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  • Charles Postel (a1)


In the 1880s and ‘90s, Waco, Texas, served as a trading center for the cotton districts of central Texas whose farmers gave rise to the Farmers’ Alliance and turned the region into a Populist hotbed. Waco was also known as the “City of Churches,” as it was the site of Baylor University and other efforts of evangelical churches to build up their institutions. What is less well known is that Waco and its rural environs were also hotbeds of religious heterodoxy. Waco's Iconoclast magazine became a lightning rod of conflict between the Baptists and their skeptical and liberal critics, a conflict that played out to a murderous conclusion. Historians have taken due note of the evangelical environment in which the Populist movement emerged in late nineteenth-century rural America. But in the process the notion of evangelical belief has been too often rendered static and total. The Baptist-Iconoclast conflict in Waco provides an entry point for a better understanding of the dynamic and conflicted nature of the religious context, and the influence of liberal and heterodox ideas within the communities that sustained the Populist cause.


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This essay has benefited from generous comments from Greg Cantrell, Darren Dochuk, Paul Harvey, and R. Laurence Moore, and from the participants at an Agrarian Studies colloquium at Yale University and a conference at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University.



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2 Charles Cutter, Cutter's Guide to the City of Waco (Waco, TX: Padgitt's Park, 1894), 39.

3 For accounts of these events, see Gerald, George B., “The Passing of William Cowper Brann,” Iconoclast 8 (1898): 7476; “Fuller Williamson's Statement Made in Dr. Carl Lovelace's Office, Feb. 9, 1934,” unpublished ms., Texas Collection, Baylor University (TCBU); “Last Act of the Waco Tragedy,” San Antonio, Apr. 21, 1898, clipping; and “Brann, William Cowper,” unpublished ms. in “William Cowper Brann,” vertical file, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin (DBCAH); Charles Carver, Brann and the Iconoclast (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957); Waco Daily Telephone, Nov. 19, 1897, reprinted in Waco Tribune Herald, Oct. 30, 1949; Waco Tribune Herald, May 14, 2007; Gary Cleve Wilson, “Bane of the Baptists,” Texas Monthly, Jan. 1986.

4 Paul Harvey, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists 1865–1925 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 151; Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), xii–iii, 28; Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America's Most Powerful Bible-Belt State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America's Heartland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

5 Bruce Palmer, “Man Over Money”: The Southern Populist Critique of American Capitalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism, Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850–1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991).

6 Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

7 Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan the Last Decade, 1915–1925 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (New York: Knopf, 2006).

8 John Farrell, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (New York: Doubleday, 2011).

9 Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1925; The Nation, July 1, 1925; Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 50, 56, 236.

10 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf, 1955), 288.

11 Chicago Searchlight, July 19, Aug. 9, 16, 1894; Chester McArthur Destler, American Radicalism, 1865–1901 (New London, CT: Connecticut College, 1946, reprint 1966), 181, 194, 197.

12 Goode, Richard C., “The Godly Insurrection in Limestone County: Social Gospel, Populism, and Southern Culture in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 3 (1993): 155–70; McMath, Robert C. Jr., “Populist Base Communities: The Evangelical Roots of Farm Protest in Texas,” Locus 1 (1998): 5363.

13 Postel, Populist Vision, 243–68.

14 Texas Christian Advocate (Galveston), Jan. 27, 1887.

15 Report on Statistics of Churches in the United States at the Eleventh Census (Washington, D.C.: 1890), 48, 81, 245–46.

16 Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

17 John W. Storey, “Religion,” Handbook of Texas,

18 Robert Caro, The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 1982), 50.

19 William Clark Griggs, Parson Henry Renfro: Free Thinking on the Texas Frontier (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 11–15.

20 “The True Story About the First Camp Meeting Held October 10th, 1890, at Skillman Grove,” unpublished ms., “Camp meetings” vertical file (DBCAH).

21 Harvey, Redeeming the South, 21–22.

22 Keith Lynn King, “Religious Dimensions of the Agrarian Protest in Texas, 1870–1908” (PhD diss., University of Illinois, 1985), 163.

23 Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Religion and Society in Frontier California (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 88–89.

24 Texas Christian Advocate (Galveston), Aug. 25, 1883.

25 Daily Times Herald (Dallas), Sept. 1, 2, 4, 6, 1896.

26 Caucasian (Clinton, NC), Sept. 28, 1893.

27 Texas Christian Advocate (Galveston), Aug. 25, 1883.

28 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 11–33, 102–23.

29 Texas Christian Advocate (Galveston), Jan. 27, 1887.

30 W. E. Penn to Rev. B. H. Carroll, Apr. 18, 1889, B. H. Carroll Papers, (TCBU); Rufus C. Burleson and T. E. Muse, undated letter to Committee on Schools and Education, Rufus C. Burleson Papers (TCBU).

