One of the reasons I love history is because of the inherent wisdom that comes from knowing the past. For instance, controversies within Southern Baptist life are not new. Character assassination and disparaging remarks against a fellow Southern Baptist are not of recent origin. Augustus Longstreet, called "the honest Georgian," once said he preferred "his politics and religion red hot."
Well, Southern Baptists do have a red hot history of conflict. For example, there is the Brann vs. the Southern Baptists of Texas conflict in the 1890's. Some of you may not have heard of this particular controversy, so I will summarize using the written history of Southern religious violence by Charles Wellborn, Professor of Religion at Florida State University, to familiarize you with the conflict.
Like ancient Athens as described by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17, Waco, Texas could be perceived as filled with people who were “very religious” in the 1800's.
In the last decade of that century William Cowper Brann, self-styled the “Iconoclast,” indulged in a series of hot-headed assaults against Southern Baptists in Texas and their most important educational institution, Baylor University.
Born in rural Illinois, Brann spent most of his adult life as an itinerant journalist. At the age of 39 he settled in Waco, Texas, which became the headquarters for a new magazine, The Iconoclast. This journal, a monthly compendium of personal philosophy, invective, and current comment, rapidly achieved an amazing degree of national and even international popularity.
Brann first came to Waco as an editorial writer for one of the local newspapers, was incongruously known both as the “Athens of Texas” and “Six Shooter Depot.” Both slogans could to some extent be justified. The sixth largest city in Texas at that time, Waco was the home of four important educational institutions. They were Waco Female Academy (Methodist), Catholic Academy of the Sacred Heart, Paul Quinn University (African Methodist), and Baylor University (Baptist) Of these the largest and best known--indeed, the pride of Texas Baptists--was Baylor, headed since 1851 by Dr. Rufus Burleson, a Baptist minister widely respected in Southern religious circles.
Brann’s feud with the Baptists to a raging boiling point was one that shocked and intrigued all Waco. In the spring of 1895 the impending motherhood of an unmarried Baylor student from Brazil, Antonia Teixeira, became public knowledge. Antonia had come to Texas from Brazil at the age of 12, sent there by Baptist missionaries to be educated at Baylor. During her first year at Baylor she was a boarding student on the campus, but then Dr. Burleson, Baylor’s president, took her into his home where, in return for her board, room, and clothes, she assisted Mrs. Burleson with the housework.
Rooming in a house in the Burleson yard and eating his meals with the family was Steen Morris, the brother of Dr. Burleson’s son-in-law. Morris worked for his brother, who published a Baptist monthly, The Guardian. According to Antonia, Morris sexually attacked her on three occasions, after first drugging her. She further asserted that she had reported the first incident to Mrs. Burleson, but that when Morris denied the story, no one believed her. Thereafter, she remained silent.
In April, 1895, it was discovered that Antonia was pregnant. On June 16 the Waco Morning News reported the story in detail, including interviews with the Brazilian girl, Steen Morris, and Dr. Burleson. Morris was arrested on a charge of rape and released on bond, protesting his total innocence. Dr. Burleson denied that his wife had ever been told of any trouble between Antonia and Morris and labeled the idea of rape as preposterous. He declared that Antonia was “utterly untrustworthy. . .and in addition to other faults, the girl was crazy after boys.” [xii] A daughter was born to Antonia on June 18, but the baby soon died.
The situation was made to order for Brann, who saw the whole affair as a sordid scandal encompassing all the hypocrisy of the Baptists. In the July, 1895, Iconoclast he set in motion events which were to lead to the deaths of four men. “Once or twice in a decade a case arises so horrible in conception, so iniquitous in outline, so damnable in detail that it were impossible to altogether ignore it. Such a case has just come to light, involving Baylor University, that bulwark of the Baptist Church.”
Brann went on to attack Burleson for using the Brazilian girl as a “scullion maid” in the “kitchen curriculum,” instead of giving her an honest education. With regard to her pregnancy, Brann asked rhetorically: “What did the aged president of Baylor, that sanctum sanctorum of the Baptist church, do about it? Did he assist in bringing to justice the man who had dared invade the sanctity of his household. . . ? Not exactly. He rushed into print with a statement to the effect that the child was a thief and “crazy after the boys.”
Attacks on Burleson were inflammatory enough, but Brann compounded his offense in the eyes of Baptists with a general denunciation of Baylor. “I do know,” he wrote, “that Antonia is not the first young girl to be sent from Baylor in disgrace—that she is not the first to complain of assault within its sanctified walls.” And he concluded with a dramatic prediction: “I do know that as far as Baylor University is concerned the day of its destiny is over and the star of its fate hath declined; that the brutal treatment the Brazilian girl received at its hands will pass into history as the colossal crime of the age, and that generations yet to be will couple its name with curses.”
