By Hardy Jackson
Read the other day that Southern Baptists were making a foray into New England.
Spending big money to plant churches all over the region.
Well, there is room. At last count there are only 325 Southern Baptist houses of worship up there. We’ve got more than that in most Alabama counties, seems like.
Hearing the news, an Alabama newspaper editorialized that New Englanders’ reaction to this invasion is likely to reveal how Yankee attitudes toward things Southern have or have not changed.
Let me hasten to add that this reaction is also likely to reveal, to paraphrase a writer much wiser than I, that “a Yankee knows about as much about Southern Baptists as a pig knows about the Lord’s plan for salvation.”
A plan of which, Southern Baptists will tell you, they are well aware.
I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Now, it is possible that New Englanders will welcome the newcomers, though I suspect the possibility of Southern Baptists building Butler Barn tabernacles in their quaint little villages will wad the panties of local historical commissions.
However, I also suspect that Southern Baptists will have less of a problem with building codes than with New Englanders’ misguided notion that Southern Baptists are narrow-minded and intolerant.
Where did they get such an idea?
Maybe from a survey that Southern Baptists in Alabama conducted over a decade ago.
In case you don’t remember, back then Baptists polled folks around the state, asked them a bunch of questions about their lifestyle and religious beliefs. From the answers they got, the pollsters concluded that a goodly number of Alabamians were going to Hell.
“See, see,” New Englanders will say, “we don’t need their judgmental kind up here.”
Let me pause at this juncture to point out that, historically speaking, you would have to go a long way to beat New England Puritans when it comes to being narrow-minded and intolerant. It was only after diversity was forced on them by immigration that they began to loosen up – a little. However, since Southerners and Southern institutions have remained comfortably south of them, New Englanders have had little reason to find a place in the mix for the likes of us – until now.
Which is why I feel it is my Christian duty to point out to New Englanders that if they are not careful they will miss the whole point of why Southern Baptists are building those churches among them.
The survey was not undertaken to single out sinning Alabamians for rebuke and ridicule. It was conducted so Baptists could identify which sins were prevalent and with that information devise a strategy to bring the Lord’s plan for salvation to those sinners.
In other words, the survey was an evangelical tool to be used by evangelicals.
And there are few denominations more evangelical than Southern Baptists.
Which is why I was not surprised to learn that the Southern Baptist Convention has spent millions already and plans to spend millions more to plant churches in what they consider to be a hotbed of secular humanism and religious indifference — New England.
Now it is questionable whether or not more churches will result in more converts, especially in a region that is traditionally skeptical of anything associated with the South. The very label “Southern” stuck to Baptist will surely cause some up there to fear that people who look like cast members from “Duck Dynasty” will appear out of nowhere, drag the wayward into a corner, and witness to them.
Well, that’s a prejudice Southern Baptists will just have to overcome.
However, New Englanders need to keep a couple of things in mind.
First, down here in Dixie, Evangelicals are everywhere. The South is the only region in Christendom where the Evangelical wing is dominant. What may seem odd (and a little threatening) in Massachusetts is normal for us.
Second, Evangelicals thrive on conflict. Controversy is their mother’s milk. Being “Southern” makes these Baptists all the more spoiling for a fight. They are going up there to take on sin as they define it, even if New Englanders don’t happen to define it that way.
Now I don’t claim to be an authority on Southern Baptists. Growing up a Methodist in a small town, the churches were close and the congregations intermingled. But we always knew that our Baptist brethren were a bit more intense than us milder Methodists, especially when it came to going out and gathering in the strays.
So if New Englanders think that this is just a bunch of country bumpkins who will head back South at the first snowfall, they better think again.
The Lord’s plan for salvation, as Southern Baptists see it, is not seasonal.
My advice to folks up there, get used to ‘em. They are coming up to stay.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.