Bible-Belt Baptists on the West Coast: California as a Southern Baptist State

In the twentieth century, conservative Protestantism got a new start in California as hundreds of thousands of Americans from Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding states settled there beginning in the 1930s and 1940s. Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt has well demonstrated the significant role that Southern California played in the advancement of evangelical Christianity in post-World War II America. However, this narrative has typically focused on big tent evangelicalism and later on the rise of neo-evangelicalism after World War II. Somewhat overlooked in this story has been the focused investment made by Southern Baptists in this period. As Billy Graham initiated his national ministry in California with his Los Angeles Crusade in 1949, and in the same period that neo-evangelicals were founding Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947, Southern Baptists set their sights on the Golden State. Their investment in California was significant enough that in 1951 Southwestern Baptist Seminary president Robert Naylor boldly declared, “California has already become a growing, maturing Southern Baptist state.” With an eye for strategic expansion, Southern Baptists founded a state convention in California in 1940. Four years later they founded Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1944. A college, California Baptist College, followed in 1950 in Riverside. In 1951, Southern Baptists signaled their interest in the west coast when they held their annual meeting in San Francisco with 4,126 messengers in attendance. Eleven years later they returned to San Francisco with an impressive 9,396 messengers. Beginning in the 1940s, Southern Baptists tapped into the religious energy of twentieth-century California and established a series of vibrant Bible-belt outposts on the west coast. If Southern Baptists were going to expand beyond the southland, California seemed to be an ideal place.