All According to Gods Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945-1970 (Religion in the South)

Volume 32, 2009
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Willis's primary contribution here is his focus on a heretofore ignored group of denominational leaders--missionaries--and their attitudes toward racism and segregation back home. The thrust of his argument is that these Southern Baptist missionaries and mission leaders acted subversively, offering up a compelling alternative argument to the standard Southern Baptist defense of segregation.

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First, progressive missionaries argued that racism was biblically and morally wrong and undermined the Christian message. The Gospel was color-blind and salvation was available to all.

In , a resolution adopted at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention reminded Baptists that "all men stand as equals at the foot of the cross without distinction of color. The means of that reconciliation were significant.

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Such a lofty goal could only be achieved through spiritual conversion. In Willis's telling, then, the "central theme" that Samuel Hill described some forty years ago was not necessarily limiting at all. It would be the instrument of reform. More important for Willis's argument, these progressives appealed to their fellow Baptists' commitment to the Great Commission, Jesus' charge to his followers to go and make disciples of all nations.

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Progressive Baptists linked events in Africa and colonialism in general with segregation, and argued that racism and segregation would hurt Baptists' evangelical efforts. As early as , Nigerian Baptists reminded Southern Baptists that "Nigerians are acutely aware of the problems of race relations in America, they identify themselves with the American Negro, and they consider racism in any form unjust" quoted, p.

And in the early s, Tanganyika threatened to exclude any missionaries from churches that practiced segregation.

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Not only did racism contradict the Gospel message, it threatened the missionaries' very purpose. Willis labels his subjects "progressives" instead of moderates.

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This is an important distinction, and it would have been helpful if Willis had explained why he chose this terminology. He writes that for Baptists "racism was primarily a moral question, and moral questions were individual questions" p. This statement was not a given, however, and Willis does not acknowledge the complicated nature of his claim. For many white southerners, racism and segregation were political questions, divorced from morality and religion.

The progressive missionaries' goal may have been to try to change that.

Alan Scot Willis

But they had to overcome longstanding racism and the suspicion that they were engaging in a dangerous mixture of religion and politics. Willis approaches an old topic with fresh sources, ones that have been largely overlooked by previous historians of the denomination. The potential problem here, of course, is that this is largely prescriptive literature and the published ideas of a highly select group of Baptists. Southern Baptist churches were and are aggressively voluntaristic and congregational, and decisions made at the denominational level are not binding on any local church.

Just because official literature and paid denominational representatives denounced racism and espoused integration does not mean that the average layperson responded favorably and embraced the goals of the mainstream civil rights movement. Willis is aware of this, of course, and attempts to pre-empt a reviewer's critique.

Alan Scot Willis | NMU Department of History

He notes that the progressive vision of race relations has come to dominate the Convention and that even otherwise conservative Southern Baptists today would not argue that segregation was in any way Christian. This is no doubt true, but the problem with that argument is the same one that exists with Willis's sources. It points to the ideas and visions of the denominational leadership and ignores the fact that, with important exceptions, Southern Baptist churches largely abandoned urban settings and followed their white parishioners to their suburbs.

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Patsy Sims. All Books New Releases. Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness. Peace Race and Missions in the Postwar World. Argues that it was the denomination's emphasis on social justice, particularly the leadership's concern about race relations, that sparked its phenomenal growth.

This is not to suggest that Willis is wrong. Indeed, there is corroborating evidence from other scholars that this book is right on. Willis contributes to an emerging body of literature that suggests that the South's largest denomination was not as one-dimensional as its first historians suggested. No one has argued that the earlier interpretation was altogether wrong, only that the reality was more complex and in need of greater nuance.

This study investigates the progressive ideas about race shared by Baptist missionaries and mission leaders, and how those ideas helped undermine the racial caste system in the South. Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers.

Ask your Librarian for assistance. History - Dissertations. Advanced Search. Skip to main content. Abstract "All According to God's Plan" examines the Baptist mission leadership and its attempt to promote a more progressive view of race among Baptists between and Access Surface provides description only. Link to Full Text. Digital Commons.