The Alabama Baptist

Alabama Baptist Front Page The Alabama Baptist (TAB) is the state newspaper of the Alabama State Board of Missions (ASBM), formerly known as the Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC). It was created and independently published first in 1843 and continues to the present, celebrating its 175th anniversary in 2018. The newspaper has provided insight from a uniquely Baptist perspective upon current events and world affairs, including world wars and economic depressions, as well as matters of theological, denominational, and social concern. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the guiding hand for TAB has come from the series of editors who not only directed publication policy but also provided thoughtful editorial commentary as well as allowing letters and columns contrary to opinions held by the paper. The periodical's mission is "Informing, Inspiring, and Connecting Baptists."

The earliest Baptists in Alabama established the first Baptist congregation in the state in 1808. As Baptists grew in number, they formed the Alabama Baptist State Convention in 1823 to "coordinate mission and educational efforts." Given the state's poor transportation system, the numerous smaller Baptist associations and conventions around the state remained disconnected, and some Baptist leaders saw a need to provide a statewide newspaper for communication among them. Four leading Baptists in Marion, Perry County, and founders of Judson Female Institute (present-day Judson College)—businesswoman and philanthropist Julia Tarrant Barron; Pastor James H. DeVotie of Siloam Baptist Church; Judson president Milo Parker Jewett; and planter-attorney Edwin D. King—provided funding to create the TAB, and Jewett served as its first editor. The newspaper was adopted by the ABSC that same year as the convention's primary means of communicating with Baptists throughout the state and established a board of directors as an oversight committee.

In the years prior to the Civil War, TAB went through several changes. In 1849, it was purchased by Alexander Wilds Chambliss, who also served as editor and renamed it The Alabama Baptist Advocate. The following year, after The Mississippi Baptist ceased publication, he renamed TAB yet again as the South Western Baptist, encompassing a circulation area between the Chattahoochee and Rio Grande Rivers. By 1858, circulation had grown to more than 3,500 of subscribers consisting of individuals and churches.

Alabama Baptist Building Publication of the South Western Baptist, like many southern publications, suffered with the onset of the Civil War. The newspaper ceased publication as a separate entity in April of 1865, and in 1866, upon the action of the ABSC, the South Western Baptist merged with the Christian Index of Georgia. Over the following years, Alabama Baptists communicated at a statewide level through a newspaper published in Atlanta. In 1873, however, despite the onset of the economic Panic of 1873, the ABSC voted to create a new edition of TAB and began publication the following year. In 1879, the Convention voted to return it to independent ownership. It remained an independent publication until editor Frank Barnett sold the paper to the ABSC in 1918. From 1919 to the present, TAB has remained under the control of the ABSC overseen by an appointed board of directors. Throughout the nineteenth century, the paper was published primarily in Marion but also at times in Tuskegee, Macon County, Selma, Dallas County, and Birmingham, Jefferson County. Beginning in 1919, it was briefly published in Montgomery, Montgomery County, but then returned to Birmingham, where it continues to be headquartered.

Throughout much of the paper's publication history, TAB relied on a wide scope of advertising to provide funding for its printing and distribution costs. Everything from agricultural produce and patent medicines to the most prominent Baptist and Christian enterprises have been advertised in its pages. Into the twentieth century, all paid advertising increasingly consisted of solely Christian—primarily but not exclusively Baptist—colleges, universities, and seminaries, publications, camps, and programs.

Leslie Lee Gwaltney Frank Barnett of Glennville, Russell County, assumed the mantle of editor in 1902 upon purchasing the paper. Barnett had studied at prestigious institutions such as the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Vienna, the University of Berlin, and Yale Divinity School, and both practiced law and served as a pastor. He continued to promote Baptist causes but also set a tone of social reform that would be followed by his associate editor and later successor, Leslie Lee Gwaltney. He opposed the inhumane and often racist convict-leasing system and both men lobbied hard to end child labor, especially in coal mines. Gwaltney, a Virginia native educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, had held pastorates in Prattville, Greenville, and Florence. He continued to promote social justice causes throughout his tenure, which began in 1919. In the 1930s, he turned from a strong pacifist in world affairs as he recognized the great dangers posed by the rise of Japanese imperialism and Nazism and became an interventionist even before U.S. entry into World War II.

Editor Leon Macon succeeded Gwaltney in 1950. A native Alabamian like Barnett and most other previous editors, Macon was educated at Howard College (now Samford University) and, like Gwaltney, Southern Seminary, and had served as pastor of churches in several Alabama towns and cities, including Bessemer. He was a well-known Alabama Baptist leader. A staunch defender of conservative biblical views, Macon attacked some of the Social Gospel concepts of his most recent predecessors. Although he supported issues such as higher taxes for supporting state mental hospitals, he argued that helping the underserved negatively affected evangelism and led to more crime. Macon fought for Baptist ideals advocated by Barnett and Gwaltney such as separation of church and state, religious liberty, and freedom of the press. He mirrored the anti-Catholic sentiments of other Protestant leaders during the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, questioning Kennedy's ultimate allegiance to the nation versus the Vatican. And he staunchly supported segregation until forced to relent in 1963, perhaps because of the Birmingham Campaign. That year he urged white Alabama Baptists to support integration as part of their duty as Christian citizens, even if they disagreed. While he deplored the horrific violence that occurred in Birmingham and Selma, he regularly advanced what one historian has called a "murky response" to racism.

Following Macon's sudden death in 1965, Nita Rodkey, his long-time assistant editor, and TAB employee George Jackson, kept the paper going. In the spring of 1966, the board of directors selected widely respected Samford University religion professor and frequent contributor to TAB Hudson Baggett to serve as editor. During Baggett's tenure, TAB prospered, with circulation rising from approximately 115,000 to more than 144,000. A "down-to-earth" leader who served from 1965 until his death in November 1994, Baggett steered the paper to promote improving race relations and providing greater opportunity for women in positions of ministry and leadership within the denomination. He managed to keep TAB safely in the middle as Southern Baptists erupted in denominational controversy in the 1980s, in part over theological issues, church-state questions, different interpretations of the Bible, theological education, and denominational support and partly because of changing social mores in the United States. He begged Baptists to seek peace and unity within the Southern Baptist Convention. Alabama Baptists grieved deeply when Baggett suddenly died of a heart attack in November 1994.

The paper's directors selected Bob Terry as editor the following year. A native of Decatur, Morgan County, and previously the editor of the Word and Way, the paper of Missouri Baptists, Terry directed TAB through the end of 2018. During a challenging time for all print journalism, Terry provided capable leadership. He inherited a circulation of around 100,000, which grew briefly under his leadership. But, as with so many religious newspapers, circulation dropped to about 60,000 despite the efforts of Terry and his staff. However, TAB continued to survive and provide a critical link for local Baptist congregations. Terry and his staff adapted to the changing times, developing an online presence for a new generation of readers. Like his predecessors, he also was outspoken about social issues, attacking proposals for state-wide gambling as a socially regressive tax that would affect the poor far more than other segments of society.

After more than 20 years of service, Terry retired in 2018. For the first time in its history, TAB hired a woman, Jennifer Rash, as editor; she was a journalist who had been with TAB for 23 years. Circulation levels remain stable, and the paper continues to provide an important information service for Alabama Baptists.

Further Reading

  • Flynt, J. Wayne. Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
  • Wells, Elizabeth, and Grace Thornton. The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring, and Connecting Baptists. Birmingham: The Alabama Baptist, 2017.

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