March 13, 2018
Analyzing the past is often a task reserved for academics, historians and theologians. The Alabama Baptist: Reflecting on Its Ministry, a symposium held March 2, had all three.
Gary Fenton, senior advancement officer at Samford University in Birmingham, welcomed some 50 friends of The Alabama Baptist to the symposium held in the Regions Room of Samford’s Cooney Hall.
“There’s no better place to look at the history of The Alabama Baptist than Samford,” he said.
“The two followed parallel lines. Both started in Marion, Alabama — Samford in 1841 and The Alabama Baptist in 1843 — and when you read the history, you see a lot of the same names,” Fenton said.
Both were birthed from the same passion — the desire to have Baptists informed and educated, “so it’s appropriate we are meeting here today,” Fenton said.
Co-hosted by Samford and the Alabama Baptist Historical Commission (ABHC), the symposium featured four presenters, each of whom provided analysis of The Alabama Baptist’s past and the paper’s future.
The information was more than informative, said Lonette Berg, ABHC executive director.
“You’ve presented us with some challenging information and raised our awareness,” Berg told presenters. (Carrie Brown McWhorter)
Samford’s Baggett shares about TAB’s legacy of influence
An “award-winning paper … with an impressive record of probing, insightful, thoughtful interpretation of political issues.”
That’s how Mark Baggett, associate professor of English and law at Samford University and Cumberland School of Law, described The Alabama Baptist (TAB) over the past 23 years under the leadership of Editor Bob Terry.
“Bob Terry has made a difference at every level in his service to The Alabama Baptist,” Baggett said in his presentation, “‘Reading the Eternities’: The Alabama Baptist’s Legacy of Influence.”
Not only has the paper taken a stand on political issues important to Alabama’s Baptist community, Terry has promoted peace within the convention and used the paper as a ministry, Baggett observed.
Sharing insight learned from his own time at the newspaper while his father, Hudson Baggett, served as editor, Mark Baggett spoke of the paper’s journalistic integrity, noting that the paper “has made a difference.”
Specifically, Mark Baggett spoke of the lottery debate of 1999, when TAB began a campaign of “disciplined opposition” to state-supported gambling.
“Surveys traced the defeat to the influence of the paper,” he said.
The lottery issue was just one of many instances in which the state Baptist paper had an impact on the state, the state convention and Baptist life.
At times the paper has been on the wrong side of history and at times the paper has prophetically led Alabama Baptists toward change.
The paper has held a “long vigil as the moral conscience of the convention, the discerner of truth,” Mark Baggett said, maintaining the doctrinal mission of the paper.
But legacies are never without complications, he added.
On issues of race, social causes and theological differences within Baptist life, editors took strong stands and more nuanced ones.
Editor Leon Macon’s editorials show the “absolute moral rectitude of the man” and his laser focus on advancing the Kingdom’s work. Hudson Baggett’s “pastoral devotional quality” brought relative harmony even as he editorialized on all sorts of political issues.
And as the paper looks forward to its next editor, the legacy will continue with Jennifer Davis Rash, Mark Baggett said. Moreover, he said, the work of the paper will continue to “point to the greater truths of God’s will for us, to advance the Kingdom and the miracles that He has in store for our generation.” (Carrie Brown McWhorter)
Keeping Christ as Cornerstone
In a media landscape where all kinds of things are labeled “journalism,” The Alabama Baptist’s (TAB) historical devotion to truth continues to set it apart.
That was the theme of Steve Stewart’s opening presentation at The Alabama Baptist: Reflecting on its Ministry, a symposium held March 2.
“The job of journalists is to make issues relevant to readers,” he said. “Religion journalists must cover the news with scriptural accuracy and show people why they should care about the issues.”
Stewart, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Troy University, titled his talk “‘Christ as the Cornerstone’: Journalism of The Alabama Baptist in Its First 175 Years, 1843–2018.”
“[TAB is] an accessible record of Alabama Baptist history,” Stewart said, a history built on the words printed on the paper’s original masthead: “Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” He noted that like secular newspapers, TAB has been an important source of news coverage in the state since its founding.
Pressures of publication
He also noted the pressures of publication evident in that original issue, which had multiple errors.
“We can only imagine the challenges of setting type by hand in a rush to get the first paper out,” Stewart said. “But in the error we see a connection between what journalists do and what Christians do. We make mistakes, we admit them and we try to correct them next time.”
In covering how Baptists serve in good times and bad, the paper remains the paper of the people, covering the people in the pews and not just the leaders. In recent years it has meant equipping churches and individuals to be both disciples and disciple makers, Stewart said.
