Don’t forget where the “Southern” comes from

When I started reading the story on the front page of The State this morning about a proposal to change the name of the denomination from “Southern Baptist,” I assumed that the reason would be the convention’s roots in the pro-slavery cause.

So I was taken aback when the reason given in the AP story was concerns “that their name is too regional and impedes the evangelistic faith’s efforts to spread the Gospel worldwide.” That seemed an awfully vanilla way to put it.

I read on, expecting to find the part that dealt with the convention’s founding in 1845… and it wasn’t there at all. No mention of why Southern Baptists had split from other Baptists.

Then, when I went to find the story online to link to it in this post, I found the missing passage:

The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845 when it split with northern Baptists over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. Draper said that history has left some people to have negative associations with the name.

Well, yeah.

AP stories are generally written in the “inverted pyramid” style, to make it easy for copy editors to cut from the bottom in making a story fit on a print page. But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes a copy editor needs to read the whole story and think about what parts the reader can’t do without if he or she is to understand what’s going on. This is one of those cases.

The omission is more startling since someone thought to add a paragraph at the end telling how many Southern Baptists there are in South Carolina.

Of course, the blame doesn’t accrue entirely to the editor or page designer. This was a badly written AP story. The origins of the “Southern” identity should have been up top, rather than in the 14th graf. It was essential to understanding what the story was about.

Now, let me add that I don’t say any of this to condemn the convention, or the independent churches that belong to it. I do not mean to besmirch today’s Southern Baptists. My parents are Southern Baptists; I was baptized in Thomas Memorial Baptist Church.

But to fail to mention where the convention’s name came from in a story about a discussion of changing the name is like writing a history of Spanish Catholicism without mentioning the Inquisition, or the persecution of Jews and Muslims under Their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabela. Actually, you could even say it’s worse than that in terms of relevance, since the story was specifically about the name.

Given The State‘s usual interest in the history of slavery and Jim Crow (particularly during Black History Month), I was surprised by this omission.

17 thoughts on “Don’t forget where the “Southern” comes from

  1. Tim


    Funny how we use words like besmirch, but almost never do you see “smirch” used by itself. Like, “I smirched my shirt while working in the yard.”

  2. Mark Stewart

    It’s not as if a number of world religions don’t also have unsavory historical connections to inhumane social/political movements and ideas.

    The word “Southern” to me is not the misdeed (that was the support itself for an evil social structure); but I can certainly see how on a worldwide basis this would be sort of a limiting appellation that the entity might want to shed for something more universal.

    Anyway, if the Southern Baptists are ready to rename themselves to remove a perceived taint from the association with slavery, then maybe the symbolism of the Confederate flag flying at the Statehouse will loose one more basis of support?

    It’s not a repudiation of one’s history for one to look forward to the future more often than one remembers the past.

  3. `Kathryn Fenner

    I remember my mother, circa 1970, refusing to stay in a Best Western motel, because she didn’t fancy the cowboy stuff. Names matter, and for a lot of people in the rest of the country, “Southern” isn’t a plus.

  4. Barry

    Sort of disagree Brad. I think to include that would sort of miss the entire point of the notion of the current issue of the name change.

    As a lifeline Southern Baptist church member, the motive for the current effort to consider a name change hasn’t been- nor should it be the roots of the convention’s creation.

    This has been a behind the scenes issue for years for some Southern Baptist affiliated churches. The SBC commissioned a detailed and exhaustive research study last year on the subject which was published late last year in publications like The Baptist Courier published in South Carolina.

    It’s not because (at least to 97% of people) because of a disagreement over slave owners or slavery. It’s because of the move in a lot of Christian churches to not have denominational names associated with the churches because of the belief that some folks stay away solely because of their notion of a denomination (which is often- not always – wrong).

    That’s why you see churches all over the state of South Carolina( Southeast, and United States) popping up with names like NewSpring, Village Church, etc. These churches are very similiar in theology to mainline denomination churches- but they’ve chosen to not include those denominational labels in their church name.

  5. Rose

    Tim – great LOTR reference!

    I’m a member of the United Methodist Church. “United” because we had some splintering over several issues prior to the Civil War, including slavery. After the Civil War we had the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the ME Church, North. They got back together in the 1930s, I think, and then the Methodist Church merged with an Evangelical church (name escapes me right now)to form the United Methodist Church.

