Book Review: Reimagining Zion

51eVSlnaslL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book I’m looking at today is Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists, by Andrew Gardner. This is the first book-length history of the Alliance of Baptists, and represents the fulfillment of a promise to Alan Neely made prior to his death by Mahan Siler that a history of the group would be completed.

The book is divided into three sections: Leaving Zion, Reimagining Zion, and Living Zion. Leaving Zion (Pt. 1) provides a broad historical overview of the Alliance of Baptists. This is done by first placing the Alliance within the context of Baptist history through an examination of the earliest Baptist movements. Particular emphasis is placed on the values and characteristics of those groups, whose identity as religious dissenters with a passion for liberty was central to the formation of the Alliance. The overview then turns to an examination of the Southern Baptist Convention and the string of controversies leading to the eventual decision to form the Southern Baptist Alliance in 1987. The discussion next focuses on the history of the Alliance since its formation and into the present day. Reimagining Zion (Pt. 2), presents a more in-depth look at the work and ministry of the Alliance since its founding. This is done through first examining the drafting of the Alliance Covenant. The seven chapters which follow each focus on a specific tenet addressed in the Covenant and the ways in which the Alliance has worked to embody these principles as an organization through descriptions of the group’s efforts in ecumenism, education, gender and sexual equality, social justice, religious liberty, and missions, to name a few. Finally, Living Zion (Pt. 3) turns to an ethnographic analysis of eight Alliance churches. Each chapter in this section presents a brief history of the church being addressed, a description of the congregational makeup and worship space, and an account of the worship experience at that church. This analysis, while brief, provides insight into the diverse congregational makeup of the Alliance.

I particularly appreciated the Zion metaphor which lies at the center of Gardner’s work. Most who have done research in the area of Baptist history or Southern religion will have drawn on Rufus Spain’s At Ease in Zion and Barry Hankins’ Uneasy in Babylon. I drew on both extensively in my honors thesis research at Wake. Spain saw the SBC in the antebellum South as having become comfortable in a Southern Zion in which they perpetuated the status quo in terms of values and mores such that it became difficult to distinguish between Southern and Southern Baptist. Hankins’ account of the Southern Baptist controversies of the 20th century portrays Southern Baptist conservatives as perceiving an encroachment of a secular Babylon, aided by liberals within their midst who they sought to purge in the conservative resurgence. In Reimagining Zion, Gardner seeks to portray the Alliance as leaving the Zion of the SBC while also seeking to reimagine what that Zion should look like. To leave that Zion was not an easy decision, and one must recognize the pain which necessitated such a departure and the way in which the task of reimagining this Zion must have loomed insurmountably large. Gardner recounts the way in which the fledgling Alliance sought to remain true to what they viewed to be core Baptist principles in the formation of this new organization. In the Epilogue, he describes the Alliance as concluding: “It might be more faithful to come down from the Southern Baptist mountain of established power, wealth and influence to reside on the land. The Alliance strove to imagine what Zion would look like among the secular, the marginalized and the disenfranchised — the nomadic. The organization looked to imagine and create a religious home for the homeless.”

Like any religious body, Baptists are not a monolithic group. This book will prove to be an invaluable resource to those attempting to understand the diversity of Baptist life, particularly those seeking to discern the strains emanating from the fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention. The schism is typically viewed as a division between moderates and conservatives, and separate groups such as the Alliance are forgotten or lumped in with the rest. Gardner faithfully recounts the actions of the Alliance prior to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which typically dominates the moderate/liberal Baptist landscape in the public eye, as well as the Alliance’s at times complicated relationship with the CBF over the course of its history.

I personally have found it difficult to locate reliable, well-researched volumes providing accounts of the events in the liberal and progressive wing during and following the SBC schism. Reimagining Zion provides a useful tool and presents the opportunity for further research into aspects of the Alliance’s history which had been neglected before. So, in conclusion, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Baptist history or American Religious history more broadly. It tells an important story that needed to be told, and it does it well.

 

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