Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia

By Spangler, Jewel L. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia


Spangler, Jewel L., The Journal of Southern History


BETWEEN 1755 AND 1790 VIRGINIANS PARTICIPATED IN A SERIES OF religious revivals that were crucial in rooting the Baptist Church in the South. Historians have long sought to explain the appeal of Baptist practice and faith to those who first embraced them in this staunchly Anglican region, as becoming a Baptist at that moment was difficult and sometimes even dangerous work. It was difficult because converts had to act and think in profoundly new ways. When Virginians joined Baptist churches they eschewed the predictable cycle of the Book of Common Prayer and the quiet, private worship that characterized Anglicanism to embrace a far more spontaneous and emotional practice that demanded a great deal from converts. Baptists also had to accept the far stricter discipline of their new church, which demanded a detailed, public airing of personal sin and required that congregants take an active part in disciplining one another for those sins. In the end, Baptists were also relinquishing the comforts of Anglican Arminianism for the harsher Calvinism of their new faith. At the same time, those who responded to revival preaching subjected themselves to danger by joining Baptist churches, because they took up a faith that violated the legal establishment of the Church of England, making converts into potential lawbreakers and exposing them to extralegal mob violence.

A number of historians have interpreted the rise of the Baptist Church as an event centered around class interests in some way. While acknowledging that the occasional planter family found their way into fellowship, some of these historians have claimed that Baptist worship attracted mostly the smallest farmers and slaves, while others maintain that solid yeomen filled the first meetinghouses.(1) Some have gone a step further to argue that early Baptists were attracted to the faith precisely by a sense of discontentment with their place in the social order, so that their class background may be understood as directly related to their conversions. Others have suggested that Baptists stood apart from their fellow southerners in more profound cultural ways. Dissenting congregations, populated by those who rejected the dominant culture or felt unable to fit well into it, represented a sort of alternative community in which values of emotion, piety, and self-discipline were ranked above those of wealth, honor, and display.(2) Some historians have conceived of Baptist conversion as the commencement of a spiritual journey that, in fact, led initiates away from conformity to southern norms. In this view, new converts to the Baptist faith were required to absent themselves from many of the venues and occasions that had traditionally allowed rural people to build a sense of community, to observe their betters in the act of leadership, and to defer to them as leaders.(3)

The historiographical trend, therefore, has been to describe the rise of the Baptists in Virginia as an expression of more or less bitter divisions within communities, centered upon the fundamental question of the proper nature of the social order. Early Virginia Baptists, according to a number of scholars, were more egalitarian in their beliefs and practice than most Virginians, even though they were not social levelers by any means. As such, they found Baptist practice, which promoted lay participation and an uneducated clergy, appealing. At times, some have argued, the Baptist emphasis upon equality placed them in pointed conflict with the hierarchical, patriarchal social order dominated by Virginia's leading planters.(4) A few have suggested that among the most socially disruptive of Baptist practices was their open-armed welcoming of slaves as members and their brief, tentative questioning of the morality of slavery in the immediate post-Revolutionary years--practices that threatened to undermine the most fundamental social ordering principle in the region.(5) Historians have also linked the relatively egalitarian and inclusive nature of Baptist worship to the more radical democratic tendencies of the American Revolution, which the ruling class ultimately sought to curb during the early years of the republic. …

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