Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Genealogy of Dissent: Book Review

dissent.jpgDavid Stricklin, A Genealogy of Dissent:  Southern Baptist Protest in the Twentieth Century (University Press of Kentucky, 2000).

    This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for some time–and should have tried harder.  It is common knowledge that the Southern Baptist Convention, born in 1845 out of a split with Northern (now American) Baptists over slavery, has been by and large a very conservative social force, even before the fundamentalist takeover in the 1990s.  The denomination was born to defend slavery (the precipitating issue was the refusal of the Trienniel Convention’s mission board to appoint a slaveholder as a home missionary) and, after the Civil War, defended segregation, fought against suffrage for women, worked against the rise of unions, supported every war that came along, was a reactionary force during the Civil Rights movement, fought against feminism and helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, etc.  That sordid story of faith-based reactionary politics has been told well in such works as Rufus Spain’s At Ease in Zion: A Social History of Southern Baptists, 1845-1900; E. Luther Copeland’s, The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin; John L. Eighmy’s Churches in Cultural Captivity:  A History of the Social Attitudes of Southern Baptists and many more.

The story which hasn’t often been told has been the “minority report,” the story of those maverick, progressive reformers in Southern Baptist life–whose legacy lives on in the most progressive voices of today’s Alliance of Baptists and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Yes, many dissenters were driven out of Baptist circles to become Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians (and some to becoming Mennonites or Quakers) and others left the South for American Baptist circles in the North or West.  But Stricklin narrates the story of those who rebelled, but stayed. Some went North for education at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and Union Seminary of New York, but they returned to Dixie deliberately.  Others were educated within the usual Southern Baptist system of colleges, universities and seminaries, but still broke the typical mold described so aptly in the books listed above.

This is the story of those white Baptists of the American South who fought segregation (some even joining the Civil Rights movement), who brought the Social Gospel to Dixie, who worked against the militarism typical of Southern culture and strove to advance causes of peace and human rights, who fought for the equality of women, who struggled against poverty and economic injustice–and who worked to advance environmental ethics in Dixie.  Stricklin gives us an intellectual genealogy, showing how informal networks developed as figures influenced one another and supported each other against the weight of denomination and culture.

Most of the people named and described here were doctrinally evangelical and orthodox, but with radical social consciences.  A few imbibed from liberal or neo-orthodox theological streams, but still sought to re-frame these influences into forms that would be recognizable to Southern Baptists.  Some of these dissenters became well-known Baptist pastors (e.g., Carlyle Marney, W. W. Finlator, Edwin McNeil Poteat, Sr. and Jr., Carmen Sharp, Will D. Campbell) or seminary professors (e.g., Olin T. Binkley, Henlee H. Barnette, T. B. Maston, Glen H. Stassen) or professors at the more progressive Baptist universities (e.g., Roger Cook, G. MacLeod “Mac” Bryan) or even managed to work in Southern Baptist agencies, carving out places in state or national “Christian Life Commissions” (e.g., Foy Valentine) or along the fringes of mission agencies (e.g., Emmanuel McCall, Bob and Sherry Adams). Many dissenters served stints on the staff of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now known as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty), which, because it was located in Washington, D.C. (rather than the deep South) and was responsible to several Baptist denominations and not under the sole control of the Southern Baptist Convention, carved out space for dissenters like J. M. Dawson, Stan Hastey, Foy Valentine (again), or James Dunn.

Others among the dissenters created experimental forms of ministry outside the normal channels of Southern Baptist life, but exercising powerful influences nonetheless. The most famous example in this category is Koinonia Farm (now Koinonia Partners) in Americus, GA (just 15 miles from Jimmy Carter’s home and repeatedly cited by Carter as a major influence in changing his views on racial and economic justice away from “the Southern pattern”). Koinonia was founded in 1942 as an interracial communal farm by two Baptist couples, Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mable England.  Other experiments included Seeds magazine, an anti-hunger and poverty network run out of the offices of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Committee of Southern Churchmen (and their now-defunct journal, Katallagete: Be Reconciled), the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Baptist Women in Ministry, the Baptist Center for Ethics, journals such as Christian Ethics Today, and alternative newspapers such as Baptists Today. 

Stricklin traces the formation of all these groups and experiments and more and shows how they overlapped and influenced one another and created an alternative Southern Baptist social tradition. He also shows how they became lighting rods for conservative backlash.  Although almost all of the dissenters working in these networks would qualify as “evangelical” in theology, they were denounced as theological liberals and pointed to by the leaders of the fundamentalist “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC.  The success of this backlash pushed most of these experiments and networks from the margins of Southern Baptist life to outside it altogether, necessitating the creation of the breakaway denominations known as the Alliance of Baptists, a small, progressive group, and the more numerous and more centrist (within post-segregation Southern culture) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

