Levellers

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

20th-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics: T. B. Maston

This continues my chapter by chapter book blogging on Twentieth-Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics, ed. Larry L. McSwain & Wm. Loyd Allen (Mercer University Press, 2008).  I reviewed the book as a whole last October.  I began the chapter-by-chapter series in December.  Since then, I have reviewed the 3 opening chapters on “Foundations: A Legacy of Social Concern,” covering the pioneers Walter Rauschenbusch, Muriel Lester, and Nannie Helen Burroughs.

The next section of the book is “Thinkers and Teachers” while the last section is on social activists, though these should not be taken as exclusive categories. Most of the teachers were also active in work for social justice and many of the activists were tenured academics and/or writing theologians.  I find that heartening, really.  I wouldn’t want “shapers” of any tradition of Christian social ethics to be merely ivory tower academics (or ivory pulpit, big church preachers, either)–nor activists who are not also “thinkers and teachers” whether or not they are employed as such.  It speaks to the strength of this tradition that there is so much overlap.

The first chapter in this section concerns Thomas Buford [T.B.] Maston (1897-1988), the biggest influence on Southern Baptist social ethics in the Southwest and one of the 2 or 3 most influential “shapers” on white Baptists in the South overall.  Maston is the only “shaper” covered in this section whom I never met personally.  Since I came to Baptist life as a teen (and was introduced first to African-American Baptists and other Baptist traditions) and never attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fort Worth, TX) where Maston taught generations of students, I come from outside the Texas/Southwest Baptist tradition that was shaped so decisively by Maston.  I have read and appreciated several of Maston’s books, but I have to say that he has been the least influential shaper in this section on my own approach to Christian/Baptist ethics.  I know that for many whites in Baptist life in the U.S. South (whether or not they remain in the Southern Baptist Convention), this will make me an “odd duck.” So, to this chapter, I bring more of an outsider’s perspective than with many of the other chapters. (Not as much an “outsider” perspective as if I were a British or Canadian or German Baptist or an African-American Baptist or lifelong member of the American Baptist Churches, USA–much less as much as if I were an Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic–but still more of an outsider perspective than many white Baptists in the South.) I recognize Maston as a significant voice in my broad Baptist stream, but not as dominant a voice as others in this book.  (Significantly, I have never met the author of this chapter, either.)

The chapter was written by William M. Tillman, Jr., one of Maston’s many proteges–a Ph.D. student of Maston’s at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) who served on the staff of the SBC Christian Life Commission from 1977-1981 (Maston’s doctoral students often ended up in ethics-related parts of the SBC bureacracy), then taught at SWBTS from ’81-’98 (taking over for Maston) until the fundamentalist takeover at SWBTS forced anyone with integrity from the school. Tillman was on the staff of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from 1998 to 2000 and then became the first T. B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University (Abilene, TX), one of the “diaspora Baptist” schools of former Southern Baptists. So, if I come to this chapter as more of an outsider, Tillman definitely approaches Maston as an insider for whom Maston is the major influence in his approach to Christian ethics.  This affects the tone of the chapter. Tillman’s praise of Maston is so effusive as to approach hero-worship.

Maston was born in East Tennessee to a poor family in hard scrabble circumstances.  (Of course, MOST of the South was poor in 1897!  Thirty years earlier the Civil War had devastated the economy and while the Reconstruction era meant progress for at least some African Americans, it was a time when Northern “carpet baggers” continued to plunder and exploit the white South. It is quite possible that “Jim Crow” segregation would have happened after Reconstruction anyway–but the exploitation by the carpetbaggers didn’t help. It fueled Southern white resentment toward blacks and Northerners for nearly a century to come.) In high school he had a personal conversion and call to ministry, initially understood as a call to preach and pastor.  He graduated as a religion major from Carson-Newman College (B.A., 1920) where he met Essie Mae MacDonald, equally committed to ministry, especially missions. They married in 1921, a year after both enrolled at SWBTS in Fort Worth, TX.  (No explanation is ever given for why Maston went to SWBTS rather than the closer Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY as most ministerial graduates from Carson-Newman did. Nevertheless, it proved a fateful decision, beginning a lifelong relationship with the school and Fort Worth, Texas. ) By this time, Maston realized that his ministerial calling was not a pastoral one so he made the decision not to be ordained and, instead of enrolling in the divinity program, enrolled with Essie Mae in SWBTS’ School of Religious Education. Both earned Master of Religious Education degrees and began teaching at the school while looking for opportunities in foreign missions.  Maston went on to earn a Doctor of Religious Education (DRE) from SWBTS in 1925. 

