Fundamentalism, Fundraising, and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1919-1925

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Andrew Christopher Smith
America's Baptists
  • Knoxville, TN: 
    University of Tennessee Press
    , May
     2016.
     249 pages.
     $46.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781621902270.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While a significant amount of scholarship has been dedicated to the Southern Baptist Convention in the second half of the twentieth-century, Andrew Smith’s recent work, Fundamentalism, Fundraising, and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention 1919-1925, shows how the first half of the century provides an equally ripe field for scholastic inquiry. Smith convincingly argues that southern religion generally, and Southern Baptists specifically, were far from isolated from the effects of northern fundamentalism in the early part of the twentieth century. Moreover, between 1919-1925, the Southern Baptist Convention experienced a bureaucratization in which fundamentalist principles were adopted in conjunction with a cooperative spirit in an effort to ensure financial stability for the growing denominational infrastructure.

In order to make his argument, Smith presents a complicated narrative of the Southern Baptist Convention’s fundraising effort known as the 75 Million Campaign. The story depicts how, in the midst of this campaign, Southern Baptists were constantly negotiating the effects of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy that was affecting their Baptist kin in the Northern Baptist Convention. During this period, modernist impulses influenced Southern Baptist denominational leaders such as E. Y. Mullins to encourage the rank-and-file to recognize and accept the expertise and professionalization of denominational employees. Fundamentalist impulses, however, caused many of the rank-and-file to question whether or not their denominational leaders were really heretical modernists steering the convention’s financial resources into undeserving causes. Each of these positions was fueled by awareness of the theological controversy happening in the north.

The Southern Baptist Convention successfully steered clear of a full-fledged controversy through what Smith describes as the “Scarborough Synthesis.” Named for L. R. Scarborough, the president of Southwestern Seminary in Texas, this “synthesis” attempted to appease the moderate fundamentalists within the Convention while at the same time making room for the progressive-era ideas that would centralize and professionalize the Convention. Scarborough relied upon ideas of southern exceptionalism in order to frame “the Southern Baptist Convention as a guarantor of conservative doctrine” (85). Scarborough also identified the spirit of cooperation as a New Testament doctrine akin to more traditional doctrines such as the virgin birth or divinity of Christ.

As Smith convincingly shows, this synthesis served to reify the doctrinal purity of the Convention while also allowing the Convention to evolve into a centralized, bureaucratic institution. Through this kind of compromise, Southern Baptists remained isolated from the larger fundamentalist and modernist ecumenical movements of the period. Instead, through the principle of cooperation, denominational leaders pushed for stronger denominational loyalty. In 1925, this synthesis was solidified in the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message that, according to Smith, served to “exclude Modernists on the left and radical Fundamentalists on the right” (101).

This book’s greatest strength lies in its analysis of the interplay between denominational leaders and average churchgoers. Smith’s understanding of the relationship between these two groups, and the multiple layers within each group, is what makes his argument so convincing. As he shows, while the 75 Million Campaign may have been a failure in raising that amount of money, the campaign succeeded in its larger goal of centralizing and solidifying the institutional infrastructure.

In maintaining a narrow focus on these six years of the Convention history, Smith raises a number of questions for further research. In particular, Fundamentalism, Fundraising, and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention raises questions regarding the relationship between denominational leadership and average churchgoers throughout twentieth century Southern Baptist life. Specifically, what changes caused fundamentalists to want to “take back” the Convention’s bureaucratic infrastructure in the 1980s when fundamentalists of the 1920s were so skeptical of their leadership’s desire to centralize? Smith’s narrative also attempts to frame the evolutionary debates of the period as related to but separate from fundamentalism within Southern Baptist life (73). While his argument is convincing, the reader is left wondering where and when these issues intersect? At what point, if ever, do these issues become synonymous?

Smith offers a substantial contribution to scholarly understandings of twentieth century Southern Baptist life. He engages a wealth of denominational periodicals and other sources to piece together a narrative of the often acknowledged, but under-analyzed, narrative of the 75 Million Campaign of the Southern Baptist Convention. Scholars of twentieth-century Southern Baptist Life should make note of this contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Gardner is a PhD student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew C. Smith is Assistant Professor of religion and director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Carson-Newman University.

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