Today’s post is a review I did of Walker Robins’ fascinating book Between Dixie and Zion: Southern Baptists and Palestine before Israel. This review appeared in the journal Church History, in the June 2021 issue:
“The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is not what it used to be. Founded in 1845 amid controversies over the morality of Christian slaveholding, the SBC went on to become the de facto established church for much of the white South. By the mid-twentieth century it was the largest Protestant denomination in America. Starting in 1979, the SBC went through what supporters call the “Conservative Resurgence,” which initiated leadership changes that made the denomination more uniformly evangelical and conservative on doctrinal and cultural issues.
Walker Robins’s fascinating Between Dixie and Zion tells a story about the older version of the SBC, a denomination that was never united around today’s politicized conservative Christian beliefs. Robins’s engaging narrative shows why the SBC in the 1940s was not firmly pro-Zionist or pro-Israel. Instead, the denomination’s pastors and members reflected a range of views derived from travel narratives (or actual travel to Palestine), prophecy belief about Israel and the last days, and, most importantly, missionary work among Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians of the Middle East. All of their views reflected widespread “Orientalism,” in Edward Said’s classic term, that undergirded American and European assumptions about the peoples and cultures of the Middle East. Orientalist “knowledge” of the Middle East was often fantastical, anecdotal, and politicized, and it rarely took a studied interest in the people of the Middle East as people per se.
Orientalist views of the Middle East help explain why, despite an enduring interest among American Christians in missions to the Middle East, that interest was rarely matched by sustained, realistic, and effective missionary work. Exceptional figures such as Shukri Mosa, an Arab who grew up in northern Palestine, did sustain some early SBC missions in the region. Mosa had experienced conversion and became a Baptist while working as a peddler of Holy Land goods in Texas in the early 1900s. He kept up various Baptist works in Palestine, supported by both SBC leaders and Northern Baptists, until his sudden death in 1928. Mosa was a pragmatic Christian anti-Zionist, believing that new Jewish settlers caused logistical problems for his educational and evangelistic works, and he also regarded the Jews in Palestine as commonly irreligious and “more Bolshevist than Jew” (46).
White Baptists also produced faithful missionaries, though few gave as much meticulous devotion to Palestine as Mosa did. At the other end of the dedication spectrum was the preposterously brief missionary tenure of Texas Baptist premillennialist preacher W. A. Hamlett. Hamlett blew into Palestine like a tornado in 1921, promising to create a string of missionary stations, schools, and hospitals. Within a month, he was headed back to Texas, convinced that missionary work in Palestine was impossible. Mosa was embarrassed and pled with Baptist leaders in the United States to send others who could “redeem our great Baptist name” after the Hamlett debacle. Once back in Texas, Hamlett resigned his pastorate and began working full-time for the Ku Klux Klan. “This role was likely better for him,” Robins drily notes (54).
No single person or event was responsible for the gradual turn in the SBC toward a more pro-Zionist or pro-Israel stance before 1948, the year of Israeli statehood. Instead, it was a cause championed by scattered figures such as the indefatigable Baptist convert from Judaism Jacob Gartenhaus. Gartenhaus was ostensibly an SBC missionary to Jews of the American South, but Gartenhaus was even more successful at contending among Southern Baptists for Zionism, a Jewish state in Palestine, and Christian evangelism of Jews. Other pro-Zionist figures included the Woman’s Missionary Union writer Myrtle Robinson Creasman and the ultra-combative premillennialist preacher J. Frank Norris. The SBC remained somewhat insulated from the wars over fundamentalism and modernism that buffeted northern Protestant denominations, and SBC leaders did not uniformly endorse the common fundamentalist belief in dispensational premillennialism or its prominent role for the Jews of Palestine in the last days. To make things even more complicated, not all premillennialists were Zionists. Yet Norris waged brutal battles against Baptist pastors and institutions including Southwestern Seminary (Fort Worth) and Baylor University, partly over his undying commitment to premillennialism and Zionism. In 1948, Norris and his allies tried to get the annual meeting of the SBC to congratulate President Harry Truman for officially recognizing Israel, but messengers (delegates) declined to do so.
These splits remind us of the difficulty of defining the SBC theologically before the Conservative Resurgence. Southern Baptists were clearly Southern and Baptist, but it is not as clear that they were “conservative evangelicals” (2) in the era of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. “Evangelical,” in the era Robins covers, was structurally Northern, led by institutions such as Moody Bible Institute and the National Association of Evangelicals, which the SBC did not join. Even many Southern Baptists who were conservative theologically did not embrace the term evangelical, hearing officious Yankeedom in that word. Robins knows all this, but Between Dixie and Zion could have done a bit more to sort out the theological currents swirling underneath the SBC’s “Grand Compromise” (102), which mandated unity in the name of missions and unity for the sake of the SBC itself. Norris obviously tried to blow up that compromise, but I found myself wanting to understand more about the extent to which the old SBC actually was “evangelical.” As Robins notes, President Truman was the best-known Southern Baptist politician of the era but was definitely not a fundamentalist nor an evangelical in any useful sense. Perhaps the pre-1948 (and pre-1979) SBC was a sort of denominational tertium quid on the American religious landscape?
In any case, Robins offers a deeply informative and highly engaging history in Between Dixie and Zion, a book that anyone interested in Baptist history or American views of Israel should definitely read.”