By Elizabeth Wells
After gaining statehood Dec. 14, 1819, Alabama was a popular destination for pioneers moving westward. In 1820, 127,901 people resided in the state, many of whom were Baptists. These settlers had organized churches and associations in Madison, Jefferson, Monroe and Clarke counties but ministers were few in number. To meet the need of the growing number of churches, they “rode the circuit,” serving as pastor of several churches at one time, some meeting once a month, others twice. In 1823 the Alabama Baptist State Convention was organized in Greensboro. This new convention affiliated itself with the national Triennial Convention and began to support foreign and home missions efforts.
In just 20 more years, acknowledging the need for educational instructions, Alabama Baptists established The Judson Female Institute and Howard College for men in Marion. Although there were local newspapers throughout the state, there was not a newspaper dedicated to the interests and information of the convention nor the denomination. The Christian Index of Georgia and the Religious Herald of Virginia were commended to Alabamians but attempts to publish such in Alabama had met with failure.
Five dedicated Alabama Baptists instrumental in establishing the two institutions and members of Siloam Baptist Church, Marion, believed a newspaper was needed and took on the project. Milo P. Jewett, president of Judson; Samuel Sterling Sherman, president of Howard College; James H. DeVotie, pastor of Siloam Baptist; Gen. Edwin King, planter; and Julia T. Barron, benefactor, came together to establish a Baptist newspaper. On Feb. 4, 1843, the first issue of The Alabama Baptist was printed in Marion.
At its inception the paper was privately owned and edited by the Association of Brethren and had an annual subscription rate of $3. While the 1843 annual meeting of the state convention praised the editors and the product, the report made it very clear that the paper “belonged exclusively unto itself, under its own control while we incur no liabilities at all.”
The four pages of the new publication were filled with letters from home and foreign missionaries linking readers to those who received their missions offerings and carrying readers to new places and faraway lands. Subscribers received news about area churches and associations as well as personal news in the form of marriage and death notices. Advertisements for goods, services and businesses provided informative and often humorous reading.
Early in its life, owners and editors of the newspaper changed often. Senior Editor Milo P. Jewett resigned in 1844 but a new editor, James W. Hoskins, took leadership of the paper. Hoskins lasted only a year but the Association of Brethren again kept the newspaper going. In 1848 new names appeared on the masthead — W.C.N. Breaker, editor, and John C. Markham, publisher. The newspaper’s mission was: “Devoted to Religious, Morality, Science, Literature and General Intelligence.”
By 1849 not only was there a new editor, A.W. Chambliss, but the paper had a new name, The Alabama Baptist Advocate. As owner and editor, Chambliss considered the name change gave him the opportunity to frame the paper as he saw fit. Chambliss bought the subscription list of the failed Mississippi Baptist, making The Alabama Baptist Advocate “the only Baptist newspaper published between the Chattahoochee and the Rio Grande.” With more than 2,000 subscribers, Chambliss changed the paper’s name to reflect the broader scope. The South Western Baptist appeared on July 31, 1850.
The new name mirrored the spreading nation — new land in the west, manufacturing primarily in the North with the South remaining primarily agriculturally based. From its inception in 1843 the newspaper reflected Baptist doctrine and supported missionary Baptist causes. However, the newspaper continued to be for some subscribers the only newspaper they received. Therefore, the editors always printed secular news and information for its readers.
Although the name changed the newspaper continued being privately edited and published in Marion, the heart of the South. Issues were discussed reflecting the tensions and divisions facing the entire nation. The formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, establishment of the Southern Baptist Publication Society and other denominational and cultural issues filled the paper’s columns. However, through all these changes and challenges the newspaper remained true to its mission:
“Devoted to the advancement of their Baptist interest … and used to promote the reign of piety among all who love our Lord Jesus Christ. … Doctrinal views generally embraced by the Missionary Baptists are firmly held and boldly maintained against all opposition, [but it is] not the arena of strife upon all questions and among all parties. While therefore we shall not seek to be involved in controversy with others, when occasion shall demand we shall not be backward in entering into any contest where the cause of truth may in judgment require us to do so.”
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Wells is a retired archivist for Samford University and librarian for its Special Collection and Archives department in Birmingham. She is currently writing “The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and Connecting Baptists.” This editorial was originally published in The Alabama Baptist in February 2017.