As usual, Brann wrote in hyperbole. His prediction has not come true. But in 1895 his intemperate barbs aroused the resentment of every Baylor and Baptist partisan. Dr. Burleson, after conferring with his Board of Trustees, issued a four-page pamphlet entitled “Baylor and the Brazilian Girl,” in which he defended the university’s role in the affair. The controversy continued for months, with Brann making new charges and rehearsing old ones in each succeeding issue of The Iconoclast. Morris’s rape trial was delayed until June, 1896, resulting finally in a “hung”jury, seven of the jurors voting for conviction, the other five for acquittal. In September, 1896, Antonia Teixeira executed an affidavit exonerating Morris of her charges, then quickly returned to Brazil. Brann, predictably, asserted that the girl had been paid to sign the affidavit: “When Capt. Blair (Morris’s attorney) asks the court to dismiss the case . . . let him be required to state why the drawer of the remarkable document purchased Antonia’s ticket, and who furnished the funds. Of course, her long conference with Steen Morris and his attorney on the day before her departure may have been merely a social visit. If the currency question was discussed at all, it may have been from a purely theoretical standpoint.”
In the year that followed the dismissal of the Morris indictment Brann continued to raise questions in print about Baylor and the Baptists. He ridiculed a plan, proposed in the Baptist Standard, that Waco Baptists should buy only from Baptist merchants. He attacked Waco’s Sunday “blue laws,” mocking the preoccupation of Baptists with Sabbath sales while they winked at the Reservation and the city slums. Again and again, he recalled Antonia Teixeira, whose “diploma” from Baylor was a dead illegitimate child.
A new dimension of the controversy emerged in October, 1897. Dr. Burleson was about to retire from the Baylor presidency, and a political struggle to succeed him arose between Dr. B. H. Carroll, chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees , and other aspirants for the office. Brann commented: “I greatly regret that my Baptist brethren should have gotten into a spiteful and un-Christian snarl over so pitiful a thing as Baylor’s $2000 a year presidency—that they should give to the world such a flagrant imitation of a lot of cut-throat degenerates out for the long green. . . .”
Evidently these new thrusts were the final straw for some Baylorites. On October 2 Brann was forcibly abducted by a group of Baylor undergraduates and taken to the campus. Had not several Baylor professors intervened, a lynching might have occurred. After being badly beaten the editor was finally released, but the violence was not ended. Four days later Brann was attacked by a Baylor student, George Scarborough, aided by his father, a distinguished Waco attorney. Young Scarborough threatened Brann with a revolver, while his father beat the journalist with a cane. A second Baylor student joined the fray, striking Brann with a horsewhip. Brann fled for his life, escaping this time with a broken wrist, along with cuts and bruises.
The chain of violence was not fully forged. After an initial public scuffle between them had inflamed tempers, Judge George Gerald, a friend and supporter of Brann, and W. A. Harris, the editor of the Waco Times-Herald, met on a downtown Waco street. Present also was J. W. Harris, an insurance salesman and the editor’s brother. Shots were fired; both of the Harris brothers were killed, and Judge Gerald was wounded.
The final act in the mounting tragedy occurred on April 1, 1898. Brann was to leave the following day on a nation-wide lecture tour. In the late afternoon he went downtown. From the door of a real estate office an anti-Brann zealot, Tom Davis, shot at Brann. Wounded, Brann drew his own pistol, returning the fire. Within hours both men were dead. Two bystanders were slightly wounded.
Why did Davis shoot Brann? His motives were not clear. He had a daughter attending Baylor, and he had expressed his hatred of Brann on many occasions. He was also thought to have political ambitions, counting on his attack on Brann to win for him the sizable Baptist vote. Brann himself was said to consistently go for the jugular vein of his opponents. In retrospect, given the religious and social context, Brann’s violent end seems almost inevitable.
Brann was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Waco. Scarcely had the monument been erected when someone, under the cover of darkness, crept into the cemetery and fired a pistol shot at the stone memorial, shattering away a portion of the mask. The scar in the stone can still be seen.
Truth for Today that Rises from Our Awareness of Our Past
(1). There is a fine line between discussing issues and attacking one's character --- Southern Baptists all must be vigilant never to cross that line. (Ex. The accusation against President Burleson).
(2). Young leaders have a tendency to be far more volatile in confrontation than older statesmen --- something that should both be remembered by all and guarded against by some. (Ex. The Baylor students attempted lynching).
(3). The scars of conflict can be seen years after the conflict is over --- which should cause everyone pause before entering any conflict --- not to say conflict is not sometimes unavoidable, but one should do everything imaginable to avoid it if at all possible. (Ex. The scar on the headstone of Brann).
(4). Southern Baptists should resist the temptation to pick up a brother's offense, but rather, we should work hard to avoid choosing sides based upon friendships, previous loyalty, and we must determine to stand behind the truth alone. (Ex. The shooting of Harris brothers and the wounding of the judge).
(5). All in all, Southern Baptists have progressed a great deal from the old days of the late 1800's, as evidenced by this past Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, NC where brothers were able to disagree, but when all was said and done, we determined to leave, locking our arms in cooperation for the purpose of evangelism and missions.
In His Grace,