For the Sake of Wisdom and Insight: A Burden for History (Part Two)

By Paul Sanchez

In my last post, I argued that to study history is to gain wisdom. As ministers of the gospel, we need wisdom to be faithful stewards of our calling. This is true of Christians in general, but particularly for those who shepherd the flock. However, if we polled evangelical pastors across the United States, I expect that relatively few read a significant amount of history. Perhaps even the most thoughtful pastors would admit that the only historical content they read is historical theology. As helpful as historical theology is, ministers can benefit from reading beyond theology. Ministers should read history to understand the culture in which they serve, the background of the people they shepherd, the patterns that are still at play, and even for the predictive insight that history offers.

Although I pastor in San Jose, CA—hardly representative of southern culture—I love the south. I believe significant needs for ministry still exist in the region, and understanding its history is necessary to meet these needs. Previously, I argued that the south has preserved a culture that is unique when compared to the rest of America. To some extent, the south still represents a genuine sub-culture. The central reason for this is the south’s shared past—its history. Here, I’ll offer a few more resources to further equip ministers, and Christians in general, to serve in their context:

1. Snay, Mitchell. Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South. New York: Cambridge, 1993.

The American Civil War is the single most important event in the history of the southern United States, and arguably for the United States as a whole. However, the religious divisions that occurred in the decades leading up to political session reveal how divided Americans already were and how significantly religion shaped the southern consciousness. Only fifteen years before South Carolina seceded from the Union, the two largest Protestant denominations in the south, the Methodists and Baptists, divided over the issue of slavery, foreshadowing political secession and the war that followed. If American religious leaders could not sustain peace, how could anyone expect politicians to do so? The ghosts of secession, the war, and reconstruction, still haunt the south. Ministers need to understand these dynamics and how they still affect the region today.

2. Kidd, Thomas S. and Barry Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. New York: Oxford, 2015.

Although this book does not focus exclusively on the southern scene, the role of Baptists in shaping southern culture is well-known. Much of the Baptist story takes place bellow the Mason-Dixon Line. Today, millions of southerners still hold membership at a Baptist church. Kidd and Hankins make a powerful argument that Baptists have experienced unity best when they were outsiders in society. As they achieved a level of insider status and peace with the social status quo, they became weakest, most fractured, and lacking in identity. Baptists were anything but outsiders in southern culture during the twentieth century, but that might be changing. If this continues, it might strengthen rather than cripple Baptists. Ministers might benefit from looking to Baptist history anew to understand their changing context both for encouragement and empowerment.

3. Ayers, Edward L. The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction. New Edition. New York: Oxford, 2007.

Edward Ayers argues that the New South was a different world from the Old. However, the era did not produce a monolithic experience for all southerners, as some historians have previously contended. Each city and sub-region had unique dynamics. Generally, however, the south modernized, finally falling in line with the rest of the Union, even as the promise of progress failed to resolve the complex issues that existed in Dixie. Ayers details the rise of Jim Crow, which reigned in the south into the 1960s. In the New South era, we see mass migration of black southerners northward and into southern boomtowns. New cities sprang up seemingly out of nowhere. For ministers serving in places like Birmingham, Charlotte, and Knoxville, this work is especially helpful for grasping the dynamics of these distinctly New South cities. For all of the south, the issue of race looms large. Understanding the New South era is essential for explaining the rising racial tensions between whites and blacks and the oppression and segregation which resulted.

4. Ammerman, Nancy. Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1990.

In my last post, I included Barry Hankin’s Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture. Another important work on this topic is Nancy Ammerman’s Baptist Battles. Like Hankins, she is part insider and part outsider to the conflict. She is partial to the moderate wing of the conflict, but her analysis as a sociologist is insightful. Ministers in the south, Baptist or not, conservative or less so, need to know this history. Its consequences still affect churches across the region, but also institutions of learning, Baptist state conventions, and even public sentiment. To those who were too young or not yet born during the days of the Southern Baptist holy war, it might seem far removed, but to those who experienced it, particularly those who lost the war, emotions still run high. Chances are, if you serve in a southern city, churches in your city still represent the moderate wing of the old convention. The need for sensitivity, wisdom, but also conviction, remains.


 

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. He is writing his dissertation on Southern Baptist churches during the American Civil War. You can follow him on twitter @paulsanchez408 and at emauschurch.com.

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