The Devil's in the Details: Revisiting the Early Baptist South
Perhaps the trajectory of every book includes a variety of surprises. I nonetheless marvel at how often my book, Evangelizing the South: A Social History of Church and State (Oxford University Press, 2007), took on a shape and direction I did not expect and, at times, did not desire. Having previously studied seventeenth-century Puritanism, I intended this project to analyze Anglican piety and religiosity in the colonial era in order to understand the religious roots of early southern communities and social structures. I expected, and I wanted, to find a deep vein of religiosity to explore a new way of thinking about the relationship between colonization and religion, a model neither Puritan nor Quaker. At the time I began the project, few works took southern Anglicanism seriously as a faith and a church community. I assumed that was because early American religious historians were looking for a Puritan model of religiosity—highly literate, communal, and intensely introspective—and because some ministerial scandals had distracted attention from the pious laity and earnest clergy. I hoped that by expanding my understanding of religious community and seeking the forms of piety consistent with Anglican theology and practice, I could uncover the vitality of lived religious experience in early southern communities.
Some months later, I was forced to reevaluate my assumptions and planned project. In my reading of Anglican Church records, I found example after example of ministers overwhelmed by their assigned geography and underwhelmed by the southerners themselves. One memorable minister lamented that even the residents who attended church were so unfamiliar with the service that he had to say both the call and the response. Even as my planned project dissolved, these sources raised the question that became the organizing principles for my research: in the context of a surprising absence of organized religious structures, how did southerners come to construct a religious identity for themselves and to build a culture that was willfully and, before long, ostentatiously religious. I was deeply and personally curious about why people turn to religion—and to a specific faith—and the impact of those choices on their communities. This framework also drew upon an older question in religious studies: the causes and functions of revivals, awakenings, and revitalizations that so often occur in American history. In short, in a place that had remarkably few local religious structures and personnel, how and why did these individuals come to embrace religion so fundamentally and to weave it into the fabric of the regional identity?
To study this question, I considered two different methods: choose one sect in a large region or a number of different sects within a particular locale. I choose the former in order to track patterns over a larger time and space. Once I began reading Baptist church records, I never regretted that choice. Baptist church minutes richly detail how these church communities functioned: how they organized themselves, defined their values, perceived their place in the world, and structured their lives and relationships. Methodist and Presbyterian records have a wealth of information on the leadership, but Baptist congregation minutes give the voices and the actions of the men and women who joined the churches. They provide a window into eighteenth-century homes and neighborhoods in a way that few other records of the era could. In one memorable entry, a church disciplined Edward Carlile for fornicating with his “negro wench,” and at the same time, charged his wife Sarah with drunkenness.1 That single entry suggested questions of slavery, marriage, gender, and power.
Immersed in the records, I was inundated with the trivia of church books: a signed covenant; a white man disciplined for swearing; a slave woman excommunicated for adultery, and so on. I had to find a wider angle to bring these pieces into some sort of framework. Trained as a women’s historian, I had been prepared to use what were then the standard categories of analysis: gender, race, and status/class. I wanted to explore how churches and faith functioned in, and also shaped, southern society in the eras of the Revolution and early republic. How did churches envision men and women’s roles in families and in churches? How did religious identities shape understandings of authority in (white and black) marriages, families, and communities? How did churches shape resistance to slavery or proslavery ideology? And how did faith mediate political identities? These questions pulled the project to some degree out of churches and into homes, neighborhoods, slave quarters, and political meetings. But the constructs of gender, race, and class fit uneasily on what I found. It was not merely a question of the awkwardness of academic language, but rather that those constructs—at least as I sought to employ them—erased categories that mattered a great deal to Baptists (member versus nonmember) and created static social identities where they may not have existed. I found that I needed a new approach to keep my questions more flexible and responsive to the documents.
One turning point in my approach came when I reread R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God. In it, he reminds us that “‘secular’ as a category for understanding historical experience depends for its meaning on the existence of something called ‘religion,’ and vice versa.”2 That observation clarified for me the contentious and unstable religious landscape of the late eighteenth century, specifically the intentionality of Baptists’ construction of their authority and the ways in which their understanding of religion was fundamentally discordant with that of their neighbors. It thus became vital to recognize that what came to be defined as religious—and under the purview of faith and churches—was a culturally constructed category. That is to say, Baptists became fiercely engaged in seeking to expand the definition of what was a religious issue and thereby under church authority. It was an unspoken part of their identity. And it motivated many of the battles they had with civil authorities and with Anglicans, and even among themselves. Of course, in their own telling, the categories of the sacred and the secular were natural or, more accurately, divinely ordained and thus removed from the historical process. In the book, then, I sought to show how the relationship between the sacred and secular were constructed and contested, and how religious and civil authorities sought to define their own purview over family, slavery, culture, and politics.
In claiming that purview, churches took on many of the issues that would typically come under civil jurisdiction. Thus even as Baptists argued for constraining the authority of the state, they created a religious culture that claimed authority very broadly, extending the reach of the church into arenas that would today be seen as largely secular, including economic transactions, property disputes, political culture, gender roles, and family relations. Taking on such responsibilities was something that Baptists did eagerly and joyfully since it signaled their efforts to create God’s kingdom on earth—to separate their church communities from the world, to make them examples of God’s holy laws. In short, even as Baptists argued for a separation of state authority from religion, they envisioned a religious culture with far-reaching authority. This was not just desirable to the Baptists; it was a religious imperative. But it was not uncomplicated, as the Baptists came to discover in the divisive issue of slavery. Having claimed jurisdiction over nearly every aspect of their members’ lives, by 1810 churches soon came to decide that slavery was not a religious issue—a decision that not only redefined the authority of churches, but also defined the ground they ceded to the state.
