A Call to Greatness: The Story of the Founding of the Progressive National
Baptist Convention. By William D. Booth. Lawrenceville, VA:
Brunswick Publishing Corp., 2001. Xiv+ 241pp. Cloth, $24.95.
A Call to Greatness is William D. Booth's attempt to set the record straight about the founding of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. He contends that the popular reading of the organization's origins, which emphasizes Gardner Taylor and the 1960 electoral crisis in the National Baptist Convention, does not give credit where it is due and writes his father, L. Venchael Booth, out of the story. Moreover, he claims that well-intentioned scholars have supported this view and, in effect, canonized erroneous accounts of history.
The first thing I noticed when reading A Call to Greatness is that the format differs greatly from most books reviewed by this journal. The first thirty pages comprise historical analysis, while the remaining two hundred pages consists of "appendices", more accurately, letters, pamphlets and newspaper clippings that help make the author's case. Despite its unorthodox structure, I have decided I like this book -- not so much for what the author intended for it to do, but for the kinds of questions it unintentionally posits about the nature of organizational development.
Organizationally, Baptists are a curious lot. They possess principles that are dialogically opposed to one another, which often results in the formation of new Baptist groups. Church historian Bill J. Leonard said it best when he wrote in the forward:
(Baptists) affirm the centrality of Scripture while acknowledging the importance of conscience, individual and communal in interpreting Scripture aright. They promote the autonomy of the local congregation while forming associational and denominational alliances freely. They assert the priesthood of the laity while ordaining and investing ministers with significant authority for the work of the congregation. They stress the pervasive power of the Holy Spirit while providing for a congregational polity that determines the will of the Spirit by majority vote.
Institutionally, Baptists seem to have a cure for whatever ails them.
One of the great contradictions of Baptist life and practice remains, however, their seeming commitment to a "democratic religion," underscored by an individual's obligation to follow his or her own conscience, and their high premium on a familial type of unity. The right to dissenting views within the family unit (congregation, association, or convention) is a key component of what it means to be a Baptist, and yet when carried out to its extreme, it often means a breakdown and breakup of the denominational family. The tension is clear in A Call to Greatness.
According to William D. Booth, the story of the founding of the Progressive National Baptist Convention is the story of one man's effort to follow the voice of God as it led him in a different direction than the majority of his denominational kin. Without question, the documentary evidence bears witness to L. Venchael Booth's sounding of the alarm among the National Baptist Convention leadership well before the electoral showdown in 1960. By the time Convention president, Joseph H. Jackson, removed Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights advocates from their democratically-elected positions, Booth had already started conversations as early as 1957 about the need for a leadership change or a new organization.
Moreover, the documents show that many prominent ministers, including those who are given credit for founding the Progressive National Baptist Convention, initially wanted nothing to do with the new organization and discouraged Booth from moving ahead with plans to form a new group. Most believed that unity should be maintained at all costs, even if it meant tacitly supporting a Jackson regime they believed stood in the way of progress. After learning of Booth's call for an organizational meeting of a new denomination, J.C. Austin, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago informed Booth, "After talking with a number of leading men, including Dr. E.L. Harrison of Washington, D.C. and King of Georgia, I am persuaded to believe that such a move right now is not the best thing for us" (80). In somewhat stronger terms, Herbert H. Eaton, pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery said the consequences of Booth's efforts would be "destructive to the cause of freedom and religion among the Negro people of our Land" (83). For Eaton, as well as Taylor, the issue was denominational unity. "How can we as a Negro Baptist Group ever hope to participate in the world ecumenical movement if we cannot unite among ourselves?" asked Eaton (82). Nonetheless, the documents confirm that Booth went ahead with his organizational plans and, largely through his sheer force of will (according to his son), the new organization was born.
The author provides pages upon pages of clear documents -- unedited and without annotation -- as if the documents speak for themselves and tell the true story. However, in giving readers so much raw data in a "just the facts, ma'am" sort of way, the author unwittingly shows why a committee of one is often not a good idea. Even Booth, the hero of this story, could not escape the tension between the need to maintain unity and obligation to follow one's conscience. While he opposed the heavy-handed, autocratic nature of the Convention leadership, Booth, though well-intentioned, displayed some of those traits himself. J.C. Austin tried to gently advise Booth about the need for dissenting voices, even among those who agreed that Jackson's leadership was illegitimate. He wrote:
Now I do not mean to meddle in your affairs; from the tone of your letter, this is an independent movement on your part and you are asking very positively that nobody come who is not concerned in a new set up. I can't criticize your statement, for the reason no insurrectionist should be on hand, and yet we must leave room for different opinions. We must concede to every man the right of an opinion, the privilege to express the same, and at the same time have the objectives so clear, so positive, so real, so essential that no one can oppose (90).
Austin believed the maintenance of unity at any cost, whether within the National Baptist Convention or the ranks of dissenters, was a dangerous thing.
A Call to Greatness is an important book, more for what it does than what it intends to do. Booth does historians a fabulous service by providing whole documents that otherwise might have never seen the light of day, in addition to refocusing our vision upon "hidden heroes" of black religious movements. Most importantly, he complicates our understanding of the past even as he seeks to clarify it.
Quinton Hosford Dixie, Indiana University, Bloomington