Who better to write a book on southern evangelical religion than Dr. J. Wayne Flynt? This award-winning Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, Baptist minister, and Sunday school teacher extraordinaire has devoted most of his professional life to this study. Now, readers have the opportunity to see wisdom, wit, and a wealth of information bundled together in a collection of some fifteen essays, written over the span of nearly fifty years.
The overarching theme that binds these essays together is this: southern religion, past and present, was and is diverse. Any attempt, therefore, to characterize it in neat, homogeneous categories simply will not work. Not only that, one of Professor Flynt’s notable achievements in the book is the attention he gives to the people in the pews, the practitioners of religion. Literally, we encounter religion, not from the seats of ecclesial authority, but as Flynt puts it, “bottom up rather than top down” (p. 8). Through interviews, letters, and oral histories, we get at the religion of the common folk, a perspective that is both enlightening and refreshing.
Along this stimulating journey, we encounter some remarkable people. What about the Reverend Dr. Ruby Kile? Born in 1929 and short on education but long on spiritual experiences, this traveling evangelist became pastor of a small church with only eight white members, which by 1984 mushroomed to some 700 members, eighty percent of whom were black. All of this took place around Birmingham, a segregated city, in spite of repeated threats from the Ku Klux Klan against this white, female minister. Or, we could mention the Reverend Charles R. Bell Jr., who was pastor of Parker Memorial Baptist Church (Anniston, AL) from 1932–1944. Educated in southern and northern institutions, Bell took a six-month leave of absence four years into his ministry and toured the world with stops in India, where he spent time with Gandhi, and in Japan, where he attended training sessions for social ministries. Upon his [End Page 281] return, Bell shattered conventional southern stereotypes when he became a leading advocate of cooperative farms, ran camps for black children, supported conscientious objectors, and spoke in favor of racial equality, going so far as to entertain African Americans at a Christmas party in his home. All of this took place in a Baptist enclave in rural Alabama in the 1930’s! Or, what about the Reverend Sidney J. Catts? This Alabama-born lawyer turned Baptist minister was elected governor of Florida, having been a resident there for only five years, and with “no money, contacts, or name recognition” (p. 157). Racist and vehemently anti-Catholic, Catts spoke directly to the fears of his southern, white, Protestant constituents, warning of a combined plot among Catholics and African Americans to take over Florida. Flynt credits Catts with “discovering what many Florida politicians would learn: bad history can make good politics” (p. 159). Finally, we might consider Frank W. Barnett. This internationally-educated lawyer cum minister purchased the state Baptist paper (The Alabama Baptist) and became its owner/editor from 1901–1919. In this capacity, not only did he advocate strongly for the prohibition of alcohol, recognized by many as the “gateway drug” to other social ills, but he also lashed out at big business, monopolies, and child labor in editorials that could have come directly from the Marx-Engels playbook. Even more social problems were on Barnett’s radar: convict labor, race relations, public health, conservation, and education. His was not the lone voice on these matters, as Flynt points out, all of which serves to correct the prevailing twentieth-century scholarly opinion that southern religion rejected the social gospel.
Flynt’s book is chock full of information, some of which might come as a pleasant surprise to readers. At the hands of the Methodists in the South, over forty-five settlement houses, staffed by some 300 “consecrated” deaconesses, ran kindergartens, taught literacy classes, developed hygiene programs, provided temporary lodgings for transients, and even offered medical treatment...