Not only did the project challenge me as a historian of gender, but also, more generally, as a social historian. Early in my research, I decided that studying disciplinary patterns would be a useful way to sort through these questions of authority in dialogue with questions of gender, race, slave status, as well as regional and temporal differences. It would show, for instance, if women and men, whites and blacks, were disciplined in similar ways or if frontier churches or older churches were concerned with different types of behavior. This meant recording each piece of discipline as well as its outcome, assembling them into a database, and then counting—lots and lots of counting. While I am not someone who is overly drawn to numbers or statistics, this method was appealing when I was faced with sorting the overwhelming mass of data contained in church books. Numbers had an authoritative appeal. They seemed to speak differently than the qualitative sources that I was accustomed to as an early Americanist.
But that ultimately proved the most challenging part of the research, an aspect I am not sure I would repeat again. Numbers have the appearance of neutrality, but only by hiding a number of judgment calls. In order to assemble meaningful categories of sins (fighting, fraud, lying, not taking proper care of one’s children, marital discord), I had to evaluate individual clerks’ patterns of phraseology and brief references (to say nothing of their handwriting), and try to group sins that seemed most similar. Was sending your daughter to dancing school a failure of parenting or a sin of dancing? Was the charge of lying about the quality of your work best defined as fraud or lying? With about 4,000 specific charges, these decisions were numerous, and each one could require an explanatory footnote. The numbers in my appendices represent for me also hundreds of small judgments and unexplained arguments. Ultimately, I rarely chose to use numbers to make my larger argument, but the appendices represent years of research of which I am very proud but also deeply ambivalent.
It is, I think, every scholar’s great hope that their topic is important enough to draw the interest and attention of talented scholars and their worst fear that those scholars will publish in a timely way. My book was thus blessed and cursed, arriving as it did among wonderful books by Jewel Spangler, Charles Irons, Randolph Scully, and Janet Lindman, among others. Evangelizing the South, like many of these recent works, analyzes how faith and churches shaped family life, domestic identities, social hierarchies, and slavery. In some ways this scholarship revisits an older debate about the degree to which—and the ways in which—southern evangelicals challenged southern social norms, either intentionally or unintentionally. I think the terrain of this debate has changed significantly since it was raised in the 1970s and 80s. As the recent scholarship demonstrates, this issue yields complicated and inconsistent answers, requiring us to stay attuned to degree, specifics, and emphasis. In creating their churches and defining membership, evangelicals navigated the tension between—on the one hand—egalitarian impulses in their understanding of the equality of all souls and the universal offer of grace through true conversion, and—on the other hand—social hierarchies that reflected both southern society as well as the primitive Christians that they strove to emulate. Sorting through the complex meanings of their faith and putting faith into practice were not just moral dilemmas; they were also intellectual endeavors, as believers navigated competing values, doctrines, and interpretations. The solutions they arrived at were just what we should expect: inconsistent, ambivalent, and improvised. In short, they were messy.
It is, I think, very important to recognize that messiness (a term that I claim from my much-admired and sorely-missed advisor, Jeanne Boydston). We should explore the contradictions of church membership and the ambiguities of church policy and thereby leave room for understanding unintended consequences. However boldly evangelical churches envisioned a spiritual equality of souls, evangelicals created churches that incorporated and even sanctified social hierarchies of gender, race, and status, and many scholars in the last ten years emphasize this compromise. And yet, I remained struck by the ways in which these small communal institutions included such broad participation and constructed an identity of membership that had the chance to suspend, or at least mask, worldly hierarchies. Membership shifted people’s relationships to one another, affecting how someone was addressed, who an individual could sue, and the ways in which one could settle conflicts. Churches, for instance, mediated disputes in marriages and, in some cases, limited the authority of masters over their slaves. To be sure, they did not intend to challenge the prerogatives of fathers and masters: when asked, churches directly—and sometimes vehemently—denied that they undermined domestic or racial hierarchies, and even vowed they would discipline any member who tried to do so. And yet, in insisting on the godliness of church authority, evangelicals inadvertently shifted the ground on which secular identities were built by positing an authority that ought to exist alongside and even supersede other types of authority. Thus, churches stepped in to mediate and judge disputes between husbands and wives, parents and children. Consequently, Baptists sometimes intervened in families in ways that supported women’s autonomous actions and recognized them as authorities in the family. So too did slaves seize the opportunity of public prayer and preaching to shape the theological belief in the equality of souls into practical and meaningful opportunities to claim an identity as part of a shared biracial community of God’s faithful. In so doing, they disrupted the institution of slavery in ways that were indeed mundane and often compromised but also constant. We should hear Baptist churches when they said: we did not (mean to) say that. But so too should we hear individuals who said: yes, you (we) did.
Other scholars have noted that these disruptions that I have mentioned were inadvertent and infrequent. And that is true. But we should not miss their significance. As Jeanne Boydston has argued, “anomalies are just what ought to interest us as historians—not so we can figure a way to force them to conform to the framework, but because they disrupt the common sense of the framework and may signal something that is being missed or suppressed within it.”3 We as historians struggle with these contradictions because southern evangelicals did too. Evangelicalism was able to mask hierarchies by privileging a distinction between members and nonmembers, and yet at the same time it sanctified them in an effort to build an orderly Christian community. In doing so, it provided room for the creative misunderstandings that would allow biracial churches to thrive in the early republic despite meaningful differences on questions of such importance.
Sandy Run Baptist Church Record Book, 26 April 1777, State Historical Society of Wisconsin. ↩
R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 7–8. ↩
Jeanne Boydston, “Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis,” Gender & History, 20 (Nov. 2008): 560. ↩