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Tom Chaney: R753: Review of book - Exiled

Of Writers and Their Books No. R753: It happened in Georgetown, KY: An ironic chapter in a missionary Baptist church's inhospitable attitude toward the group they were proselytizing. Author played role in good outcome. First appeared 11 March 2007.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column 7: Bloody trails in a dark land

By Tom Chaney


A look at the book I have selected this week requires a bit of personal explanation. The book is Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War edited by Carl L. Kell with an introduction by Samuel S. Hill (The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2006).

Kell presents "a compilation of first-person narratives by conservative and moderate ministers who were stripped of their positions and essentially became pariahs in the churches to which they had devoted their lives."

Throughout these essays several points of issue amongst the folks in the nation's largest protestant denomination emerge. Those issues concern Baptist theology, church polity, and the relationship between church and state.

I have not been a member of a Baptist church since 1963. The issues that have deeply divided the denomination since 1976 have only a tangential relationship to my personal move from the church in which I was raised and within which I was ordained to the ministry in 1960. There are those who would say that I don't have a dog in this fight. That may well be true.

When I left the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the spring of 1961 many issues were at work in my life and education. I could not master the Greek language, but was resolved to try again until I got it. Hebrew loomed large on the horizon. I was becoming interested in archeology, but the two archeology professors were to be on leave that fall.

Another important issue was human civil rights. I had been moved by Dr. Martin Luther King when he addressed our chapel convocation the year before. I witnessed the abuse heaped on the seminary from Baptists across the south who saw his invitation to speak in Louisville at the Seminary as a betrayal of their way of life grounded firmly in segregation.

In the fall of 1961 I went to Texas to accept a teaching fellowship in the fine speech department at Baylor University, fully intending to return to Louisville to pick up the threads of archeology and bravely face Greek and Hebrew. But the cords had been cut. I felt more at home personally and philosophically on the outside than on the inside. Two years later I decided that the church which had been my comfortable home was no longer for me.

When I returned to Texas in 1963, I took the easy way out of the church. A Baptist may transfer membership from one church to another upon the promise of a "letter of good standing" from the previous church. I chose another way. I asked my church in eastern Kentucky to provide me with such a letter. I never presented it to another congregation.

By 1979 the "fundamentalist takeover" of the conservative denomination was well under way.

That political takeover has moved the church away from some of its staunchest servants in the local church, in the colleges and seminaries, and in the administration of the convention.

Others have told the larger story. Carl L. Kell assembled these essays to tell of the personal cost to individuals since the election in 1979 of Jimmy Allen to the presidency of the denomination.

Baptists have stood, since the 17th century, for several distinctive principles. Here are four. First, only believers should be baptized. That is related to the second; the priesthood of the individual believer whose right and responsibility it is to stand before God without benefit of priest or creed. This leads to the third, a church organization which is local in nature with prime responsibility in all matters with denominational affiliation being totally voluntary.

Fourth, is the strong adherence to the principle of separation of church and state. That last has always been considered a two-way street. Baptists have traditionally sought no financial support from the state. They have strongly resisted government interference in their affairs while officially refraining from political support for candidates and urging individuals to work for good within society.

Kell's book details the diminution of these principles in favor of a central doctrinal creed; strong political control of denominational affairs; instructions to local churches and institutions on a variety of matters, including involvement in secular politics, the role of women in the church, and the church's stand on public education.

Baptist leaders, who once denounced other denominations for their support of "liberal" politics, now support conservative candidates. Ignoring torture by Americans, they now take staunchly politically correct "pro-life" stands including support of the death penalty. In these new days the fundamentalists think that they need to screen the sinners to see which ones deserve grace -- leaving Jesus without much to do.

Some good has spun off from the controversy. Alternate associations of churches have sprung up all over the convention. Many individual congregations have affiliated with the American Baptist Convention -- helping to knit up the ties broken in 1845 when the church split over the issue of slavery. New seminaries have been formed free from the new denominational limits on scholarship in the old. Colleges, such as Georgetown College, have loosened their financial and governance ties to their academic benefit.

A good friend of mine, a staunch rural Hart County Baptist, came through the store; saw me reading this book with which he was familiar.

"Tom," he said as he gently thumped the cover, "I'd always hoped to die a Baptist and a Democrat. Since all this has happened, I'm not so sure about the Baptist part."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-03-11 04:39:52
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