Culture-Bound Southern Baptists and Their Exiles.
Reviewed by Joseph Hendricks
Vol. 11, No. 6, 1989, pp. 15-17
Churches in Cultural Captivity, A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists by John Lee Eighmy (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1972, revised 1987).
When John Lee Eighmy suffered a fatal heart attack in 1970, he had almost completed his important study on the influence of the social gospel in the life and work of the Southern Baptist Convention. Eighmy died at a time when the Convention seemed to be emerging from cultural captivity, and he could hardly have anticipated its dramatic turn into yet another era of cultural bondage. Fortunately, Samuel Hill has provided for the revised edition an expanded conclusion that extends the study to the present time.
Eighmy contends that the Convention, born amidst the pre-Civil War slavery debate, has conceived and pursued its mission in a manner that embraces rather than criticizes Southern culture. He ably demonstrates how this posture has been supported by Southern Baptist theology, a perspective radically different from that of the American (Northern) Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch, who is often called the father of the’ social gospel in America. Eighmy cites a 1920 proclamation by the Virginia Baptist Conven-
tion Social Service Committee that reflects Southern Baptist antipathy toward the social gospel.
The Baptist attitude toward all social reform, work, and service is that unadulterated gospel preached and accepted solves all social problems, rightly adjusts all industrial inequalities, remoras domestic friction, adjourns divorce courts and supplies adequate protection and uplift to the weaker part of humanity.
Such proclamations, however, can be misleading. As Eighmy points out, Southern Baptists have consistently addressed some social problems while ignoring others. They have vigorously fought alcohol consumption, Sabbath desecration, gambling, and obscenity; and, despite their subscription to a doctrine of separation of church and state, they have consistently called upon government to prohibit such practices. For the first half-century of its existence, however, the Convention-made no effort to extend this social concern to such problems as racial oppression, labor exploitation, and war which were deeply rooted in the socio-political structures of Southern culture–structures, notes Eighmy, that were perceived to be “divinely ordered.”
In its second half-century, efforts were made to enlarge the Southern Baptist social agenda. During this period, for example, W.L. Poteat, president of Wake Forest College, and his nephew, Edwin McNeill Poteat Jr., challenged the Convention’s Social Service Commission to expand its sphere of social concern. As the Convention entered its] second century following world War II, the Social Service’ Commission (later named the Christian Life Commission) was budgeted and staffed. Guided by such leaders as Hugh Brimm, Jesse Burton Weatherspoon, Aker C. Miller, and Foy Valentine, the Commission conducted educational programs designed to stretch the social conscience of Southern Baptists.
Such efforts required perennial sympathetic diplomacy by these leaders, and the success of their work is reflected in a 196S Convention resolution which confessed that Southern Baptists must share responsibility for the racial strife then sweeping the country.
Given the resistance that the Commission encountered, its accomplishments were impressive, but it must be noted that it pursued its mission in the wake of dramatic action by civil rights groups, other ecclesiastical organizations, and the federal government. For the most part, the Convention followed rather than initiated change; and, while it began to break with some outmoded traditions, it has never gained sufficient detachment from the culture to mount a sustained prophetic critique of it. Following Eighmy’s death, as Hill points out, the Convention leadership has turned to an alliance with the New Right, purged the Christian Life Commission and other agencies of progressive leadership, and replaced them with administrators who have returned the agenda to personal rather than structural social concerns.
There is another part of the story, however, that does
not fall within the purview of Eighmy’s book. As was often the case with Israel and has been with the Church, the Southern Baptist prophetic social mission has been pursued more by its exiles than within the Convention itself. Innumerable Southern Baptists have departed from their denomination to pursue vocations in other churches and secular organizations. Two of the most formidable Southern prophets of social justice, Clarence Jordan and Will Campbell, were reared and baptized in rural Southern Baptist churches. Both were challenging Southern culture long before the civil rights movement gained momentum, and both were either nudged or driven out of the Southern Baptist fold.
Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm, preached unrelentingly against the evils of war, wealth, and racism; and he devoted much of his later life to translating portions of the New Testament from Greek into the Southern vernacular. Campbell, who has been accurately called the chaplain of the civil rights movement, has challenged both the moderate and the fundamentalist factions of the Convention to learn from the sixteenth century Anabaptists–who are their spiritual if not their ecclesiastical ancestors–who found their identity in faith rather than a culture that had captured the Church.
These prophets and their lesser known sister and brother exiles have been anchored in Scripture and a tradition that recognizes the importance of not confusing culture and faith. Resisting seduction by secular or ecclesiastical institutions, they have served both the institutional church and the state by proclaiming the criticism they so desperately need. Through the lives of such exiles the Convention might catch a glimpse of how to be faithful in Southern culture without being of it.
JOSEPH HENDRICKS is chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at Mercer University, a Southern Baptist, and a long-time active challenger of injustice in Georgia and the South.