Founded and grounded on the cornerstone of Christ, the paper will continue to “generate light rather than heat” as it serves Alabama Baptists into its next century of ministry. (Carrie Brown McWhorter)
George explores early Alabama Baptists
When books were few and libraries rare, before the era of radio, television and computers, religious periodicals served not only as bulletin boards for religious events but also as sounding boards for religious ideas.
In the pages of The Alabama Baptist (TAB) religious ideas have abounded, observed Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham. George led the second session of TAB’s symposium.
George noted that for the past 175 years, the pages of TAB have been full of stories and opinion pieces about some of the most significant ideas of the past 175 years.
He explored two areas of impact, the Bible and race, in-depth in his talk titled “‘Give them their Bible, and let them alone’: Theology and Controversy among Early Alabama Baptists.”
Regarding the role of the Bible in early Alabama Baptist life, he spoke of the emphasis placed on the Bible and its teachings.
“They tried to shape their lives and churches by the Bible’s teaching,” he said.
The early Baptists resisted elevating any “humanly devised content as equal to or above the Bible itself,” George said.
The Bible was the textbook of Sunday School, an effort to advance the cause of literacy in the absence of public schools.
Though Baptists were generally not held in high esteem, George said, the issue of the Bible, literacy and learning led to the founding of several institutions in the 1800s, including Alabama’s Samford University (founded as Howard College) and Judson College.
On the issue of race, George pointed out that one of the ironies of Baptist life in the South during the years before the Civil War was that while white Baptists championed political and religious freedom, they felt no compulsion to extend those freedoms to slaves.
“Clearly the majority of Alabama Baptists favored slavery, believed it to be a God-ordained institution worth defending and put forth biblical justifications for it in pulpit and print,” George said. The impact of that defense is still felt today, he added.
While newspapers sometimes are named after instruments of reflection — gazette, observer, reflector and, more commonly, mirror — none of those words was ever used in the title of TAB.
“But The Alabama Baptist has in fact been a mirror, a mirror held up to the life of the people of God called Alabama Baptists,” George said.
But TAB has had a larger mission than to merely tell the stories of Alabama Baptists, George said.
“If I may put it this way, The Alabama Baptist is a two-way mirror, one through which we look to see the world and the Church, and also a mirror which helps us to see the world and the Church through the eyes of the Savior’s love.” (Carrie Brown McWhorter)
Editor Terry discusses future of TAB during closing session
Nearly 50 years in the ministry of state Baptist publications has taught Bob Terry many important things, but one major truth stands out.
“The Alabama Baptist overcomes distance, social standing, educational differences and more to connect Alabama Baptists with news and information,” Terry said in his presentation “Seeing Through a Glass Darkly: Forces Shaping the Future of The Alabama Baptist,” the closing session of The Alabama Baptist (TAB) symposium.
Managing any publication, including a state Baptist paper, has never been easy, but several factors of contemporary society are challenging the role the paper plays in the life of churches and their members, he said.
One major factor is the nature of a volunteer organization like the church.
“In a volunteer organization, information is the fuel that keeps the organization functioning,” Terry said. “The decision to identify with a church is a voluntary decision.”
The future ministry of TAB will depend largely on how local churches work together to fulfill the mission of the Church universal.
Changes in ministry
In the Southern Baptist Convention, changes threaten the vitality of TAB as well as the denomination as a whole, he said.
Churches are beginning to withdraw from denominational identity to focus instead on local efforts, resulting in a decline of resident membership and Cooperative Program giving, Terry said.
“Generally speaking churches have fewer participants, fewer members and fewer dollars.”
The ministry of TAB has and will continue to be affected by these changes because the paper’s role in connecting Baptists suffers when readers lose the desire to be connected.
Using the language of social researchers, Terry explained what he sees as a moving away from bonding and bridging.
Bonding is spending time in interpersonal-focused activities like music groups and Bible study, while bridging is connections between organizations.
“Bonding can rely on physical contact, but bridging relies on means of communication, overcoming variables of age, geography and all the rest.”
TAB has been involved in bridging since its beginning, he said, making people aware of needs, but as churches loosen their connections for ministry and missions, there is a simultaneous reduction in the need for the binding nature of the newspaper.
So the question about the future of TAB is an important one, Terry said.
With more sources of information than ever before, practically every breaking story has been posted somewhere through digital media outlets. All too often though, news is broken through bloggers writing from their passion or their prejudice, he said.
“The result is a lot of information but not all of it is accurate, reliable or balanced,” he said.
The future may look very different and much broader, he said: “Today The Alabama Baptist is known primarily as a religious newspaper, but the paper is not limited to that service.”
Local churches increasingly want access to information that helps them and their members in some concrete way, Terry said.
“My humble prediction is this ministry will continue in some form or fashion far into the future.” (Carrie Brown McWhorter)