The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia

By Charles F. Irons | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
GROWING PAINS, 1792–1815

For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are
ye not carnal, and walk as men?—1 corinthians 3:3

Baptist Reuben Pickett of the Roanoke Association spoke for the majority of Virginia’s evangelical churchmen when he reported in a 1797 letter to Isaac Backus, “Religion is rather at a low ebb with us, and I suppose it to be generally the case, at least as far as I can hear. Iniquity generally abounds and the love of many hath waxen cold, so that the times are truly lamentable.”1 Pickett’s complaint was no empty jeremiad; the Great Revival had come to an end, and Virginia’s evangelicals had indeed entered a “wintry season.” Presbyterians had not experienced the same kind of explosive growth as had Baptists and Methodists during the revival and saw only a small slowdown in church growth. The downturn was much more jarring for the commonwealth’s two largest denominations, which witnessed a sharp decline in new conversions and, in some years between 1792 and the War of 1812, actually lost members. Baptists began counting new additions by the tens or hundreds, not the thousands, and increased their rolls from 22,900 in 1792 only up to about 30,000 by 1810.2 Methodists suffered even more. Their Virginia membership dipped from 16,351 in 1792 to 13,211 in 1797 and did not rebound to Great Revival levels until 1804. The number of black Methodists did not reach 1792 levels until 1806.3

Virginia’s evangelicals faltered in part because they found it difficult to recalibrate their rhetorical posture from that of dissenters to that of insiders. As ecclesiastical outsiders, white evangelicals had very publicly reached out to black Virginians as part of their protest against Anglican authority. True, they universally disavowed antislavery ambitions, but they nonetheless earned a reputation as the loudest advocates for those in chains. This stance fit their role as reformers of a corrupt establishment but became problematic once they gained legal recognition and a larger membership. White evan-

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