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FW: Mathews on Flynt, _Alabama Baptists_

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: H-Net Review Project Distribution List [mailto:H-REVIEW@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of H-Net Reviews Sent: Wednesday, March 21, 2007 2:54 PM To:
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      Subject: 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 978-0-8173-5282-0.

      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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