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

Genealogy of Dissent: Further Research

dissent.jpgHaving reviewed this book here, subsequent discussion with Aaron Weaver has led me to reflect on several lines of further research that historians can and should undertake.  A Genealogy of Dissent‘s author, David Stricklin, focuses on those dissenters who were influenced by the maverick Baptist pastor, Walt Johnson (or were influenced by those influenced by Johnson, etc.), who was a social and political progressive for most of his career, but who went a little nuts at the end, buying heavily into eugenics schemes. (Fortunately, THAT aspect of Johnson’s thought did not appear to be very influential!) We see how the networks formed by Johnson’s influence supported one another and influenced others.

      This opens out several other profitable lines of research:

  • Aaron suggests, and I think rightly, that an even more powerful “genealogy of dissent” could be traced in SBC (and successor groups) circles that began, not with Walt Johnson, but with the Poteat family of North Carolina: William L. Poteat, nationally respected evolutionary scientist and, for a time, president of what was then Wake Forest College, was a very influential Baptist layman. Edwin McNeile Poteat, Sr. and Edwin McNeile Poteat, Jr. were pastors, philosophy professors who served in both Northern (American) and Southern Baptist circles, and missionaries to China. Although now virtually unknown, they were once highly influential in the South and often looked to in the North as examples of “Southern Baptists who weren’t crazy.”
  • I suggested comparing and contrasting the students of two iconic SBC seminary professors of Christian social ethics:  Thomas Buford (T. B.) Maston(1897-1988) of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX (the social conscience of the Southwest from the ’30s to the late ’60s) and Henlee Hulix Barnette (1911-2004) of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
  • I think it would also be profitable to trace the intellectual influences of those Baptist dissenters who “went North” for some or all of their education, before returning to the South or Southwest for most of their ministries. I know that most were influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and James Luther Adams of Harvard, but other influences could probably be discovered.
  • To what extent, if any, were any outside Southern Baptist circles influenced by these dissenters? Henlee Barnette helped to found the Society of Christian Ethics (something very few remember).  While he was pastor of First Baptist of Austin, Carlyle Marney taught as Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and, when he was pastor of Myers’ Park Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC, Marney was often Visiting Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School.  One of Marney’s Christmas Eve services at Myers’ Park was broadcast nationally (long before churches had “television ministries”). Clarence Jordan’s sermons, lectures, and “Cotton Patch” paraphrases of the New Testament were read by national audiences.    So, despite the legendary insularity of the SBC, the usual assumption that influences went only in one direction may be suspect.
  • It would be very profitable to trace the influence of the Women’s Missionary Union Training School, which evolved into the Carver School of Church Social Work at Southern Seminary.  (It is significant that closing this pioneering school was a first order of business for the new fundamentalist administration.) Mostly attended by women, the Carver School created numerous new church related social ministries.  Histories of the Women’s Missionary Union itself (an auxiliary and thus, never under direct control of the SBC bureacracy) have shown that, prior to the 1990s, it was often a very progressive social force.
  • No one has yet followed up on the suggestion of Julian Bond that a study be conducted of those white Southerners (in this case, white Baptists) who actually joined Civil Rights organizations, often at great risk to themselves. We have anecdotal evidence of the role of Will D. Campbell and (as Stricklin’s book highlights) Martin England, but they were not (entirely) alone.  Glen Stassen worked as a strategist for several Civil Rights organizations while at the University of Virginia, Union Seminary of New York, Duke University, in Louisville and Berea, KY, etc. Some, like Thomas J. Holmes, lost pastorates and other jobs for their involvement (See Thomas J. Holmes, Ashes for Breakfast [Judson Press, 1969]). James Wm. McClendon, Jr. lost his job teaching theology at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary because he helped students raise money to participate in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. Although he remained a Baptist, McClendon spent the rest of his career teaching at non-Baptist institutions. Henlee Barnette was fired from his job at Howard College (now Samford University) in Alabama and, again, from Stetson University in Florida (both SBC-institutions) for his work for racial justice before he landed at his alma mater, Southern Seminary–and his job was regularly threatened there.

What other lines of inquiry could be suggested?


July 6, 2007 - Posted by | Baptists, books, church history, progressive faith


  1. Actually, Barry Hankins (who was a reader for Stricklin’s Genealogy) encouraged me to explore the Poteat branch. However, I’d already begun my Dunn thesis. Without a doubt, more needs to be written on Southern Baptist progressives and progressive Baptists in the South. I hope to do that one day – maybe in a dissertation.

    The comparison of “Maston’s boys” as they were called to the students of Barnette would be an interesting study. Insiders vs. Outsiders. In a post-SBC world, I wonder how many folks from Maston’s genealogy and Barnette’s genealogy are now working together in various Baptist organizations?

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | July 6, 2007

  2. Michael: good book to be made aware of! My colleague and friend Laine Scales has a book on the WMU training school at Southern, published by Mercer University Press: http://www.mupress.org/webpages/books/scales.html

    It may be more of a case study, and covers from 1907 to 1926, but it would describe several women missionaries from that time frame.

    Comment by Kevin Borders | July 6, 2007

  3. Aaron, I look forward to reading your thesis on Dunn. I had no idea you had Ph.D. aspirations, since I assumed you would soon have a career in progressive Democratic politics. Politicians with Ph.D.s are rather rare in U.S. life!
    There was always some cooperative work between Maston’s boys and Barnette’s students (male and female), but I think there is more, now. Ironically, it was Foy Valentine who tried to drive a wedge between them.

    Kevin, thanks for the comment. Scales’ book was one of the WMU studies I had in mind and which suggested further study that began with his pioneering work.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 7, 2007

  4. BTW, Kevin, our good friend, Andy Loving is mentioned in Stricklin’s Genealogy of Dissent because of his work in helping to found Seeds magazine.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 7, 2007

  5. Your site is highly valuable and a great resource to the online audience. Please when you have time do check out my site http://genealogydatabases.blogspot.com

    Comment by ray nwamb | December 16, 2007

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