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FW: H-South Review: Mathews on Flynt, _Alabama Baptists_

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of Ian Binnington Sent: Friday, January 26, 2007 6:54 AM To:
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-NET List for Southern History [mailto:H-SOUTH@...] On
      Behalf Of Ian Binnington
      Sent: Friday, January 26, 2007 6:54 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Mathews on Flynt, _Alabama Baptists_

      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-South@... (January 2007)

      Wayne Flynt. _Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of
      Dixie_. Religion and American Culture Series. Tuscaloosa: University of
      Alabama Press, 2005. xxi + 731 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography,
      index. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 0-8173-5282-1.

      Reviewed for H-South by Mary Beth Mathews, Department of Classics,
      Philosophy, and Religion, University of Mary Washington

      Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Baptists in Alabama

      Historians and pundits of popular culture have often cited the
      prevalence of Baptists in the American South. Some commentators have
      merely noted it, while others used it as ammunition. H. L. Mencken, for

      example, decried both the denomination and the region as examples of
      conservative religion and lack of education. Wayne Flynt, however,
      takes these stereotypes and others to task in his mammoth work on
      Baptists in Alabama, first published in 1998 and now available in
      paperback. The book does a fine job of providing a detailed history of
      the denomination in that state, and Flynt works to shatter some of the
      myths surrounding members of his own faith.

      Flynt asserts that the history of Alabama is linked to the history of
      the Alabama Baptist State Convention, noting that in Alabama, Baptists
      have "the highest percentage of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
      dominance of any state" (p. ix). He states that his purpose "was
      simple: to explain Baptists to themselves and to explain them to
      others," with a special concentration on Baptists in Alabama (p. ix).
      This process of explanation spans over six hundred pages of text,
      including numerous photographs and illustrations of Baptists, Baptist
      life, and Baptist buildings.

      In his explanation, Flynt employs a three-fold approach. He examines
      individual Baptists (as well as Baptists as individuals and their
      relationship with their faith), local congregations of Baptists (and how

      they understood their roles), and the denomination as a whole in Alabama

      and how the individual congregations related to each other. This last
      layer of examination has posed many challenges for scholars of Baptist
      history. Baptist polity--the way Baptists organize their denominational

      structure--is congregational, which means that each individual
      congregation sends delegates, or "messengers," to a local, state, or
      larger convention, but that no congregation is obligated to follow the
      positions declared at these larger meetings. Each church is autonomous,

      which can lead outsiders to misunderstand the denomination as a whole.
      Flynt, however, does yeoman work in separating out the beliefs of
      individual congregations, the state association, and the Southern
      Baptist Convention itself (established in 1845 in a schism over
      slavery).

      That work in teasing out varying positions helps Flynt lay to rest some
      very crucial stereotypes about Southern Baptists. For example, Flynt
      challenges the notion that Baptists have traditionally opposed public
      funding for education. In numerous examples, he demonstrates that
      Alabama Baptists were greatly concerned about the ability of people to
      read, as this skill was crucial to understanding Christianity once a
      person had converted. Public education, Alabama Baptists reasoned, was
      the best way to improve literacy. Protestants have always believed that

      a literate populace was important for understanding the message of the
      Bible, and Alabama Baptists strongly supported public education until
      the second half of the twentieth century, when racial integration of
      schools and a ban on Bible reading in schools dampened their
      enthusiasm. Flynt also paints interesting pictures of a pulpit/pew
      split over issues such as social work and integration, as well as a
      rural/urban split over missions and theology.

      _Alabama Baptists_ also highlights the role that women played in the
      denomination. While not allowed to preach for most of the
      denomination's history, women could and did exercise other influence,
      such as fundraising, which Flynt documents admirably. Female Baptists
      become a subversive force in this book, chipping away doggedly at the
      barriers men erected to keep them away from power. The reader gets a
      sense that while the men were busy reminding each other of Paul's
      prohibition against women speaking in church, the women were using every

      other avenue available to ensure their voices were heard, even if not
      directly.

      If the book has a weakness, it is the same issue that Alabama Baptists
      themselves have struggled with: race. Flynt's approach to the issue
      broke no new ground, and the book relies largely on white sources and
      provides a white narrative of race relations. To be sure, Flynt is
      sensitive to the failings of his white-run denomination in dealing with
      African Americans. For example, he correctly calls white Baptists to
      task for their treatment of African Americans, pointing out their
      paternalistic treatment of the newly freed slaves and their
      near-constant comments about the need for black Baptists to "get
      religion," a veiled attack on their theology and their worship style.
      He does not, however, examine in a more detailed manner the ways that
      black and white Baptists influenced each other more subtly, a topic that

      Paul Harvey so deftly explored in _Redeeming the South: Religious
      Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925_
      (1997). Given that _Alabama Baptists_ was originally published in
      hardcover in 1998, it is likely that Flynt did not have time before the
      book went to publication to incorporate a more refined approach to race
      in his work.

      This one shortcoming aside, Flynt explains Baptists in Alabama quite
      well, and historians of religion in the South should examine this book.

      Historians of culture in the South would also benefit from _Alabama
      Baptists_, as it illuminates the motives and actions of a large portion
      of the southern population.



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      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.
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