Born of Water and Spirit: The Baptist Impulse in Kentucky, 1776–1860 by Richard C. Traylor (review)
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Born of Water and Spirit: The Baptist Impulse in Kentucky, 1776–1860. By Richard C. Traylor. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 278. $47.50 cloth)

While Born of Water and Spirit is a denominational history of the Kentucky Baptists, Richard Traylor’s study exceeds the boundaries of this genre thanks to his sensitivity and balance. The Baptists believed that the biblical church should be a democratic and fluid body, and this central concept—what Traylor calls the “Baptist impulse”—catalyzed the expansion of the movement and the fiery schisms within it in post-Revolutionary Kentucky (p. 7).

In the first half of the monograph, Traylor describes the Baptist impulse from several different perspectives. Chapter one describes how the Baptist Church cohered around the rituals of conversion, conversion narratives, baptism, and communion. These abstractions are made accessible through personal stories, such as the affecting tale of the spiritual journey and conversion of John Taylor, who would become a minister and Baptist leader. Chapter two dissects the dialectical relationship between the authority of Baptist leaders and the egalitarian churches that licensed them to preach. Chapter three underlines the central importance of the local Baptist church in a democratic and decentralized movement. There is some repetition in this half of the study, but Traylor’s insistent style and trenchant use of evidence make for a convincing picture of the dynamism and vitality of the Baptist impulse.

The second half of the monograph is excellent but somewhat less organized. In chapter four, for instance, Traylor exposes the subgroups and simmering disagreements churning within the movement. The biggest schisms were caused by Alexander Campbell’s anti-creedal reform movement, the push for refinement and the anti-institutionalist [End Page 475] reaction of the 1830s–1840s, and debates about Calvinism started by Andrew Fuller. While Traylor mentions all of these groups, he does not satisfactorily delineate or quantify the various factions in the bubbling cauldron of Baptist Kentucky. Traylor dedicates chapter five to the female Baptists of Kentucky. Critics have often cast the Baptists as obsessively patriarchal and suggested that antebellum church discipline was a tool to domesticate Baptist women. Traylor counters by showing the critical role that Kentucky women played in the Baptist impulse; far from being supine, these frontier women rejected more liberal religious alternatives and exerted a real influence on the churches that they attended, supported, and numerically dominated.

Chapter six describes how many African Americans—both enslaved and free—embraced the Baptist faith. Black Baptists were subordinated to white authorities, and their congregations rarely had much independence. Traylor argues that historians must take black Baptists seriously, as they worked tenaciously to spread their faith, even while chafing under racial restrictions and exclusions.

Born of Water and Spirit closes with chapter seven, covering the Baptist impulse from the 1840s to the Civil War. Traylor charts the rise of Landmarkism and explains how this thread of Baptist thought proliferated. Unfortunately, the chapter covers little else, and the reader emerges with the feeling that the Baptist impulse after the 1840s shrank to an insular club of ministers arguing about Landmarkism.

This monograph has much to recommend it, but there is a central problem in Traylor’s methodology. The “Baptist impulse” concept allows Traylor to link disparate elements of the movement together, but he does not establish a consistent limiting principle. Campbell’s Restoration movement, for instance, was birthed from the Baptist impulse, and his movement retained the same democratic, fluid, and localist ethos even after Campbell exited the Baptist fold. Although Restorationism matches the Baptist impulse rubric, Traylor drops Campbell and Barton Stone from the narrative after their unification in 1830. This reviewer suspects that the Restorationist movement was the fruit of the anti-creedal and primitivist factions of the Baptist [End Page 476] impulse. Does Traylor exclude Restorationism because he considers it something categorically different from the Baptist impulse? He does not say, and the Restoration movement is noticeably absent from even the index.

Traylor also avoids delving into the great black box of southern religious history, anti-missionism. Despite the many disagreements amongst Baptists in the South, anti-institutionalists, anti-creedalists, anti-Calvinists, and...