By Elizabeth Wells
In November 1852, Samuel Henderson appeared as the new editor of the South Western Baptist. Chambliss sold the paper to “a stock company who promises to spare no pains or expense to make it all the denomination may desire.”
There was change! The three-person stock company, members of First Baptist Church, Tuskegee, urged their pastor, Samuel Henderson, to become the editor. Henderson reluctantly, took the job. With associate editor Albert Williams, they moved the newspaper from Marion, where it had always been published, to Tuskegee.
Henderson and Williams were well qualified to fill the editorial shoes. Williams, a former Mercer University professor, had pastored Georgia churches prior to coming to Alabama. Before becoming a pastor, Henderson was trained as a “practical printer,” working with his father, John Henderson, editor of Talladega’s political paper, The Patriot.
Though the owners and editors of the South Western Baptist lived in Tuskegee, the newspaper was printed by J.J. and T.F. Martin, of Montgomery, in an office “near the Montgomery courthouse … just over McBride’s New Drug Store.” After one year, the stock company purchased a press and moved everything to Tuskegee in an office over Morton’s and Steven’s store.
Remaining doctrinally Baptist and basically religious, the newspaper broadened its scope to include more secular information. The new editors promised true reporting of all topics but did not promise to please the audience all the time, advising their readers that should comments offend or insult them they could discontinue taking the paper.
Samuel Henderson dominated the editorial pages. One friend described Sam as a man of “decided convictions and opinions … a Whig … who threw himself with all his heart and energy into the Southern cause.” Another wrote: “A master of all current questions leading in the advocacy of every denominational enterprise, and proving himself powerful in Christian controversies.”
Though associate editors left and there was no financial Alabama Baptist Convention support, Henderson remained and became part owner. Eventually he was joined by Harden E. Taliaferro, his brother-in-law, with Willis B. Jones in charge of promotion. Taliaferro, a North Carolinian now in Talladega, was a capable preacher, tanner and farmer by trade and a former writer for the Virginia Baptist Preacher. Like Henderson he was a frank, forceful writer, a Southern conservative and a dedicated Baptist. With this partnership in place, the paper appeared secure.
The newspaper reported the nation’s financial uncertainties, Westward expansion and the vigorous debates over slave or free states. Simultaneously, readers were aware of the plight of Indian reservation schools and Martha Foster Crawford’s work in China, read the proceedings of Alabama and Southern Baptist Conventions, recalled the history of local churches and were urged to pray for the Lord’s work. Editors pled for more subscribers and printed advertisements of the latest inventions, cure-alls and business information.
After almost seven years the dual role of pastor and editor became too heavy. Henderson’s “Valedictory,” appeared in July 14, 1859. With Taliaferro, a competent manager and writer himself, ably assisted by John E. Dawson, he could leave and dedicate himself solely to his pastoral duties. “I shall always consider it my duty and privilege to do all I can for the South Western Baptist.”
Taliaferro and Dawson assumed ownership and editorship of the paper July 31, 1859. Taliaferro was the “senior editor” but Dawson wrote most of the more spirited denominational and secular commentaries. Mingled in his support of Baptist doctrine, Dawson equally supported sectional politics.
In 1860, Taliaferro took readers with him on “on the road,” writing about visits to Alabama churches and communities. His travels throughout Alabama and into Tennessee and Georgia described the scenery, the people, mines and river travel. Returning home, he bid adieu to ailing Dawson.
Taliaferro constantly reported the tumultuous state of affairs in the country. Finally in the January 17, 1861, issue appeared “The Act of Secession: An Ordinance to Dissolve the Union between the State of Alabama and Other States United under the compact styled ‘The United States of America.’”
During the Civil War, Taliaferro filled columns with news from the front, but continued to report the Lord’s work throughout Alabama. However, on March 6, 1862, Taliaferro resigned as senior editor. He was financially hurting and his staff had joined the Confederate Army. Only “brethren and friends” could decide if there would be a paper.
Enter a new editor April 3, 1862. Samuel Henderson had decided he could keep the paper going. He pledged accurate coverage and articles regarding churches and the war effort with Taliaferro contributing editor.
By the latter part of 1864 and spring of 1865, the two-paged paper was published bi-monthly and the April 8, 1865, issue reported Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Henderson published the April 16, 1865, issue — the last issue — later explaining:
“On the 18th, Gen. Wilson’s army passed through Tuskegee, and that General placed me under bond of twenty thousand dollars to issue no more papers. I was relieved of that bond, but with the financial condition of the country, made it imprudent, if not impossible, to commence at that time.”
Would there be an Alabama Baptist? Samuel Henderson would remain quiet for a season, for a new day was emerging for Alabama and the South.
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Wells is a retired archivist for Samford University and librarian for its Special Collection and Archives department in Birmingham. She also did the research for the upcoming book “The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and Connecting Baptists.” This article was originally published in The Alabama Baptist in March 2017.