Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Hearing Baptist Spirituality in Some Conversion Narratives from the American South: Baptist Spirituality Is Conversionist Spirituality. Baptist Tradition Insisted from the Beginning That Authentic Churches Are Communities of Gathered Believers Who Convened to Christianity by Voluntarily Accepting Christ

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Hearing Baptist Spirituality in Some Conversion Narratives from the American South: Baptist Spirituality Is Conversionist Spirituality. Baptist Tradition Insisted from the Beginning That Authentic Churches Are Communities of Gathered Believers Who Convened to Christianity by Voluntarily Accepting Christ

Article excerpt

Believer's baptism, a signature trait in Baptist life, is a public manifestation of this principle. Revivalism increased conversion's impact on Baptist spiritual formation, particularly in the United States and especially in the American South.

The experiential pietism of the Great Awakening's revival preachers (1) influenced prorevival Puritans to require testimony to an inner experience of personal encounter with God as a normative sign of conversion. For those Puritans, true converts were saved, knew it, and talked (or wrote) about it. C. C. Goen called insistence on this form of personal conversion "the fundamental principal of the Great Awakening." (2) Heirs to both Puritan and pietist influences, Separate Baptists parlayed revival conversions into rapid church growth throughout the American South. (3)

Through time, Baptists in that region have molded this under standing of conversion as a publicly narrated, conscious turning from non-Christian to Christian life to a variety of theologies and practices, (4) but conversion language has remained vital to understanding Baptist spirituality in the American South. Baptist spirituality formed and was formed by a particular conversion language modeled in public witness. This aspect of Baptist spiritual formation can be traced partly by conversion testimonies in Baptist autobiographies.

Representative autobiographies of white Baptist clergy in the South before 1845 constitute the primary sources for this article. The authors, recording certain life events that they believed best revealed the divine-human encounter in their individual lives, consistently chose conversion as one of the two most important influences on their spiritual formation. (5) Incomplete in regard to gender and laity viewpoints, these writings nonetheless represent how the dominant religious culture's leadership perceived conversion in the spiritual formation of Baptists during its formative period.

Listening for Spirituality in Baptist Conversion Narratives

What these narratives of Baptist conversion tell us about Baptist spirituality depends largely on what the reader is listening for. Current readers and critics of this type of narrative often are frustrated or bored by the conventional language used in them. Daniel B. Shea called the content of early American autobiography "foreknown and predictable"; Virginia Lieson Brereton assumed such narratives are "impossibly burdened with stock religious language." (6)

Other modern readers listen, with scant success, for correlations between these witnesses 'and their own religious reality. For them, the importance of nonrational, affective, and intuitive evidence in conversion narratives is at best superfluous and at worst embarrassing. Such interpreters seek in this literature factual propositions embodying the objective reality of conversion as a universally true event (where "factual propositions" means words that correspond to the objective reality of the empirically verifiable world, and "true" means existing independently of the convert's subjective experience).

Historians face similar difficulties in trying to write "factual" histories. What does not fit easily into universally demonstrable principles of religious experience such as institutional growth, economic influences, doctrinal development, or other dynamics suitable to logical, linear assessment is usually discarded as unhelpful to understanding a religious tradition. (7)

Barton Stone, one of the founders of the camp meeting movement that revolutionized Baptist life in the American South, encountered conversion testimonies first among Virginia Baptists. Later recording "how and when they [the converts] obtained deliverance," he wrote:

Some were delivered by a dream, a vision, or some uncommon appearance of light--some by a voice spoken to them, "Thy sins are forgiven thee"--and others by seeing the Saviour with their natural eyes. …

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