Social justice and American exceptionalism in the writings of Southern Baptist Statesman H. Cornell Goerner.
Progressive evangelical Jim Wallis promptly called for a boycott of Beck's programming, (1) while conservative Baptist theologian Albert Mohler took a more nuanced view of Beck's comments. Mohler argued that Christians should be concerned with justice, but that they should not allow their concern with justice and the salvation of society to override their concern for the salvation of individual souls. "The gospel is not a message of social salvation, but it does have social implications," he wrote, while also pointing out that "faithful Christians can debate the proper and most effective means of organizing the political structure and the economic markets." (2) To some political conservatives, Mohler's statement regarding faithful Christians and debate over economic markets would seem almost Marxist.
Throughout American history, Christians have fallen on both sides of the divide between concern for society at large and rugged individualism. Authors such as Mark Valeri and David Hall have recently portrayed the early Puritan immigrants to America as being at least as concerned with promoting a (Christian) communitarian social order as they were with mercantile interests. (3) Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister in an impoverished section of New York City, was one of the leaders of the Social Gospel movement that downplayed evangelism in exchange for social activism.
In the 2012 presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, both very outspoken about their conversions to Christianity, gained attention from their calls to weaken laws regarding child labor and the minimum wage, respectively, citing freedom and individual responsibility. Rick Perry, another conservative evangelical running for president in 2012 denounced social security as a "Ponzi scheme." Christian Reconstructionist Gary North goes so far as to say that "the Bible mandates free market capitalism," (4) while condemning the idea of anything but the weakest manner of "voluntary" labor unions. (5) Not all Christians take such an approach.
Tony Campolo is a well-known scholar and long-time American Baptist pastor who is very outspoken on issues of social justice. (6) Former President Jimmy Carter, a lifelong Baptist, has great concern for the poor as evidenced with his work with Habitat for Humanity and the New Baptist Covenant, a broad-based group that wants to improve conditions for prisoners, children, and the poor. Both Campolo and Carter spoke to the November 2011 meeting of the New Baptist Covenant that emphasized social justice issues. (7) Also among Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship desires to "expand advocacy efforts for human rights, religious liberty, and social justice." (8)
In spite of these notable examples, many people today equate conservative theology with conservative or libertarian economic policies. This marriage has not always been the case, as the writings of Southern Baptist statesman Henry Cornell Goerner illustrate. Goerner, a prominent member of the denominational establishment in the mid-twentieth century, advocated a both/and relationship between evangelism and social justice, rather than the either/or dichotomy that many evangelicals today seem to espouse. While his writings were theologically conservative, his social and economic attitudes reflected the political atmosphere of the early post-World War II era, and his economic stances appear left-of-center to those familiar with early twenty-first-century political discourse. While conservatives today would most likely label some of his views on economic issues socialistic, Goerner was no fan of communism and was a firm believer in the idea of American exceptionalism. His writings demonstrate the rightward shift in the economic thinking of many Americans in recent decades.
Goerner and Southern Baptist Missions
In 1908 Henry Cornell Goerner was born in the small Texas town of Mart, which grew from a population of 300 in 1900 to 2,939 in 1910, and currently has a population of about 2,200. Few could have anticipated Goerner's future accomplishments.
Goerner earned a bachelor's degree at Southern Methodist University, and then furthered his studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. While at Southern, he earned both the Th.M. and Ph.D. His initial career intent involved foreign mission work, but due to physical shortcomings, this goal did not work out as Goerner planned. Instead of joining the corps of Southern Baptist missionaries, he instead joined the faculty of the missions department at his Louisville alma mater in 1935.
After spending more than twenty years at Southern, he then moved to Richmond and became an area secretary for the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) Foreign Mission Board (FMB). He started his work with the FMB with oversight of operations in Africa, Europe, and the Near East, but with the expansion and subsequent division of the FMB's global operations, his field of influence came to include only West Africa by the time of his retirement in 1977.
