"[The Sunday School Board] may be counted in every high sense a business
dedicated to missions, a denominational asset operating through many channels and
contributing mightily to the great interests fostered by the Baptists of the South as
represented in the Southern Baptist Convention."
Southern Baptists established several short-lived publications societies beginning
with the formation of the Convention in 1845, but by the 1880s the Convention's limited
Sunday school literature (including the publication Kind Words for the Sunday School
Children) was no more than a side venture of the Convention's Home Mission Board.
The Southern Baptist Convention took the controversial step of establishing a Sunday
School Board in 1891 for the purposes of publishing Convention-sponsored Sunday
School literature and promoting the establishment of Sunday schools in Southern Baptist
churches. More than any other Convention venture, it was this Board that would unify
Baptists across the South into a single denominational body by the early twentieth
Facing the Opposition
In the eyes of many, perhaps most, Southern Baptists, the Convention did not
need a Sunday School Board. Sunday schools in the South were already well supplied
with Sunday school literature from the American Baptist Publication Society (ABPS) of
Philadelphia, which had been supplying literature to the South and North since 1824.
The Society considered itself an American rather than a Northern publication house. It
had branch houses in several Southern cities, it had provided significant aid to Southern
churches and state conventions during and after the Civil War, it was represented at
Southern Baptist state convention meetings, and it employed Southern theologians (often
representatives to the Convention) to write for its publications. Clearly the paid
contributors to the ABPS's literature had a personal stake in opposing the creation of the
Sunday School Board, but opposition could also be found among the leadership of local
Southern churches, who, in the first few years of the Sunday School Board's existence,
would argue that the Publications Society's literature was superior in quality to that of the
new Southern Board. (See Letters from Pastors and Laity.)
Then why establish a Sunday School Board? Apparently, a rather small but vocal
group of Southern Baptist leaders, spearheaded by Home Mission Board Secretary I.T.
Tichenor and Richmond minister J.M. Frost, saw the Convention's establishment of the
new Board as the next step in "reclaim[ing] its lost territory" with the ultimate purpose of
expelling all Northern Baptist influence from the South.2 J.M. Frost would later write that
the Board was conceived in the mind of Home Mission Board Secretary I.T. Tichenor,
who understood "the imperative need that a people make their own literature." 3
Nowhere in the reports of the Board's 1891 establishment or in the letters between the
Board and its adversary, the American Baptist Publication Society, have I found
references to any kind of theological disagreement between the two publishing houses.
Frost, Tichenor, and others who fought for the establishment of the Sunday School Board
did not do so out of a doctrinal opposition to the Publication Society's literature. They
acted instead out of fear that the Publication Society's influence had become too strong in
the South and could eventually lead their children to desert the Southern Convention.
In addition to their aggressive pro-Southern stance, the leaders who called for a
Sunday School Board were also the ones most likely to embrace "Progress" and the
broadening of the Convention's power and scope in order to do the ever-increasing work
of the Kingdom. They were the Progressives in this organization, the ministers and lay
leaders most likely to be educated urbanites, and in an era in American life that saw the
growth of big business and centralized bureaucracies, they wanted to push the Southern
Baptist Convention to become a true denomination actively organizing and "uplifting"
the Baptist life of the South. (For more on this, see the Introduction.) The Sunday School
Board, it was hoped, would unify local churches by providing a single literature and
would greatly expand the work of the Convention through its publication profits.
This denominational impulse would also face significant opposition. Many
among the Convention's leadership did not share in Tichenor and Frost's notions of
progress and believed that the creation of a Sunday School Board would increase
unwanted central control of state and local Baptist bodies and would detract from the
Convention's most important purpose: domestic and foreign missions.
The Campaign for Support: 1890s
Many of the Convention's "ablest men" opposed the creation of the Sunday
School Board, whether because of their ties to the American Baptist Publication Society
or due to their fears of denominationalism and detracting from the Convention's mission
work.4 But the battle over whether to create a Sunday School Board (which J.M. Frost
later compared to the Battle of Waterloo) was won by those in favor of the new
"It was the settlement of one of the most vital and momentous questions ever raised in the
Convention, and determined far-reaching policy, that the Baptists of the South would act
for themselves, and not depend on others to make their literature or conduct their
publication interests or foster their Sunday school work."
The decision of the Convention came to rest upon whether two of its leading men who
represented opposing sides of the issue -- Dr. J.M. Frost and Dr. J.B. Gambrell -- could
come to an agreement. Their confidential daylong meeting has since been viewed by
Southern Baptists as a defining moment in their history, as portrayed by the following
painting of the event.