    Maybe the Southern Baptists should take our example and merge with their Northern bretheren and be the “United Baptists.” Of course, a friend from Maine tells me she thinks of two vastly different churches when she hears “Baptist” and “Southern Baptist”.

  6. Bart

    Try Southern Methodist, the church with a theology college in Orangeburg, not affiliated with SMU in Texas. Talk about an oxymoron when you learn about the roots of the Southern Methodist church and the ethnic make-up of Orangeburg.

    Southern Methodist church in South Carolina was started expressly for separation of the races, not inclusiveness. I will admit that at one time I belonged to the Southern Methodist church because of the minister at the local church. In fact, I was the lay leader for a long time. He was a true minister in the sense that he did not have one racist bone in his body. We worked to try to get the church to do two things.

    First, renounce the reason for naming the church and ask God for forgiveness for the sin of using His name to justify the exclusion of any of His children to come and worship at His house.

    Second, to open our doors to everyone and make an effort to invite other races to attend. For a while we were making headway. One particular Sunday, a local resident attended services and I made it a point to sit with her and her family, to make them welcome. Then, we had a few others attend and each time, I made it a point to sit with them and make them feel welcome.

    Unfortunately, there were still some holdovers who objected to their presence. When services were over, instead of going up to them and welcoming them in God’s name to His house of worship, they chose to ignore our guests and walked away without so much as a handshake. One member in particular surprised me. He said that he had to work with them during the week and he didn’t understand why he had to mingle with them on Sunday while he was trying to worship.

    I predicted the church would eventually fold or at least this particular one. It did and the irony of all ironies, the building is now a black church and from what I understand, the sanctuary is full every Sunday.

    The Sunday I walked away and turned my back on this particular church was a result of the never ending in-fighting and pettiness over any and everything possible. I turned my back on organized religion, especially the demoninational aspect when man’s doctrine replaces the Word of God as gospel and men try to replace God in His own house.

    God’s word and the teachings of Jesus if taken as I believe it is meant to be addresses the individual, not the collective body of humanity. If we as individuals were to adhere to the teachings of Jesus as He taught us in the Sermon on the Mount, whether one believes or not, His words should be the guide for everyone to live by. Consider how this world would be if we did.

    Sorry for the sermon, hope I didn’t offend anyone.

  7. Barry

    Rose- that’s not a bad idea.

    Your friend from Maine “thinks two vastly different….” is the real problem.

    She probably has no idea if they are really similiar or not. She’s not alone.

  8. Brad

    Amen to all of that, Bart.

    Funny thing about race and religion… MLK said 11 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour in America, or something to that effect. And yet that is the opposite of my experience. I think about that sometime sitting in Mass (yes, Father, my mind wanders sometimes). I look around and think about how a church could hardly be more catholic, as in universal, than ours. Black, white, brown, Asian. Last night our Ash Wednesday mass was celebrated by two priests — a black priest from Tanzania, and a white priest from England (a Catholic chaplain in the Royal Navy — attached for the moment to Fort Jackson).

    Sometimes when I’m serving on the altar as a lector or Eucharistic minister, I look around and realize out of seven or eight people, I’m the only white, nonHispanic male — and though I’m technically not Hispanic, I’m likely there to read the Gospel in Spanish.

    We’re probably unusual in this regard — I’ve been to a Catholic Church in Greenville that was as whitebread as anything I’ve ever seen — but that’s the way it is at St. Peter’s. The Hispanic outreach is intentional, but the rest is just sort of organic. All sorts of people gravitate to our parish and feel at home there.

    The parish started in 1821 as a mission effort to serve the Irish laborers being exploited to build the Columbia Canal (I heard once that the Irish workers were cheaper than slave labor, because they didn’t have to be fed). And if you look at our churchyard you’d think you were in Dublin. But we’ve spread out a lot since then, in a demographic sense.

  9. Brad

    And before I was Catholic, I used to attend generic Protestant services at military chapels, which were also pretty diverse. So I guess my experience of religion in America is a little outside the mainstream…

  10. `Kathryn Fenner

    Baptist churches in New England are usually some other flavor (American Baptist?) I have sung in the one in Portland, ME and it’s basically a Methodist church.

  11. Herb Brasher

    And in a German Baptist church fellowship, you can have a beer. Just think, Brad would have never needed to convert!


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