Understanding Baptist History and the Southern Baptist Convention: Some Suggestions for First Reads

While the occasional ‘First-Reads‘ posts have been far too few in number, I trust they have been of high quality.  I am pleased to post this installment by Andrew C. Smith, Assistant Professor of Religion at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee.  A Nashville native, Andrew is a graduate of Carson-Newman, McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University and Vanderbilt University.  I first met Andrew over five years ago when he came to DCHS to research for a seminar paper.  A scholar of religious history, he is also a practitioner of denominational history and a committed churchman.  I am pleased he consented to my request to compile this brief list of first-reads.  Tolle lege!

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First Reads on Southern Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention

1. C. C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012.

This is a reprint of a classic text originally published by Yale in 1962. Goen, perhaps better known to many as the author of Broken Churches, Broken Nation, shows how dissenting evangelical Congregational churches broke away from the Standing Order during the Great Awakening in New England. Eventually, three-quarters of these churches adopted adult believers’ baptism as a direct result of their conversionist convictions, creating a new “Separate Baptist” strain of credobaptism to the American religious landscape. Goen’s account of the emergence of the Separate Baptists remains the best, and helps to explain many American Baptist habits of thought and action.

2. Monica Najar, Evangelizing the South: A Social History of Church and State in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Although not (yet) a classic among Baptist historians, Najar’s book (based on her dissertation) does much to explain the Baptist tradition of church discipline, offering some reasons that this tradition began to weaken in the years leading up to the Civil War. Najar believes that strong Baptist presence in the South led to an underdevelopment of Southern state governments owing to Baptist churches’ desire and ability to regulate their own members through discipline. At the same time, the debate over slavery proved impossible to resolve through those same disciplinary practices; churches ended up leaving the question of slavery to the state. This may well mark the beginning of the end of the tradition of church discipline among Baptists in the South.

3. Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

On the topic of church discipline, I also recommend Greg Wills’ Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South. Wills’ approach to the rise and fall of the Baptist disciplinary tradition differs from Najar’s in that he is more concerned with issues of freedom and authority than he is in the relationship between Baptists and the state. The two volumes complement each other well.

4. William E. Ellis, “A Man of Books and a Man of the People:” E. Y. Mullins and the Crisis of Moderate Southern Baptist Leadership. Macon, GA: Mercer, 1985.

A Man of Books is one of those rare academic monographs that will still be worth a close read after thirty years on the shelf; in fact, Mercer now offers a paperback reprint edition. Although the book is cast as a brief biography of Southern Baptist leader E. Y. Mullins, the story really serves to illustrate the tensions between the SBC’s moderate leadership and its conservative rank-and-file pastors and ministers during the early 1900s.

5. Eighmy, John Lee. Churches in Cultural Captivity: A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists. With revised introduction, conclusion, and bibliography by Sam Hill. Knoxville: Tennessee, 1987.

Eighmy’s book is well-known among students of the Baptist tradition. His treatment of the social attitudes of Southern Baptists is probably the clearest articulation of the idea that Southern Baptists have been too close to their culture to question it in any significant way.

6. Bill Leonard, God’s Last and Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.

Dr. Leonard’s volume is probably the best book written about the controversy that consumed the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s and 1990s. Although Leonard’s analysis is excellent, some will question whether his assertion that conservatives broke with longstanding tradition as they demanded that denominational employees affirm a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is fair or accurate.

7. Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Hankins’ excellent book serves as a guide for those perplexed by the conservatives that have controlled the Southern Baptist Convention since the early 1990s. Hankins shows convincingly that many leading Southern Baptist conservatives were influenced by the views of Francis Schaeffer in part because they spent time outside of the south during their youths or young adulthood. Because of these experiences, these leaders came to believe that the Southern Baptist Convention should adopt a similar perspective as the South came to be less insular and began to assimilate to the cultural patterns of the rest of the nation.

A strategy for congregational research

My Nashville research across the last ten years has evolved from an interest in Central Church (where I was then Associate Minister) to a much, much larger scope including each congregation in the county, every para-church ministry based in Nashville, and how the larger issues within Stone-Campbell history interact with local history in one city resulting in the ministry conducted on ground, in the trenches, in the congregations.  With that comes the innumerable evangelists, ministers and pastors who held forth weekly from pulpits across the city. Ambitious? Yes.  Perhaps too ambitious.  That may be a fair criticism, but the field is fertile and the more I survey the landscape and read the sources and uncover additional data, the more I’m convinced to stay the course.

