Review: Bishops, Bourbon, and Big Mules

William Jason Wallace

William Jason Wallace is Associate Professor of History at Samford University.

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William Jason Wallace, "Review: Bishops, Bourbon, and Big Mules," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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J. Berry Vaughn. Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. 264 pp. ISBN 978-0-8173-1811-6.

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In the mid-twentieth century, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America garnered the droll epithet “the Republican Party at prayer.” Like most stereotypes, the quip is funny because it contains more than a half-truth. Episcopal priest and historian Dr. J. Barry Vaughn has written a superb institutional history of the Episcopal Church in Alabama that goes far to clarify half-truths surrounding Episcopalians in heart of Dixie. Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama is an impressively researched work that fills a long-standing lacuna in southern religious history—a history of those “other” Protestants who are not exactly Evangelical, but not exactly Catholic either.

Alabama has a deceptively complicated religious history. Most Christians identify as Baptists, but this faith contains a variety of subcultures within subcultures, as do the plentiful Methodists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals in the state. While the general religious ethos may be Baptist congregationalism, identifying how that translates into the nuances of culture and politics is not always clear. As a denomination, Alabama Episcopalians have not received anything near the historical scrutiny of their Protestant counterparts, but Vaughn demonstrates that their history is worthy of attention precisely because they too share an ambiguous but important relationship with the state’s history.

Although their numbers have always been small, Alabama’s Episcopalians have had a disproportionate influence in the highest ranks of politics, industry, and the arts. Vaughn notes that “Episcopalians served as governors of Alabama for twenty years of the twentieth century, and four of the twenty-eight governors Alabamians elected between 1900 and 2000 were Episcopalians.” From the antebellum period to the twenty-first century, many of Alabama’s most powerful citizens were also Episcopalians, worshiping in large parishes such as Christ Church Tuscaloosa, Christ Church Mobile, St. Paul’s Selma, St. John’s Montgomery, Nativity Huntsville, and St. Luke’s Mountain Brook. Bishops, priests, and laypersons in these churches (as well as numerous smaller churches) frequently found themselves situated in the drama of the state’s history, from its relationship to slavery and secession in the nineteenth century, to the emergence of industrialism and the struggle for civil rights and racial justice in the twentieth century.

Vaughn gives an appropriate nod to the origins of the Episcopal Church in the colonies and the young republic, but he identifies the beginnings of the church in Alabama with the establishment of the Diocese of Alabama in 1830. From this date, the narrative dives into the years leading up to the Civil War, where Episcopalians dominated in the planter class, to secession and the War itself, when the first Bishop of Alabama, Nicholas Hamner Cobbs, was succeeded by Bishop Richard Hooker Wilmer. Bishop Wilmer proves a most fascinating personality in the story. In some ways his life is a metaphor for the changes in Alabama from the collapse of slavery to the rise of the “big mule” industrialists later the century. During Reconstruction, he was censured for ordering the clergy to refuse to include prayers for the president of the United States in the collect, while later in his career he prepared the church for the “age of Dread-Naughts and Sky-Scrapers” that marked the industrial turn of the early twentieth century.

Alabama’s history is never far from the larger history of race relations and, as Vaughn aptly demonstrates, so too the history of Alabama’s Episcopal Church. In the twentieth century, influential Episcopalians, both lay and clergy, found themselves intersecting with the case of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931, early attempts to integrate a Tuskegee congregation in the 1940s, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham in 1963, and the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. Most of Vaughn’s attention through this dramatic epoch is given to senior clergy—particularly the legacy of Bishop Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter who led the Diocese of Alabama from 1938-1968. Bishop Carpenter’s is a tale of conflicted conscience and at times complacency, but Vaughn treats his all-too-human frailties in those tumultuous times with sensitivity and honesty. Likewise, Vaughn concludes the book with the sobering observation that, although the Episcopal Church in Alabama survived the tremendous social dislocations of Civil War, Reconstruction, industrialization, and the civil rights movement, it very well might not survive the emerging changes the church confronts regarding human sexuality, gay marriage, and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.

Vaughn’s argument is clear and profound. If Alabama Episcopalians can claim a disproportionate share of the state’s leaders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, then they must also accept a disproportionate responsibility for the social, political, and economic disparity that has haunted the state for most of its history. Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules is a well-written institutional history that does justice to both the institution and the larger historical dynamics that shape and are shaped by institutions. The book should be of great interest to any serious student of southern religious history.