The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin

By Harper, Keith | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin


Harper, Keith, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin. By E. Luther Copeland. Lanham: University Press of America, 1995, xvii + 179 pp., n.p. Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues. Edited by David S. Dockery. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993, xiv + 242 pp., n.p.

If recent tensions within the Southern Baptist Convention have done nothing else, they have rekindled interest in denominational history. Predictably, this spate of new inquiry is prone to generate both heat and light. Such is the case with Copeland's The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin and Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues edited by Dockery.

In the first case it is obvious that Copeland is not pleased with recent trends in Southern Baptist life. Yet the Convention's problems run far deeper than fundamentalism, and he concludes that contemporary denominational woes stem from Southern Baptists having been on "the wrong side" of the slavery issue.

This book suffers from a host of problems, not the least of which is Copeland's reductionistic thesis. Even worse, the author shows little indication that he has mastered basic historical facts. Despite his two-page description of slavery, Copeland apparently does not understand that most Southerners (about 75%) did not own slaves. Neither does he appear to understand that patriarchal family structures were common in nineteenth-century America-even in the north!

Of course it could be that Copeland's failure to master basic historical facts stems from his ignorance of southern historiography. How can anyone discuss southern race relations intelligently without mentioning Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Williamson's The Crucible of Race or Smith's In His Image, But . . . ? Likewise, with the notable exception of P. Kolchin and a few articles, Copeland has not read much about slavery since Stampp's The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (1956). Indeed had Copeland read E. Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, he might have seen that many African-Americans left white churches and built their own, not because they were forced out of white churches but because they finally enjoyed a measure of self-autonomy.

Copeland's point that racism continues to plague Southern Baptists is well taken. But his shaky grounding in historical evidence and weak historiographical underpinnings result in a book that is heavily biased and based more on stereotype than history. The title, The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History, is misleading; the text reads more like the judgment of E. L. Copeland.

At the opposite end of the heat/light spectrum is Dockery's excellent work. In 1983 three Southern Baptist seminary professors published Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? J. Garrett said yes, E. Hinson said no, and J. Tull said the question was open for further inquiry. Dockery's work is a collection of sixteen essays by some of America's leading Southern Baptist and evangelical scholars. These essays prove that Tull was right: The extent to which Southern Baptists are evangelical is still open for debate. Moreover, these thought-provoking essays underscore the inherent problems with religious labels and nomenclature.

This work is divided into four sections, the first of which, "Searching for Identity," sets the tone for most of the book. …

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