A Congregational History
“This is more than just a congregational history—although it is a masterful exemplar of that. It is a story situated in both a particular place and in a larger culture and time. Gardner pays needed attention to a sometimes invisible corner of Baptist life—the world of southern white progressive Christians. And he does so with a critical and caring eye on a real place where real people live out their faith.”—Nancy T. Ammerman, author of Baptist Battles: Social Change and Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention
“If Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church sought to reform and reimagine the ‘southern part of heaven’ that was Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Gardner himself rectifies as well as reconceives congregational history, rescuing it from the parochialism and hagiography that have so often informed the genre’s reputation. . . . While indeed the tale of a particular church, with its own peculiar personalities and in-house happenings, Binkley also discloses the courage and resilience as well as the failures and misgivings of Southern liberal Christianity.” —Elizabeth Flowers, associate professor of religion, Baylor University
“Surprise! We’ve been duped to think all Baptists are conservative and reactionary, but not all Baptists are the same. Historian Andrew Gardner reveals how progressive white churches like Binkley Memorial Baptist Church embody a Southern, congregationally based liberalism consistently opposing exclusion and hate. Their ecclesial stance on controversies over race and gender from the past century remains a cornerstone of ministry. Read this book to discover a neglected yet sorely needed history of a white liberal Baptist church persistently striving for a more just and inclusive Christianity.” —Gerardo Martí, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at Davidson College
“Andrew Gardner’s rich and evocative historical narrative of Binkley Memorial Baptist Church demonstrates the vitality and challenges of a church planted in southern evangelical soil but sown with the seeds of a progressive and justice-oriented vision of faith. Truly, a captivating and informative account that both clergy and scholars should savor.” —Scott Thuma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford International University and director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research
What makes a Baptist church Baptist? Casual observers might be tempted to stereotype the churches of the American South, but scholar Andrew B. Gardner paints a portrait of one North Carolina congregation that defies easy categorization.
Established in 1958 in the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church immediately sought to establish a welcoming religious community—focusing initially on bringing in both Black and White congregants and, as ideas about inclusivity developed, on accepting all people, regardless of identity. By naming itself for a theologically progressive preacher and professor, the fledgling church signaled a perspective unfamiliar to Baptists in the South, which gave the church a radical edge. The church’s first pastor, Robert Seymour, also possessed a progressive vision that resonated with his congregants and pushed them to commit to justice and equality. Soon after its founding, the church strived to challenge inequality in segregated Chapel Hill. Although it remained predominantly White well into the twenty-first century, Binkley evolved to become increasingly aware of issues of gender equality, equity, LGBTQ inclusion, and climate justice. Addressing these issues was Binkley’s way of building God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Binkley: A Congregational History tells the story of a single church with a complicated past, demonstrating that, while liberal in heritage, it operated with an unconsciously White, heteronormative worldview that slowly evolved into a distinct expression of faith. The author also draws on scholarship within the broader field of American religious history to position Binkley—with all its complexities, conflicts, and nuances—within the broader context of twentieth-century liberal Protestantism. Perhaps most importantly, Gardner tells the story of a place animated by a vision of Christianity that is often overlooked or drowned out by larger and louder Christian groups. He compellingly shows how this progressive vision of Christianity has shaped Binkley’s commitment to its community and beyond.
ANDREW B. GARDNER, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Baylor University, is the author of Reimagining Zion: A History of the Alliance of Baptists.