"Gambrell stressed the complete freedom of the local church in
purchasing literature, while Frost pleaded that a fair chance be given the new board to
live and prosper." 6
The new Board was headquartered in Nashville, "the largest printing center in the South"
(47) and the geographical center of the Convention's territory. J.M. Frost left his
pastorate in Richmond in order to direct the work of the new Board as its full-time
Corresponding Secretary. Born in Kentucky in 1848, James Marion Frost was a college-educated
Baptist minister who had pastored city churches in Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, and
Tennessee. After his appointment to lead the Sunday School Board in 1891, he remained
its Corresponding Secretary, with only one brief intermission, until the end of his life in
1916. As its first leader, Frost articulated the rhetoric and the policies of the new Board.
And in a sense, the Board was an extension of the identity of its leader, who saw
himself as an instrument of God's providence, a Christian businessman, and a Southern
gentleman. Add to this list another important facet of Frost's personality: he proved to be
a talented manager of business and public relations. Just as Frost's own identity was a
complex and sometimes contradictory amalgamation of evangelical Christianity,
Southern-ness, and progressive business principles, so too were the principles and
policies of the Sunday School Board.
God's Instrument: On his idea for a new Sunday
School Board, Frost would insist that "God touched me and I thought it." And
looking back on the early years of the Board, Frost recalled "always . . . thinking [I] saw
the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night." 7
Christian Businessman: Frost's business correspondence with the
religious press and the American Baptist Publication Society (ABPS), including this letter
to ABPS leader B. Griffith, indicates his belief in the compatibility of business and
Christianity: "It seems to me that two christian men conducting a business looking to the
same end of furthering the cause of Christ, ought surely to be before the world, a model
for business men to imitate. From the first it has been my determination to operate the
business of this Board, on purely, christian, business principles . . ." 8
Southern Gentleman: Reminiscent of Robert E. Lee's 1861
decision to resign from the U. S. military in order to join the Confederacy, Frost, despite
his previously strong ties to the American Baptist Publications Society, stated that "when
[the ABPS's] request came for me to stand with the Society as against the Convention,
my duty was plain, and the question had only one side from my point of view." 9
Later letters from the ABPS to Frost would reference statements that Frost had
interpreted as assaults on his honor.
Manager of Business and Public Relations: In addition to the
business letters from the religious press and the ABPS that attest to this aspect of Frost's
identity, he made the following statement regarding his attempts to "win friends and
influence people" during the early years of the Sunday School Board: "I knew the gravity
of the situation and first of all set myself to win, if possible, those who had been counted
in the opposition. . . . My philosophy, put in homely phrase, was to 'brush the hair the
right way,' being sure to have no tacks in the brush. . . . my business was to serve all." 10
Establishing the Sunday School Board in 1891 was an official measure of the Convention
that did not immediately influence the activities of local churches and state Conventions;
most continued purchasing literature from the American Baptist Publication Society.
Frost and his sales representatives throughout the 1890s would aggressively court these
resistant Southern Baptists. The Sunday School Board would conduct this campaign for
support on a number of fronts: on the floor of the Convention's annual meetings; in direct
competition with its sole adversary, the American Baptist Publication Society; and at the
state and local level with the help of the Woman's Missionary Union.
Records from the Convention meetings of the 1890s indicate Frost's rhetorical efforts to change his brethren's minds. Aware that the opposition's
top priority was missions, Frost would continually argue that the Sunday School Board
was a "business dedicated to missions." 11 After all, not only did it donate 100% of its
profits to the Convention's Home and Foreign Mission Boards, but it also encouraged the
development of Sunday Schools that would result in greater mission offerings:
"It is manifest that the Sunday-school Board, through the power of its periodicals, may
become a great factor in our denominational machinery second indeed to no other force
in its influence upon our denominational life. It becomes a missionary power on home
fields and foreign fields through its missionary literature. Who can foretell the results
simply in increased contributions to the Boards of the Convention, when you shall have
two, and three, and four generations of men and women who almost from their cradle
have been trained to think missionary thoughts, pray missionary prayers and make
missionary sacrifices in contributions laid at the Master's feet?"
Report of the Sunday School Board, 1892 12
The campaign for Southern Baptist support of the new Sunday School Board
meant identifying the American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia as an
adversary, despite its history of good relations with many of the Southern Baptist
Convention's churches and state conventions. The ABPS Letters, as well as many letters
in the other collections (Newspaper Editors,
Annie Armstrong, Pastors and Laity) offer a
telling glimpse into the nature of this conflict, which manifested itself in convention
speeches, advertisements in the religious press, in competition among local suppliers and
sales representatives, and in debates within local churches. The question of whether to
continue purchasing Sunday school literature from the ABPS -- whose publications were
frequently described as "superior" and who had been a friend of Southern Baptists
through the lean times of war and Reconstruction -- or to purchase the Sunday School
Board's "Southern series," was a call to the laity to choose sides in this conflict between
Northern and Southern Baptist leaders.