There were few people who embodied more the Southern Baptist establishment in the mid-twentieth century than did H. Cornell Goerner. He compiled an impressive list of correspondents during his career, which included names such as W. A. Criswell, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., and former United States President Jimmy Carter. (9) Criswell, a future president of the SBC, even invited Goerner to fill his pulpit in Dallas in 1950. (10) Alan Scot Willis considers Goerner one of the "progressive" leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in his recent work titled All According to God's Plan. This progressivism referred to race relations, rather than theological issues. Goerner was one of many denominational leaders who were in favor of integration at a time when many of the laymen and local pastors in the SBC considered the integration of churches anathema. In spite of this forward thinking on race relations, he remained committed to an evangelical orthodoxy that eschewed the Social Gospel's emphasis on society rather than souls. (11)
One example of Henry Cornell Goerner's relative importance in Southern Baptist life was an official visit he took on behalf of Southern Seminary to the West African nation of Nigeria in 1947. For some time, Southern Seminary had been investigating the possibility of validating the degrees granted by the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary. Southern Seminary sent its missions professor to investigate the African school and assess the union's feasibility, and Goerner mainly dedicated his stay to "study the Nigerian 'school of prophets' with a view to its becoming affiliated with [Southern Baptist Theological Seminary]." (12) As early as 1938, J. C. Pool had "entered an official request that the Nigerian Seminary be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville and that its graduates be granted degrees by the Louisville seminary." (13)
The process of this validation began with a visit by Charles Maddry in 1938. (14) By March 1947, V. Lavell Seats of the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary in Ogbomosho contacted Goerner regarding his upcoming visit. Seats extended to Goerner a "hearty and cordial welcome to spend a good share of [his] time ... in the Seminary" to "inspect" the work of the Seminary and "make any suggestions as to its improvement." He also invited Goerner to serve as the "principal speaker" for an annual Refresher Course for Nigerian pastors. (15) I. N. Patterson, secretary-treasurer of the SBC's American Baptist Mission in Nigeria reinforced Seats' desire for Goerner to take part in the Refresher Course, because of the "opportunity to meet and influence a very large percentage of our Nigerian pastors." Patterson argued that the Louisville professor could "probably render no greater service ... than to touch these men." (16) From these letters, it is apparent that Goerner's visit was a much anticipated event, although it is likely that the inclusion of George Sadler, the Southern Baptist Convention's regional secretary, also contributed to the anticipation. (17)
Sadler and Goerner met a wonderful reception in Nigeria, and as they visited various mission stations, the local Baptists prepared addresses of welcome. The students of the Nigerian Seminary welcomed Sadler and Goerner on August 20 with "the greatest pleasure ... to see that the Lord ... granted [them] priviledge for visiting this land." The Nigerians also thanked their visitors for the work of the SBC in providing scholarships for Nigerians. (18) While visiting the seminary, Goerner "lectured daily on the missionary theme in the Bible" at the annual Refresher Course for the Nigerian pastors. (19) He especially found it "a peculiar joy" to reconnect with several of his former students on the mission field, a group that included Seats. (20)
Goerner gave a positive report upon his return because of "the qualifications of faculty members and the capabilities of the students." (21) After Goerner's return from Nigeria and his subsequent report, the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville met on November 24, 1947, to discuss the issue of affiliation with the Nigerian institution. This meeting of the faculty "voted unanimously to recommend to the Board of Trustees that a relationship of affiliation be established with the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, in Ogbomosho, Nigeria." The Nigerian seminary was to serve "as an extension of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary," with courses completed in Nigeria to be credited toward degrees "awarded by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary through its extension the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary." (22) Seats expressed gratitude to Goerner for his work in bringing the affiliation to fruition:
It is needless to say that we greatly appreciate your interest and your great help in bringing about this plan of affiliation. We realize that it was largely through your influence and recommendation that it has gone through in such good time. (23)
Goerner himself recognized the significance of the affiliation between the Nigerian seminary and Southern Seminary. He pointed out that the diplomas from Southern would "help to dignify the ministry and provide an added incentive for study," as well as "enable the Baptist pastor who has paid the price of thorough preparation to compare favorably with the Anglican minister, who has been enabled to gain recognition for his studies by reason of the close relationship between Anglican institutions in Nigeria and those in England." Goerner understood that the future of Baptists in Nigeria did not rely on the "foreign missionary staff, but in its national ministry." (24) The fact that the seminary chose Goerner to make this important visit in Nigeria points to his strong standing within the institution.
