A Baptist Bonanza

One of the trends in American religious history in 2008 has been the publication of three books on early American Baptists. I have all three of these works on my 2008 reading list. (And my review of one of them will appear soon over at Religion and American History).

Janet Moore Lindman, Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

The American Baptist church originated in British North America as “little tabernacles in the wilderness,” isolated seventeenth-century congregations that grew into a mainstream denomination by the early nineteenth century. The common view of this transition casts these evangelicals as radicals who were on society’s fringe during the colonial period, only to become conservative by the nineteenth century after they had achieved social acceptance. In Bodies of Belief, Janet Moore Lindman challenges this accepted, if oversimplified, characterization of early American Baptists by arguing that they struggled with issues of equity and power within the church during the colonial period, and that evangelical religion was both radical and conservative from its beginning. Bodies of Belief traces the paradoxical evolution of the Baptist religion, including the struggles of early settlement and church building, varieties of theology and worship, and the multivalent meaning of conversation, ritual, and godly community. Lindman demonstrates how the body–both individual bodies and the collective body of believers–was central to Baptist definition and maintenance of faith. The Baptist religion galvanized believers through a visceral transformation of religious conversion, which was then maintained through ritual. Yet the Baptist body was differentiated by race and gender. While all believers were spiritual equals, white men remained at the top of a rigid church hierarchy. Drawing on church books, associational records, diaries, letters, sermon notes, ministerial accounts, and early histories from the Mid-Atlantic and the Chesapeake as well as New England, this innovative study of early American religion asserts that the Baptist religion was predicated simultaneously on a radical spiritual ethos and a conservative social outlook.

Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia provides a new interpretation of the rise of evangelical Christianity in the early American South by reconstructing the complex, biracial history of the Baptist movement in southeastern Virginia. This region and its religious history became a subject of intense national scrutiny in the wake of the 1831 revolt led by the enslaved preacher and prophet Nat Turner. But by the time Turner led his fellow slaves on their deadly march across the fields and swamps of Southampton County, Virginia’s religious landscape had already been shaped by more than eighty years of conflict about the implications of evangelical faith for the evolving cluster of interrelated ideas about race, slavery, household, family, and patriarchy that constituted the state’s social order.
For both black and white Virginians, evangelical discourses of authority, community, and meaning provided the material for a wide variety of interpretations of Christianity’s social and spiritual message during the Revolutionary and early national eras. Even as some white church leaders sought to institutionalize a white, paternalist vision of evangelicalism’s meanings, rapidly increasing black participation in Baptist congregations in the early nineteenth century provided fertile ground for new, alternative interpretations of Baptist concepts and practices. The Turner rebellion brought these diverse subterranean currents of dissent to the surface in ways that upset the delicate balance between white institutional authority and black spiritual independence that had evolved in the previous decades. Reaction to the uprising intensified the trend toward separation and segregation of black and white religion in the antebellum period and had powerful, lasting effects on race relations and religious culture in America.

For most of the colonial period, Virginia’s spiritual landscape was thoroughly dominated by the Church of England, which enjoyed a legal, and virtually unchallenged, monopoly of faith. Evangelical Protestant dissenters dramatically remade Virginia’s religious terrain, however, when they rapidly coalesced into congregations in the decades just before the American Revolution, and then overwhelmed a weakened Anglican Church in the war’s aftermath. Virginians Reborn examines the intricate processes by which one of these groups, the Baptists, was able to take root, expand, and successfully compete for converts. By 1790, Virginia was the most Baptist state in America, as well as the point of origin of a massive early nineteenth-century western migration that helped spread the faith across the country.

Based primarily on church records, ministers’ writings, local records, imperial correspondence, and newspaper accounts, this study looks at the geographical patterns of Baptist expansion, the techniques dissenters used to gain adherents, the distinctiveness of Baptist worship, and its cultural resonances in Virginia. The book traces how the American Revolution created a new context favorable to Baptists and how the rise of this faith echoed and reinforced the development of a distinctive, proslavery form of republicanism. As Virginians embraced new political forms and sought to reconcile them with slavery and household patriarchy, the book argues, they could find instructive models in the particulars of Baptist fellowship. Ultimately, the book chronicles a dual process of rebirth, as Virginians simultaneously formed a republic and became evangelical Christians.

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