Doing the Word: Southern Baptists’ Carver School of Social Work and its Predecessors, 1907-1997 by T. Laine Scales and Melody Maxwell

Many Baptists have heard about (or lived through) the Carver School of Church Social Work’s dramatic closing in 1997, following the firing of Southern Seminary’s only woman dean, Diana Garland.  Perhaps a less understood part of the story is the 90 previous years of building the school that reflected changing roles for women in Baptist life and broadening areas of women’s ministry throughout the twentieth century. At the heart of this story is Woman’s Missionary Union, the school’s sponsor and advocate.  In our book, we attempt to share the remarkable story of the women (and later men) who were trained as missionaries, social workers, religious educators, church musicians, and laypersons from the school’s beginnings in 1907. We ground our arguments in an emerging literature on women’s religious history, and use primary sources such as diaries, scrapbooks, letters, and oral histories to recount the remarkable impact this school had on the lives of Baptists.

 For us, this work is not only academic; it is personal. We both grew up in Southern Baptist homes and churches that were mission-minded and committed to rearing young people in the faith. Although our childhood stories take place 20 years apart (Laine in the 1960s and Melody in the 1980s), our early experiences with WMU were similar, demonstrating the stability of WMU culture until the 1990s. Both of us participated in GA—Girls’ Auxiliary during Laine’s childhood, and Girls in Action during Melody’s. While the name of the organization changed, its basic purposes remained the same. Our GA leaders, along with other WMU leaders in our churches—our spiritual mothers and grandmothers—taught us to be concerned for the world outside of our congregations. We discovered that God could use us to “do the word.” We also learned that roles considered appropriate for Southern Baptist women had limits. While some of the young men in our churches were encouraged to follow a call to the pastorate, we were not.

During the 1980s and 1990s, our denomination was shaken to its core by swift changes in leaders’ perspectives on women’s roles, among other issues. As we continued our studies, each of us was fascinated with the WMU story, particularly its connection to social service.  We took up our PhD studies and wrote our dissertations (and our first books) about WMU history. After we were introduced to one another through a circle of scholars studying Baptist women, we found kinship in our common experiences and shared interests.

We bring a feminist lens to the story of our WMU mothers and grandmothers who used their women’s training school to both empower the denomination’s women through higher education and at the same time, confine women’s roles to that of missionary or director of social ministries, not pastor. As the missionary school added emphases in the 1930s for religious education and social work, this provided a space for Southern Baptist women to serve without assuming pastoral responsibilities.  By the 1950s, however, expanding views of women’s roles along with declining interest in social ministry led denominational leaders to question the necessity of the training school (renamed the Carver School). While Southern Baptist women were welcomed into the coeducational classrooms of the 1950s, they lost the distinctive educational opportunity for women provided by the Carver School, which led to the school’s first closing in 1963 when it was merged with Southern Seminary’s School of Religious Education.

Following the broader American social awareness and activism of the 1960s and 1970s, the Carver School was reconfigured beginning in 1979 as a school within Southern Seminary, designed to train women and men for a wide variety of social ministries. Social change, in limited measure along with evangelism, was emphasized in this period. The school’s close connections with the SBC’s Home Mission Board, which hired many of its graduates, reveal that social ministry was a priority for others within the denomination as well. Though the SBC never lost its emphasis on evangelism, in the 1970s and 1980s it encouraged church members to train for and engage in what the Carver School called “church social work.” Under the leadership of BWIM pioneer, C. Anne Davis, the SBC wed social work with seminary training in a way that was unique among American Protestants.

Carver School became the first school within a seminary to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and thrived in the 1980s and early 1990s.  With the sharply conservative turn in American culture as well as the SBC in the late-twentieth century, however, this soon changed.  When the earth shook in 1997, our beloved Carver was closed. The denomination broke open wide, with Baptists choosing opposing sides as they considered the place of social ministries, evangelism, gender roles, and other areas of political and theological importance. Our story does not end there, however, as our epilogue follow the efforts of several schools pursuing the marriage of social work and ministry.

Baptist women ministers owe a debt to these women of the early twentieth century who shared their prayers and pennies so that we could be educated and inspired for our callings to serve. We hope you will be inspired, as we have been, by these stories in  Doing the Word.

LAINE SCALES is a professor of social work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She is editor or author of over thirty articles and chapters and ten books including Christian Faith and University Life: Stewards of the Academy and “All that Fits a Woman”: Training Southern Baptist Women for Charity and Mission, 1907-1926.

MELODY MAXWELL is an associate professor of church history at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her works have appeared in multiple journals of religious studies, including Perspective Religious Studies, Baptist History and Heritage, and Tennessee Baptist History. She is the author of The Woman I Am: Southern Baptist Women’s Writings, 1906-2006.