Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900

Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900

Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900

Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900

Synopsis

No American denomination identified itself more closely with the nation's democratic ideal than the Baptists. Most antebellum southern Baptist churches allowed women and slaves to vote on membership matters and preferred populists preachers who addressed their appeals to the common person. Paradoxically no denomination could wield religious authority as zealously as the Baptists. Between 1785 and 1860 they ritually excommunicated forty to fifty thousand church members in Georgia alone. Wills demonstrates how a denomination of freedom-loving individualists came to embrace an exclusivist spirituality--a spirituality that continues to shape Southern Baptist churches in contemporary conflicts between moderates who urge tolerance and conservatives who require belief in scriptural inerrancy. Wills's analysis advances our understanding of the interaction between democracy and religious authority, and will appeal to scholars of American religion, culture, and history, as well as to Baptist observers.

Excerpt

I came to this study unexpectedly. in 1992, I agreed to write a brief article on an early nineteenth-century Baptist preacher and intended only a short excursion into Baptist history. But the vistas that opened up while I studied the preacher's life were so surprising, so compelling, that I could not resist a closer look at early Southern Baptists.

Nineteenth-century Baptists were not what I anticipated. the brands of piety that flourished in the new American republic directed their appeals to the common people. in The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch illustrated how the popular preachers altered their message to make it more appealing to the masses. They embraced the democratic ethos of the new nation and recast the gospel in a new, populist, individualist form--the gospel best suited to republicans was anticlerical, antiauthoritarian, anticreedal, and anti-Calvinist. in church as well as state, the ideals of democracy prospered.

In some ways, Baptists were no exception. Their churches were democracies. Their spirituality was egalitarian. But in the hands of nineteenth- century Southern Baptists, democratic religion meant a startlingly different kind of populism. Their democratic communities rejected much of the individualism that rose in tandem with the populist republicanism that swept the young nation. They honored their clergy, they were unashamedly authoritarian, they were stubbornly creedal, and they defended orthodox Calvinism. It was not until the early twentieth century that the values of political democracy reshaped Baptist piety.

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