Brann vs the Baptists - Violence in Southern Religion
By Charles Wellborn, Professor of Religion Emeritus, Florida State University
Mainstream Southern religion has rarely been distinguished by either restraint or lethargy. Historically Southerners have, at least partly, agreed with Augustus Longstreet’s “honest Georgian” who preferred “his whiskey straight and his politics and relligion red hot.”[i]
The result has often been scenes of conflict, usually verbal but sometimes violent, within the ranks of the predominant southern religious groups. The current arguments dividing Southern Baptists are but the latest in a long series of disputes, going back in history to the days before the Civil War, when Southern Baptists split with their northern brethren, largely over the issue of slavery. In the 1920s, amid controversy similar in some respects to the present situation, several leading professors at Southern Baptist seminaries were driven from their posts and went to other institutions, just as many teachers have been forced to do today. Such internecine struggles have often amazed outside observers. The Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee and the flamboyant antics of the Reverend J. Frank Norris[ii] in Texas strike many people as exaggerated, overly dramatic, and foggily emotional. Yet to dismiss such personalities and events as mere aberrations in the history of Southern religion is unjustified. They are indicative, albeit in a grotesque way, of the deep roots of “Bible Belt” religion in the American frontier culture.
The emergence of the American South as the “Bible Belt” was profoundly shaped by the unique experiences of the early 19th century Second Awakening camp meetings in Kentucky and surrounding areas. The revivalistic style of Christian conversion, set out as the norm in those meetings, both posited and demanded a decisive and virtually instantaneous separation of the converted person from the secular, non-Christian, Satan-dominated “world.” In the frontier atmosphere of the camp meetings this separation was sometimes validated by distinctive emotional and physical manifestations (the notorious “jerks”) and always by a deep-seated hostility toward certain selected and easily identifiable aspects of the “world”—liquor, gambling, dancing, and the theater, for instance. This hostility was not one-sided. Secularists, along with representatives of more genteel religious movements, found the Southern revival experiences distasteful and disturbing. Denominational groups such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians refused to participate, but other groups, particularly Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ, benefited enormously in terms of numbers from the meetings. And the gap between “Bible belt” religion and its detractors sometimes, and not unexpectedly, was bridged with violence.
In the last decade of the 19th century William Cowper Brann, self-styled the “Iconoclast,” indulged in a series of hot-headed assaults upon a large and influential segment of Southern Protestantism. He attacked Texas Baptists and their most important educational institution, Baylor University. His story offers not only a fascinating vignette of Southern religious history but also a case study in the violent working out of the hostility between church and world.
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. By 1895 Brann could describe his publication as “the first American magazine that ever secured 100,000 readers in a single year.”[iii] The staple ingredients in The Iconoclastmenu, as the title indicates, were unrestrained attacks upon the central ideals and institutions of the contemporary political, social, and religious scene. Brann called his journal an “intellectual cocktail,” and his verbal and journalistic talents served up a heady brew.
Waco, where Brann first came 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.
And, like ancient Athens as described by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17, Waco could be perceived as filled with people who were “very religious.” Indeed, from the 1930s until after World War II, another popular sobriquet for Waco was “one tall building surrounded by Baptists.”[iv] No skyscraper marked Waco’s skyline in Brann’s day, but the city of 25,000 contained more than fifty churches, most of them Baptist with a sprinkling of Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopals, and Catholics. Four monthly religious pamphlets, three of them Baptist, were regularly published in Waco.
Coupled uncomfortably with the educational and religious image of Waco was its reputation as “Six Shooter Depot,” a hard-drinking, fast-living frontier community, many of whose citizens wore guns regularly in daily life. Shooting deaths were not uncommon, and in the l880s Waco shared an unusual distinction with only one other American city, Omaha, Nebraska. A city ordinance set aside certain downtown blocks, known as the “Reservation,” where prostitution and associated activities went on virtually unmolested by the city police.
Into this volatile civic atmosphere Brann tossed the explosive contents of The Iconoclast He not only embraced unpopular religious and political beliefs; he also knew that controversy sells magazines. Where there was a divisive issue to exploit, Brann did not hesitate.
