Academic journal article World History Bulletin

"Our Preaching Has Caught Up with Us": Exploring the Impact of Southern Baptist Missions in Africa on the Southern Baptist Heartland

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

"Our Preaching Has Caught Up with Us": Exploring the Impact of Southern Baptist Missions in Africa on the Southern Baptist Heartland

Article excerpt

During the wave of early-nineteenth century revivals in the United States, Southern Protestants, scattered about the rolling frontier of Southern society, became the epitome of isolated, individualistic Americans-- manifestations of Fredrick Jackson Turner's frontier democrats. (1) The religious fervor never subsided. After the Civil War--and for much of the twentieth century--Southern Protestants held onto the Agrarian myth of American Democracy, and to a self-serving certainty that they, and they alone, had created a truly Christian society. This sense of Southern exceptionalism--religious and otherwise--persisted long after World War II. Indeed, Gregory Stephens wrote of relocating to North Carolina from Texas: "As a southwesterner, when I first relocated to North Carolina, I was impressed by the fact that my colleagues thought of the border as being the Mason-Dixon line--that would be the North as the Other of southern opposi tional identity." (2)

White Southerners continued to defend their society (in particular, their segregated society) as Christian well into the twentieth century. After World War Two, that defense made the Southern United States a rarity in the rapidly-changing world. Southern religious historians have long pointed to the contradictions of Jim Crow Christianity, and rejected the idea that South's segregated was society was the epitome of a Christian society. Nevertheless, Southern historians have tended to operate, sometimes though not always, self-consciously within the framework of Southern exceptionalism. (3)

Scholars who have placed the American South in a more global context, have frequently let religion fall into the background. Indeed, in the quite-recently published (2005) collection of essays, The American South in a Global World, religion is almost entirely absent. Only Ajantha Subramanian examines religion, particularly Hinduism, as part of the globalizing South. Subramanian's analysis, however, shows that Southern politicians, in particular former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, view the high degree of religiousity of the South's Hindu Indian population as making that immigrant population compatible with "Southerness." Her analysis suggests, interestingly, that members of North Carolina's Hindu population are more religious in the American South than they had been in India. Similarly, scholars like Mary L. Dudziak have placed the American Civil Rights movement in its global context, but have not seriously contended with the religious aspects of that movement when doing so. By contrast, in Religion in the Contemporary South, religion is clearly the main focus, yet global trends are limited to the establishment of immigrant religious communities, and little is said about the interrelationship between "Southern" religions and the immigrant, particularly "non-Western," religions. (4)

The Southern religious experience, which exemplified the region's isolation, lay at the heart of this Southern exceptionalism. (5) When Southern religious leaders recognized that the region's isolation had been shattered, they often overlooked the extent to which their region had long been involved in the world community. In the late 1980s, North Carolina's first Buddhist Temple, in Bolivia, prompted the pastor of the local Antioch Baptist Church to comment that his town had been "thrust into becoming an international town overnight." Perhaps, but how different was that response from the one of a South Georgia Baptist who seemed surprised by the arrival of migrant farmers in his town during the late 1950s, despite the fact that the process had been repeated annually for years. Had Antioch's pastor, like the Georgia pastor thirty years earlier, just never noticed? The isolation and the exceptionalism of the South, then, has been unraveling for years, but both Southerners and Southern historians have been slow to examine its unraveling. (6) As a result, world history has interested few Southern religious historians. …

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