Perhaps the crowning achievement in a life dedicated, although at times indirectly, to mission work was Goerner's appointment as the secretary for Africa, Europe, and the Near East for the Foreign Mission Board. It is apparent that many welcomed this appointment. Carl Whirley, a missionary at the Baptist College in Iwo Mission, Nigeria, wrote:
Dr. Goerner, I shall not try to describe my joy at your appointment ... Would it be presumptuous of me to say that I could not be surprised? In my heart, I felt that you were the person, and that for a long time God had been making you the best prepared person possible for the task. It is my belief that you are bringing to the job what the needs of the day demand: a vision of the possibilities and an understanding of the problems. You are beginning with the loyalty and confidence of the Nigerian missionaries. (25)
A former student pastoring in Durham, North Carolina, also congratulated Goerner on his appointment:
I do not see how the Foreign Mission Board could have made a finer selection than you for the secretaryship of Europe, Africa, and the Near East. When I first learned of the selection, I enthusiastically rejoiced in it, for I believe that you will bring to the board the statesmanlike approach, which is so essential for this day and time. I have such admiration for you and faith in your spiritual power that I am sure you will mean much to the kingdom of God. I really believe that you have "come to the kingdom for such a time as this." (26)
By late 1963, a restructuring of the administration at the Foreign Mission Board shortened Goerner's title simply to secretary for Africa, but the very fact that the FMB selected him for the secretary position in the first place gave further indication of his standing in Southern Baptist circles.
Goerner's Conservative Theology
Henry Cornell Goerner was a prolific writer during his career as a seminary professor and as an administrator for the FMB. An important clue as to his standing within the SBC, as well as the acceptance of his theological and political views, is the fact that the official publishing arms of the SBC and the FMB published his work. Historian Alan Scot Willis placed Goerner among a group of "Progressive" Baptist leaders within the SBC, but he was careful to point out that this progressive mindset affected attitudes toward race, not theology. "Progressives were not theological liberals," but were rather doctrinal conservatives that "maintained their dedication to individual conversion and redemption." (27)
In his writings, Goerner took a big picture view of the world and asked questions such as: What is God's purpose in human affairs? In a couple of short books related to his life's work of world missions, Goerner attempted to answer this question. In Thus It Is Written, he proposed that God's intent in world history was "to bless the whole world in saving ways by means of chosen instruments." This saving activity involved individuals, not society, because "repentance can be only individual. Each person must repent for himself." (28) To spread this message of repentance, Goerner emphasized the theme of "all the world in all the word," which related to the missionary impulse to spread Christianity worldwide. (29)
The spread of individual conversions faced serious threats, however, because the "spread of communism, the increase of secularism, and the 'population explosion' in the non-Christian areas of the world slowed the rate of Christian growth to an alarming extent." Goerner bemoaned the doors that Christians found closed to them, pointing out that approximately one-half of the world's population in 1979 lived under governments that forbade the work of Christian missionaries. In the common parlance of the day, he pointed out the usual anti-Christian suspects in the communist nations of the U.S.S.R. and the People's Republic of China. He also noted Islam as a particularly potent opponent of the spread of Christianity. (30)
To further illustrate his relative doctrinal conservatism, Goerner had no problem bemoaning the various forms of sin and wickedness in American society, viewing them as moral failures rather than as environmental reactions. Among those vices Goerner attributed to American society were "necking, adultery, divorce, lynching, bootlegging, murder, bribery, and sham" as well as its "sinful, selfish, and materialistic nature." It was this sin from which people needed saving. Goerner also argued that the "debilitating effect of theological liberalism" was a hindrance to a great revival of religion in America that would lead to greater world evangelization. (31) In his adherence to evangelical doctrine, Goerner was no theological liberal. Also in agreement with many American evangelicals, he saw a special role for America in the world.
