Friday, October 25, 2019

The History of Texas Baptists

The history of Texas Baptists is one of the great loves of my life. I do not remember exactly when it happened, but it is an ongoing affair of at least forty years. In recent months, I have focused on the Sabine Baptist Association, the earliest Baptist association in our area (organized 1843). I found a treasure trove of information at Baylor University’s archives (oh, sure, I wish for more).[i] As I began to understand what is there, a sad wonderment struck my mind. How long has this information lain dormant there? How many historians who mention the Sabine Baptist Association ever bothered to check these primary documents? I would love to see a new history of Texas Baptists refocused on primary documents that have previously been undiscovered ignored. Perhaps we have long had the big picture, but the devil is in the details.

Previous histories are too partisan in outlook. What is labeled “a history of Texas Baptists” is most often “a history of my Texas Baptists.” Don’t get me wrong. There is a place and need for denominational histories. The Free Will Baptists write theirs, Missionary Baptists write theirs, Primitive Baptists write theirs, Southern Baptists write theirs, and so on.[ii] The plus side includes access to records not easily obtained, and that they offer their own unique perspective and understanding of themselves, things frequently missed by “outsiders.” The minus side is that they often fail to assimilate their story into the whole of the history of Texas Baptists (and miss the insight of “outsiders”). Even the large tomes of Carroll and McBeth, in my opinion, only make meager mention of the existence of other Baptists after they move on from the earliest years.

Previous histories are too narrow in research. Hand in hand with the partisanship in history writing is its narrowness.  For example, to many historians, Daniel Parker is a wart on the nose of Texas Baptists. Mention him we must, but let’s move on. Quickly![iii] However, those who bother to check might find that Asa Wright labored in the west in the late 1830s with “missionary” Z. N. Morrell and in the east in the early 1840s with “anti-missionary” Daniel Parker – then later hooked up with “missionary” Lemuel Herrin and “anti-missionary” Isaac Reed to form the Sabine Baptist Association. Or, that Thomas Hanks was a member of the “Separate” Union Baptist Church near Nacogdoches before he was a member (and later pastor) of the “Regular” Pilgrim Baptist Church of near Elkhart.[iv] Through this narrowness, historians fails to branch out and learn all they might about the vagaries of even their own partisans.

Previous histories are too predictable in narration. Too often the same sources are used repetitively without seeking for other available and overlooked primary sources. I know one person will never find them all. Nevertheless, Ican’t express how mind-numbing it has been to see the same story about the Sabine Baptist Association repeated over and over, when the writers kept checking the same old source, apparently never bothering to check the Sabine’s own sources – their minutes. This must be true. Had they checked their minutes and reported honestly, they would not have repeated the same old sad story.[v] McBeth writes, “Any history of Texas Baptists must begin with Z. N. ‘Wildcat’ Morrell…”[vi] I have no particular quarrel with that. Morrell’s book is a wonderful record of one who lived the early history of Texas Baptists, from when he arrived in December 1835. On the other hand, Morrell is the source of the some of the errors on the Sabine Baptist Association. I find no evidence that he ever attended its sessions.[vii] His information is second-hand. Should not those who attended and recorded their sessions receive some priority of testimony?

What to do? Southern Baptists have written the majority of the history of the Baptists of Texas. I don’t fault them. They are the majority of Baptists in Texas. They may have the “training and necessary leisure.” However, they have frequently been sectarian while at the same time blaming sectarianism on their foes. Future writers could learn a lesson from Albert W. Wardin in his Tennessee Baptists: A Comprehensive History, 1779-1999. The bulk of the book is about the majority party, but Wardin clearly takes an interest in all the Baptists of Tennessee. Smaller denominations then rebut with their own clannishness, and ultimately we fail to read the whole story. Further, the main (if not only) Baptist historical society (if it even still exists) is connected to and funded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Even though they don’t/didn’t restrict their membership to BGCT folks, others often feel restricted by the integral connection. Creating an historical society not connected to or dependent upon an association, conference or convention might reflect the greater diversity of Baptists in the state, create greater buy-in of Baptists across the state, and promote the kind of research that sees the connectivity of early Texas Baptists of various “stripes.” Such a society would allow historical corroboration without compromising denominational connections. I have no problems wrestling with you over faith and practice while uniting with you to better understand our history. What about you?

Maybe one day we will have an integrated account of all Texas Baptists.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

[i] The Texas Collection “is Baylor University’s oldest special collections library.”
[ii] Some Texas Baptist denominational histories include A History of Texas Baptists: Comprising a Detailed Account of Their Activities, Their Progress and Their Achievements, James Milton Carroll, Dallas, TX: Baptist Standard Publishing Co., 1923; A History of the Primitive Baptists of Texas, Oklahoma and Indian Territories, Joseph Sylvester Newman, Tioga, TX: Baptist Trumpet, 1906; From the Red to the Rio Grande: a History of the Free Will Baptist in Texas, 1876 to 2014, Thurmon Murphy, Columbus, OH: FWB Publications, 2017; History of the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas, William Henry Parks, Cleburne, TX: [n.d., before 1916], Missionary Baptists in Texas, 1820-1998, Oran Heaton Griffith, Henderson, TX: History & Archives Committee of the Missionary Baptist Association of Texas, 1999; Texas Baptists: a Sesquicentennial History, Harry Leon McBeth, Dallas, TX: Baptistway Press, 1998.
[iii] As does Baker in The Blossoming Desert, p. 26.
[iv] And Deacon William Sparks was a member of the “Regular” Hopewell Baptist Church in Cooks Settlement (Nacogdoches County) before he was a member of the “Separate” Union Baptist Church.
[v] This is not to say that they got it all wrong, but that the minutes would have correctly what they did have wrong.
[vi] Texas Baptists: a Sesquicentennial History, p. 495
[vii] Morrell does not say he did, neither is he mentioned in any of the existing minutes.

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