31 Keith Lynn Cogburn, “B. H. Carroll and Controversy: A Study of His Leadership among Texas Baptists, 1871–1899” (MA thesis, Baylor University, 1983).

32 Benajah H. Carroll, The Agnostic: A Sermon. Delivered in the Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, Sunday, June 1, 1884 (Gatesville, TX: Advance, 1884), 4, 21; James B. Cranfill, “Shaw: Free Thinker and Biographer of Brann,” unpublished ms. c1929 (TCBU).

33 James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 203.

34 Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Truth, 1920), 187–88; Kansas Farmer (Topeka), July 7, 1887; Farmer & Mechanic (Raleigh), Dec. 6, 1877; Caucasian (Clinton, North Carolina), Feb. 18, 1892; Eugene V. Debs to Eva Parker Ingersoll, July 23, 1906, Letters of Eugene V. Debs, Volume 1 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 18–86, 229; Eugene V. Debs, “Recollections of Ingersoll,” Pearson's Magazine (Apr. 1917).

35 Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (London: Christian Age, 1882), 561–62; Susan Jacoby, Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

36 “City of Redwater, Texas,”; “Redwater, Texas,” The Handbook of Texas,

37 Dallas Morning News, Feb. 2, 1896; Jacoby, Great Agnostic, 71; Fort Worth Gazette, Feb. 13, 1896; Daily Herald (Brownsville), February 12, 1896.

38 Cranfill, “Shaw: Free Thinker”; Ming, Virginia, “J. D. Shaw: Freethinker,” Waco Heritage & History 10 (1979): 121.

39 San Antonio Light, June 23, 1883; Austin Weekly Statesman, June 28, July 25, 1883.

40 Liberal Hall burned to the ground on Oct. 5, 1889, apparently as a result of the lights of a Jewish congregation using the hall for Yom Kippur, Independent Pulpit, vol. 7 (Nov. 1889), 212–13.

41 Independent Pulpit, vol. 6 (Aug. 1883), 5, vol. 2 (Jan. 1885), 127, vol. 3 (Nov. 1885), 98–116; Griggs, Free Thinking, 120–23. For the use of the term “Ingersollism” or “Ingersollite,” see A Defense of Free Thought: Being a Protest and Reply to a Lecture Delivered in the Galveston Opera House, May 13, 1880, by the Rev. G. W. Briggs, By an Agnostic (Galveston: 1890).

42 Blake W. Barrow, “Freethought in Texas: J. D. Shaw and the Independent Pulpit” (MA thesis, Baylor University, 1983), 133; Griggs, Free Thinking, 118–19.

43 Independent Pulpit, vol. 4 (Oct. 1886), 187.

44 Independent Pulpit, vol. 1 (Sept. 1883), 10.

45 Independent Pulpit, vol. 1 (Feb. 1884), 5.

46 Independent Pulpit, vol. 2 (Mar. 1884), 5, vol. 2 (May 1884), 34; Griggs, Free Thinking, 118–19, 123–25.

47 Andy Kopplin, “W. C. Brann, A Texas Iconoclast,” Wm. Cowper Brann vertical file (DBCAH); Carver, Brann and the Iconoclast, 18–26.

48 Dawson, Martin Joseph, “Image-Breaker Brann Six Decades After,” Southwest Review (1958): 148–58; Fred Whitehead and Verle Muhrer, Freethought on the American Frontier (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1992), 155. As for the circulation numbers of the Iconoclast, it is difficult to verify Brann's claim of 100,000, although it is plausible that at times it reached that figure. James Shaw put the number at 90,000 at the time of Brann's murder. See “Biography by J. D. Shaw” in Brann the Iconoclast: A Collection of the Writings of W. C. Brann in Two Volumes (Waco, TX: Herz Brothers, 1905), 5.

49 “The Lost Triad” in The Complete Works of Brann the Iconoclast, Volume VI (New York: Brann Publishers, 1906), 288.

50 Brann to Bob. The Apostle Writes the Pagan,” Iconoclast 5 (1895): 15.

51 Carver, Brann and the Iconoclast, 41–43; “Faith and Folly” in Brann, the Iconoclast: A Collection of the Writings, 36.

52 Thomas Dixon Jr., Living Problems in Religion and Social Science (New York: Dillingham, 1889), 129–43.

53 Carver, Brann and the Iconoclast, 43–44.

54 W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “Thomas Dixon: American Proteus” in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, eds. Michele K. Gillespie and Randal L. Hall (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 23–45; Caucasian (Clinton, NC), May 21, 28, June 4, 11, 18, 1891, Feb. 11, 18, Mar. 3, Apr. 14, 21, 1892; Mary Elizabeth Lease, “Mrs. Mary E. Lease,” unpublished, Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, 1912.

