Review: In Subjection
Jessica Madison. In Subjection: Church Discipline in the Early American South, 1760-1830. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2014. 224 pp. ISBN 978-0-88146-500-6.
Early southern evangelicals thought about subjection and submission far more than most of us ever do. Dissenting congregations saw themselves as subjects of God, and concomitantly church members, at least in theory, sought to submit to God’s will as completely as possible. Adherents were expected to monitor their behavior and their hearts, extinguishing selfish desire in order to walk a Christian path. If scholars have generally agreed that evangelicals imagined themselves as God’s minions, however, they have hotly debated whether and how the worldly hierarchies that could assert a particular order between congregants played out in evangelical churches. Jessica Madison’s brief monograph In Subjection addresses precisely this issue through a close examination of the inner workings of Baptist congregations in North and South Carolina to 1830.
Madison expressly intends to challenge two related lines of older scholarly argument. One posited that the earliest Baptist congregations in North America were fellowships of equals, and that church membership was therefore empowering for those who occupied subordinate social positions in secular life, most particularly women. The other emphasized change over time, describing Baptist churches as gradually yielding to secular norms and adopting the hierarchical frameworks—or double standards—that governed secular life. In practice this meant that sometime after the Revolution churches began to privilege white men and produce a second-class membership status for the rest. Madison believes that neither of these models accurately describes early Baptists. She seeks to demonstrate, rather, that there never had been a golden democratic age, since subjection within Baptist churches was evident from the beginning. At the same time, evangelical churches had always been guided by what she labels a moral economy in which “church discipline upheld a system of subjection with mutual obligations for all,” not simply privileges for the few and oppression for the many (x).
The book begins with a general overview of the concept and practice of subjection in Baptist churches. Madison shows us that subordination to God was, of course, ubiquitous in Baptist writing. However, she explains, evangelicals and secular society alike also asserted that children should submit to parents, servants to masters, and wives to husbands. Baptist churches, in sum, “had no monopoly on the ideology of subjection” as applied to human relationships (31). While early Baptists were confined by a range of social expectations, Madison does note that the faith offered everyone opportunities to take up public roles within congregations that were hard to come by for most people in secular life.
More importantly, she asserts, every congregant, even those with the most secular power, submitted to congregational oversight in Baptist churches. Congregations were empowered to ensure that church members walked a godly path and to correct those who lived in error. As a constituent part of the congregation, then, every church member had authority, and every member was also in subjection. In this sense, there really was equality in Baptist congregations precisely because submission was ubiquitous.
The early chapters of the book illustrate these points by focusing primarily on the experiences of men and women as discrete groups, and then Madison turns to matters of labor and finance. Here she demonstrates particularly well that complex, multidirectional obligations were a feature of Baptist churches. Of course, members owed the church their tithe. But even this was a two way street. Congregations sometimes provided poor relief to members in crisis, the church as a whole protected wives by disciplining husbands who failed to provide for them, and congregations even mediated business and labor disputes between members. They both demanded that enslaved congregants labor for their masters and that masters provide subsistence to bondspeople. By examples such as these, the simple notion of Baptist fellowship as either fostering equality or oppression is utterly confounded.
In the end, Madison asserts, there actually was significant change over time among the Baptists. However, it was not a rising subjugation of the socially weak to accommodate to secular hierarchies, as previous historians have had it, but instead a declining subjugation of everyone to church discipline, as congregations gradually began relaxing their standards by 1830.
This book is deeply rooted in church minute books, supplemented with narrative Baptist sources and local records. Not since Gregory A. Wills’s Democratic Religion, published in 1997, has the topic of church discipline received such sustained attention. Madison provides ample evidence that relationships between Baptists were complex and even seemingly contradictory at times, and invites us all to give up trying to place Baptists in a single spot on a continuum from equality to hierarchy, from empowerment to oppression. That’s an important and useful intervention in the scholarship.
In Subjection is best suited for a scholarly audience, most particularly for specialists in American religious history. It may frustrate some readers looking for tight organization and crystal clear argumentation. Others may wish for a more sustained discussion of the experiences of enslaved converts. And this book will disappoint those looking for the editing and polish that academic presses once provided. But for religious historians there is an important message here about interpreting sources with nuance and balance.