A Special Web Site Review:
"Incorporating ‘Our Baptist Zion’: The Southern Baptist Convention, 1880-1920"

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA02/harris/sbc/entry.html Created by Ellen G. Harris and maintained by the American Studies graduate program at the University of Virginia

David Stricklin/Lyon College

This is a marvelous site. Its author, Ellen G. Harris, offers a fine introduction to the way the old Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was when it was still new, and she does this in two ways.

First, she gives an overview of the founding of the SBC in 1845, and by the way, takes seriously the role of slavery in the creation of the SBC, something some Southern Baptist and many neo-Confederate apologists like to gloss over.

"Harris finds evidence of open hostility toward northern interlopers, especially missionaries lurking in the South, in personal papers and public pronouncements of leading Southern Baptists of the day."

Second, she recounts the history of the SBC during a crucial transition period in which it was essentially remade. After the founding of the SBC, members of Southern Baptist congregations affiliated with the convention had neither the inclination nor the resources to create denominational hierarchy or apparatus that would centralize power and authority beyond the purpose of gaining support for missions efforts. Harris finds the impetus for moving toward creating such denominational trappings in the period after Reconstruction. At that time, many people, South and North, were calling for the New South to become more like the North in ways that would have upset many features of the social, cultural, and religious status quo that Southern Baptists had had a great deal to do with creating. Harris finds evidence of open hostility toward northern interlopers, especially missionaries lurking in the South, in personal papers and public pronouncements of leading Southern Baptists of the day. Not all of them embraced the claims of the advocates of the New South, but a great many of them supported professionalizing the Southern Baptist Convention. These feelings and impulses might have remained only the guarded frustrations of the economically and politically weakened had it not been for several regional and national trends, according to Harris, that Southern Baptists embraced and embodied.

In the site’s section on her thesis statement, she says that from 1880-1920, "the Convention's leadership embark[ed] upon an increasingly concerted campaign to enlist white Southerners to the cause of building a centralized, regional denomination. . . . The movement to strengthen a South-wide Baptist Convention, therefore, reflected the national trend in the late nineteenth century away from local power, embodied in this case by the local church, and toward regional and national institutions as exemplified by the Southern Baptist Convention."

This national trend Harris connects to the broader tendencies afoot in the Gilded Age to regularize institutional behavior as described masterfully in Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America and Robert Wiebe’s The Search for Order. Because Southern Baptists, all Baptists, held a bedrock allegiance to the idea of the autonomy of the local congregation, they were theologically—one almost wants to say "naturally"—disinclined to cede authority to a central institutional structure along the lines Trachtenberg and Wiebe describe, by which the United States got everything from standards for licensing medical doctors to the nine-inning baseball game. There was also the fact, as Harris says, that "Completely dependent on the financial contributions of local churches and state associations, the Southern Baptist Convention had no power over theological issues or local church policy" prior to the changes she charts.

The genius behind the changes in SBC structure, and institutional culture, was that these things became embodied in three organizations created during the period Harris is exploring, the Home Mission Board (HMB), the Sunday School Board (SSB), and the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU). Each met a need most Southern Baptists acknowledged, provided welcome services and leadership, and did these things in ways that empowered people in local congregations to engage in activities that strengthened them in relationship to the competitors from other denominations or, in the case of northern missionaries, other regions. What local congregations gained in membership, tithes and offerings, and local prestige made up for what they lost in giving some authority to central offices. The bureaucrats of the new SBC did not quite go all the way toward seizing "power over theological issues or local church policy," except with regard to policing fellowship with the broader organizational dimensions of "Southern Baptist life," but the centralization of authority in denominational bureaucracy helped Baptists in the South make their way toward becoming socially respectable, more middle-class, and much more successful. Harris rightly attributes much of this move to a huge convention-wide fund-raising effort called the 75 Million campaign, which failed to raise that number of dollars but implanted a central SBC presence in the minds of most Southern Baptists in the 1910s and ‘20s and set the stage for the Cooperative Program, a fund-disbursement method that drove the success of the Southern Baptist Convention through the rest of the twentieth century.