One of the strengths of Stricklin’s work is that he not only places famous dissenters like Clarence Jordan or Will D. Campbell in a broader context, but he also recovers the narratives of less famous, but equally important dissenters, such as Martin England.  England wanted to be a Southern Baptist missionary to Africa, a not uncommon desire, but even in the 1930s, he connected that desire with a strong passion for racial justice in the States, which was much less common. He was educated at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, which, though conservative by non-Baptist standards, had more space for theological and ethical exploration than the other SBC seminaries. When a fiscal crisis in the SBC’s Foreign Mission Board meant that England’s dream of being a Southern Baptist missionary was blocked, then, and only then, did he move his membership North and become an American Baptist missionary to Burma (Myanmar).  On the Englands’ first furlough back to the States, WWII broke out, preventing their return. Meeting Clarence Jordan at a meeting of the Louisville chapter of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, the two couples launched their radical dream of a “demonstration plot of the gospel,” in the interracial farming commune, Koinonia.  With the end of the War, the England’s returned to Burma as missionaries, until Mable’s poor health necessitated their return to the States–just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning.  Martin England found an ingenious way to become part of the movement.  Employed by the Ministers and Missionaries Board of American Baptists (which handles health and pensions), England traveled throughout the South enrolling African-American Baptist pastors in the M & M Board’s insurance programs, while volunteering for other forms of support. (It was thanks to England that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a life insurance policy–not an automatic purchase in those days–from the M & M Board which provided for his family after his assassination.) England was one of those who smuggled out King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail,” and it was first published, thanks to England, by the American Baptist Publishing Board! (Will D. Campbell’s similar support work, often as the only white person at the founding of the Nashville Student Movement or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had a similar origin. Campbell talked the National Council of Churches into employing him as a kind of informal liason to the movement and a reporter and interpreter of events to those outside the South.)

This is an amazing book.  Here one finds that, although the Social Gospel is often defined as a Northern phenomenon, it “went South” at least as early as the 1920s. And whereas racism was barely discussed in the Northern Social Gospel circles, Southern adherents such as T. B. Maston, Olin Binkeley, and Henlee Barnette made the struggle against racism the center of their Social Gospel. (The term “Social Gospel,” however, was often used only in whispers in Dixie because of its association with liberal theology.)  Here one finds the names of many of the white Southerners who joined Civil Rights organizations (the students weren’t all from the North), the churches formed over splits over segregation, the Southern resisters to Vietnam, the nuclear arms race, and much more.

I am a product of this dissenting tradition. I knew this before reading Stricklin’s book. But I did not know several chapters in the history which shaped me; chapters that Stricklin narrates compellingly.  If one wants to see the roots of an alternative Baptist vision, that nonetheless speaks in Southern accents, this is a good place to start.

July 5, 2007 - Posted by | Baptists, books, progressive faith


  1. I read this book for an independent study last semester and will be reviewing it for an online publication in the Fall.

    What did you think of Walter Johnson? His life seemed to take a turn for the bizarro world towards the end of his career when he began to advocate eugenics.

    I’ve often wondered what kind of “genealogy of dissent” could be formed by focusing on the Poteat Family. I think that tree would be impressive as well.

    Stricklin earned his Ph.D at Baylor Religion – though I think he may have a degree in history from somewhere erlse. Thus far, he has written the only history of the Texas Christian Life Commission. It covers through most of Dunn’s tenure and has been quite helpful.

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | July 5, 2007

  2. Aaron, it seems as if everyone connected with Johnson thought he went bizzaro at the end–but the people he inspired before then were still pretty important. I also would like to see more focus on the Poteat family.

    I also think that a good study would be to compare/contrast the careers of T. B. Maston’s students with Henlee Barnette’s students. My initial impression is that Maston’s students (Valentine, Dunn, etc.) were more successful in getting spots in denominational agencies. They were better at working the system from the inside–even if from the margins. Barnette’s students, on the other hand, if they did not themselves teach or pastor, tended to create their own experiments outside the official Convention system–even though Barnette himself went the insider route.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 5, 2007

  3. Though I am neither a Southerner nor a Southern Baptist, I find this to be a compelling study. In particular, I found it interesting that most of the dissenters profiled in this study were rooted in the socially progressive strands of Evangelicalism. In a day and age where politically conservative Evangelicals are increasingly dismissing progressive Evangelicals as theological “liberals” (the catch all term for “people who don’t believe like we do”), this study makes an important contribution by recovering at least one significant strand of the progressive Evangelical tradition.

    Comment by haitianministries | July 6, 2007

  4. Dan, that charge of “liberal” was thrown at the dissenters, too! (And some, like Carlyle Marney and the Poteats did explore theology beyond evangelical borders.) The Fundamentalists who took over the SBC in the ’90s pointed to these dissenters as proof that the Convention was “run by liberals”–even though, as I said, most of them were theologically orthodox and NONE of the dissenters were at the helm of power!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 6, 2007

  5. […] of Dissent: Further Research Having reviewed this book here, subsequent discussion with Aaron Weaver has led me to reflect on several lines of further […]

    Pingback by Genealogy of Dissent: Further Research « Levellers | July 6, 2007

  6. […] those of you who are NOT a product of the Dissenting Tradition of maverick white Baptists in the U.S. South, I will give a brief introduction to the life and […]

    Pingback by Belated Birthday: Will D. Campbell « Levellers | July 19, 2007

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