55 “Encampment of Negroes,” “Negro Leader Invites Study Race Problem,” “Death Claims Dr. L. L. Campbell,” Negro Scrapbooks (DBCAH).

56 Wuthnow, Rough Country, 138.

57 Sunday School Herald (Austin), May 21, June 4, June 25, July 30, 1892.

58 Harvey, Redeeming the South, 107–35; John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (New York: Oxford University, 2008), 179–83.

59 Catherine Nugent, ed., Life Work of Thomas L. Nugent (Stephenville, TX: C. Nugent, 1896), 161.

60 Southern Mercury, July 12, 188.

61 King, “Religious Dimensions,” 166–69.

62 “Notes of J. W. H. Davis,” John B. Rushing Collection (DBCAH).

63 Daily Times Herald (Dallas), Sept. 7, 1896; Dallas Morning News, Sept. 6, 1896.

64 “Mental Science” in “Notes of J. W. H. Davis,” John B. Rushing Collection (DBCAH).

65 “Populist Preachers,” Galveston Daily News, Sept. 28, 1894.

66 John B. Rayner, “Good Citizenship and the Negro,” undated ms., “Some of J. B. Rayner's Wise Sayings,” undated ms.; and “Racial Growth,” undated letter to the Dallas Morning News, John B. Rayner Papers (DBCAH).

67 Bettie Gay, “The Influence of Women in the Alliance,” Nelson A. Dunning, ed., The Farmers' Alliance History and Agricultural Digest (Washington, D.C.: Alliance, 1891), 308–12; “Woman in the Alliance,” W. L. Garvin and S. O. Daws, eds., History of the National Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union of America (Jacksboro, TX: J. N. Rogers & Co., 1887); Southern Mercury (Dallas), June 6, Nov. 13, 1888.

68 “Populist Preachers,” Galveston Daily News, Sept. 28, 1894; C. C. Perrin, Thorp Spring, Texas, to W. (Bustah) Biard, Biardstown, Texas, Feb. 24, 1886, Biard (James W.) Papers 1882–1913 (DBCAH).

69 Cantrell, Gregg, “Lyndon's Granddaddy: Samuel Ealy Johnson Sr., Texas Populism, and the Improbable Roots of American Liberalism,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 118 (Oct. 2014); 132–56; Robert Caro, Path to Power, 27–28.

70 B. F. Riley, History of the Baptists of Texas (Dallas, 1906), 265; J. D. Rockefeller and F. T. Gates to B. H. Carroll, June 23, 1892. B. H. Carroll Papers (TCBU).

71 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Knopf, 1963), 350–400; Herbert Gutman, “Protestantism and the American Labor Movement,” Work Culture and Society in Industrializing America (New York: Knopf, 1976), 79–117.

72 For an exception, see Nelson, Bruce C., “Revival and Upheaval: Religion, Irreligion, and Chicago's Working Class in 1886,” Journal of Social History 25 (1991): 233–53.

73 Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 251, 262; Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 156–61; Postel, Populist Vision, 259–60.

74 Ernest Freeberg, Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 99, 112, 152, 260–61; Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs, 62–65, 151, 31012.

75 David Burns, The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

76 Joe Creech, Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

77 Creech, Righteous Indignation, 45.

78 Harvey, Redeeming the South, 1–2.

79 Thomas Dixon Jr., Dixon on Ingersoll (New York: Alden, 1892); Debs, Eugene V., “Robert Ingersoll,” American Journal of Politics (Feb. 1893): 198203. Reform-minded theologians from David Swing to Henry Ward Beecher felt compelled to engage the “mistakes of Ingersoll,” J. B. McClure, ed., Mistakes of Ingersoll and His Answers Complete (Chicago: Rhodes & McClure, 1884).

80 Thompson, English Working Class, 96, 391–92.

81 Fort Worth Gazette, July 25, 1895; Speaking of Brann,” Brann's Iconoclast, vol. 8 (1898), 81; “Baylor in Bad Business” in Brann the Iconoclast: A Collection of the Writings, 211–14.

82 “Lives of Lively Dissent,” Waco Tribune-Herald, May 14, 2007.

83 “‘Apostle’ Brann,” El Paso Daily Herald, Feb. 9, 1989.

84 Carver, Brann and the Iconoclast, 14280.

85 Wuthnow, Rough Country, 140–46; Larson, Summer for the Gods, 204, 221.

86 National Economist, Mar. 14, Aug. 3, 1889.

87 Public Religion Research Institute, “The American Values Atlas, 2014,”

1 This essay has benefited from generous comments from Greg Cantrell, Darren Dochuk, Paul Harvey, and R. Laurence Moore, and from the participants at an Agrarian Studies colloquium at Yale University and a conference at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University.


  • Charles Postel (a1)


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