Review: Born of Water and Spirit

James Duane Bolin

James Duane Bolin is Professor of History at Murray State University.

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James Duane Bolin, "Review: Born of Water and Spirit," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Richard C. Traylor. Born of Water and Spirit: The Baptist Impulse in Kentucky, 1776–1860. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2015. 278 pp. ISBN 978-1-62190-095-5.

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In Born of Water and Spirit: The Baptist Impulse in Kentucky, 1776-1860, Richard C. Traylor, a professor of history at Hardin-Simmons University, explores the Kentucky experience of the primary beneficiaries of the First Great Awakening. Or, rather, he explores the impact of Kentucky on Baptists, for Traylor believes that “Kentucky acted as filter through which the migrants brought their customs and traditions” (3).

Traylor argues persuasively that both Regular and Separate Baptists came to Kentucky, and in Kentucky both factions blended “their customs and traditions.” In Kentucky, Separate and Regular Baptists created “a synthesis that would characterize the vibrant Baptist Movement in the nineteenth-century South” (3). Traylor takes the story from the first white and African-American settlers in the Bluegrass to the founding of the first Baptist churches by the first Baptist ministers, the organizing of the first associations by those first congregations, to the eve of the conflagration that had such a devastating impact on Baptists and everyone else in the state.

Traylor indicates that the divisions brought on by Alexander Campbell led to a crisis in Kentucky Baptist life. Though over ten thousand Kentucky Baptists joined Campbell’s movement, by 1840 Baptists in the Commonwealth had all but recovered. And the numbers of Baptists in Kentucky continued to grow, from 49,308 in 1840, to 74,965 in 1850, to 94,759 in 1860.

Traylor sees the Kentucky Baptist story as a sort of religious manifest destiny. Just as Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the unique American characteristics of democracy and openness grew on the frontier, so did they grow in Kentucky’s Baptist churches. Unlike Turner, however, Traylor refuses to leave women and African Americans out of his “frontier thesis.” Indeed, Traylor discusses the many contributions of Baptist African Americans who, despite the bonds of slavery, prevailed in the faith. Daniel, for example, a slave preacher who attended the Baptist church in Stamping Ground with his owner, could only exercise his gift of preaching within “the bounds of the church.” Traylor devotes Chapter Six to the topic “‘Determined to Persist’: African Americans and the Pursuit of Baptist Identity.”

Traylor devotes another chapter to Baptist women, “Sisters, Friends, and Proprietors: Women and Baptist Identity.” Although many early Baptist churches rejected women preachers and deacons, women still had voting rights; women helped direct Kentucky Baptist churches in this way. Women spoke in the church by relating their conversion experiences through professions of faith. Women were not silent.

By including the voices of Kentucky Baptist African Americans and Kentucky Baptist women in the frontier and antebellum periods, Traylor has performed a valuable service for those interested in the history of American religion in the South and the West. Kentucky Baptists played an important role in this story.