“Confused as a termite in a YO-YO”: Appleby Baptist and Religion in the South
By Charity R Carney
The folks at Appleby Baptist hate a lot of things. Here’s just a sampling of the targets of the Independent Fundamentalist congregation: interracial marriage, Obama, cowboy churches, other Independent Baptists, the NIV, tattoos, Southern Baptists, Beth Moore, flashy clothing, John Calvin, oh, and interracial marriage. That last one deserved repeating because it comes up A LOT. Most of the church’s vitriol is aimed at evangelicals themselves, who are not living up to Appleby’s standards of Christianity and confronting these “sins” head on. The small church a few miles from my house has received some national attention lately for promoting racist and sexist doctrines, especially with is insistence on preaching the Curse of Ham. But there is more to Appleby than racist theology. The church promotes a range of fundamentalist doctrines that make Southern Baptists look liberal. In fact, Dennis Anderson (the lead pastor for Appleby) uses the word “liberal” interchangeably with “Southern Baptist,” in his writings.
As I’ve talked to locals who are just discovering this congregation, I’ve found myself contextualizing in the midst of their many condemnations. We should condemn these doctrines but to dismiss them as wacky or ignorant is to forget our own history. For southerners especially, Appleby Baptist offers a real opportunity for us to take a closer look at our past and how it’s informed the present—beyond the walls of one fanatical congregation.
At first listen, Anderson’s fire-and-brimstone sermons seem like some strange sampling of Billy Sunday, Jonathan Edwards, and antebellum proslavery Baptists like Thornton String-fellow. Anderson has very real connections to Edwards in terms of dark prophetic imagery, combining a reliance on the vernacular with an obsession for jeremiads. He also borrows from Sunday’s theatrical intonations, using anecdotes and flamboyant metaphors to articulate his points. And those points incorporate themes and arguments reminiscent of proslavery apologists who used Scripture to justify the peculiar institution. The influences of these predecessors are apparent but wrapped in a particular perspective unique to Appleby Baptist that is at once offensive and laughable. (In a recent article, for instance, Dennis Anderson addressed other ministers who do not follow his creed as the “liberal minded, sissy acting, silk panty wearing wimps, who will no doubt have the opinion that I shouldn’t be calling names.”)
Beyond incendiary rhetoric, what may be more distressing to many Christians is that Appleby is not an anomaly within the larger history of evangelicalism in the South. In fact, its core beliefs are very similar to those held in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth (some gender inequalities are obviously still being debated and negotiated within larger denominations). The Southern Poverty Law Center rightly picked up on the church’s open devotion to the Curse of Ham and their loud protests against interracial marriage. The church proclaims that “God is a separator, not a mixer” and Anderson lays out the antiquated justification for slavery and segregation based on a very specific interpretation of the curse placed on Canaan in Genesis. This kind of racist doctrine was used in the antebellum South to promote slavery and in the Jim Crow South to support racial discrimination/segregation. Stephen Haynes’s work—including his article in a 2000 issue of the Journal of Southern Religion and monograph Noah’s Curse (Oxford UP, 2002)—has rightly situated the myth within southern honor culture. Sylvester Johnsons’ The Myth of Ham presents the ways that Hamitic identity affected black Christians. In many places throughout the South, the Curse of Ham is still taught but the churches simply aren’t publishing articles on the Internet promoting the myth.
But in addition to its racist doctrines, Appleby also promotes outmoded (but not unheard of) spiritual sexism. In a scathing review of Beth Moore’s leadership at First Baptist in Houston (a megachurch about two hours away), Anderson calls Moore a “spiritual whore” for preaching that God can call women into ministry, using the NIV Bible (the King James is the only acceptable version at Appleby, being “pro-Christ” rather than “pro-Roman Catholic”), and drinking too much coffee from Starbucks, indicating her worldliness and affluence. (There is an interesting intersection of gender, class, and religion here that needs further dissection.) Moore “has trouble with authority” and “is not happy with being a woman, wife, mother, and homemaker.” Women who follow her have husbands who are “HOUSEBROKE” and “HENPECKED.” Anderson urges them: “Stand up and be a man! Take charge of your home, and get your family under some real Bible preaching that the gates of Hell cannot shake. God told you to take command of your house by the Word of God. Quit being a SISSY and STAND UP and be a man for God.” The gender politics at Appleby is fascinating and the masculine rhetoric is overpowering. But it is not wildly distinct from the positions taken by other, mainstream denominations in the South. Appleby sits squarely within the long history of gender inequality in Christianity and debates over women’s religious leadership. Elizabeth Flowers’s excellent new book, Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power since World War II (UNC, 2012), details the struggles over female ordination in the SBC. Baptists, Methodists, Mormons—all have experienced recent discourse over the subject of women’s role in the church. Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (edited by Margaret Bendroth and Virginia Brereton; Illinois, 2002) offers insight into this discourse in many Protestant groups. Evangelicalism has wrestled with this conflict/crisis for a long time, in other words, and Appleby is simply contributing to that narrative.
Despite any congruence with mainstream religious history, Appleby preaches these messages with a certain… how shall I say this… verve? Anderson has translated past evangelical beliefs into modern terms (with additional offensive flare). There are no gentlemen theologians at the church but, instead, its leaders rely on crude analogies and language to stir the emotions of their congregants. When addressing the minister who does not denounce interracial marriage, Anderson calls him a “TURD CHUNKING MONKEY.” When denouncing Christian authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend, the preacher argues that they may be “sweet on each other” since they took their author photo together, and launches into a series of attacks that utilizes a myriad of epithets for homosexuals. Anyone who reads Cloud and Townsend’s books, Anderson claims, is as “CONFUSED as a termite in a YO-YO.” This incendiary style of preaching mirrors that of Westboro Baptist and presents a twist to other racial or gendered religious doctrines presented by other churches. It’s angry and offensive and intentional, but it’s not new.
Although Appleby presents its beliefs in a different way, they are beliefs that were widely held for much of American religious history. The same prejudiced doctrines were crafted with care in the slaveholding South, promoted into the twentieth century, and are still practiced in small congregations throughout the region. Within this historical context, Appleby offers much in terms of revealing the connections between past and present in southern religion and forces us to consider the lasting effects of lost causes on our belief systems. In criticizing Appleby, perhaps we are revealing our own revulsion with past sins. Appleby’s doctrine is not unmoored, but is connected to earlier trends/beliefs that simply do not mesh with our current culture, and that is what makes us so mad. It would be worthwhile to heed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hatewatch” warning: “the same seeds of hatred proudly displayed by Appleby and an unknown number of other independent fundamentalist churches are scattering, planted to grow in coming generations.” But what this statement ignores is that Appleby and other independent fundamentalist churches did not plant the seed; they are instead sowing the seeds of southern religious history that were planted well before Dennis Anderson ever picked up a King James Bible.