J. J. D. Renfroe

J. J. D. Renfroe J. J. D. Renfroe (1830-1888), a mostly self-educated Southern Baptist minister, rose to prominence in Alabama in the aftermath of the Civil War, following distinguished service as a Confederate chaplain during that conflict. Renfroe shepherded his congregation at the First Baptist Church of Talladega, Talladega County, through the traumas of Reconstruction. He also promoted the Lost Cause ideology, a set of ideas that offered southerners emotional consolation in defeat and mythologized the Old South’s cultural institutions, including slavery, as “benevolent.” Renfroe, like many advocates of the Lost Cause, also endorsed the New South agenda of political and economic revitalization. In addition to these intellectual and spiritual contributions, Renfroe also played a leading role in rebuilding the postbellum institutional infrastructure of the Baptist denomination in Alabama.

Howard College, 1858 John Jefferson DeYampert Renfroe was born August 30, 1830, in Montgomery County, Alabama, to Nathan W. and Mahala Lee Renfroe, who relocated to Alabama from Washington County, Georgia. During Renfroe’s boyhood, his father, a trader and farmer, moved the family to Macon County. Despite his irreligious father’s attempts to shield him from Christianity, Renfroe was converted and baptized in 1848. Shortly thereafter, he decided to enter the ministry and began study with Baptist preacher J. M. Newman. Widely recognized as a gifted speaker, Renfroe preached regularly even before he was ordained in 1852, around the time of his marriage to Elsie Lee, with whom he had eight children. Between 1852 and 1857, Renfroe held several pastorates in Calhoun and Cherokee Counties. In the fall of 1857, he was offered a post at the prestigious First Baptist Church in Talladega, where he served until October 1860.

In the fall of 1862, following a brief period of service raising funds for missionary work among the Indians for the East Alabama Baptist Association, Renfroe distributed religious tracts and books among soldiers. Early in 1863, despite his belief that military chaplaincy violated the separation of church and state, Renfroe became chaplain to the 10th Alabama Infantry Regiment, a choice prompted by his brother’s death in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Renfroe’s sermons, which combined religion and southern nationalism, were well-crafted and powerful in their rhetorical effect and helped strengthen troop morale. When the war ended in Union victory, Renfroe continued to preach on the righteousness of the South’s social and political institutions and explained the defeat as divine displeasure with a lack of spiritual devotion among southerners rather than dissatisfaction with the South’s basic institutions, including slavery.

Alabama Baptist Renfroe returned to the First Baptist Church of Talladega, where he used his sermons to help ordinary Alabamians cope with their despair, uncertainties, and anxieties during Reconstruction. He viewed the war as God’s way of chastening the South for its spiritual failures and preparing it for economic advancement by ending slavery. In addition to his sermons, Renfroe used his influence as corresponding editor of the Christian Index and South-Western Baptist newspapers (1866–83) and as associate editor and later as editor of the Alabama Baptist newspaper (1873–76 and 1886–87) to defend southern views, encourage national reconciliation, and promote his romanticized view of Old South values, such as religious piety, self-control, obedience to rules, devotion to duty, unselfishness, and honesty, in the New South.

Southside Baptist Church Renfroe further used his pulpit and editorial positions to encourage Alabama Baptists to rebuild the denomination’s institutional infrastructure, which had been devastated by the war. Not content to simply encourage from the sidelines, Renfroe played a key role in the establishment of organizations such as the state Sunday School Board (1871), serving as its secretary until 1873 and its president until 1875. That same year, his theological skills and service to the Southern Baptist cause in Alabama were recognized by Howard College (now Samford University), which conferred on Renfroe a doctor of divinity degree. He also championed the formation of the State Mission Board, which supplanted the Sunday School Board in 1875, and served as the president from 1876 to 1880. Additionally, Renfroe served as clerk of the state Baptist convention in 1873 and as its vice president in 1875–76, 1880, 1882, and 1885–87. Renfroe was particularly interested in helping revive Howard College, which had virtually ceased to exist by March 1865. He worked diligently to raise funds for the college’s depleted endowment and, after he took charge of Birmingham‘s Southside Baptist Church in December 1886, was instrumental in the college’s relocation to that city in 1887. In May 1888, Renfroe attended a meeting at Birmingham’s First Baptist Church to encourage support for Howard’s building program. He became ill during his appeal and was carried to his brother-in-law’s home in Woodlawn. He died there on June 2, 1888, nine months after the death of his wife Elsie. He was buried with Masonic honors alongside Elsie and six of their children at Oak Hill Cemetery in Talladega.

Additional Resources

Flynt, Wayne. Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.

Henderson, Samuel. “Rev. John J. D. Renfroe, D. D.” Alabama Baptist, July 5, 1888.

May, Lynn Edward Jr. Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists. Vol. 4. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1982.

Waldrep, B. Dwain. “Piety, Politics, and Southern Culture: J. J. D. Renfroe’s Lost Cause Ideology.” Alabama Review 52 (July 1999): 192–224.

Walker, Arthur L. Jr. “Three Alabama Baptist Chaplains, 1861–1865.” Alabama Review 16 (July 1963): 174–84.

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