Kevin M. Lowe
Oxford University Press, 2016. 249pp.
Rural Churches/Farm Life/Christianity
In Baptized with the Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America, historian Kevin M. Lowe plunges readers into a nearly-forgotten period of American history: when churches, universities, and government agencies cooperated to strengthen the spiritual vitality of America’s farmlands. While some mainline churches and publications today critique “factory farming” or farm subsidies (Lowe notes Christian Century as an example of the latter), the Christian agrarian movement is hardly known inside Evangelicalism.
Lowe quotes philosopher Paul B. Thompson’s proposition of agrarianism as “the idea that farming practices have the power to shape the moral character of the individuals who engage in them, and that a society’s farming culture—its means of subsistence—reverberates through all its institutions” (p. 7). The author himself proposes Christian agrarianism is “a network of ideas about the importance of place, stability, work, and the health of the land.”
Early 20th century Christian agrarianism had theological underpinnings, including a specific eschatological framework. Premillennialism in its various forms was generally eschewed in favor of “the eschatology of the Kingdom [which saw] God’s kingdom as a present ethical reality rather than as a dominion to be introduced in the future” (p. 13). Lowe sees the agrarian vision as having four core components: the present reality of the kingdom of God, the social gospel (underpinned by churches rather than secular institutions), the holiness of the earth (as evidenced by Toyohiko Kagawa’s 1936 phrase “baptize with the soil”), and the promise of the abundant life. And, at the center of it all was the farm: “To agrarians, how people farmed reflected how they thought about God, their neighbors, and all of creation” (p. 21). Current agrarian thinkers/writers Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry would likely concur with many of these ideals.
The Christian agrarian movement partnered with secular institutions like Cornell, Iowa State, and Oregon State for the purpose of training missionaries in rural living/farming techniques that would be useful internationally; with denominations and para-church organizations to promote events like Rural Life Sunday (emphasizing the immanence of God especially in nature) and Harvest Home Sunday; and spawned the immensely popular reform movement/fund-raising mechanism called The Lord’s Acre.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
The Bible was written during an agrarian time, by agrarians, and (primarily) for agrarians. I have often wondered how much scriptural truth the industrialized world misses because we are so far removed from agrarian living. I was hoping Baptized with the Soil would explore some of that territory, but it does not. It is a straight-up history of a rural, spiritual movement in the United States in a specific time-period.
Also unaddressed is the possibility that some decline in Mainline Protestant membership is as related to urbanization as to theological liberalism. That is, as more Americans moved into cities—leaving farms and small towns behind—rural, predominantly Mainline churches that grew in an agrarian era, lost members to churches situated in the exploding suburbs.
Overall, Baptized with the Soil is informative for those interested in contexts of American religious history. It provides clarity as to how previous generations of church leaders thought about the relationship of church to society, mostly the rural influence on the wider culture. Rural pastors might gain insight on what it is many of their older members are missing (like Rural Life Sunday) and why they feel it so important. Every generation of believers seek to reach others and influence culture; Christian agrarians were no different. As Lowe notes:
Christian agrarians sought to preserve their rural congregations because they believed that living in rural areas and working the land were most in keeping with God’s intentions for the world. Because they saw the hand on God on the plow, Protestant agrarians believed they were setting out a prescription that the rest of the nation might follow. In their view, the nation faced considerable risks when it emphasized urbanization and industrialization, and Protestant agrarians believed that there was a better way to live and work. (p. 170)
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