The Mastons’ firstborn, Tom McDonald (Tom Mc), was also born in 1925. An injury at birth made Tom Mc a victim of cerebral palsy his entire life.  The Mastons’ other son, Harold Eugene (Gene) fought clinical depression his entire life.  Their children had a profound effect on the family.  They could not become foreign missionaries without institutionalizing Tom Mc, so those plans were dropped. Essie Mae dropped her own career to give almost total care to her sons, although T. B. Maston’s own deep involvement, including physical involvement with this care went well beyond that expected of fathers in that era.  They took their sons with them on extended overseas trips that were mission or education related.  Tillman claims that Tom Mc’s physical problems and Gene’s emotional struggles (if clinical depression is so little understood in our culture, today, how much more so then?) had a profound effect on Maston’s theology and worldview and this is easily believed.  It gave him a sensitivity to suffering that, perhaps, goes a long way to explaining why his views on race, economic justice, and world peace, were so VERY far ahead of most of his cultural context–including that of his religious culture.

With his path committed to a life of teaching and writing on Christian education in church settings, missiology, and, increasingly, on discipleship and ethics, Maston continued to equip himself with further education. He earned an M.A. in sociology from Texas Christian University (1927) and, later, a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics (under H. Richard Niebuhr) at Yale University (1939). He also took summer courses at the University of North Carolina (1928) and the University of Chicago (1929). At UNC, Chapel Hill, he was influenced by the renowned Southern sociologist, Howard W. Odum.  His courses in Christian ethics took him from SWBTS’ School of Religious Education to its main School of Theology.  Maston basically founded the Christian ethics department at SWBTS–it was not a part of the original curriculum.

His developing social ethic was a Southern and post-WWI adaptation of the Social Gospel, but with several significant differences.  1) Whereas most of the Northern Social Gospel was tied to liberal theology, Maston combined a firm commitment to conservative Protestant orthodoxy (a mildly Calvinist form of Baptist thought) with social ethics that were fairly liberal/progressive on most issues.  No doubt the conservative theology was a genuine reflection of Maston’s convictions, but it also fit his environment well. If you are going to challenge a church culture that is profoundly racist with a call for racial justice and reconciliation and a church culture of “rugged individualism” with a call for economic empowerment and social solidarity, it helps if none of your critics can challenge one iota of your doctrinal orthodoxy! 2) Like other Southerners who adapted forms of the Social Gospel, Maston put far more emphasis on racial justice and reconciliation than did Northern counterparts.

Maston’s biggest influence on Southern Baptists was on the issue of racism.  He wrote three books on the subject: Of One (1946); The Bible and Race (1959), and Segregation and Desegregation (1959).  Additionally, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP–name chosen when “colored” was considered the less offensive term than “black,”) and the Fort Worth chapter of the Urban League.  He wrote hundreds of op-ed pieces for Baptist state papers and for secular newspapers on the topic, along with numerous pamphlets and chapters in many more books.  As early as the 1940s, he was calling on Baptist churches and agencies to voluntarily desegregate. 

Some could question how influential Maston really was on race.  The Southern Baptist Convention did not issue an apology for its role perpetuating slavery until the year 2000.  During the Civil Rights struggle, the vast majority of Southern Baptists were openly supportive of segregation.  (Many of these repeatedly tried to get Maston fired and his books banned from Baptist publishers and he received numerous pieces of hate mail.) Even today, the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the whitest denominations and African Americans who are associated with it play no significant role in its leadership or in shaping its views.  However, Maston, through his books and students did much to create an influential minority of white Baptists who were progressive on race–and I have heard numerous African American ministers of the right age express appreciation for Maston’s work in this area.

Maston helped create the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission (with a name chosen that would not sound like the Social Gospel–often perceived in the South as “communist!”) and its success led to the change in name of the Southern Baptist Social Service Commission (formed by Southern Seminary’s J. B. Weatherspoon, a shaper not mentioned in this volume) to the SBC Christian Life Commission. (After the fundamentalist takeover in the 1990s, the name was again changed to that of the “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,” but this is misleading since it no longer works for religious liberty in the classic Baptist sense. Its “ethics” now reflect that of the Religious Right). Maston’s doctoral students often became heads of these agencies and others such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (now the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty–an agency now free of SBC monetary support). Through his students, Maston slowly influenced Southern Baptists to be more concerned for economic justice and racial justice. He also published work on peacemaking, though he was not a pacifist.

Maston was also influential in shaping several generations of Southern Baptist thinking on the relation of the church to the world of politics.  From their beginnings Baptists (like the Anabaptists before them) believed that because God alone is Lord of the conscience, the state should not be able to regulate religion. Church and state should be institutionally separate and everyone should have equal religious liberty–including atheists.  Persuasion alone should be used in gaining religious converts–with no help from secular governments.  This emphasis on liberty of conscience combined in America, especially in the Southwest, with the value of “rugged individualism” to promote a profound distrust of governmental institutions and a firm desire for government not to meddle in religious affairs.  It also led to a kind of apolitical apathy on the part of many Baptists.

