- Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama by J. Barry Vaughn
“The legacy of the Episcopal Church in Alabama is rich” (p. 185). So began the conclusion of J. Barry Vaughn, now a priest in Las Vegas, about the history of Alabama’s Episcopal Church. An Alabama native with Divinity degrees from Yale and St. Andrew’s College in Scotland, he served as rector at St. Alban’s church in Birmingham from 2004 until his recent position. Although the number of Episcopalians is miniscule, four governors and many prominent Alabama politicians belonged to this denomination. Celebrities such as writer Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and actress Tallulah Bankhead were also Episcopalians. The book’s title is not mere alliteration but reflects the church’s history. The word Bourbons refers to the planters who, like the royalty in France who returned after Napoleon, survived the Civil War to reclaim power: “In 1934, Governor Bibb Graves dubbed Alabama’s industrial barons as the ‘Big Mules’” (p. 2). Many of these Bourbons and Big Mules were Episcopalians.
Ideally a church history should include all members, and Vaughn valiantly included certain laypersons. He also used vestry documents, although they are usually about paying bills and fund-raising. The author also made good use of the bishops’ papers and documents, along with other manuscript collections. Vaughn [End Page 681] accessed the secondary literature as it relates to the national church and Alabama history. His appendix lists the Episcopal bishops and the date when each parish church was founded. The author also provides statistics on the U.S. population as it compares with the Episcopal Church from 1830 to 2010. The same statistics are provided for the same period on Alabama’s population and the state’s Episcopalians.
With the diocese finally established in 1830, Episcopalians waited fourteen years for a resident bishop. Virginia native Nicholas H. Cobbs was the first bishop, and Vaughn gives him high marks for his diligence, piety, and outreach to the slaves; although, like most Southern churchmen, he did not challenge the peculiar institution. Cobbs died the day Alabama seceded; his successor, Richard H. Wilmer, was the only bishop elected during the Confederacy and took office in 1861. Wilmer, too, was a Virginian and a strong Southern partisan. He supported secession and slavery, and closely identified with the Lost Cause throughout an episcopacy that lasted until 1899. If Alabama had two prelates in the nineteenth century, it has witnessed nine since 1900. In 1970, the southern one-third of the state and the Florida panhandle were separated from the Dioceses of Alabama and Florida to create a new Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. Three bishops have served in that post.
Although all the bishops have had their challenges, no doubt the reign of Alabama’s second longest bishop was the most tumultuous. Bishop Charles C. Carpenter, a Georgia native, led the diocese from 1938 to 1968. Some Episcopalians supported racial integration, but most whites—including Carpenter—did not. Since the 1970s the Episcopal Church has rebranded itself from that of a conservative group to a liberal one: “Once known as ‘the Republican party in prayer’ the Episcopal church now more often resembles the left wing of the Democratic party” (pp. 187–88). Although Vaughn maintains that issues like the Prayerbook revisions and women’s ordination split the church in the 1970s, it has been the battle over the inclusion of homosexuals and lesbians that has caused division and desertion among Episcopalians since the 1990s.
This is a deeply researched, well-written, judicious account of the Episcopal Church in Alabama. Although many Episcopalians were wealthy, Vaughn nevertheless believes that Alabama’s Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics have done more for education and social services in the state (p. 186). It is disappointing that the author omitted the birthdates of every Episcopal bishop since 1900. Despite this caveat, this is an important account of a...