Carl L. Kell, ed. Introduction by Samuel S. Hill.  Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2006.  194 pp. ISBN: 1-57233-448-7.  Reviewed by John H. Barnhill for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Southern Baptists, as other Baptist organizations, historically value personal conscience and oppose central organization and direction. Their national organizations provide only the things that individual congregations cannot provide—missions, seminaries, and the like.  Aside from the core beliefs, Baptists are free to believe as their consciences and beliefs dictate. A quarter of a century ago the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was wracked by turmoil as fundamentalists took control of the national organization and began imposing central orthodoxy on all congregations and believers.  Slowly over the next several years, the fundamentalists squeezed moderates out of national organizations and used economic pressure to bring about conformity at the congregational level.  By 1988 the deal was done and the SBC was remade in the conservative image. Attempts to create an alternative umbrella organization, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), led to SBC tightening of the financial and doctrinal screws on congregations that historically prided themselves on their autonomy. To the moderates, the SBC as they knew it no longer existed. 

". . . this volume attempts to personalize the aftermath as experienced by those who lost."  


This book does not attempt to deal with the history of the takeover; many other works have done that job.[1] And there is no effort to provide balance between the winners and losers. Rather, this volume attempts to personalize the aftermath as experienced by those who lost. To do so, this work collects thirty-one personal essays by those who left the SBC under duress. 

Two prefaces set the tone as formerly prominent members of the SBC recount at length the way in which they lost their positions and, at the same time, their church home.  Then Sam Hill, leading historian of Southern religion, describes not so much the events of the takeover as the theological changes that the fundamentalist conquest brought about.  The editor's introduction provides an overview of the project of which this volume is part – a study of Southern Baptist rhetoric.  Finally, after all that prelude, begins the essential component, the collected essays.  This section generally has the tone of losers writing history, and it is not particularly pleasant reading. Almost immediately, the essays strike a tone that is partially mournful, partly whining.  When George Steincross talks of the fundamentalist takeover of Southern Seminary, he bemoans the centrist failure to recognize the threat and the unfair tactics of the fundamentalists (21-23).  Rachel Smith Childress lives with “. . . rejection, oppression, and disenfranchisement. . . “ (31).  For Cecil Sherman, talking of the exile “. . . brings out a side of me that needs to stay buried  This article walks near the edge for me” (34). Sherman is one of the many who remain bitter at the way they got pushed out.  Some still find it hard to talk about.

Fortunately, not all is despair.  A surprising number of the writers are able to record that their life after the SBC has improved.  As the SBC-CBF fight forced them to examine their beliefs and values, they became stronger Baptists.  Probably, most would contend that they became better Southern Baptists than those still in the SBC; assuredly, they believe that they are better Baptists than they were before they entered exile.  They have lost their complacency and regained their beliefs. As more than one notes, Baptists have never been inclined to lean on an outside structure, for the very nature of their faith lies in the covenant between the individual and his or her God.

The work concludes with a side-by-side comparison of the texts of three Baptist Statements of Faith.  The purpose of this section is to illustrate the alterations made by the fundamentalists, to show that the historical Baptist refusal to impose a creed has given way under the fundamentalists to a strict creed, and to support the claim that the new SBC is not the historical Southern Baptist Convention.

The essays provide an effective indirect way of making the statement that the editor wants—that “. . . dissent brings expulsion that brings renewal and freedom.” (xxxviii). The emphasis is on renewal and freedom rather than dissent and expulsion though. In the great Protestant tradition, the essays are testimonies.  Cumulatively, they show how adversity can strengthen faith.  This collection also shows how testing the time of strengthening can be.  And, without expressly saying so, it illustrates how sometimes faith is not quite enough to overcome a severe loss.  

The work assumes that readers have some understanding of Baptist history, but not all that much. Because it speaks to human emotions, this work is accessible to all. Although mostly a sad story with no happy ending, overall this is not a story of despair.  That is positive enough.

John H. Barnhill, Independent Scholar, Houston, Texas

[1] Hill says over 100 books have been published on the split (p.9) – a sampling includes Walter Shurden and Randy Shepley, eds, Going for the Jugular (Mercer, 1996);  David T. Morgan, The New Crusades (Alabama, 1996); and Rob James and  Gary Leazer, The Takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention (Baptists Today, 1994.)

Search The Journal of Southern Religion
This site was designed by Randall J. Stephens and is  maintained by Arthur Remillard. © 1998-2007 by
The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253