Favored Florida: More than a history book
News Analysis
Nov 7, 2013

Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
JACKSONVILLE (FBW)—As Florida  Baptists gather in Jacksonville in early November for the annual meeting of their state Convention, they might be surprised to see the promotion of a history book that’s been in the making for some 19 years.

A bit of explanation—of history—may be in order for what co-author Donald Hepburn in the preface calls the “saga” that began in the last century and finally came to an abrupt halt this year—after a decision was made to publish the period 1784-1939 with plans for a later volume to cover 1940-2014.

The “history” behind the history is not as exciting as Favored Florida: A History of Florida Baptists Volume One 1784-1939 itself—a beautiful, 466-page, full-color, page turner fit for every family’s coffee table, every pastor’s bookshelf, and every serious student’s desktop. 

Replete with historic post cards, colorful sketches, helpful maps, sharp photographs, and lively anecdotes—about everything from how our Florida Baptist associations were organized, to the rationale behind the major schisms related to social and moral causes, to the founding of our state newspaper—the book has it all. 

Florida’s first Baptist governors are featured, as are women who distinguished themselves in missions and ministry endeavors. E. H. Rennolds, Florida Baptists’ first historian has a well-deserved tribute. 

Narratives explaining the building, development, and growth of key churches throughout the state establish the history as more than a rehashing of the Convention and its programs, but looks to personalities, churches, and movements. There is a listing of pioneer Florida Baptist churches and an appendix lists each state Convention annual meeting since the first in 1854--and includes the name of the president, executive secretary-treasurer, and others, until 2012.

A section on African-American Baptists talks about an assertion of “self-identity.” And it was the discovery by Hepburn of a group of Black Anabaptists that were recorded to be holding worship services in 1784 that determined the final title of the book.

“My biggest contribution is to clearly identify the 1784 marker date when Anabaptists are in Florida,” Hepburn told Florida Baptists Witness.

Hepburn, director of public relations/missions promotion for the Florida Baptist Convention, began work in 1995 on the manuscript of what was the work of co-author Earl S. Joiner’s A History of Florida Baptists, published in 1972. Assigned to assist Joiner in expanding his academic-oriented text to reflect the period between 1972-1995, Hepburn said he gained a new vision for updating the history after Joiner’s unexpected death in 1997. “I don’t try to hide the fact the foundation of the material was early Joiner’s work,” Hepburn said. “It was scholarly and well done.”

Hepburn acknowledged Joiner editorialized in the 7-chapter book which contains major sections that conclude with commentary that might be considered subjective.

“That was all Earl’s. That was the nature of what Earl did in his first book—a slight editorializing. If anything, I tried to tone it down or restate it in a better way,” Hepburn said. “The man had been an observer of Florida Baptist life for a good while.”

On some items, Hepburn found source material that added balance to the historic record and so he changed the narrative.

Like that of the Black Anabaptists in St. Augustine, Hepburn said they were most likely runaway slaves from the southern states because Florida wasn’t yet a state—and some black freedman with Spanish armies occupying Florida. Given more time and more understanding of documents that are in Spanish—Hepburn said he would have included more information about this history in the book. 

The same could be said for other ethnic groups in the state. Although there is a section in the book that describes missionary work among the Cubans in Ybor City, Hepburn said a lot more could be said about the foreign nationals who have “lived and worked in Florida since the late 1800s.

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