing the proceedings.

Ultimately, Southern Baptists voted overwhelmingly to welcome California into the fold.

The new churches were predominantly white at first; so was California. In 1940, Blacks, Asians and American Indians made up less than 5% of the population.

In the decades that followed, as California became more crowded and increasingly diverse, the state's Southern Baptists would cast a wider net so that all of their neighbors would hear the gospel.

While farm work had been the original draw, thousands more Arkansans headed for California during World War II, taking newly created defense industry jobs.

Many service members from the South were stationed at Camp Pendleton, roughly 50 miles north of San Diego. Once the war had been won, many opted to remain, he said.

As they put down roots and started families, they were eager to find Southern Baptist churches of their own.

Due to the influx of service members, "You find a lot of Baptist churches that were started in the '40s and '50s," Hadaway added.


By 1945, there were 92 Southern Baptist congregations in California with 6,095 members. Five years later, the number of Southern Baptist churches had swelled to 258, with membership rising to 34,061.

Years after founding Anaheim's First Southern Baptist Church, charter members credited God -- and out-of-state motor vehicles departments -- for the successful launch.

"What they told me they did is they looked for the Oklahoma license plates around town and ... the Arkansas license plates as well, those types of license plates," recalled Victor Chayasirisobhon, the church's pastor since 2006.

Spotting the owners, the proselytizers "basically said, 'Hey, where do you go to church?' We're Southern Baptists. Are you Southern Baptists?' and that's how they grew," Chayasirisobhon added.

Between 1951 and 1954, the Anaheim First Southern Baptist Church membership climbed from 25 to 105, according to "History of California Southern Baptists," by Floyd Looney, an Arkansas transplant and longtime editor of the California convention's newspaper. Hundreds more names would be added to the rolls in the decade that followed.

Exponential growth was the norm in many California congregations during this period. By 1955, the number of Southern Baptist congregations had surpassed 500 and total membership was nearing 100,000.

Membership would continue climbing in the years that followed, from 156,176 in 1960 to 221,187 in 1966 and 315,384 in 1977, according to "Heirs of Promise."

With current membership of almost 400,000, the Southern Baptist Convention is now California's largest Protestant body.


Among those claiming the mantle of Christendom, only two groups have more adherents -- the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Incoming Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber, an Arkansas native, said California isn't anything like the Bible Belt and yet its Southern Baptist churches are "very healthy."

"They don't have some of the benefits of cultural support that sometimes we have in the traditional south, in places like Texas, and yet they're thriving," he said.

Of the Southern Baptist Convention's 2,364 California churches and missions in 2018, only 895 were classified as Anglo; 451 were predominantly Black and 389 were predominantly Hispanic. In addition to 215 Korean and 80 Chinese churches and missions, there are another 334 classified as "other ethnic" or multiethnic, according to the California convention.

The number of American Baptists, on the other hand, has plummeted. The denomination's website lists 355 churches in the Golden State.

Membership, while hard to calculate online, is now well below 100,000.

James Merritt, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, is impressed with the California state convention, calling it "a great model for us."

"We need to start diversifying and looking more like the country that we live in and more like heaven is going to look like," he said.

"In our denomination you see it, we're -- even in our leadership -- becoming increasingly diverse, which I think is a big thing," he said.

  photo  In 1951, less than a decade after welcoming California congregations into its ranks, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in San Francisco. The event drew thousands of Southern Baptists from across the country. (Courtesy of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, Tenn.)

  photo  First Baptist Church of Quincy, Calif., located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains 80 miles northwest of Reno, Nev., was organized in Feb. 1951. (Courtesy of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tenn.)

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