Goerner and American Exceptionalism
A certain number of Americans have long considered their nation a land chosen by God to bless the rest of the world. In the post-World War II era there was widespread fear of the communist menace that potentially lurked around every corner. Church membership rose after the war, and as Willis pointed out in his work on Southern Baptists and race, "Christian Americans became hostile to any criticism of their society, especially the implication that America was not the Christian nation it professed to be. Those who dared criticize America could easily be branded communists, and the charge could stick with little or no evidence." Observers often considered Southern Baptists "hyper-Americans." (32)
Although H. Cornell Goerner saw problems with American society such as drunkenness and sexual infidelity, he also saw some positives. In a work titled America Must Be Christian, Goerner declared his relief that it was America that first developed nuclear weaponry. The possibility that humans could blow each other to oblivion with atomic weapons greatly concerned him. The great hope for the world was a Christian America. Goerner saw a great "dilemma: America must be Christian, not only in name but in national behavior, or our civilization will perish and our own nation with it!" He viewed the spread of the Christian faith of utmost importance for the future of humanity, and a great increase in church membership gave him cause for some relief, as he pointed to statistics that the percentage of Americans that were members of religious organizations rose from about 5 percent to more than 50 percent between 1790 and 1945. This rise in the number of churchgoers was a testament to the success of home mission movements among Baptists and others, and Goerner approvingly mentioned that the massive funding these parishioners provided for the spread of the gospel. While the United States was not a Christian nation, it was the closest thing in the world in his mind. (33)
The clearest expression of Goerner's view of America as a special nation appeared in his book Thus It Is Written. In this work, he discussed his belief that God elected to use certain people and nations for his purposes. Goerner saw the ancient Israelites, the classical Greeks and Romans, and the early modern Spanish as chosen peoples, but each ultimately failed in their task. In describing the failure of the Spaniards, he relied on a motif common to Protestant (especially Baptist) critics of Catholicism by pointing out the "despotic nature of Spanish imperial government and the corrupt character of the Roman Catholic faith which became typical in Spain." After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Goerner saw the ascendency of the British to the place of chosen nation. Their religion and commercial capability helped foreign missionary activity and the spread of Protestant Christianity, but Britain's ultimate fate remained uncertain. Goerner emphasized the rise of the United States in God's plan to bless all nations. Regarding America, he wrote:
The United States is obviously a chosen people, allowed by providential control to occupy a strategic position among the nations. Her endowment is not only unprecedented wealth, influence, and power. More important ... she has been given an understanding of New Testament Christianity, not merely in a Protestant form, but in a free church (i.e. Baptist) form ... This is the Baptist pattern of free individuals in free churches in a free state. It is distinctive of America, and ... surely it is the intention of God that the United States should use her God-given wealth to share her God-given gospel with all the families of the earth. (34)
To Goerner, the Baptist version of a distinctively American Christianity provided the best hope for a free world, and America's rise also coincided with an improvement in the treatment of the masses.
