Richard C. Traylor is Professor of History at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. This interview is based on his new book Born of Water and Spirit: The Baptist Impulse in Kentucky, 1776-1860 (University of Tennessee, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Born of Water and Spirit?
RT: A few different influences led me toward this project as it began in my doctoral work. First, long ago when I read Nathan O. Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, I was skeptical about how his arguments applied to all the religious groups he analyzed. But from my previous research on Baptists, I thought his overall argument worked best for that group in the early national period. Even so, the broad, interpretive nature of that work made it difficult to pointedly examine how Baptist expansion might have been due to their democratic commitments. Though several good works on Baptists on the nineteenth century existed, none seemed to capture how the free and fluid institutional structure and the democratic spirit of the Baptist movement propelled their growth and success in the early nineteenth century. Second, another classic work from the 1990s, The Churching of America, 1776-1990 by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, helped me think about how of all the “winning” traditional religious groups in the Second Great Awakening, the Baptists were the one which continued to “win” throughout the twentieth century. Thus, there needed to be a focused work exploring just how the Second Awakening was worked out on the ground among the Baptists and what characteristics strengthened and weakened their growth in the period.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Born of Water and Spirit?
RT: The fluid structure and democratic ethic of the Baptist movement which derive from an emphasis on believer’s baptism, an individualistic ethic, a privileging of the local church, and an egalitarian view of the clergy—all of which I collectively label “the Baptist impulse”—have proven to be the movement’s greatest strength and the source of its most terrible struggles. Kentucky offers an excellent, representative site for understanding who the colonial Baptists had been, who they were becoming in the early national period, and who they would become after the Civil War.
JF: Why do we need to read Born of Water and Spirit?
RT: The early nineteenth century was a vibrant and exciting time of change in American life from so many different angles, not just in religious life. I appreciate any book which can remind readers of this fact. This work captures the contribution Baptists made to that optimistic era. I hope scholars and students of early American history will appreciate the way this book seeks to help flesh out who the Baptists were from their own words and stories. Part of this work also reveals how the Baptists in this period transitioned from a grassroots, upstart movement toward a more refined and institutionalized group. I think readers, even modern Baptists, might learn something about how turbulent that process was and the costs that came with such a change.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RT: As a kid, when the American bicentennial happened, I think I was infected with a fascination for the American past. But coming to history as a profession was a slow process in my 20s as I increasingly realized I could make a career at something I enjoyed.
JF: What is your next project?
RT: I’m torn between two projects right now. I’ve long believed I would dig deeper into the lives of one of the Baptist ministers in Kentucky that I mention in Born of Water and Spirit. I’ve done a little bit of research along those lines and I think it would be a great follow up project. But recently, I’ve become enthralled with a project connected to where I find myself these days: West Texas. Perhaps I can do both eventually.
JT: Thanks Richard!