Co-authors of TAB’s new book walk participants through newspaper’s past

Long before Facebook, the way Alabama Baptists found out what was going on was through the pages of The Alabama Baptist (TAB) newspaper.

“It’s part of our collective story as Alabama Baptists,” said Grace Thornton, co-author of “The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and Connecting Baptists.”

Thornton joined co-author Elizabeth Wells in leading the afternoon session of the 175th birthday celebration of TAB held at Judson College in Marion on Feb. 6.

Wells, a veteran historian, said few 19th century Alabama Baptists were global travelers but many went around the world through the pages of their state Baptist paper.

“Here in Perry County, people were traveling to China and later Japan and they never had to do anything but read The Alabama Baptist,” Wells said.

That vision of global missions education began with the Association of Brethren, formed by Julia Tarrant Barron, James H. DeVotie, Milo P. Jewett and Gen. Edwin D. King, members of Siloam Baptist Church, Marion, who founded not only TAB but also Howard College (now Samford University), the Judson Female Institute (now Judson College) and the Home Mission Society (now the North American Mission Board).

The four founders committed not only their time but a great deal of money to establish part of the framework that would eventually become the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Of note, Wells said, was Barron, the only female member of the foursome, whose name was on all the deeds, documents and sales entered into by the Association. Barron’s wealth, most of which was lost during the Civil War, allowed her to give generously to Baptist causes. But even before the war, financing the ministry of TAB was not easy, Wells noted.

“They were called to this ministry … called, not compensated,” she added.

The earliest issues of the paper covered news of Baptist work in Alabama and around the world. It included advice for pastors, along with some advertising to help support the costs of publishing.

And under different names and different editors, the weekly paper told the story of Baptist work, Wells said. Even the Civil War could not permanently stop the ministry, she said.

The newspaper moved from Marion in the 1850s and eventually found a permanent home in Birmingham, but the paper’s historical connection to Marion is not forgotten. The original wood frame building where the paper was first published now sits just off Judson’s campus as a reminder, but the spirit of those early editors has lived on in contemporary editors as well.

Thornton focused on the most recent editors — L.L. Gwaltney, Leon Macon, Hudson Baggett and Bob Terry — four men whose tenures encompass nearly 100 years of stories, she said.

Long tenures

“The past 100 years have been pretty solid. We’ve seen these four men with very long tenures sitting at the helm of how Alabama Baptists tell their stories,” Thornton said, adding that canvas portraits of each of the four hang in the conference room of TAB’s Birmingham headquarters.

In more than three decades of service as editor, Gwaltney saw subscriptions grow from 3,000 to more than 15,000 in spite of the turmoil of two world wars and the Great Depression coupled with the illness of his wife.

“Through all of it, he stayed faithful to God and to his mission,” Thornton said.

Gwaltney was followed by Macon, whose tenure also included rapid growth in readership. Macon promoted the paper tirelessly, Thornton said.

“Macon wrote that any money that churches spent on subscriptions for their members was ‘missionary money well spent’ and churches believed him,” Thornton said.

Subscriptions grew to more than 106,000 in 1960 under Macon.

Elected editor in 1966, Baggett was a “calming presence in Alabama Baptist life,” Thornton said.

Baggett led the paper for 28 years, advocating for civil rights, women in ministry and unity within the SBC as it was dividing into factions.

Baggett also established the permanent home for the newspaper in Birmingham. And like his predecessors, circulation soared under his leadership. It grew to more than 155,000 in 1975. Following Baggett’s sudden death in 1994, Terry was elected editor in 1995.

If social change was the story of the previous 75 or so years, technological change would be a mark of Terry’s time at the helm of the newspaper.

“Like every single one of his predecessors, he had to work through the paper’s financial setbacks,” Thornton said. “But in addition to that, over the course of his tenure as editor, he would also face two more major issues that no one foresaw — a decline in denominational loyalty and the rise of technology, which saw papers nationwide begin to tumble in subscriptions.”

Great Recession

Subscriptions held at 115,000 for a decade but the Great Recession saw a steady decline in print readership accompanied by a steady increase in online readership. However, the influence of the paper, perhaps most strongly evidenced in the fight against a state lottery in 1999, and the paper’s investment in the future of Christian journalism has remained strong.

“Dr. Terry has long been one to invest in younger journalists. Jennifer Rash, editor-elect of the paper, is one of them … and I am one of them myself,” Thornton said.

The celebration of the paper’s 175th birthday and the approaching 100th year as a convention paper is an opportunity to reflect but not to stop, Thornton said.

“The story of the paper definitely lives on.” (Carrie Brown McWhorter)