Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

"A High-Class Christian Gentleman": Tennessee Governor Ben W. Hooper and Progressive Era Reforms

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

"A High-Class Christian Gentleman": Tennessee Governor Ben W. Hooper and Progressive Era Reforms

Article excerpt

Shortly after the Tennessee gubernatorial election of 1910, the Baptist and Reflector celebrated the role of the Baptist denomination in electing the first Republican (GOP) governor since Reconstruction.

Reciting a litany of names, the November 19 edition of the weekly paper listed members of a wide, bipartisan coalition. O. C. Barton, chair of the Independent Democrats, which supported the GOP, was Baptist. Newell Sanders, chair of the state Republican Committee, was Baptist. The election was not "entirely a Baptist affair," though, because some members of the denomination supported the Democratic nominee and because "a great many other denominations" cast their votes for the Republican. However, "the Baptists generally can take perhaps a good deal of credit to themselves as to the result of the election." That election elevated Ben W. Hooper to the office of governor of Tennessee. A Progressive Era reformer, native East Tennessean, and committed Baptist church member, Ben Hooper received this accolade from the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector: "As we have said before, we have known Captain Hooper for twenty years. He is a high-class Christian gentleman, and will give Tennessee a clean business administration of which every Tennessean may well be proud." (1)

The clean business administration that the Baptist and Reflector predicted would mark Hooper's administration placed the governor in the context of the Progressive Movement and its reforms, a broad response of public leaders to social and political abuses of the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, including monopolies, corrupt urban machine politics, labor issues, and women's suffrage. Some elements of progressivism addressed race issues, others ignored them, and other "progressives" were quite "unprogressive" on race. Walter Nugent's book, Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction, provides a helpful summary explanation for the movement that addressed these questions: "How could governments be more responsible to the people? How could economic life be made fair again?.... Most of them favored some form of government" to address these questions. (2) Nugent proceeded to write that these various progressives shared as a "core theme" the idea of "[r]eform ... vague as the term was and is." (3) Moreover, Nugent includes the Social Gospel work of Walter Rauschenbusch and others as a wing of the Progressive Movement.

The American South had its version of the Progressive Movement. Dewey Grantham's 1983 book, Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition, extensively surveys the southern expression of Progressivism as a reform movement that succeeded in policy reforms, unlike Radical Reconstruction and Populism, the other two reform movements of the region. Like Progressivism in other regions, southern Progressivism included a wide range of leaders addressing a variety of issues, some regional and some national. These issues included education, railroad regulation, and social welfare, along with agricultural reforms. The South's approach to progressivism was also shaped by its "distinctive institutions, one-party politics, and perennial concern with the 'race question.'" (4)

Grantham's discussion of progressivism in Tennessee and the Upper South offers details of tremendous strife and conflict over reform issues, conflict that included violence and assassination, along with bitter divisions among leaders. Grantham then mentions: "The most prominent progressive to come out of this period of political turmoil in Tennessee was not a Democrat but a Republican--Ben W. Hooper.... Hooper led a movement that possessed some of the aspects of a religious crusade." His two terms, according to Grantham, succeeded in enacting laws and policy changes and forcing the majority Democratic Party to adopt progressive and liberal positions. (5)

Hooper's policies and successes as a Progressive Era reformer have a link to one specifically religious expression of the Progressive Era: the Social Gospel. …

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