Rufus Spain. At Ease in Zion: A Social History of Southern Baptists, 1865-1900. Foreword by Samuel S. Hill. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003. 247 pages. ISBN: 0817350381. Reviewed by Barry Hankins, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
The basic thesis of Spain's book is that on social and political issues Southern Baptists in the late nineteenth century were primarily concerned with personal morality and that even these social emphases were dwarfed by their concern with what Spain calls "other-worldly matters" (p. 213), by which he means individual salvation. His research consisted primarily of Baptist newspapers, state convention minutes and annual reports, and the yearly proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention. While he found a trajectory toward social concern from 1865 to 1900, Spain still opens his "Conclusion" with the words, "The most obvious conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that Southern Baptists were relatively unconcerned about the problems of society during the period from 1865 to 1900" (p. 209). With three chapters on race and one each on economics, social evils (Sabbath keeping, crime, gambling, and prison reform), temperance, and personal morality, Spain shows that Baptists in the South rarely challenged the norms of their culture. While the broad strokes of this conclusion endure, developments since the book's initial appearance warrant comment.
|". . . few if any are prepared to argue that the Southern Baptist Convention and its people were on the cutting edge of social progressiveness at any time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries."|
First, research in the past twenty years by Wayne Flynt and others has unearthed a bit more social Christianity than Spain found, especially if one extends the period he studied to World War I. Some of this social involvement took the shape merely of attempts by Southern Baptists to ameliorate the effects of social injustice, not its causes, but Flynt has uncovered significant radical theological developments in the industrial region of Alabama that provided even a Social Gospel-type critique of capitalist systems and institutions. Still, one can harmonize these views with Spain's by arguing that such examples of social Christianity were merely exceptions to the norm that Spain discovered. In other words, few if any are prepared to argue that the Southern Baptist Convention and its people were on the cutting edge of social progressiveness at any time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Of course few major denominations were. Prophetic social gospelers are always a minority, virtually by definition. Still, Spain argues that by comparison to denominations in the North, Southern Baptists were well behind the social Christianity curve, and this may well have been the case.
A second challenge could be mounted in the area of church-state relations. When Spain wrote it was commonplace to believe that the standard position of Southern Baptists had always been, as he puts it, "absolute separation of church and state," which, in his view, "had been compromised" (p. 37) by the end of the nineteenth century on issues of government enforcement of morality and at times in the area of religion in schools as well. Today it is less assured that Southern Baptists spoke with one voice on church-state issues. The year after Spain's book first appeared, William McLoughlin argued in Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968) that there were significant differences in the church-state views of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Baptist leaders Isaac Backus and John Leland, with Leland being separationist and Backus being more accommodationist. In the absence of McLoughlin's argument, Spain worked within an understanding that the normative and nearly monolithic Baptist position on church and state had always been separationist. He, therefore, read his evidence to mean that whenever Southern Baptists displayed something different, they were straying from their roots. In light of McLoughlin and more recent research one might better conclude that Spain's evidence reveals considerable diversity among Southern Baptists, with some leaders honing the separationist position and others not.
A third development since At Ease in Zion was first published has to do with self awareness about author point of view. The rise of feminist, Marxist, Afro-centrist, and a variety of other types of scholarship in the wake of the postmodern critique of Enlightenment objectivity has made scholars in all fields more aware that knowledge and interpretation are always perspectival. An increasing number of scholars today attempt to be fair within a self-conscious understanding that one's own perspective plays some role in scholarship. The unstated, yet undisguised, point of view in Spain's book is that it is not a good thing when a Christian denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention merely reflects, rather than challenges, the norms of its culture. Christians generally agree that their faith should in some way transcend whatever culture they find themselves in and be either a transforming influence or a prophetic critique. From this perspective, it is lamentable that nineteenth-century Southern Baptists failed so consistently to do anything other than embrace cultural norms and call merely for individual conversion and narrowly tailored laws against sins such as gambling and consumption of alcohol, while affirming racism and virtually ignoring economic injustice.
Spain himself seems to work from a Social Gospel understanding of the Christian faith, believing that Christians should concern themselves with corporate sin and social justice, not merely individual salvation. It is questionable to what degree, if any, nineteenth-century Southern Baptists believed in such theological tenets. Spain concedes that to criticize Southern Baptists for not accepting a more thoroughgoing social Christianity is to "condemn a people for not accepting an innovation for which they felt no need and for which there was little apparent need" (p. 211). At the same time, however, he refers to the lack of development of social Christianity in terms of a failure to develop something that would have been positive. This failure to challenge cultural norms is presented as a lament throughout the book. This is as it should be, at least in my view, and the point here is how transparent Spain's own perspective is in an age where we are self-consciously aware of how much point of view pervades every interpretation, whereas it was largely unacknowledged a generation ago when the book first appeared. At Ease in Zion was received as a work of "objective" scholarship in 1967, but as Thomas Haskell has argued, Objectivity is not Neutrality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). Today it would be more accurate to interpret Spain's work as a very fair interpretation from a particular Christian perspective.
The degree to which this kind of Christian history is mainstream today is evidenced by the fact that on the same day I wrote this review, I learned that George Marsden, the most visible advocate of Christian scholarship within the history profession, has won the Bancroft and Curti prizes for his 2003 biography of Jonathan Edwards. As is becoming customary today, Marsden routinely introduces his books by laying his cards on the table and saying that he works from a broadly Reformed Christian perspective. Such an introduction would have seemed quite out of place when Spain wrote At Ease in Zion, but no more.
All this is to say that Spain's book continues to be useful both for what its author intended to show and for what we can see in the book from a perspective that barely existed in the day when Spain wrote. Rather than treating point of view as something that should be suppressed, but really cannot be, perspective in scholarship today is valued and even celebrated. Scholars eschew bias while affirming point of view, realizing that while they cannot be objective, they can be fair. The result is that while no one gets to nail down a supposedly objective and timeless interpretation in any particular subject, every perspective, at least ideally, gets a voice in the ongoing conversation that is historical scholarship.
Barry Hankins, Baylor University
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