The long and bitter conflict between Brann and Waco’s religious forces centered about a number of issues. One of Brann’s favorite targets was the organization called the American Protective Association (A.P.A.), which exploited Protestant-Catholic tensions. Organized in the early 1890’s in Canton, Ohio, the A.P.A. was not only anti-Catholic but anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. It flourished briefly on the American scene and then disappeared. The A.P.A. sponsored traveling lecturers, some of them ex-Catholic priests, to espouse its cause. In April, 1895, Joseph Slattery, ex-priest and recently ordained Baptist minister, gave a series of lectures in Waco, heavily attended and financially supported by the local Protestant majority, especially Baptists. His most flamboyant effort was a “For Men Only” lecture on the evening of April 25. In a previous talk Slattery had made a long list of accusations against the Roman Catholic Church, outlining the so-called “Romish conspiracy” and including the claim that he had personally seen a true copy of a papal bull calling for a Protestant massacre in the United States “on or about the Feast of St. Ignatius in the Year of our Lord, 1893.” He did not explain why the massacre had failed to take place.[v]
Word had spread in Waco that Brann planned to make an appearance at the Opera House where Slattery was speaking. The editor of The Iconoclast had already directed his attention to Slattery. In an edition of magazine published earlier in April, he had written: “Ex-priest Slattery and his ex-nun wife are still at large in the land, pandering to anti-Catholic prejudice and collecting money of cranks. . . . With some hundreds of Protestant preachers in the penitentiaries—and as many of their female parishioners branded as bawds—it were indeed remarkable if all priests were paragons of purity; but Slattery’s sweeping denunciations would be promptly punished by due process of law did Catholic prelates consider him worthy of their serious consideration.” [vi]
Slattery had promised to reveal shocking and secret Catholic practices , too dissolute to discuss in mixed company, to his male audience. In the midst of his lecture, he deviated to attack Brann. “He is simply a pipsqueak scrivener who has soiled your city with a calumnious rag called The Iconoclast, a fetid tangle of lies and half-truths, hiding his slander behind altars and anti-Christ slogans.”[vii]
Brann was indeed present in the hall. In the midst of the applause that followed Slattery’s diatribe Brann rose to his feet, waited for silence, and then responded, “You lie and you know it, and I refuse to listen to you.” He then walked leisurely to the door of the Opera House where, according to newspaper accounts of the incident, he blew a contemptuous kiss to the lecturer and left.
Later, Brann hired the Opera House at his own expense and delivered a public lecture replying to Slattery. His opening remarks set the tone of the controversy: “The Iconoclast does not please ex-priest Slattery, ‘Baptist minister in good standing,’ and I am not surprised. Its mission, as its name implies, is to expose frauds and abolish fakes, to make unrelenting war upon Humbugs and Hypocrites; hence it is not remarkable that Slattery should regard its existence as a personal affront. It is ever the galled jade that winces; or to borrow from the elegant pulpit vernacular of the Rev. Sam Jones, ‘it’s the hit dog that yelps.’”[viii]
Brann included another shot at Slattery and his supporters in the May, 1895, issue of The Iconoclast. “Ex-priest Slattery and his ex-nun wife swooped down upon Waco recently and scooped in several hundred scudi from prurient worldlings and half-baked Protestants. . . . Brother Fight-the-Good-Fight was out in force, and many a Baptist dollar went into the coffers of these brazen adventurers. . . . The audiences were representative of that class of so-called Christians which believes that everyone outside its foolish sectarian fold will go to hell in a hemlock coffin.”[ix]
In subsequent issues of his journal Brann continued to berate the A.P.A., which he dubbed the “Aggregation of Pusillanimous Asses,” and the Baptist establishment. He branded the nationally known Baptist minister, T. Dewitt Talmadge, whose columns were carried in 3000 American newspapers, a “wide-lipped blatherskite.” In an article which reveals Brann’s own racial prejudices he objected to the zealous foreign mission efforts of Baptists, while at the same time criticizing the wealth of the churches. “For a specimen of audacity that must amaze Deity, commend me to a crowd of pharasaical plutocrats, piously offering in a hundred thousand dollar church prayers to Him who had not where to lay His head; who pay a preacher $15,000 per annum to point the way to Paradise, while children must steal or starve. . . . Everywhere the widow is battling with want, while these Pharisees send Bibles and blankets, salvation and missionary soup to a job-lot of niggers, whose souls aren’t worth a soumarkee in blocks of five. . . . Let the heathen rage; we’ve got our hands full at home. I’d rather see the whole black-and tan aggregation short on Bibles than one white child crying for bread.”[x]
In another issue of The Iconoclast Brann turned his caustic sarcasm on the influential monthly publication, the Baptist Standard (still today the official journal of Texas Baptists), edited by Dr. J. B. Cranfill, a Baptist patriarch. His special target was the advertising featured in Standard pages. “It grieves me to note that the purveyors of ‘panaceas’ for private diseases regard the religious press as the best possible medium for reaching prospective patrons. . . . It shocks my sense of proprieties to see a great religious journal . . . like the Texas Baptist Standard flaunting in the middle of a page of jejeune prattle anent the Holy Spirit, a big display ad for the “French Nerve Pill”--guaranteed to restallionize old roues.”[xi]
The event, however, which was to bring 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.”[xiii]
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.”[xiv] .