In the last four years especially I have focused my efforts to obtain information about the smaller congregations, closed congregations, particularly congrgations which have closed in the last 40 to 50 years.  My rationale for this focus is that some history here is in some cases, potentially recoverable.  There are larger affluent congregations which have appearances of vitality…they are going nowhere soon.  I can only hope some one among them is heads-up enough to chronicle their ongoing history and preserve the materials they produced.  On the other hand are congregations which have long-ago closed and chances are good we might not ever know anything of them except a name and possibly a location (for example, Carroll Street Christian Church is absorbed into South College Street in 1920 forming Lindsley Avenue Church of Christ…no paper is known to exist from this church, and I can’t even find one photo of the old building, and there is no one remaining who has living memory of this congregation).  For all practical purposes Carroll Street Church of Christ may remain as mysterious in twenty years as it does now.  I’d be surprised to learn of 3 people now living in the city of Nashville who have even heard of it.

But the several congregations that closed in the 50’s-80’s (and some even in the last five years) remain accessible if only through documents and interviews.  Theoretically the paper (the bulletins, meeting minutes, directories, photographs, even potentially sermon tapes) has a good chance of survival in a basement or attic or closet.  Chances are still good that former members still live, or folks might be around–in Nashville or elsewhere–who grew up at these congregations.  Theoretically.  Potentially.  Hopefully.

Yet as time marches on there are more funerals…for example in the last year I missed opportunities to speak with three elderly folks about their memories at these now-closed churches…they were too ill to speak with me and now they are gone!  I did, however, speak at length with one woman in ther 90’s who I thought died long ago!  She is quite alive and lucid!

So from time to time I will highlight on this blog these closed congregations…closed in the recent past…with hopes that someone somewhere might look for them (I get hits on this blog by folks looking for all sorts of things, among them are several Nashville Churches of Christ).  Maybe we can stir up some interest and surface additional information.

A few days ago I posted about one such congregation, the Twelfth Avenue, North Church of Christ.  I have in the queue a post about New Shops Church of Christ in West Nashville.  There are more, several more.

Stay tuned, and remember, save the paper!

Nashville Churches of Christ History Facebook group

Nashville Churches of Christ History group is open to anyone interested in the history of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. When I began the group about three years ago I said this:

I envision this community as a place to share common interest in the rich story of the Stone-Campbell Movement in Nashville. I am conducting research for a book which will highlight each congregation of Churches of Christ and Christian Churches from the 1810’s to the present…basically the entire movement from its beginning in our city until now. I envision this group as a place to share memories, photos, news and generate discussion and interest. Please join and contribute. Please feel free to contact me directly at icekm (at) aol (dot) com.

Since readership for this blog is significantly higher now than it was in 2010, let me offer another invitation.  The group is open to all. Help spread the word and generate interest. (astogetherwestandandsing…)

Joe Warlick’s Baptist Blunders, 1905

Joe S. Warlick, Baptist Blunders and J. N. Hall and His Fridays in a Muddle. Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1905. 86 pp., 9 x 5 7/8 in. paper covers.

For a sketch of Warlick’s life and career, go here.  For a brief sketch about Hall by Ben M. Bogard, go here.  For Hall’s memoirs, go here.  I’m unaware of any other comparable front-cover illustration in Stone-Campbell bibliography.  If you know of any, please comment as I’m happy to learn of it.

Warlick, Baptist Blunders front cover Warlick, Baptist Blunders introduction 1 Warlick, Baptist Blunders introduction 2 Warlick, Baptist Blunders title page

Name Authority for Nashville, Tennessee Stone-Campbell Congregations

Name Authority for Nashville Tennessee Stone-Campbell Congregations, September 2012

Click above to download a document listing 319 variants of time-, place- and character-names for the 227 known congregations of the Stone-Campbell movement in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee from 1812 to September 2012.

To my knowledge my work in this area is the only such compilation, and therefore, the most complete.  The initial publication of the list to this blog was in May 2010 as a first step in my research toward a book on the Restoration Movement in Nashville.  I blogged then:

With over 200 congregations in this county, the congregational research alone will take years, perhaps the remainder of my life.  If I live to be 100 I may not finish even a rudimentary survey.  It may be too much:  too many congregations, too many preachers, too much ‘story’ to tell.

But this is where I am at the present.  I publish the list here to generate interest, additions, subtractions, corrections and clarifications.  Look it over and if I need to make changes, please let me know.

While congregational history is only one aspect of this project, this is where it all played out…on the ground in the congregations on a weekly basis.  Few congregations have attempted more than a list of preachers or a narrative of the expansion of the church building.  What I propose, as I wrote above, may be too much…too far to the other extreme.  But that fact changes not one whit the necessity of it being done.

The story of these churches in Nashville needs to be told.  I ask for your help in telling it.  look over my list; I solicit your critique. Contact me at icekm [at] aol [dot] com.

(The first version of the name authority, from May 2010, can be found here.)

McConnico Meeting House

An early Baptist meeting house in the immediate Nashville area. This is in southwest Nashville along the Williamson County line. I’ve not been there…yet.

I welcome your information about McConnico or the Big Harpeth Baptist Church, either here in the comments or by email or Facebook. As I gather items, I will likewise post them here.