At age sixteen Basil Manly was converted in a North Carolina cornfield after hearing a slave pray for him. His mother was a Baptist believer. His father was a Roman Catholic. Tensions flared in the home. His father forbade him to become a Baptist pastor, but he listened to his mother’s advice, “Do your duty, son.” He began to preach as a teenager.
The turmoil that was a part of Manly’s life as a teenager was but a foretaste of what he would face throughout his ministry. After being educated in South Carolina, he pastored a church in rural Edgefield, South Carolina, and later the prestigious First Baptist Church in Charleston. The Charleston church was largely female in membership and had a higher membership of blacks than of whites. Here Manly had to deal with complex issues arising from the slave environment of black members and also the deaths of three of his children. These years were marked by revivals and involvement in benevolent works at home and abroad. His oratorical skills attracted listeners, and his gospel-centered preaching and teaching were used by the Lord in the conversion of many souls.
His twelve years of labor there ended when he resigned to accept the position of President of the University of Alabama. The university was in a state of disarray. The president and every professor, except one, had recently resigned. The university had one graduate that year. Manly courageously tackled the problems. He developed strong admission and academic standards, accompanied by a disciplinary policy that he enforced, at times to his own risk.
Manly also faced the challenge of leaving the settled, established city of Charleston and establishing a new home in the developing city of Tuscaloosa, a city that lacked many of the cultural and commercial amenities of a more settled city.
In Alabama Manly continued to exercise his preaching gifts in the Baptist denomination. His labors earned the respect of many Alabama citizens. As time permitted, he worked for reform in prisons, public education, and in the treatment of the insane. An ardent Calvinist, he stood against the rising tide of Arminianism within the Baptist churches.
After serving as president for eighteen years, Manly returned to Charleston to pastor another church. Following a three-year pastorate, he returned to Alabama and served as a general missionary throughout the state. His oratorical skills served him well. His support for secession made him influential at the state convention. As the Civil War dragged on and he incurred grief on a number of fronts (national and personal), he became depressed. His latter years revealed his strong faith in the Lord as he faced his own illness and the auctioning of his plantation after his slaves were freed.
The author’s work makes for educational and enjoyable reading. Manly’s relocations from South Carolina to Alabama allow one to see the similarities and contrasts in culture and beliefs in two states that were later joined in the Confederacy. His labors in the pastorate reveal a man committed to scripture. However, he struggled with how to deal with the issue of slavery. The author shows that Manly had problems following the advice he gave others regarding slavery. He did not believe masters should sell their slaves, yet he did. He believed in prison reform, yet he was against the emancipation of slaves. Following the war, he believed that blacks should be given their rights.
Manly made a number of bad investments that resulted in financial loss. He purchased a plantation, which he eventually lost due to his poor managerial and labor decisions.
In reading this volume, readers will be able to learn much about Southern culture and the problems that were a part of everyday life. Manly was imperfect and influenced more by his culture than he realized. He sought to be faithful, yet in hindsight a number of blind spots can be identified. This gives readers pause to reflect upon the influence of culture on our decisions and to examine our lives for areas of sin.
This volume is well-researched and ably written. The book’s title is misleading, however. The bulk of the volume occurs prior to the Civil War years. The subtitle, “Basil Manly and Baptist Life in the Old South,” is a far better title regarding the book’s contents.