Journal of Southern Religion
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 Wayne Flynt, Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998. 731 pp.

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       Halfway through reading this volume, I knew what the opening line of this review had to be: "This is, without question, the very best state or regional Baptist history ever published in the United States." However, upon completing the book, I am prepared to go further: "This is one of a handful of the best Baptist history books--local, state, regional, national, or topical--I have ever read."
       Regional and state Baptist histories are absolutely critical to an

"One only hopes that the fact that the book was published by a university press and the book's 731 pages will not discourage Alabama Baptists from reading it."

understanding of Baptists, not only in the South but throughout the United States. Those histories, however, often notorious for literary dullness, shabby scholarship, inadequate or nonexistent interpretations, and a myopic focus on denominational structures, appeal to the very, very few. With this volume, Wayne Flynt, Distinguished University Professor at Auburn University, has significantly broadened the audience of readers to include the average Baptist, others who want to understand Baptists, as well as historical scholars, especially church historians, southern historians, and Baptist historians. Also, he has set a new and exceedingly high standard for the writing of state Baptist histories in particular and Baptist history in general. Flynt's excellence in research and beauty of style, cradled in an immeasurably rich context of denominational, state, Southern, and national history, catapults his muscular volume ahead of Norman Maring's study of Baptists in New Jersey (1964) and Glenn Hinson's history of the Baptists in Arkansas (1979), both of which stand out among state Baptist histories.
       Turning his cards face up in the opening line of the "Preface," Flynt identified his intriguing purpose in writing the book: "to explain Baptists to themselves and to explain them to others, with a focus on the people who called themselves Alabama Baptists" (ix). Why is this an intriguing purpose? Because Flynt rightly assumed that Baptists have to be explained to themselves! Like a sculptor at work on a masterpiece, he utilized one-hundred and seventy-five years of Alabama history and three decades of his own life as a professional historian to explain Baptists to themselves and to others. Rather than fixating on bureaucratic denominational development, he focused his history on "individual Baptists, their congregations, and how they were related to the denomination," as well as on Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC) institutions. The result is a story (Flynt is a master storyteller) of real people burdened with moral shortfall and blessed with moral vision.
       Why is such a book important? For many reasons, but let me identify three. First, statistics make it important. One in four Alabamians and nearly two out of every three church members belong to churches of the ABSC (ix). This is not the story of an exotic sect on the margin of Alabama life; this is the fascinating and complex story of Christ and culture in Alabama.
       Second, Flynt's historiography makes the book important. Writing from what he called a "requisite double vision," he heeded both the values of the Baptist community and the values of the broader secular society, and he did both without letting his historiography be conscripted by "presentism" on the one hand or "primitivism" on the other hand. He neither projected the values of the present back into the past nor wrote of the past as though it were unrelated to the present. Refining his history with enormous but fascinating details, Flynt stayed a country mile from generalizations. Most important, Flynt interpreted his story in light of the changing nature of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a most important dimension of the book. An underlying theme of the book, as Flynt himself stated, is the collapse of the Baptist consensus in the South.
       Third, Flynt not only told an engaging story about Alabama Baptists, but he told that story by engaging scholarly interpretations of both Baptists and the South. His interpretations of antimissions (32), women and religion in the South (39), religion and slavery (42), the ministry and education (70), and modernism, ecumenism, and social Christianity (251) both challenge and confirm other scholarly views.
       Organized chronologically into thirteen chapters, only two chapters covered more than a twenty-year time span. In each chapter, Flynt analyzed Alabama Baptists internally and externally. Internally, the Auburn professor investigated almost every conceivable topic in Baptist church life -- theology (Calvinism, Arminianism, fundamentalism, liberalism), ecclesiology (Landmarkism, individualism, connectionalism) race, gender, worship, preaching, music, revivalism, alcohol, public education, Masonry, dueling, sexuality, denominational organization -- and others too numerous to mention. Externally, Flynt demonstrated the Baptist interaction with the Alabama frontier, state and national politics, war, Reconstruction, depression, general economic conditions, class divisions, scientific evolution, and almost every intellectual and cultural force that swirled around Baptist life.
       The University of Alabama Press deserves high praise for a beautiful finished product, containing a useful chronology, an extensive bibliography, and a marvelous index. One only hopes that the fact that the book was published by a university press and the book's 731 pages will not discourage Alabama Baptists from reading it. Flynt is an artist as well as a scientist, so the book is delightfully accessible. A remarkable achievement, this book should be an award-winner.

Walter B. Shurden, Mercer University

© 1998-99 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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