Goerner and Economic Justice
In both doctrine and his view of American exceptionalism, Goerner's writing could appeal to economically conservative Christians in the 1950s and the 2010s. However, some statements from America Must Be Christian, while acceptable at their publication in 1946, would probably draw some level of ire and be charged with attempting to incite class warfare in the current political discourse. Few people today would openly disagree with Goerner's support of a more color-blind society or his happiness at the abolition of slavery. However, his discussion of "social justice" not only related to race relations, but it also covered economic and labor relations by noting a "growing conviction that social justice in labor relationships and economic matters is a national necessity and a Christian duty." Goerner noted that in past days "a respected deacon or vestryman, faithful in church attendance, generous in philanthropies" would have no qualms making his fortune off of sweatshop labor or tenement rentals. (35)
America Must Be Christian pointed out the increased number of American citizens who saw livable wages, decent living conditions, and some level of social security as basic rights. He did not view them as Ponzi schemes useful for garnering votes. Simple church attendance, giving, and doctrinal orthodoxy did not compensate for a lack of proper business dealings with employees, according to Goerner. The growth of church membership contributed to this growing concern for social ethics. (36)
One of the threats that Goerner saw to the evangelism of the masses was the view that the church, especially in northern cities, was "largely identified with the upper middle class of society, made up of the owners of industry and their salaried employees of the 'white collar' class." He noted that "the 'typical' laboring man has felt that organized religion was allied with Capital against Labor." Goerner believed that the polity of the SBC as a religious democracy was an advantage to their growth in industrial communities among the working class, but cautioned against developing churches only in the nicer residential communities while simultaneously ignoring the people living in low-cost housing in downtown areas. If Baptists favored the well-to-do in their church-planting efforts, they "shall have sold their birthright for the pottage of pride, and God [would] not be able to use them in the future as He has in the past to reach the great mass of ordinary folk." (37) Those who agree with Glenn Beck's definition of "social justice" would probably view such talk as subversive class warfare, rather than as a Christian concern for the poorer classes of people. To Goerner, it was just the Christian way to carry out a just society.
In current conservative political discourse connected to the so-called religious right, ideas such as American exceptionalism and a concern with the Christianization (in some ways equated with Americanization) of the world are popular topics. In the post-World War II era of the 1940s and 1950s, the popularity of these topics was quite obvious. Southern Baptists were often committed to spreading democracy and American values, as well as the gospel, to other nations. Mainstream SBC figures such as H. Cornell Goerner wrote books that supported these causes. Along with these currently popular ideas that show continuity with the past, Goerner's work also appears dated in conservative parlance with its discussion of social and economic justice that bemoaned the practice of Christian industrialists who exploited their brethren for economic gain. In everything his main concern was the salvation of souls, but one can only wonder how many evangelical denominations would print such economic opinions through their official presses in the current political climate.
(The author wishes to thank the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives for the provision of the Lynn E. May, Jr Study Grant that facilitated a good deal of the research for this article. Taffey Hall and Jean Forbis of the SBHLA were especially helpful during the research process.)
(1) Bob Allen, "Jim Wallis Urges Christians to Turn off Glenn Beck," Associated Baptist Press (March 11, 2010), http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/4926/53/ (accessed January 6, 2012).
(2) Albert Mohler, "Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Limits of Public Discourse," AlbertMohler.com (March 15, 2010), http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/03/15/glennbeck-social-justice-and-the-limits-of- public-discourse/(accessed January 6, 2012).
(3) Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); David D. Hall, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
(4) Gary North, "The Bible Mandates Free Market Capitalism," http://www.garynorth. com/public/department57.cfm (accessed January 7, 2012). Christian Reconstructionism is also known as Dominionism or Theonomy and is characterized by the desire to bring all areas of life under the lordship of Christ. Supporters of this view advocate imposing Old Testament civil and moral laws on society, including making such crimes as blasphemy and adultery capital crimes. The leading proponent of this view was Rousas John Rushdoony, the father-in-law of Gary North, himself a history Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. For a definition of Christian Reconstructionism, see "Christian Reconstructionism, Theonomy," http://carm.org/christian-reconstructionism-theonomy (accessed January 7, 2012).
(5) Gary North, "A Christian View of Labor Unions," Biblical Economics Today 1, no. 2 (April/May 1978): 1-4.
