Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740-1840

By Irons, Charles F. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740-1840


Irons, Charles F., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740-1840 * Randolph Ferguson Scully * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008 * xvi, 304 pp. * $42.50

Reviewed by Charles F. Irons, assistant professor of history at Elon University. He is the author of The Origins of Proshvery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (2008).

Early Baptist churches in Isle of Wight, Southampton, and Sussex counties took exceptionally good care of their records, and historians have therefore returned repeatedly to their minute books in the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society in an attempt to understand evangelical religion in the Revolutionary and Early National periods. Randolph Scully draws heavily upon this well-worn set of materials in Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia. To his great credit, he mines these important sources more systematically than has any previous scholar. The result is an intimate and compelling portrayal of how "specifically Baptist beliefs, discourses, and institutions mediated interactions between black and white Virginians from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century" (p. 6). Moreover, the deep context that Scully provides for Nat Turner's rebellion firmly establishes the religious dimensions both of the revolt itself and of whites' response.

The interpretive gains of the first three chapters are incremental, and the first half of the book serves primarily to set up chapter four, the centerpiece of the work. Notable new material in the early pages includes a nuanced discussion of the process through which Regular and Separate Baptists resolved their differences in Southeastern Virginia, laying the groundwork for a statewide union in 1787. Even when the material is not new, however, Scully enhances our understanding of events. In a section on the well-known conflict within David Barrow's Black Creek Church over slavery, for example, he not only reproduces the debates as they appear in the minutes but also identifies members of the congregation who manumitted their slaves during the same time period. The steady stream of manumissions from Black Creek's antislavery activists helps establish the stakes of the debate for all church members.

In the fourth chapter, "Somewhat Liberated: Baptist Community and Authority in Nat Turner's Virginia," Scully's concentration on the environs of Southampton County yields the most fruit. …

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