In connection with her thesis statement, Harris offers some questions about how these changes were made, what considerations Southern Baptists of the time had to keep in mind, and how their distinctive nature and purposes could be kept alive by a new class of denominational leaders. Here’s a box from the site with part of her material on these considerations:

The first, and perhaps the most meaningful to white Southern Baptists in the 1880s and 1890s, was that the Convention movement was a Southern movement, a fervent effort to reclaim and restore a defeated South. Secondly, and seemingly contradictorily, this was a progressive movement. The Convention's leadership, primarily made up of a growing class of urban professionals, consistently expressed a belief in the uplift of their more rural (and resistant) brethren and also made efforts to organize the Convention according to standards of business efficiency. Finally, the Convention movement was an expression of fervent religious belief in the soul-saving power of the Gospel and in Southern Baptists' particular responsibility to evangelize and baptize "all nations." But even this sacred mission of evangelism was largely a product of more worldly trends, including the science of social work, the bureaucratic organization of institutions, and America's increasing cultural and military imperialism. Ultimately, the Convention movement would express both regional and national ideology, would negotiate between tradition and change, and would act upon sacred beliefs intricately bound up with secular trends.

By focusing on the Home Mission Board, the Sunday School Board, and the Woman's (not "Women’s") Missionary Union, Harris not only supports her thesis about the broad cultural impulses behind the changes in SBC organizational structure but also points toward the creation of powerful forces within the convention that ended up spelling its second makeover, this one in the 1980s and ‘90s. The Home Mission Board gave Southern Baptists a bulwark against interfering Yankee missionaries, but it also gave them a system, a method, even an excuse for reaching out to African Americans in the South. The HMB thus helped the SBC live down some of the shame associated with its founding in pro-slavery ideology and become more a part of the modern racial and social openness of the late twentieth-century United States. The SSB warded off church-school literature sent south by northern publishing houses that might have threatened the southern status quo in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century published educational material, hymnals, and books that challenged various worldly tendencies of the modern United States, sometimes including racism and militarism. The WMU gave women an outlet for their considerable faithfulness, energy, and organizational prowess in a time when they were prevented from exercising open leadership in their local congregations or in state convention or SBC-level activities and sowed the seeds of rebellion, in some often surprising ways, against the male-dominated culture of the South and the SBC. By the end of the twentieth century fundamentalists, or "conservatives," as they preferred to call themselves, had control of the convention. One of the first items on their agenda was getting control of the activities and pronouncements of these three organizations so that any message coming forth from the Southern Baptist Convention would be consistent with the biblical literalism, premillennial theology, and political conservatism of the leadership of the newest SBC, an elite whose control of the convention was more complete, one might even say possible, because of the centralizing moves the convention made from 1880-1920, as Harris describes.

Harris gives readers solid background information, well-conceived connective material, and colorful portraits of central figures such as pioneer HMB leader Isaac Taylor Tichenor, former Confederate chaplain and sharpshooter, mining company executive, and college president. She sets Southern Baptist events in the framework of the times with fairly extensive quotes from and reproductions of primary material, including Sunday school literature, home missions publications, and correspondence, including some graphic contemporary descriptions of Southern Baptist missionary designs on Cuba.

". . .the bibliography suggests influences by such scholars as Sam Hill that are unacknowledged, probably because their insights are so fully incorporated into mainstream understandings of religion in the South as to be taken for granted."

She also exhibits a keen sensitivity to the importance of matters that an uninformed observer might think quite trivial. Say something to most people about the importance of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board and they might look askance. But Harris points out that SBC churches build their modern-day success on the strength of a well-organized Sunday school program, in large part on the basis of literature and promotional ideas dispensed by the SSB. As she says,"More than any other Convention venture, it was this Board that would unify Baptists across the South into a single denominational body by the early twentieth century."

For my taste, Harris relies too much on Trachtenberg and Wiebe, especially Trachtenberg. There is even a link featuring a nice picture of the cover of The Incorporation of America and a full description of its contents. I think this is a great book, but it hovers over practically every section of the site and needs not to do that. There are a couple of minor spelling errors, and the bibliography suggests influences by such scholars as Sam Hill that are unacknowledged, probably because their insights are so fully incorporated into mainstream understandings of religion in the South as to be taken for granted. Harris’s presentation and interpretations remind one of Rufus Spain’s classic work At Ease in Zion. She departs from and extends its argument, again, without realizing its pervasive presence in forming the underpinnings of her work.

On the whole, however, this is an imaginative, thoughtfully put together and presented site that welcomes beginners in the subject matter with its excellent organization and easy navigability and rewards more advanced students of the growth and development of the SBC with some intriguing interpretations, compelling evidence, and fascinating demonstration of the interconnectedness of Southern Baptists, not just with their region, but with broader national trends as well.

© 1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

This article published 12/02

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