Time for a Southern culture break. Caroline Langston writes an affectionate appreciation of Southern Baptists she grew up with in Mississippi, and takes note of the ambiguous phrase “Big Baptists,” with which many Southerners will be familiar. Excerpt:
So what was a Big Baptist? Depending on my mother’s mood, the phrase could be a compliment or an insult. Generally, though, it meant the kind of Baptist, usually a rich one but not necessarily, who was a public and vocal pillar of the community. The Hederman family, who owned the Clarion-Ledger when I was little and sold the paper in the early 1980s for something like 100 million dollars (at least that’s what I overheard at the time) were perhaps the ultimate Big Baptists. (In his first novel Geronimo Rex, published in 1970, the great, recently-deceased Mississippi writer Barry Hannah offered a thinly veiled description of the family as “a long line of gloomy rich jingos.”)
Another type of Big Baptist was someone who gave a lot of money to Mississippi College, the Baptist college in Clinton, Mississippi that was founded early, early in the nineteenth century and where my father had earned a Biology degree in 1937. (The place was famous for turning out future doctors.) My own paternal grandmother, in fact, was a Big Baptist, because, so the family mythology goes, she kept giving the family’s savings to the school for ministerial scholarships rather than hoarding it away for her sons’ inheritance.
My mother looked approvingly on these Big Baptists.
But woe to the bad Big Baptists: Nothing could irk my mother like the prominent, devoutly churchgoing families in our town that she a) thought were overly demonstrative and “showy” about their faith, and b) felt looked down their noses at anyone else who wasn’t down at the First Baptist Church “every time the doors were open.” The executives of our local fertilizer plant–engineers and lawyers who’d come from other parts of Mississippi, or Nashville, or Atlanta, and who’d built a succession of Sixties glass-walled houses on the hill overlooking the Country Club–came in for both her envy and her scorn.
Turns out Caroline had an amazing encounter with the Biggest of the Big Baptists (in the best sense of the word). I loved that big-hearted guy as a kid. I am envious of Caroline. Read her post to find out who he is.