Mark R. Wilson. William Owen Carver’s Controversies in the Baptist South. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2010. x + 235. ISBN 978-0-88146-202-9. Reviewed by Andrew C. Smith, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In 1980, Oxford University Press published George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. Marsden’s book succeeded in setting the terms of discussion for a generation of students of Fundamentalism but it largely left the question of Southern participation in the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy unanswered. In William Owen Carver’s Controversies in the Baptist South, Mark Wilson joins the growing group of scholars making contributions to scholarly understanding of the impact of theological modernism, ecumenism, and the social gospel in the South.

W. O. Carver, the subject of Wilson’s analysis, was professor of comparative religion and missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1900 until 1943. Like so many of his colleagues at the seminary and in urban pulpits, Carver was caught between his own desire to press his denomination towards limited modernization and the fierce conservatism of most of its members. Following an introductory chapter providing information about Carver’s life before his appointment at Southern Seminary, the bulk of Wilson’s study is arranged into chapters organized around the various classes of controversy that Carver endured over the course of his long career. Chapters on ecumenism, modernism and evolution, and the social gospel reveal that Wilson rightly identifies Carver as a Southern Baptist who tried to bridge the gap between religious modernity and Southern Baptist traditionalism. In each case, Carver proved to be a careful consumer of modern ideas, as when he advocated a closer engagement with the ecumenical movement while continuing to repudiate the possibility of union with other denominations, a favorite bugbear of Southern Baptists during the period following World War I. By the same token, Carver defended the historicity of the virgin birth while simultaneously suggesting that the event was “insufficient and needless” as proof of Jesus’ divinity (86).

"Wilson suggests that these points of agreement with average Southen Baptists ... helped him remain in the good graces of the denomination's members despite his reputation for occasional heterodoxy."  


That Carver sought to influence Southern Baptists to engage meaningfully with modern thought is only half of Wilson’s argument, however. Perhaps most importantly, the author reveals the method by which Carver and other denominational leaders prodded rank-and-file Southern Baptists to take modernity seriously. Because of the congregational, democratic nature of Southern Baptist polity, Southern Seminary and the members of its faculty were unusually vulnerable to changes in political weather within the Convention. As a result, faculty members like Carver necessarily sought to balance prophetic speech, politically-motivated compromise, and silence as a way of maintaining peace within the denomination. A concluding chapter offers an interesting contrast to the rest of the book, noting areas in which Carver was in substantial agreement with the prevailing orthodoxy of his denomination. Wilson suggests that these points of agreement with average Southern Baptists, such as the professor’s basically conservative attitude towards foreign missions, helped him to remain in the good graces of the denomination’s members despite his reputation for occasional heterodoxy.

The author’s awareness of the vagaries of Southern Baptist polity reveals his intimate acquaintance with the denomination and constitutes one of the volume’s strengths. At the same time, the book’s necessary focus on Southern Baptists keeps Wilson from being able to say something certain about Southern Protestantism as a whole. Many of the controversies in which Carver became embroiled, such as the controversy over the validity of baptisms performed in non-Baptist churches, had more to do with the idiosyncrasies of Southern Baptist polity than they did with the theological debates that consumed other Protestants during the first half of the twentieth century. As a result, Wilson’s book will probably be of most interest to those readers with a direct interest in Southern Baptist history. Readers interested in gaining a more comprehensive picture of the impact of theological modernity on early twentieth-century Southern Protestantism must continue to wait for works similar to Wilson’s to be written on leaders among Southern Methodists and Presbyterians. A biography of Southern Methodist bishop Warren Candler, written along lines suggested by Wilson’s work, would be particularly helpful.

William Owen Carver’s Controversies in the Baptist South is a well-researched and well-written study, rich in detail. Readers will be surprised to find that the page numbers listed in the table of contents are inaccurate, but the volume remains an insightful step towards better understanding of the impact of modernity on Southern Protestantism.


Andrew C. Smith
Doctoral Candidate in Religion
Vanderbilt University

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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