Carver School of Social Work Has Been a Victim of American Fundamentalism, Writers Say – Baptist News Global

The dismissal of Diana Garland in 1995 as Dean of Social Work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had less to do with his public conflicts with the Kentucky seminary leadership than with the rise of fundamentalism in the SBC and American evangelicalism, according to author and historian Melody Maxwell.

Maxwell, an associate professor of Church history at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, spoke on the latest episode of the “Making Baptist History Public History” webinar series presented by Baptist History and Heritage Society.

“Garland’s dismissal was not simply the product of his public disputes with [SBTS President Al] Mohler. Instead, it resulted more broadly from tensions building up as conservative control overcame moderate tolerance,” Maxwell said.

She is co-author of Speak Up: Carver Church School of Social Work of Southern Baptists and Its Predecessors, 1907–1997.

Diana Garland

After graduating from Southern Seminary, Garland became the founding dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work for a decade before his untimely death in 2015. This school now bears his name in his memory. Southern Seminary closed the Carver School in 1997.

Garland and the Carver School of Church Social Work she ran at Southern Seminary fell victim to conservative mistrust of the Department of Social Work as a whole, Maxwell said. “Social ministry efforts, which Southern Baptists had undertaken to some extent throughout their history, came into question as denominational leaders feared that liberal influences had tainted them. But this controversy clearly resulted from and was paradigmatic of the larger conflict between moderates and conservatives within the SBC.

Maxwell was joined in the session by his do the talking co-author Laine Scales. Like their 2019 book, they traced the history of the Southern Baptist social work movement and the educational institution that shaped and nurtured it.

Scales says the Carver school was started as Woman’s Missionary Union Training School for Christian Workers in 1907 before becoming the Carver School of Missions and Social Work in 1952. The school merged with Southern Seminary in 1963 and was renamed the Carver School of Church Social Work in 1984.

Scales also pointed to the historic and ongoing tensions that ultimately led to the closure of the Carver School by denominational forces who viewed social work and women in leadership positions with suspicion.

This strain was present from the start, as women in training schools were allowed to take limited courses at Southern Seminary, but not for credit. Women were also not allowed to use the common dining halls or social areas, as they lived and took most classes on their own nearby campuses.

“The seminary was to assure Southern Baptists that women were not preparing to preach.”

“The seminar was to ensure Southern Baptists that women were not preparing to preach,” Scales said.

While the curriculum for the first 40 years led to bachelor’s or master’s degrees in missionary training, the courses also included classes to prepare women for married life, Scales said.

“They practiced music and speaking skills in daily women’s chapel services. A student recalled years later that students were always reminded to stand next to the pulpit when speaking in public, as no lady would stand behind the sacred desk.

Goodwill Center, operated by WMU Training School, ca. 1915.
(Photo by Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives)

The 1950s saw new developments, including a curriculum focused as much on social work as on missions, and registration open to men and people of color. The school took in its first two black students in 1955.

Despite these changes, enrollment declined and income with it, in part because women were allowed to enroll in seminary. When the SBC refused to increase funding to fill the gaps, all assets of the Carver School were transferred to the SBC and the program was incorporated into Southern Seminary in 1963, Scales explained.

The institution was resurrected as the Carver School of Church Social Work at Seminary in 1984, gaining full accreditation from the Council for Social Work Education, Maxwell said. The school’s return was inspired by Carver alumnus Anne Davis, who had joined the seminary’s religious education faculty in 1970. She was a proponent of church-based social work designed to collaborate with d other ministries of the church.

“Davis often said the church, to be the church, must be involved in social ministry,” Maxwell explained. “She implicitly challenged the position that some Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals had on social ministry, which they viewed as a distraction from the heart of the gospel.”

Garland, who was hired by Davis and eventually succeeded him as Dean of the Carver School, took the concept further with the belief that “Christian social workers could help the church understand the needs of people, define those needs as a ministry challenge and find ways to equip church members for effective service,” Maxwell said.

But these practices, coupled with the teachings of the Carver school on the underlying social causes of suffering and healing, caught the attention of conservatives who were in the process of taking control of the SBC and its institutions.

“These kinds of systemic understanding of social problems were actually suspect among many Southern Baptist conservatives who viewed individual sin as the root of people’s problems.”

“These kinds of systemic understanding of social problems were actually suspect among many Southern Baptist conservatives who saw individual sin as the root of people’s problems. And these differing perspectives were soon to come into open conflict within Southern Baptist life,” she said.

The open struggle began to build shortly after Al Mohler became president of Southern Seminary in 1993, Maxwell said. He and Garland clashed when he refused to hire a professor for the school of social work due to the candidate’s openness to women in ministry.

“He then shifted his concerns to the nature of church social work. He claimed that the culture of social work and (Christian theology) were not absolutely congruent,” Maxwell said. “He told Garland that he was deeply suspicious of any therapeutic modality.”

Mohler also opposed the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics, which prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, sex, race and sexual orientation, she said. “In Mohler’s eyes, this code demonstrated a moral neutrality that left no room for denominational Christianity.

Accordingly, the Carver School, its professors and students found themselves at odds with the seminary leadership and the conservative movement they represented within the SBC, Maxwell said.

“Christian social workers, like those at the Carver school, believed that their faith gave a strong impetus to social work. A commitment to non-discrimination, as Garland and the Carver faculty understood, meant providing equal service to all customers, as Christ would have. And they believed that Christian social workers could then counsel their clients in a way consistent with their Christian beliefs. But the board of directors and Mohler believed that faculty members should unequivocally voice their conservative positions and publicly sever themselves from the social work accrediting body, regardless of the consequences.

While Mohler and the SBC have won these battles, the spirit of the Baptist social work movement lives on. Campbellsville University is now home to the Carver School of Social Work, while Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas have faith-based social work programs, noted Scales.

“These are places where the seeds of what (the Carver school) started have continued to bear fruit.”

Related Articles:

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From Carver School to Baylor: A Legacy of “Making the Word” | Analysis by Laine Scales and Melody Maxwell

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