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.”[xv]
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. . . .”[xvi]
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.
With Brann dead The Iconoclast soon ceased publication, and his feud with Baylor and the Baptists gradually faded into obscurity. Brann’s career, however, is an interesting sidelight in Southern religious and political history. The ethical demands of Southern frontier religion did not prevent its adherents from violent reactions to Brann’s attacks. It is perhaps significant that the thrust of those attacks was not primarily theological, though Brann was clearly a religious heretic in Baptist eyes. Instead, Brann picked on at least three areas of special sensitivity in nineteenth century Southern Protestantism: the conviction that “foreign” Roman Catholicism represented a major threat to the society and its values; pride in a major educational institution; and Southern sexual mores, a mixture of Puritan conviction and what Brann saw as Victorian hypocrisy.
The bloody outcome of the struggle may testify to the underlying violent elements in both emotional Southern religion and the contemporary frontier culture. The reservoir of violence implicit in the intense emotional and even physical experiences of frontier revivalism was usually held in check by the ethical demands of the faith The revivalistic conversion experience most often produced a constructive change in behavior and attitude, but it is not difficult to see how that violence could, under the proper circumstances, and without the creation of great feelings of personal guilt, erupt in destructive ways.
A study of Brann’s work reveals him as a master of brilliant and usually alliterative invective. He was a kind of provincial Voltaire who did not care if he sometimes twisted the truth so long as his efforts were directed against the “enemy” and brought him notoriety and profit. The affair of the Brazilian girl would probably have been quickly forgotten, had not Brann nagged at it. Though, it is impossible, after more than a century, to determine all the facts of the case with certainty, it is clear that Brann had some basis for his criticism, but it is also clear that he often tarred both innocent and guilty with the same brush. Brann’s great talent was an unerring instinct for the vulnerable spots. He consistently went for the jugular vein. In retrospect, given the religious and social context, Brann’s violent end seems almost inevitable.
Are there any lasting lessons from this small historical vignette? Perhaps we should reflect on the reality that, because religious experience and commitment involve every part of the human psyche, they carry with them both constructive and destructive potential. The frontier culture of 19th century Waco has largely passed away, and in today’s world, the potentially violent elements in religious faith most often, at least in America, find expression in verbal attack, bitter argument, and vitriolic abuse, rather than in physical violence. But we must not forget that in other parts of the world—in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosova, and the Middle East—deep seated religious differences are still capable of producing tragic human consequences.
Brann was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Waco, and a monument capped with a Grecian urn inscribed “Truth” was erected at his grave by his friends. Carved into the stone was a profile mask of the dead writer. 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, a vivid reminder of the passions inspired by the “Iconoclast.”
1.Quoted in Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 137.
2.Norris was pastor of the First Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, from 1909 until his death in l952. During his turbulent career he was accused of burning down his church auditorium to collect the insurance. He also shot a man in his church office but was acquitted of a charge of murder on a plea of self-defense.
3.Charles Carver, Brann and the Iconoclast (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1957), 71. Carver’s volume is the fullest available study of Brann.
4.The “one tall building” was the headquarters of the Amicable Life Insurance Company, erected in the early 1930’s.
6.The Iconoclast, vol. V, no. 3 (April, 1895).
8.The Complete Works of Brann the Iconoclastt (New York: The Brann Publishers Inc., 1898), vol. XII, 204-205.See also Carver, 14-16, for Carver’s account of the incident, which differs from the account given here.Carver describes Brann as engaging in a long debate with Slattery in the Opera House. The description given here, taken from the collected edition of Brann’s works, is probably more accurate.
9.The Iconoclast, vol. V, no. 4 (May, 1895).
11.Ibid., vol. V, no. 2 (March, 1895).
12.Waco Morning News, June 16, 1895, 5.
13.The Iconoclast, vol. V, no. 6 (July, 1895).
14.Ibid., vol. VI, no.8 (September, 1896).
15.Ibid., vol. VII, no. 9 (October, 1896).
16. Brann consistently denied that he was an atheist. In the March, 1896, issue of The Iconoclast he wrote: “There is a Deity. I have felt his presence. I have heard his voice. I have been cradled in his Imperial robe. . . I ask no written covenant with God, for he is my Father. I will trust him without requiring priests or prophets to indorse his note.”