Isaac Taylor Tichenor (1825-1902) was a Southern Baptist pastor, Confederate chaplain, pioneering mining executive, college president, and Baptist home missions director. He filled several important leadership roles in Alabama and the South, especially in the postbellum period. In a career that spanned 50 years of significant change in the state, he became a leading advocate of the New South movement in Alabama.
Isaac Taylor Tichenor Tichenor was born on November 11, 1825, in Spencer County, Kentucky. He received his early education at the nearby Taylorsville Academy, but a severe case of the measles and subsequent complications prevented Tichenor from attending college. He continued his education under the tutelage of his academy instructors even as he taught at the school in his late teens, and he remained a voracious reader in many disciplines for the remainder of his life. He served briefly as representative of the Indian Missions Association and in pastorates at Baptist churches in Columbus, Mississippi, and Hendersonville, Kentucky. In 1852 Tichenor moved to Alabama to serve as pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, which was rapidly emerging as one of the most influential churches in the South. Until 1860 he served as pastor to many of Alabama’s most prominent leaders, and he became recognized as one of the region’s most outstanding orators. Tichenor also advocated the enhancement of educational enterprises in the South, most notably Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Howard College (now Samford University). During the Civil War, he distinguished himself as a combat chaplain in the Battle of Shiloh, not only exhorting the 17th Alabama’s soldiers to hold fast at one of the battle’s key points, but also achieving an outstanding record as sharpshooter and “fighting chaplain.”
Subsequently returning to Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, he coordinated relief efforts, made preaching trips to Confederate Army camps, and addressed the Alabama Legislature in a sermon in August 1863. Tichenor preached this sermon at the request of the state legislators in response to Jefferson Davis’s declaration of a Confederacy-wide “Fast Day” in acknowledgement of the South’s dwindling resources and defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. His address was notable not only for criticizing southern wartime attitudes but also for defending the Confederacy and slavery. He criticized the “worst abuses” of slavery but did not condemn the institution itself. In fact, he defended slavery as a moral, social, political, and religious right. He reproved the Confederacy’s people for their sins but did not denounce secession. He presented ideas that anticipated Lost Cause motifs by attempting to explain why the southern armies were experiencing defeat and by calling for repentance in response to those defeats. Tichenor also preached that God had established a worldwide mission for the South and that southerners were being prepared through the crucible of the war and its struggles. He remained in the Montgomery pastorate until 1868, when, unable to meet the financial needs of his family in the Reconstruction Era, he accepted a position as the chief executive officer of the Montevallo Mining Company. Working with mining pioneer Joseph Squire, he conducted many of the initial mining surveys of the Cahaba coal region.
In 1872 Tichenor accepted the presidency of the new Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University) in Auburn, Lee County. As president he initiated many progressive reforms that combined a mechanical and agricultural institution with a traditional liberal arts college. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he taught courses in many subjects, including agricultural science and literature, and he introduced a course in political economy. He promoted revolutionary changes in higher education that addressed not only issues at Auburn but also Old Main broader issues in Alabama and the South. Many of these ideas foreshadowed New South concepts advocated by Henry Grady and others. These concepts called for reconciling with the North, promoting southern industrialization, tapping the region’s vast natural resources, revolutionizing education to meet the South’s changing needs, and diversifying the southern economy. Tichenor, along with others, believed that the southern war effort had failed not as a result of the nature of its cause or the weakness of its military leaders but because of the vast industrial and commercial power of the North. At Auburn he sought to implement the latest innovations in scientific education to meet these challenges. He was an early and vocal promoter of southern prospects for the future.
Tichenor remained active in Southern Baptist denominational work during his time as a mining executive and throughout his tenure as a college president. Thus when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) restructured its Home Mission Board (HMB) and relocated its offices to Atlanta in 1882, the convention invited Tichenor to serve as the agency’s corresponding secretary. Tichenor accepted and served in this role, radically reorganizing the HMB’s work, until his retirement in 1899. His progressive actions saved the agency from failure and dramatically altered the SBC’s future course. Much in the same way that he grafted progressive educational concepts onto the Auburn college’s curriculum, Tichenor grafted New South ideas and concepts onto Southern Baptists’ work and became a leading figure in Baptists’ emergence as the largest and most influential denomination in the South. These New South applications included utilizing modern travel and communication, public relations and promotion, and consistent business and accounting practices. During these years he maintained ties with his Alabama mining interests, the college at Auburn, and Alabama Baptists.
Tichenor’s personal life was marred by tragedy. His four marriages lasted for a combined total of only 17 years, all of his wives and three of his seven children died of disease or complications relating to childbirth. Tichenor died December 2, 1902, in Atlanta, Georgia, and was buried in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery.
Flynt, J. Wayne. Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Frost, Dan. R. Thinking Confederates: Academia and the Idea of Progress in the New South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000.
Williams, Michael E., Sr. Isaac Taylor Tichenor: The Creation of the Baptist New South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.