In his first book, Andrew Christopher Smith, an assistant professor of religion at Carson-Newman University, posits a two-pronged argument. First, he explains the relationship between American Fundamentalism and Southern religion during the crucial period of Fundamentalism’s development, 1919–1925. Although he occasionally considers the perspective of other denominations in the South (e.g., the Disciples of Christ), Smith focuses most of his attention on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest and most influential Christian group in the region by the time of World War I. Thanks to George Marsden’s landmark Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), Smith notes that scholars have a good grasp of the origins and growth of Fundamentalism in the Northern United States, but contemporary scholarship continues to lack a clear description of how Fundamentalist ideas affected the South.
Related to his first argument, Smith examines how the Southern Baptist Convention moved toward increasing bureaucratization and centralization in order to raise funds for the ambitious, and on the surface unsuccessful, “Seventy-Five Million Campaign.” Southern Baptist leaders encouraged church members to give, and, in an emotional fervor, church members pledged to give over $92,000,000 in 1919. However,
thanks in large part to the postwar depression, the SBC only collected about $59,000,000 of their pledged money, leaving the SBC mired in debt for decades as they tried to cover the shortfall. While the fundraising campaign did not meet its goal, SBC leaders continued to insist upon the need for a professionalized and educated bureaucracy that could raise and allocate funds efficiently. The leaders’ emphasis upon centralization and an educated, professional class of bureaucrats mirrored progressive movement trends in government and business common in that time. The Seventy-Five Million Campaign was also the forerunner of the SBC’s Cooperative Program, established in 1925, which cemented centralization in SBC life.
Perhaps Smith’s most valuable contribution to the historiographies is his contention that “faced with pressure from the burgeoning ecumenical movement on the left and Fundamentalism on the right, leaders among Southern Baptists chose neither route but instead constructed a third way that reflected the influence of both” (p. 5). Southern Baptists adopted fundraising and advertising practices that were prevalent in the ecumenical Interchurch World Movement (IWM), but they rejected the IWM’s perceived watering down of the Gospel for the sake of institutional cooperation. In turn, Southern Baptists agreed with Northern Fundamentalists’ arguments for inerrancy and the divine origin of the Bible. However, on the whole, they found the Northern Fundamentalists’ penchant for separation from their denominations to be repugnant, and they used their own lack of doctrinal controversy to illustrate SBC denominational unity and superiority.
Smith’s book is unique because he is the first to analyze in any sort of detail the impact of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign on the SBC and how the corresponding move toward centralization and professionalization reflected tendencies in the wider Progressive milieu. Smith also provides an extensive analysis of approximately twenty state convention newspapers to show how Southern Baptist denominational leaders like E. Y. Mullins and Lee Scarborough published letters and essays in newspapers to cajole lay members to fulfill their pledges out of obedience to God and loyalty to the SBC. Smith observes how the newspapers’ editors also “included letters from their readers when they could, providing extremely rare and valuable glimpses into the thoughts and lives of their workaday Baptist readers” (p. 10). As a result, historians can evaluate not only what denominational leaders thought about centralization but also whether or not the average church members approved of the changes in SBC. His detailed examination of Baptist newspapers breathes life into the story for this reviewer.
Despite some minor yet distracting editing errors, I would highly recommend this well-researched and beautifully-written book to undergraduate and graduate students, pastors, historians of Baptists, historians of the American South, and historians of American religion.