Alabama was booming in the early 1800s as settlers rushed from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky to claim prime land just made available by the government. Baptists were among those early settlers. John Nicholson, John Cantebury and Zadock Baker, three Baptist ministers, helped start the first Baptist church in the Alabama Territory on Oct. 2, 1808, just outside present day Huntsville.
So quickly did Baptists and other settlers flood the lands along the state’s extensive system of navigable rivers that one observer wrote, “Never before or since has a country been so rapidly peopled.” By 1825 there were 128 Baptists churches with more than 5,000 members in the state.
Baptists in Alabama were a people but not a denomination despite the organization of the Alabama Baptist State Convention in 1823. Baptists brought various theological understandings from their former homes. There was disagreement about how to do church. The major challenge was the rise of the “Anti-Missionary Movement” which opposed any form of missions and evangelism.
Early on Alabama Baptist leaders called for a publication to share information among the rapidly increasing number of Baptists and Baptist churches. A trusted voice could help unify Baptists, leaders said. But four attempts to start Baptist papers in the 1830s were all short-lived.
In 1843, a group of visionary educators and businessmen in Marion, Alabama, agreed to found The Alabama Baptist. The group included such Baptist stalwarts as Milo P. Jewett, Edwin D. King, Jesse Hartwell, James H. DeVotie and Julia T. Barron.
According to a report in the minutes of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, these leaders “agree(d) to meet any deficiency which might arise from the want of a sufficient number of subscribers during the first year of its publication.”
Evidently, the founders had to pay up the first year but by 1845 the report announced, “The proprietors have purchased a building in which to publish the paper, a new press, type and everything connected with such an establishment.” The Alabama Baptist was on its way and continues to this day.
From its first issue, the paper provided a communications channel for Baptists. It promoted the best interests of the denomination. It helped advance the cause of Christ in Alabama and around the world. And all the while, it delivered vital information to church members to help them understand the issues of the day through a biblical perspective and to grow as Christian disciples.
Today, The Alabama Baptist is the largest state Baptist paper among Southern Baptists. It combines the best of professional journalism with a Christian commitment by editors and writers who profess a personal faith in Jesus Christ. The paper has been judged the best regional Christian newspaper by Associated Church Press, Evangelical Press and Religion Communicator’s Council.
The path has not been easy. As a privately founded publication the paper experienced several different owners in its first decades. Frequently the new owners relocated the offices of the paper and sometimes edited the publication’s name. But the mission stayed constant.
The fiery editorial of one editor got him arrested by federal troops after the Civil War. He was forbidden to publish the paper anywhere in Alabama so until the end of Reconstruction, the paper was published as a supplement to the Georgia Baptist Christian Index.
In 1918, the Alabama Baptist State Convention purchased the paper and set it up to function under a board of directors as a nonprofit religious ministry. The directors own the publication and govern all aspects of its ministry.
During the 100 years of convention ownership, four men have served as editors. Dr. L.L. Gwaltney became editor in 1919 and served for 31 years. Dr. Leon Macon took the helm of the ministry in 1950 and served until his death in 1965. Dr. Hudson Baggett was elected editor in 1966 and served until his death in 1994. Dr. Bobby S. Terry was elected editor in 1995 and continues to serve in that role.
In his book Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie (1999) noted historian Wayne Flynt identifies Gwaltney, Baggett and Macon as the most influential Baptists of their days. That is a great complement to the editors and to The Alabama Baptist.
Dr. Gwaltney was a studious man with progressive leanings for the beginning of the 20th century. He raised issues and provided insights that stimulated discussions. He was a trusted voice having been a prominent pastor in the state and serving in several statewide positions. Readers learned to expect the paper to cover a wide range of issues from child labor to the work of church committees.
Dr. Macon’s editorials were aggressive whether dealing with denominational issues or civil rights. The Alabama Baptist announced clear positions on whatever topics the paper covered. Dr. Macon was also a shrewd businessman. He reduced the price of the paper and promoted the Every Member Plan whereby churches provided the paper to resident members through the church budget. Under his leadership the circulation swelled to among the highest in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Dr. Baggett was a peace maker. As a pastor and later a Bible professor at Howard College (now Samford University), Dr. Baggett was known across the state and was a former teacher of a large number of pastors. He incorporated his renowned ability as a storyteller into his writings. Dr. Baggett stressed the positive in his editorials allowing news stories to deal with more vexing issues.
This strategy helped keep The Alabama Baptist circulation strong during times of denominational strife through which Dr. Baggett served.
Today, the ministry continues to evolve as digital communication and social media bring new dy- namics to the ministry of informing readers for perspective and understanding, inspiring believers for growth as Christian disciples and connecting Baptists for missions and ministry.
The saga of The Alabama Baptist is fascinating. It continues so. A new book scheduled for release in September 2017 titled The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and
Connecting Baptists chronicles the impact of the publications through good times and bad on Baptist churches, local communities and the state of Alabama. The book is a testimony to God’s goodness, the faithfulness of committed disciples and the importance of the ministry of communications.