Maston and his students shifted this.  Recovering a biblical understanding of the prophets, he maintained the strong desire for institutional church-state separation, but pushed for the church to influence state and society in a moral direction.  Sometimes this influence would be “conservative,” such as opposing legalized gambling and restrictions on alcoholic beverages and on pornography, but sometimes it would be “liberal,” such as pushing for increased funding for public education, ending segregation, anti-poverty programs, a limited military budget combined with strong peacemaking efforts.  Maston and his students were fierce defenders of church-state separation. (He would have been horrified by today’s atmosphere with government handouts for “faith-based” social programs, official representation to the Vatican, and the constant clamour by conservative church groups for tax-based “vouchers” for private, parochial schools!) But this did not translate into apolitical quietism.  They expected churches to be influential on moral issues to have a voice in public policy–but not to dominate it or have its programs enacted into law because they were Christian ones.  Tillman doesn’t raise the question about whether or not Maston’s influence inadvertantly led to the rise of the religious right. I often wonder, however, if much of the Right misunderstood the message of social responsibility which Maston and others promoted: They left their apolitical apathy and took to heart the message of influencing public policy–and missed the respect for pluralism and church-state separation along the way.

The influence of Maston on Southern Baptist thinking about family life was also profound–and here, he was mostly traditional.  His marriage showed a partnership and Maston pushed Southern Baptist husbands to care deeply for their wives and be actively involved in child rearing–but he stopped short of embracing any form of Christian feminism that I can see. (Some of his students went beyond him on this.) His view of family life is still (mildly) patriarchal–and Tillman misses this.  It is not surprising that Maston shared the near-universal condemnation of all same-sex sexual expression of his era, but Tillman doesn’t question this conclusion and I do.

Another major influence of Maston’s was to get Southern Baptists to read the Bible not just for doctrinal views, but to see the strong social and ethical themes.  His book Biblical Ethics, first published in 1967, has continuously been reprinted, though by different publishers.  It is a survey of the Bible (Protestant canon) from Genesis to Revelation with a focus on the ethical themes.  It remains an excellent survey, especially for laity.  When combined with his other books, God’s Will and Your Life (1964), The Conscience of a Christian(1971–title chosen in contrast, perhaps, to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, which launched the post-WWII conservative movement among Republicans?), Real Life in Christ (1974), Why Live the Christian Life? (1974), and To Walk as He Walked (1985), it shows a Christocentric and prophetic reading of Scripture that puts less emphasis on the legal materials.

Maston wrote, as do most of the ‘shapers’ profiled, for church audiences rather than academic ones.  This is a good communication strategy if you are trying not to impress other academics, but to truly have an impact on the ethics of churchmembers.  In Maston’s case, however, it led him to completely neglect historical-critical matters in his biblical work (though maybe not behind the scenes in his own study?)–and that, I think, may have reinforced a “flat Bible” hermeneutic among Baptist laity and even ministers.

There is no doubt that T. B. Maston was a powerfully beneficial influence on Baptist life, especially that of white Baptists in the South (Southern Baptists and, today, much of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)–and ESPECIALLY from the Southwest.  Coming from outside the direct line of influence of the Maston circle, I appreciate his work greatly–if not in the hagiographic and hero-worshipping tones of Bill Tillman.

January 11, 2009 - Posted by | Baptists, ethics, progressive faith, race, religious liberty, Religious Social Criticism

6 Comments

  1. I’m glad to see that you’re blogging regularly again.

    Comment by Steve | January 12, 2009

  2. I had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Maston while a student at SWBTS. (the old one) He was a gentle and kind man who spent his days walking the campus interacting with the students. He was quite old then and seemed very frail yet nothing seemed to keep him from his appointed rounds. My professors spoke of his great influence on both the school and society as a whole. He was a shaper for sure.

    Comment by peacetrain5 | January 12, 2009

  3. Thanks, Steve. I had to take a break because of work & trying to do my part to elect a president, re-elect my congressman, etc. Now, I’m an outside critic again. In my view, Christians can join political parties, but we can never be “true blue” because no party platform or politician’s personal agenda comes close to aligning with God’s rule. We support and encourage where we can and criticize where we must–just like the prophets before us.

    At any rate, I now have more time to blog.🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 12, 2009

  4. Thanks for this personal insight, peacetrain5. I had a similar relationnship with Henlee Barnette, subject of the next chapter!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 12, 2009

  5. I enjoyed reading your blog. I have searched T.B. Maston many times and have started collecting his books, as I find him most interesting. Of course the stories I hear are more on the personal side as T.B. is my husband Great Uncle. It is very interesting to hear the families stories (as most are in their late 70’s and 80’s), and then find information like you have provided that shows his “professional” side. Thanks for the information.

    Comment by Julie | March 8, 2009

  6. I like finding out the personal parts, too, Julie, even if I am more connected to the “Henlee Barnetee–Clarence Jordan–Glen Stassen–Jim McClendon” traditions of white Baptist ethicists in the South. The Maston/Southwestern tradition is more removed from me, but I recognize its strengths and power.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 8, 2009


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