The effort to win local support of the Sunday School Board and of the Southern
Baptist Convention generally benefited from an alliance with the Southern
Baptist Convention's Woman's Missionary Union (WMU). Established in 1888 as an
auxiliary to all of the Convention's Boards, the WMU by the 1890s had built an
hierarchical organization in the South that included women's groups in local churches,
state central committees, and a general board in Baltimore led by WMU Corresponding
Secretary Annie Armstrong. The WMU worked closely with the Sunday School Board to
provide free Sunday school literature to impoverished churches and to sponsor a South-
wide "Missionary Day" in the Sunday schools (the proceeds to benefit the Convention's
mission Boards). The WMU also contributed missions-related material for publication in
the Convention's Sunday school series. The fourth page of the Board's most significant
early publication, Kind Words for the Sunday School Children, was provided by the
Women's Missionary Union "for the purpose of bringing into our Sunday school and
homes the missionary interests of the Southern Baptist Convention, so as to train the
children along the great lines of the Convention's work." 13
The Sunday School Board and the WMU shared a stronger presence within the churches than the Convention's Home
and Foreign Mission Boards in that the mission boards collected money from churches to
be used elsewhere, while the WMU and the Sunday School Board entered the churches
through their publications and though their establishment of women's groups and Sunday
schools. These two organizations considered themselves to be "agencies working
together for the building of the kingdom" and especially for the building of support for
the Southern Baptist Convention in its increasing lines of work.
Soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the Sunday School Board largely
succeeded in establishing itself across the South and began accomplishing what some of
its earliest opposition had feared it would: denominationalism. (This trend toward
denominationalism strongly resembles Trachtenberg's concept of incorporation. See also
the section entitled "Incorporation" in the Introductory Essay.) By publishing its own
series of Sunday school literature and by establishing new Sunday schools that would
further increase circulation, the Southern Baptist Convention through the work of the
Sunday School Board found that it could regularly gain access to local churches South-
wide. In the words of J.M. Frost, "Through these periodicals the Sunday School Board as
an agency of the Convention reaches more people, and reaches them more frequently,
than any other one agent." 14 In doing so, the Sunday School Board, through its
periodicals, was able to train the next generation not only to be good Christians and good
Baptists, but also to be good supporters of the Southern Baptist Convention, resulting in a
growing sense of denominational identity.
By the early years of the twentieth century the Sunday School Board also
furthered the denominational trend by providing the Convention with a significant source
of income to increase its mission work at home and abroad. By 1914 Corresponding
Secretary J.M. Frost would equate the Sunday School Board with big business:
"These periodicals in their several grades are issued each quarter of the year in literally
millions and millions of copies. Their production in matter and manufacture, handling
them and getting them into the mails en route to our constituents throughout the territory
of the Southern Baptist Convention from Maryland to New Mexico -- this is a gigantic
task, an immense volume of business coming quarter after quarter as the year goes round,
and calls for the outlay of vast sums of money."
By Frost's death in 1916, the financial resources of the Board had grown to over
$600,000, with annual receipts of over $500,000, and its contributions to the work of the
Convention topped $800,000. The Sunday School Board had successfully "reclaimed"
the South from the American Baptist Publication Society and had become the
Convention's most important representative to Southern Baptist churches as well as its
single greatest contributor to the Convention's causes.16
No longer needing to justify its existence or vigorously campaign for support as it
had in the 1890s, the Sunday School Board during the early twentieth century would
move into a new phase of work to increase its efficiency and to standardize the Sunday
school programs in all of its Southern Baptist churches. (A similar phase would occur
within the WMU.) Chief among the projects of this new phase would be the
establishment of a training system for Sunday school teachers.
"The [teacher-training] system requires eight books in its curriculum; a diploma is given
for successful completion of the New Normal Manual; seven other seals are added, one
as each of the other books is completed, with a red seal when half the course if finished,
and the blue seal when all eight of the books have been successfully gone through with.
This curriculum for teacher training allows wide scope, beginning with the average
teacher and ending with what is worthy of the highest. We are just now adding a further
course for our graduates, and on its completion a post-graduate diploma will be given."
