I’m reading a history of Baptists in Alabama, and it’s tough going. After several days, I’m only as far as 1850. Yet the book is well-written, the story often absorbing; so what’s the trouble?
This: almost every paragraph evokes parallels to current events in North Carolina Yearly Meeting of pastoral Quakers.
More than beliefs or church practice, the parallels involve a persistent phenomenon that doesn’t have a special name. I call it the “Baptists’ Unending Bust-up Break-up Addiction”: BUBBA for short.
Some historians speak diplomatically of schisms. But that term implies a breakdown in the normal order. For these Baptists, though, splits and rumors of splits rapidly became the normal order, as predictable as mosquitoes in summer. And like those bugs, they seemed to arrive in swarms.
The specifics came and went; it’s the repetitive, chronic character that qualifies as addiction, and makes BUBBA a much better terminological fit.
So far in the book, they’ve split (or almost) over having missionaries (even locally, never mind overseas); church roles for women and blacks; foot-washing, and revising the King James Bible.
As for dogma, it had been Calvinist theology versus hyper-Calvinism, both of them trashing Arminianism, not to mention everybody against the Landmarkers; and more.
Keep in mind that this was before they began feuding with Northern Baptists over slavery, war, and all that.
If you don’t recognize many of these squabbles, doesn’t matter much. It’s the pattern that counts. And that’s what looks so similar to the North Carolina pastoral Quaker case. The either/or crusade has started; those who are not with the insurgents are more than wrong, they have to go, NOW.
Which is to say, here comes BUBBA.
North Carolina pastoral Quakerism has been showing increasing symptoms of this malady for years now. But for the most part, they had managed to mobilize a kind of religious immune system and avoid the worst.
In antebellum Alabama, BUBBA’s fevers didn’t seem so bad, at least from an inside perspective. Despite the quarrels and separations,
the Baptist flock kept growing, until it dwarfed all others.
For a century after the Civil War, the Baptist State Convention was Alabama’s quasi-established church, with vast political clout as a testament to its religious weight. And its ethos spread across the South, like kudzu and NASCAR.
But in the last couple of decades, as with other long-term addictive behaviors, BUBBA’s progressively debilitating toll has become inescapable: Baptists remain Alabama’s largest church, but the growth years are over; numbers, dollars and all other important trends are sinking, fast.
Same goes for Carolina’s pastoral Quakers. Membership is down at least 40 per cent in the past generation. Reading their plaintive fundraising letters is thoroughly disheartening. And whatever else BUBBA’s arrival brings, it won’t include a church growth plan.
What’s saddest of all about this plague is that a tested vaccine is readily available.
It could be called the GM treatment, and it’s mixed from utterly orthodox and biblical ingredients: a dose of Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat & the Tares in Matthew 13, blended with Paul’s mandate in Galatians to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2). Repeat daily.
More plainly, it comes down to, “Live and Let live, and let God sort them out.”
But such remedies showed no measurable traction at the NCYM 2014 annual sessions. Alabama had come to the Piedmont; BUBBA was in the house.
The next showdown will come in Eleventh Month (November). What will happen? Count me with the Prophet Yogi Berra, who said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”
But we do know about BUBBA’s impact in Alabama. For more than 150 years, while the denomination’s local influence was unrivaled, it was also a big factor in keeping the state at the bottom of just about every measure of social and civic health there is.
That sobering backstory haunts the history I’m reading, and the saga is ongoing.
So BUBBA may win the day among Carolina pastoral Quakers. But will it produce some kind of great Quaker revival there?
I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. Heck, not even the ranch dressing.
By the way, I know that some non-Southern denominations also have splitting habits, even so-called “peace churches” (looking at YOU, Mennonites). But BUBBA has a special regional intensity and tenaciousness.
Reading about the Alabama Baptists’ experience with it doesn’t look to get much easier, and it’s a long book.