John Sparks.  Raccoon John Smith: Frontier Kentucky's Most Famous Preacher.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.  462 pp. ISBN 0-8131-2370-4. Reviewed by Craig Thompson Friend, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Raccoon John Smith is the story of a region, the profound influences that shaped its formation, and intermittently, the biography of Elder John Smith.  From the late eighteenth century through the Civil War, John Sparks traces the life of this Appalachian preacher, delving into theology, church formation, societal developments, politics, and many other topics along the way.  In many regards, straying so far from the path is necessary since the available information about the preacher is sparse; in fact, Sparks sums up the historiography of Smith's life in two pages.  Ultimately, then, this book is less about Smith than it is a sermon—and a rather prolonged one at that—arguing first that “life choices [are] . . . visceral responses to soul-shattering tragedies of the type many Christians prefer to dismiss in fretful complacency and uneasy confusion until such events come home to them”; and second, that “regardless of what theologians or denominational apologists of any breed might claim, our search for truth and our perceptions of any figure of the past are only improved and made fuller by the competent use of historical and textual criticism” (xxiii).  No wonder the book is so thick!

The core of this book is the shaping and reshaping of the Baptist and Disciples of Christ denominations in Kentucky.  


The core of this book is the shaping and reshaping of the Baptist and Disciples of Christ denominations in Kentucky.  Sparks employs Smith's life and contribution to the theological debates that arose in the wake of the Great Revival to explore these denominational evolutions.  Rooting his discussion in the theological tracts and pamphlets that framed debate throughout the region, Sparks examines the pronouncements of men like Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, John Fox, James Fishback, and others.  One can almost read into the pages and pages of theological discussion Sparks's enjoyment at dissecting these nineteenth-century disquisitions.  From baptism to communion, salvation to infant damnation, Sparks takes on the issues that warranted preachers' attentions in early Kentucky and explores how those debates reconfigured denominational alliances.  (Curiously, the most public issue of Sabbatarianism is missing, and theological debates in other denominations—for example, the struggle over psalmistry that split the Presbyterians—do not come into play.)  While Sparks effectively examines these dialogues, his over-reliance on Kierkegaardian philosophy as the way—“perhaps the sole way” (325)—to find common ground between the Campbellite and fundamentalist traditions is wearisome. 

Amazingly, Sparks realizes this, appealing to his readers who “will thank me to keep any further speculations to a minimum” to “Bear with me a few more minutes, though” (71).  It isn't just a few more minutes!  The entire book is laden with digressions, into Kierkegaard and into so many other distractions.  The digressions are mostly interesting, although at times the reader wonders why the author needed to add more to the text.  The opening page of chapter three, for example, explores the biology and folklore surrounding the redbud tree, all done for the sake of suggesting that John Smith's father may have prayed in a grove of them.  During an interesting exploration of the Baptists' North District Association, Sparks takes off on a tangent, relating one leader's will, which has nothing to do with the narrative.  Even when admitting that nothing is known about Smith's life from 1843 to 1849, Sparks still spends four pages discussing the period, speculating on what might have been.

The real problem with this book, ironically, is that despite the author's chastisement to others about improving and filling out our perception of the past, it really only works when one employs the most recent historical and textual criticism.  The historical sources are mostly outdated.  It is as if the boom in Kentucky research and writing over the past decade had never happened.  And although much of the new work has not concentrated on the state's southern Appalachian counties, Sparks's focus on revivalism and the resulting debates that arose from it would have benefited from the insights of Steve Aron, Ellen Eslinger, and others.  Neither are there the important and substantial contributions of folklorist William Lynwood Montell or historian Thomas D. Clark.  Absent as well are Christine Heyrman's Southern Cross (1998), Donald Mathews's Religion in the Old South (1979), Paul Conkin's Cane Ridge (1990), and Christopher Waldrep's 1994 American Historical Review article on McGready and the Great Revival—all staples of historical conceptualization of early Kentucky religion.

Incidentally, a consequence of this neglect is to make minor historical misstatements.  For example, although historians have mostly disabused us of the idea that the Era of Good Feelings was without ideological conflict, Sparks employs a more traditional view of the period (268).  And while Lexington, Kentucky, came to be known as “the Athens of the West” by the late 1810s, it was not recognized as such at the turn of the nineteenth century, as Sparks and some older historians have mistakenly stated (65).  Just little things like these errors weaken the historical criticism applied to the story.

The theology is stronger, interweaving older denominational histories with more recent scholarship on the Campbellites, Kentucky Baptists, and cutting-edge theological discussions by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, and Peter Berger.  Still, at times, Sparks's theological pronouncements seem rather narrow: for example, “New Birth in Christ . . . makes one perceive the sacred as firsthand experience rather than mere secondhand belief; were it not so, the biblical inerrantist mindset of the Great Awakening and the Great Revival could never have evolved” (53).  Certainly, the statement may be true, but the connection between the “sacred as firsthand experience” and biblical inerrancy is never explained.  And for readers like this one who have experienced the sacred firsthand but do not believe in biblical inerrancy, the logic is just not there.

All of this makes Raccoon John Smith interesting but far longer, rambling, and esoteric than it needed to be.  People who appreciate Sparks's theological bent will enjoy the book; as will those who can get past the extraneous and minutiae to discover how fascinating Smith's life really was.  And when he finally gets around to exploring the theological debates and denominational machinations of the early nineteenth century, Sparks does a fine job.  But when an author warns the reader in the introduction—“I am a Baptist preacher and possessed of all the faults and foibles associated with that status, including a rabid and well-nigh irrepressible argumentative and exhortatory streak that glares even through my prose . . .” (xix)—it is probably best to heed the warning and either bunker down for a long read or find something “more easily digestible” (xxvi), as the author himself recommended.

Craig Thompson Friend, North Carolina State University

Search The Journal of Southern Religion
This site was designed by Randall J. Stephens and is  maintained by Arthur Remillard. © 1998-2006 by
The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253