In addition to the teacher-training system, the Sunday School Board established a
graded class system, a Sunday school curriculum, and an adult Sunday school class
system complete with uniform class names and mottoes. It also added book publishing to
its list of responsibilities. Eventually the Sunday School Board would become the
supplier of virtually all printed material used in Southern Baptist churches (including
Sunday school literature, Baptist hymnals, and religious books), thus strengthening the
symbiotic relationship between local churches and an increasingly powerful, increasingly corporate Southern Baptist Convention. A powerful symbol of
this new phase of work was the Sunday School Board's new headquarters built in 1914.
Frost would describe the building as "a Baptist Business Temple," and it would be named
for Frost after his death in 1916.18 In the eyes of Southern Baptist progressives, the
Frost Building represented denominational power, a revitalized New South, the
comfortable alliance of business with evangelism, and a physical manifestation of
Providence and Progress.
Apparent in all of these new ventures was the Convention leadership's sense of
confidence that expanding the Convention's role within local churches would be
welcomed by its constituents. (The extent to which local laity resisted is difficult to
determine, but plans for this new phase of work certainly did not attract as much
opposition from the representatives to the Convention as had the question of establishing
a Sunday School Board back in 1891.) It was now no longer necessary to vigorously
defend the South as a distinct region and as the special territory of the Southern Baptist
Convention, for this had largely been accomplished. It was also no longer necessary to
argue for denominationalism, for this was also clearly in place. Now the Convention,
having won the support of enough of the South's white Baptists, could move toward
greater institutionalization. In doing so, it reflected trends in the broader American
culture toward professionalization (by certifying teachers), scientific management (by
establishing a standard class system and keeping detailed statistics on conversions,
attendance, offerings, etc.), and centralized control (by establishing the Convention as an
undeniable presence in the life of local Southern Baptist churches). Thus was created a
Convention that resembled Trachtenberg's definition of incorporation: a small group of managers administers the work of a large body. This was a departure from the situation
of the nineteenth century in which vocal laity and ministers determined their policies
primarily at the local church or state convention level.
The progressive leadership of the Sunday School Board drew upon the gospel of
efficiency and the business model to increase and standardize the Board's work. But they
could not select some parts of American culture while being unaffected by others, notably
the growing secularism throughout the broader culture. The Convention in the early twentieth century
would find itself wrestling with secular trends such as the
social gospel -- in which American progressive reformers began to view people's
material circumstances (poverty) as greater threats to the social good than their spiritual
"Christian character and life of today, in almost
startling degree, lack the doctrinal earnestness of Jesus. We may be suffering, as some
say, because of reaction from the polemic of other days. We have the spiritual, the
ethical, the social, and yet are sadly wanting in doctrinal conviction and conscience. . . .
We need to give emphasis to creedal character and doctrinal conviction as having
practical virtue and value in everyday Christian living. A lack of this is our deficiency
and weakness, leaves the present-day Christian subject to every kind of doctrine of
whatever fad or fancy, if only it be labeled religious or Christian or church."
Report of the Sunday School Board, 1913 19
The progressive leaders of the late nineteenth century -- those who created
the Sunday School Board not to provide literature with alternative content but to establish
regional independence -- would act in their new role as twentieth-century managers to guard Southern
Baptist churches against unorthodoxy. In addition to creating most of the literature used
by Southern Baptist churches, the Sunday School Board carefully scrutinized outside
publications for unorthodoxy. At least twice in the early twentieth century the Board
altered the content of non-Convention publications for use in Southern Baptist churches.
In effect, the Sunday School Board, along with the Convention-sponsored seminaries,
would become the creators of a particularly Southern Baptist orthodoxy. And even the
seminaries can be viewed as secondary to the influence of the Sunday School Board
when we consider the fact that their faculty, the Southern Baptist theologians, had their views published under the auspices of the Sunday School Board.
Ultimately, the Sunday School Board, more than any other factor in Southern Baptist life,
told Baptists who they were and what they believed, thus establishing greater
denominational identity and doctrine, and at the same time establishing a managerial power
structure that looked entirely different from the direct action of earlier days.
As a result of the combined efforts of the Sunday School Board and its siblings
(the Woman's Missionary Union and the Home Mission Board), the Southern Baptist
Convention by the nineteen-teens would be a very different organization than what it had
been after its founding in 1845 or even at the beginning of the 1880s. Originating as a
South-wide organization devoted to raising money for missions and enjoying uneven
grass-roots support throughout the South, the corporate Southern Baptist Convention by
1919 would confidently embark upon its most aggressive, ambitious effort to date: a
campaign to raise 75 million dollars not for its mission boards alone but for the diverse
and increasingly complex work of the Convention generally.