The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma was only a year old when Alonzo Nunnery came to pastor in Oklahoma. The young convention had formed as a merger in 1906 from the conventions in Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory and Nunnery came to the state to pastor in Granite, Oklahoma, from Tennessee. Nunnery spent from 1907-1939 as a pastor in southern Oklahoma, and undoubtedly left a mark on the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO). His contribution, though less than desirable, helped the fledgling convention cement its beliefs and firm stand in their convictions.
Born in Camden, Tennessee, on September 18, 1861, little is known about his early life and childhood. The son of Nathaniel Nunnery and Isabella Francis Brewer, he married Eliza Victoria Johnson on October 21, 1883, in Benton County, Tennessee. Prior to coming to Oklahoma, Nunnery served as pastor at Royal Street Marks Church in Jackson, Tennessee. The advertisement for the Beech River Baptist Association meeting in 1905 lists him as a “prominent” minister who will be in attendance and preach. He was well respected in Tennessee and at the time was regarded as one who “stood four-square for the Master’s cause as represented in the Tennessee Baptist Convention.”
Nunnery moved to Oklahoma to pastor at Magnum in 1907, and soon thereafter started his own newspaper, The Baptist Worker. He moved to Granite in 1911, taking the paper with him, and then to Chickasha in 1921, where the newspaper was published until his death. There was no official newspaper in Oklahoma at the time he started it, and it was welcomed by many as a source of news and information. It quickly moved from being published monthly to being published weekly.
It must be understood what power a newspaper had in those days, as it was often the only source of information for pastors and churches. In those early years of Oklahoma, few if any churches had telephones in them, and many were without even electricity. The only news about what was going on in the Convention, both state and local, came from newspaper and personal correspondence. For a mostly rural state like OK, a newspaper was a vital source of information to everyone. And if it was in the paper, most people had little reason to doubt it. Newspapers were the social media of the day, only it would take a week or more to respond by a letter to the editor. Nunnery had a huge impact through the spread of mis-information in the early days of the OK convention.
In 1912, C. P. Stealey started his own newspaper in Oklahoma City called The Baptist Messenger, using the Southern Baptist Convention which was held in Oklahoma City that year as an impetus. The Messenger took off even more quickly in Oklahoma, which led to its purchase by the BGCO in 1919 to be the convention’s official paper, as it still is today. The BGCO had only two executive directors up to this point, J. C. Stalcup and F. M. McConnell, and both of them deemed The Baptist Worker as not worthy of being an official state paper. Stalcup stated the paper did not meet the standards for a “good, religious, up to date Baptist newspaper.”
From the beginning of his paper, Nunnery was harsh on the new state convention and its directors and other officials. In many ways he was what we would call a “troll” today in the way he attacked state leaders and pastors. Nunnery was also a devoted proponent of Landmark theology. It’s worth noting that for most of Nunnery’s time in Tennessee, the state paper was led by J. R. Graves, the noted leader of “Landmarkism.” There is no doubt that Grave’s writings, if not Graves himself, had impact on Nunnery and his theology. He was also a frequent contributor and editor to “The Socialist Antidote” a newspaper that decried the effects of Socialism across churches across Oklahoma and the convention as a whole.
Nunnery was brutal in his attacks against anyone he disagreed with, and used his own paper to promote his beliefs. He attacked the conventions promotion of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 75 Million Campaign, Falls Creek Youth Camp, policies in the Oklahoma Baptist Orphan’s Home, and the convention’s purchase of Stealey’s Messenger, among other things. His column in The Baptist Worker and other avenues laid harsh charges at the feet of BGCO directors. He accused them of mismanaging funds, promoting cheap salvation, and not standing against the social ills of the day.
The 1918 BGCO Annual records that Nunnery attacked the convention through “inuendo and insinuation,” by implying they were playing card games at youth camp instead of preaching, that converts baptized by state pastors and evangelists were not really saved and accusing chaplains of inflating numbers, and that chaplains were “fooling our boys into hell.” And when he was challenged Nunnery tried to evade the true issue and decried anything written against him as just a personal attack. Nunnery also accused leaders of the state and national leaders like JB Gambrell of attempting to silence critics and he attempted to create a distrust of almost anyone in authority. He compared those defending themselves as using tactics of “the Germans and the Catholics” and accused them of establishing a censorship.
When faced with financial difficulties from his failing newspaper, Nunnery started a campaign to raise the over $3,000 he owed, no small sum in 1918. The next year the Annual Meeting in OK the charges were laid out against him again, saying that he accused the “Convention of being dominated by a gang of malicious conspirators.” The charges aginst him go one for pages and pages, quoting directly from his own paper, and often catching him contradicting himself.
In both 1918 and 1919, Nunnery and his church were denied a seat at the state convention. In 1919 he had brought a large delegation with him to support him, but the credentials committee found him to be “not in sympathy and cooperation with the convention,” as well as “out of harmony with the BGCO as to policy, plans, personnel, and principles.” The 1918 and 1919 minutes of the BGCO Annual Meeting listed in detail numerous charges against Nunnery, using words from his own paper against him to verify their claims. Nunnery was given 35 minutes to defend himself at the 1918 meeting and the convention upheld the ruling of the credentials committee. In 1919, F.M. McConnell made the motion that Nunnery be given “all the time he wanted” to answer the challenge of the credentials committee. A standing vote was taken and Nunnery was denied a seat by a count of 491 to 53.
After the 1919 meeting, Nunnery withdrew from the BGCO, starting the “Baptist Convention of Oklahoma” at Chickasha on Oct 5, 1920, with 101 messengers from 48 churches present. This body increased in membership every year and merged with the “Baptist Missionary Association of Oklahoma (Landmark)” in 1925. He split from them again in 1927 over control issues. Nunnery was also leader of an orphanage he founded in 1921 until he was ousted by the Landmark’s, resulting in all authority being taken away in 1930. He continued as editor of the Baptist Worker until his death in 1939, at which time publication of the paper ceased.
The conflict with Nunnery was a dark cloud over a convention still trying to find it’s footing. The contributions of Nunnery to a young convention, however, must not be overlooked. His attacks led the convention to establish basic doctrines from its very beginnings that clarified their polity and practices. The Oklahoma Baptist Convention stood firm on the Baptist principles of autonomy of churches and freedom of speech and expression. They did not lower their standards to that of Nunnery by engaging with him in his wild speculations and attacks. Had the BGCO purchased his paper and allowed him to be the editor, it would have been a sad history to remember. Instead one can look back with admiration for the stand which they took against shameful journalistic practices and antagonism. Those early men like Stalcup and McConnell set the standard which is still held by Oklahoma Baptist. The conflict with Nunnery, although undesirable, gave them the chance to establish Christian guidelines for Oklahoma Baptists that continue to be used today.
While I just wanted to put a post up to stop the SEC talk from Rev. Thornton, there is also obvious implications for us to draw in the SBC today. There is regular news of churches leaving the convention, both for being too liberal or too conservative. The SBC must continue to stand on the principles of both autonomy and expression, both letting churches make decisions for themselves and standing by the decisions of the messengers. To violate one or the other would be to lose part of what makes us Baptist.
In addition, the SBC cannot fall to the level of those who want to make everything a fight. It’s hard to stand for truth when you are constantly stooping down to battle trolls. When Nunnery left to start his own convention, he was eventually ousted from it too over the same type of behavior. Of course Baptists are not afraid of a good spirited discussion, but we must draw the line at those who seek to gain influence through lies, fear, and hatred.
The majority of this article originally appeared in the Oklahoma Baptist Chronicle in Autumn 2016.