For the Sake of Wisdom and Insight: A Burden for History

By Paul Sanchez

To study history is to gain wisdom. As ministers of the gospel, we need wisdom to be faithful stewards of our calling. However, if we polled evangelical pastors across the United States, my hunch is that relatively few read a significant amount of history. Even many of the most thoughtful pastors would likely admit that the only historical content that they read is historical theology. As helpful as historical theology is, I am convinced that ministers would benefit from reading beyond intellectual history for the sake of understanding the culture in which they minister, the backgrounds of the people they shepherd, the patterns that are still at play, and even for the predictive insight that history offers.

For those men who minister in the southern United States, understanding the south’s history is especially imperative. The south has preserved a culture that is unique in relation to the rest of America. In some ways the south still represents a genuine sub-culture in America. The central reason for this is the south’s shared past—its history. I am recommending a few books to assist those who minister in the south for the purpose of gaining wisdom for their ministries:

1. Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt. New York: Alfred A. Knopfm 1997.

Most Americans take for granted the idea of the south as the Bible Belt. However, Heyrman demonstrates that this was not always so. In fact, she argues, “Evangelicalism came late to the American South, as an exotic import rather than an indigenous development” (9). Even if one is not completely convinced by her argument, Heyrman’s account is a robust explanation of how evangelicalism grew in the region and how it changed within the first few generations, initially at odd with the culture around it, but progressively accommodating to it.

2. Harvey, Paul. Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1997.

For all of the south’s history, race has been a forefront issue. Paul Harvey demonstrates how early Baptists in the south lived and worshiped in a biracial context, with mutual influence between the two races. However, the two races, white and black, did not experience perfect harmony. Harvey argues that the evangelical impulse towards emphasizing individual conversion at the expense of broader social reform limited the willingness of white Christians to support their African American brethren who broadly suffered oppression and disenfranchisement. Whether or not Harvey is correct, for an issue as live and significant as race, this work sheds light on race relations between southern Christians, about which many are justifiably concerned today.

3. Wilson, Charles Reagan. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. New Edition. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2009.

The south’s shared past is partly bound up in its undeniable but uneasy relationship with its Confederate heritage. This fact is no less real today than it was thirty years ago, as illustrated by the considerable dialog and outworking of new policies related to the display of the Confederate flag. Outsiders struggle to understand the fight and southerners sometimes struggle to come to terms with it, but Wilson offers a compelling narrative in which he argues that the fall of the Confederacy in 1865 led to a crisis in the south, out of which southerners fashioned a civil religion in honor of the south’s past, epitomized by the rhetoric of the lost cause. This work is essential to understanding this legacy.

4. Hankins, Barry. Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 2002.

Southern Baptists have long represented something of a mainstream in southern culture. Yet, just a generation ago, they waged an inward battle for the control of America’s largest Protestant denomination, which the conservative wing won. Ministers who serve in the south, whether within the Southern Baptist Convention or outside of it, need to grasp this history. They will benefit from understanding how the conservatives won, what issues were at stake, and what resulted in the aftermath.


Paul Sanchez has pastored churches in Kentucky and Louisiana and currently pastors Emaus Church in San Jose, CA. He is a PhD student at Southern Seminary under Greg Wills, studying American religious history, specializing in the American South. You can follow him on twitter @paulsanchez408 and also at emauschurch.com.

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