By Elizabeth Wells
For almost 175 years, The Alabama Baptist (TAB) has reported not only current denominational news but also local, state, national and international information. Through the decades the paper became a mirror and a voice of life at that time, even covering aspects of multiple wars involving the U.S.
Many readers of TAB, when it was launched in 1843, were well-acquainted with war. A few Revolutionary patriots still lived; more were survivors of the War of 1812 and the Indian Wars of 1836–1837.
In 1846, three years after the paper began, the nation became involved in the Mexican-American War. TAB printed a call for troops. Twenty-three Alabama units prepared for the war. Many enlistees never engaged in a skirmish, but this war prepared military leaders for the larger conflict to come. The paper explained effects of the conflict on missions, ministers and people in the areas. Readers, including many who had never ventured from the local farm or town, were taken to the conflict or battlefield through the pages of TAB.
Following the Civil War, the nation struggled with many divisive issues and when the conflict entered the denomination, forming the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, the newspaper reported all sides of the controversy. News and editorials about the Civil War were published in TAB’s four pages. While readers heard a Southern voice, the editors reported all phases of the war, including both victory and defeat. Through it all, the paper continued sharing the gospel and reporting news about churches, associations and the denomination.
The Confederate surrender was reported with heartfelt sorrow and bitterness, with Federal troops closing the paper because of its vehement pro-Southern stance. But TAB persevered, partnering with Georgia’s Christian Index for a while to continue reporting the news from Alabama.
TAB reported on Southern Reconstruction efforts affecting individual churches and the denomination. But with time, good news gradually replaced war recollections, with a New South look and feel. From rural Marion and Tuskegee to Montgomery and then Birmingham, TAB, which grew from four pages to eight, championed the new opportunities and challenges for economic progress and denominational ministry in the New South.
Reporting world news in 1897, TAB printed reports from missionaries in Cuba, detailing the plight and starvation of the Cuban people. The talk of possible war affected the church; those who at one time gave generously were withholding funds fearing a “disaster might befall our country as a result of the war.”
By 1898, TAB Editor John Harris opposed the swelling support of the U.S. to become involved in war. He wrote, “We hear the Cuban people’s cry for freedom, but the United States must be careful. We deprecate war. We are for peace as long as it can be honestly maintained.” He believed that diplomacy should take care of the situation. However, with the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine and the R.M.S. Lusitania, the editor declared his support for the war. Coming over the newswire of April 21, 1898: “War with Spain: The South will furnish the invading army to Cuba. The regular army will be reinforced by the National Guard from the Gulf and South Atlantic states. [Southern men] are better able to withstand the climate of Cuba.” The war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1899, printed in TAB.
Conflict in Europe, Asia and Russia
TAB next reported disturbances in Europe and Asia. In 1903, TAB Editor Frank Willis Barnett reported and led meetings in Birmingham protesting the massacre of 1,000 Jews in Kishineff, Russia, and “against persecution in every form and especially where innocent blood is shed,” particularly relating to the safety of our missionaries. He brought readers through the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), again with emphasis on the safety of our missionaries. He expressed concern for missionaries Drucilla and John McCollum as they came home on furlough, “The man is tired and his other and dearer self [Drucilla] is also worn out with work. Let them rest. For a while let them forget, if possible, that there is such a thing as sin in the world.”
World War I and World War II
But war continued. Barnett lamented, “1914 is passed. It will long be remembered in history as the year in which the war began when news reached the United States about the great war in Europe.” On April 6, 1917, the U.S. officially entered World War I. The editor wrote, “Your country is calling you. Do not let it call in vain. If you are not compelled to go to the front, it’s your duty to serve at home.”
The newspaper carried war information, impacting all Alabamians as well as reports of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. At the end of the war, the paper reported, “And now that the glorious peace has come, we ought to catch the spirit of our boys who gave their lives for freedom and ‘carry on’ with our great idea of soul liberty.”
By 1939, war news in Europe and possible U.S. involvement permeated the paper’s columns. Editor L.L. Gwaltney opposed communism and fascism, referring to them as “two rotten eggs in Europe.” But when the U.S. declared war in 1941, he wrote, “We believe that force may be legitimately used … in self-defense when force in the hands of wicked men would take away human liberties and all else that makes life tolerable.”
Gwaltney continually reminded readers to support the church, remember the troops and prepare for their homecoming. While World War II ended in 1945, the editor warned readers of the potential for future struggles. In his 1950 column as editor emeritus, he wrote, “Following world War II, Russia instituted a new kind of warfare, one unknown before in the history of the world, and one for which the democratic nations have no counterpart. It has been called the ‘Cold War.”
Korean War and Vietnam War
Then two more conflicts arose: one in Korea and the other in Vietnam. Editor Leon Macon commented, that although the armistice was signed at Geneva on July 27, 1954, ending the Korean War, “We anticipate continued old war methods: propaganda campaigns, espionage, secret moves and communist missionary work.”
In the summer of 1966, TAB Editor Hudson Baggett wrote, “Thank God for those who have paid and are paying the price [in Vietnam] that we may remain free.” When peace was declared, the editor reminded readers of the great cost: 45,000 Americans dead and missing. He expressed thankfulness for the release of prisoners of war and asked all to pray that scars facing soldiers, physically and emotionally, would be healed.
Peace in Middle East
A peace treaty ending 30 years of hostilities between Egypt and Israel was signed on March 26, 1979, by Anwar Sadat, then-president of Egypt; Menachem Begin, then-prime minister of Israel and Jimmy Carter, then-U.S. president. It read: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn of war anymore.”
Operation Desert Storm
On Jan. 16, 1991, during Wednesday night prayer meetings, many witnessed the onset of Operation Desert Storm, a military operation to expel occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The paper featured soldiers in the Middle East and also focused on missionaries serving there. TAB associate editor Mark Baggett, in his war reports, wrote, “Conflict is a moral issue because it has to do with God given resources – oil, money, property and management.”
Beginning the 21st century
With the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., TAB Editor Bob Terry struggled “to find adequate words.”
He reminded readers, as had other editors in response to other tragedies, not to be goaded by internal rage. “Where is Jesus when tragedy strikes? He stands beside us. He won’t leave or forsake us. God is present and He cares for you.”
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 August 2017.