Settling In: The Antebellum Years

The years between the beginnings of Auburn First Baptist and the Civil War were like those of most new institutions: short-term leaders; slow development of patterns, traditions, and practices; financial challenges; some eccentric people. For instance, the mother of the second pastor dreamed three nights in succession that she would birth a son, who would bear the name she gave him, and who would be a Baptist preacher. All three dreams came true, though the birth of a son and his call to preach was less amazing than the name he endured all his life: Edwin Champion Baptist Bowler Wheeler Nicholas Dema Stephen Resdin Carter Jackson Moore Thomas. In a half century of writing Baptist history, I can affirm that our former pastor was blessed (or cursed) with the longest name in denominational history.

Thomas remained pastor only a year, to be followed by two brothers, Albert and William Williams. Both were shocking contrasts to the first two pastors. Albert went on to become professor of Ancient Languages at Mercer University and co-editor of the South Western Baptist (predecessor to the Alabama Baptist). William, an honors graduate of the University of Georgia, left his first pastorate in Auburn to become professor of Theology at Mercer, then in 1859 became one of the founders of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

After the two erudite Williams brothers, the church reverted to its egalitarian, folksy beginnings, calling Hardin Edwards Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”) as pastor on the eve of the Civil War. In some ways, Taliaferro was the most complex of all the church’s pastors. Born in Surry County, North Carolina in 1811, where as late as 1850 one-third of adult males and more than one-half of adult women were illiterate, he moved to Roane County, Tennessee, at age 18 and managed only a single year of education in a one room academy. He farmed, learned how to tan hides from his brother, and also was licensed to preach. In 1835 he and his new wife moved to Talladega County, Alabama, where he established a tanning yard, farmed, and preached for a circuit of nearly a dozen Baptist churches stretched along 50 miles of the Coosa River. A tall man of more than six feet, with profuse hair and beard, he was an emotional preacher, often weeping in the pulpit. Though sometimes criticized for being “a little too frank and outspoken”, he became a respected preacher. “Let a man mix with a church of poor, praying, working people”, he wrote, and one could “admire the wisdom of Jesus for companionizing with them.” Ten years later he joined a relative in editing the South Western Baptist published in Tuskegee, becoming sole editor in 1858.

During these years, Taliaferro (“Skitt” to his friends) experienced a crisis of faith (“perplexing doubts and fears” and a sense that God was remote from him). Once he had passed through this dark valley, he wrote a book about the experience in 1857 entitled The Grace of God Magnified, which described his “torture of the soul.” The book circulated widely throughout the South and was, according to one contemporary, unsurpassed “by any book of confessions in our language.”

He took to the writer’s life and began to pen humorous articles about poor whites for Southern Literary Messenger, a leading southern magazine. In 1859, while pastor in Auburn, his articles were published under a pseudonym as Fisher’s River-Folks and Scenes by “Skitt, Who Has Been Thar”. Most of the stories centered on his boyhood in Surry County, but several are set in Alabama (perhaps the Auburn area?). When the name of the author became known, the book made Taliaferro famous as a writer of an original form of American literature called “Old Southwestern Humor”. But his work was unique in that most of the other writers in the genre were well educated, mostly lawyers and journalists, who set their stories in the deep South and tended to ridicule the rustic folk ways of the people they described. Taliaferro instead wrote about the upland South and treated his subjects with respect. His book remains a masterpiece in its descriptions of poor white customs, traditions, and tall tales. One wonders how often he entertained the congregation of FBC with such stories while he preached here.

Fragments of his sermons, newspaper articles, and other writings offer insight into his preaching. Though largely self-educated, Taliaferro was obviously a bright, well-informed man. He was swept up in antebellum debates about Calvinism and covenant theology, which in some form Primitive Baptists adopted in their fierce battles against missionary Baptists. To the evangelistic Taliaferro, God’s covenant of salvation meant nothing more than an ancient contract with “our fathers”, not the Primitive Baptists “antinomian predestination … croaking babbles of that gloomy school” (could that have been what his acquaintance meant by being “a little too frank and outspoken”?). In his theology, he balanced conservatism and liberalism. Change was inevitable and often good. Infidelity could appear either in the garb of traditional Christianity or the “horribly distorted” shape of liberal change, which seemed to appeal especially to people with “literary pretensions” and claims to rationalism. But he also denounced words such as “conservative” and “orthodox” as “humbugging words” meaning nothing. Often conservatives were restrained and not frank or outspoken enough, urging him to use too gentle terms for “factionalists, fanatics, abolitionists, and bandy courtly epithets with errorists of religion.” Such equivocation, he wrote, was not his style.

During the years he edited the South Western Baptist, Taliaferro often served as pastor of AFBC. Church historian John Jeffers lists the probable dates of his pastorate as mid-1856 to 1860. Taliaferro pastored four quarter-time churches, the Auburn congregation being one of them. During this time, he often commented in his paper about the town’s development. In March,1860, he wrote that the local Methodist college enrolled some 80 or 90 students though several had been expelled. The college president was firm: “rule bad, brainless boys, or make them leave” (wow, did I teach some candidates for expulsion based on that standard). The preparatory school enrolled an additional 115 students, and the female school flourished as well: “Auburn has improved considerably since all these school interests have gone into operation”, he concluded. Methodist people dominated the village. “The Baptist church and congregation are small, yet they are a united band of good brethren.” In August, 1861, he traveled from Tuskegee to observe the training of fifteen companies (1,500 men) who crowded the village and its outskirts, preparing for war. Of the 15 company commanders, six were Baptists, two of them fellow preachers. On Sundays they conducted worship services for their men, and the new pastor of AFBC baptized converts in a nearby creek. Paradoxically, during the war, Taliaferro pastored a black Baptist church, where in 1866 he baptized 30 or 40 converts a month. And in 1868 he attended the organizational meeting of the Alabama Colored Baptist State Convention. But by then the times in Auburn were out of sorts.