(6) "Tony Campolo: The Positive Prophet of Red Letter Christianity," http://www. tonycampolo.org/(accessed October 3, 2012).
(7) Patricia Heys, Greg Warner and Lance Wallace, "New Baptist Covenant II Confronts Plight of Prisoners, Children and Impoverished," New Baptist Covenant II (November 23, 2011), http://newbaptistcovenant.org/news/2011/11/23/new-baptist-covenant-ii-confronts-plight-of-prisoners-childr.html (accessed October 3, 2012).
(8) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, "Who We Are," http://www.thefellowship.info/ About-Us/Who-We-Are (accessed October 3, 2012).
(9) H. C. Goerner, Exploring Africa (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1950), ix-x; Taffey Hall, "Henry Cornell Goerner Collection," http://www.sbhla.org/downloads/805.pdf (accessed December 15, 2011). Population statistics were taken from "Mart, Texas," The Handbook of" Texas Online, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hjm05 (accessed October 3, 2012). The Handbook of Texas Online is maintained by the Texas State Historical Association.
(10) H. C. Goerner to W. A. Criswell, 31 May 1950. Henry Cornell Goerner Collection, Southern Baptist Historical Library & Archives, Nashville (hereafter referred to as Goerner Collection, SBHLA).
(11) Alan Scot Willis, All According to God's Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945-1970 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005). Willis looked into the issue of racism and the impact that Southern attitudes regarding race had on Southern Baptist mission efforts.
(12) George W. Sadler, A Century in Nigeria (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1950), 136.
(13) Genevieve Greer, "Moving Mountains in Nigeria." Undated pamphlet published in Richmond, Virginia, by the Department of Missionary Education and Promotion, Baptist Foreign Mission Board.
(14) John B. Grimley and Gordon E. Robinson, Church Growth in Central and Southern Nigeria (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 325.
(15) V. Lavell Seats to H. C. Goerner, 8 March 1947, Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(16) I. N. Patterson to H. Cornell Goerner, 26 April 1947, Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(18) "An Address of Welcome to Dr. G. W. Sadler, Dr. H. C. Goerner, Dr. & Mrs. M. E. Dodd, Representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention, U. S. A. Presented by The Students of The Nigerian Baptist Theol. Seminary, Ogbomosho, Aug. 20, 1947," Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(19) Cornell Goerner, "A Month in Africa," The Tie (November 1947): 8-9. Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(21) Sadler, 136.
(22) "Recommendations Concerning the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary," notes from faculty meeting at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 24 November 1947. Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(23) V. Lavell Seats to H. C. Goerner, 11 December 1947. Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(24) Cornell Goerner, "New Day for the Nigerian Seminary," Goerner Collection, SBHLA. These quotes are from a draft of an article by this name that appeared in the May 1948 edition of The Commission. This article is also quoted briefly in Willis, 75.
(25) Carl F. Whirley to H. C. Goerner, 30 June 1957, Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(26) Benjamin R. Bruner to H. Cornell Goerner, 2 July 1957, Goerner Collection, SBHLA.
(27) Willis, 4.
(28) Henry Cornell Goerner, Thus It Is Written: The Missionary Motif in the Scriptures (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1944), 7, 157.
(29) H. Cornell Goerner, All Nations in God's Purpose: What the Bible Teaches about Missions (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), 12.
(30) Ibid., 162-166.
(31) H. C. Goerner, America Must Be Christian (Atlanta: Home Mission Board, 1946), 42-43, 97.
(32) Willis, 93.
(33) Goerner, America Must Be Christian, 1-37
(34) Goerner, Thus It Is Written, 56-62.
(35) Goerner, America Must Be Christian, 46-47. While Goerner nowhere in this work directly opposed government control, he did worry that a "new Leviathan" of too strong a government could ultimately lead to a totalitarian state.
(36) Ibid., 47-48.
(37) Ibid., 128-131.
Chris Price is a doctoral candidate in the history department at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
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|Publication:||Baptist History and Heritage|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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