Review: L. W. Marks: A Baptist Progressive in Missouri and Oklahoma
Alvin O. Turner. L. W. Marks: A Baptist Progressive in Missouri and Oklahoma, 1862-1943. Norman: Mongrel Empire Press, 2009. 237 pp. ISBN 9780980168433.
The history of religion in the South is replete with characters who explode the one-dimensional stereotypes of clerical leaders and adherents as backward, ignorant rubes in fear of God, ideas, and “progress.” Author Alvin O. Turner, emeritus dean of social sciences and humanities at East Central University, adds to our knowledge of the region through his book on Luther Whitfield Marks (1862-1943). Little known beyond Oklahoma Baptist circles, L. W. Marks was a pastor, civic leader, denominational builder, businessman, and newspaperman whose progressivism largely manifested itself in a call for cooperation among Baptists in the state and region.
Turner divides Marks’ story into six chapters, outlining Marks’ background, seminary experience, newspaper adventures, pastorates, and local political and business journeys. Readers interested in Southern Baptist Convention history and denominational controversies will be eager to learn of Marks’ experience at the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville during the controversy surrounding president William W. Whitsitt and his writings on the historical origins of Baptists. Marks kept a diary for twenty years, beginning with his time at SBTS, and his perspective as a student is instructive. “For Marks along with many earlier Whitsitt supporters,” Turner concludes on the subject, “the preservation of the convention had become the ultimate concern” (68).
For those readers who equate progressivism with theological or social attitudes and interpretations that challenge the status quo, Marks’ life and career will disappoint. Marks was too busy for controversy, it seems. Progress for this Baptist was the building of capacity in Missouri and Oklahoma for activities and institutions that would have a lasting influence on denominational self-understanding and influence. Turner provides a comical and instructive example: In 1910, Marks purchased a four-horse-power Harley Davidson motorcycle for traveling Oklahoma to sell subscriptions for the Word & Waynewspaper. “Lookout for us,” Marks told readers, “we are liable to come puffing up to your door at any time. Have your dollar ready, for the Word and Way, the paper of enterprise and prompt service” (171).
Baptists in Oklahoma had only a small window of opportunity to catch a glimpse of Marks as Baptist preacher on a Harley. After a series of experiences with flat tires, bad roads, and worse weather, Marks abandoned the modern invention, one of many disappointments he faced in his career. Turner details all of these: failure of the newspaper; Oklahoma Baptist College, another of Marks’ passions, sold on the auction block; continual and pervasive attempts to find a pastorate that could support his family.
In short, Marks’ story is not one full of successes, far from it, but the activities and life experiences that are recorded by Turner are instructive, and we need more biographies of religious leaders who had big dreams and plans for themselves and parishioners. Turner obviously respects Marks and his influence on Baptists in Missouri and Oklahoma, but the book is not a denominational hagiography. The book is the story of a religious leader with progressive ideals in a region where progress is not so easily attained.