Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South. By John G. Crowley. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998. 244 pages. Hardcover, $49.99.
John Crowley draws on his personal background of being raised in a Primitive Baptist extended family and his familiarity with the wiregrass region of south Georgia and north Florida to present a colorful picture of the Primitive Baptists in the South. Crowley’s particular focus is the Primitive Baptists in the wiregrass region and their development since 1815. His purpose is to interpret various actions and writings by Primitive Baptists to learn more about the movement and their theology. Crowley supplies details not only of the region’s prominent personalities, but also of its lesser known groups and individuals.
In the first two chapters Crowley gives a clear account of the beginnings of Primitive Baptists in the south. He traces their heritage through the Particular (Regular) Baptists and their emphasis on Calvinist orthodoxy. Crowley also discusses the significant influence of the Separate Baptists during the tremendous growth of Baptists during the nineteenth century. The Separate Baptists were usually the dominant group of Baptists in the areas that would later have a high concentration of Primitive Baptists. Crowley recognizes the primacy of associations in Primitive Baptists expansion.
The highlight of the next two chapters is Crowley’s insightful discussion of the antimissions sentiment among Primitive Baptists. Not only do Primitive churches often reject the mission organizations, but in many cases, entire associations are classified as either for or against missionary societies. One intriguing story captured by Crowley is the history of the Piedmont Association in Georgia. In 1820, the association was decidedly antimission. However, in the 1830s, the association issued several statements to demonstrate their neutrality on the missions question. In 1840, the Piedmont Association completed its reversal by making pro-missionary statements and then joining the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Chapters 6 and 7 survey the post-Civil War era and the impact of Daniel Parker’s “Two Seeds” theory on the Primitive Baptists. Crowley is in his finest form in chapter 7. He gives a clear presentation of Parker’s views and avoids the fallacy of many historians by labeling Parker as a neo-Manichaean not as a hyper-Calvinist. Parker describes evil as a force which has a “self-existence” and continually tries to avert God’s plans. Crowley correctly identifies Parker’s views and also demonstrates that not all Primitives followed the later development of the “Two Seeds” doctrine to annihilationism. Many Primitive Baptists in Tennessee started denying bodily resurrection as early as the 1840s. However, the Primitives of the wiregrass region were much more resistant to the adoption of these new views and referred to their supporters as “No-hell” Baptists.
Besides his astute observations on antimissionism and the “Two Seeds” theory, Crowley’s work has two other main strengths. First, he gives the Primitive Baptists a fair treatment. Often members of their minority group of Baptists are portrayed as antisocial, ignorant, “Hard-Shell” Baptists. Crowley demonstrates that these stereotypes do not coincide with the historical record. Primitives have proved their connectionalism through their strong associations. They have also tackled significant theological controversies, dispelling any disparaging of their intellect.
Second, Crowley provides a wealth of information on Primitive Baptists. His adept use of a variety of primary sources gives the reader a good sense of the Primitive tradition. He utilizes personal correspondence, sermons, and group statements to construct his account of the Primitive Baptist heritage. However, this second strength also relates to Crowley’s greatest weakness.
Unfortunately, in many sections of the book the narrative is lost in a sea of data. Many paragraphs contain so many names of people, churches, associations, or geographical areas that he reader can easily lose focus. For instance, in one paragraph of chapter 4, Crowley mentions the Sunbury, Savannah River, Hephzibah, and Piedmont associations as well as the Upper Black Creek Church, Matthew Albritton, Isham Peacock, and Henry Milton. In another paragraph in chapter 7, many more names are included in rapid succession. These names include: Alabaha River Association, John Vickers, Hebron Church, Brushy Creek Church, Irwin County, Coffee County, Pleasant Church, Emmaus Church, Turner’s Meetinghouse Church, Berrien County, Union Association, Elder Jacob Young, and the Pulaski Association. With this myriad of individuals, groups, and places, the author’s purpose becomes unclear or forgotten. Perhaps a more thorough use of endnotes would help to maintain a clear narrative while preserving the insightful historical data.
Crowley gives a substantial contribution to Baptist history in the American South. Specifically, his research provides valuable insight to an often-misunderstood group of Baptists. Baptists of any persuasion will be intrigued by Crowley’s chronicle of this region and the Primitive Baptists that inhabit it.
Jason K. Lee
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Originally published in Faith and Mission, 17:2 (Spring 2000): 114–116