Bodies of Belief
Baptist Community in Early America
Publication Year: 2011
The American Baptist church originated in British North America as "little tabernacles in the wilderness," isolated seventeenth-century congregations that had grown into a mainstream denomination by the early nineteenth century. The common view of this transition casts these evangelicals as radicals who were on society's fringe during the colonial period, only to become conservative by the nineteenth century after they had achieved social acceptance. In Bodies of Belief, Janet Moore Lindman challenges this accepted, if oversimplified, characterization of early American Baptists by arguing that they struggled with issues of equity and power within the church during the colonial period, and that evangelical religion was both radical and conservative from its beginning.
Bodies of Belief traces the paradoxical evolution of the Baptist religion, including the struggles of early settlement and church building, the varieties of theology and worship, and the multivalent meaning of conversation, ritual, and godly community. Lindman demonstrates how the body—both individual bodies and the collective body of believers—was central to the Baptist definition and maintenance of faith. The Baptist religion galvanized believers through a visceral transformation of religious conversion, which was then maintained through ritual. Yet the Baptist body was differentiated by race and gender. Although all believers were spiritual equals, white men remained at the top of a rigid church hierarchy. Drawing on church books, associational records, diaries, letters, sermon notes, ministerial accounts, and early histories from the mid-Atlantic and the Chesapeake as well as New England, this innovative study of early American religion asserts that the Baptist religion was predicated simultaneously on a radical spiritual ethos and a conservative social outlook.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Series: Early American Studies
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Introduction: A New People of God
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John Taylor was more interested in social pursuits than spirituality when Baptists began preaching near his frontier home in 1770. After attending one of their meetings merely for entertainment, he came away deeply affected. He read the Bible, quit his sinful habits, and became convinced he could obtain salvation without the help of "noisy Baptists" When...
1. "Little Tabernacles in the Wilderness": Baptists in Colonial Pennsylvania
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In 1714, Morgan Evan wrote to a friend in Wales attesting to the harmonious coexistence of multiple religions in colonial Pennsylvania: "we all agree and are at peace with one another and every one worships God in his own way." A new immigrant, Evan celebrated a degree of religious tolerance unknown in Europe. However, the state of spiritual bliss that existed in...
2. "Sons and Daughters of Zion": Baptists in Colonial Virginia
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In 1771, Samuel Harris wrote to the Philadelphia Baptist Association (PBA) to report on the status of Virginia Baptists. A convert and minister, Harris informed the PBA about two preachers who had been jailed in Chesterfield County. Despite harassment by the colonial government, Harris noted that there had been an "an unusual outpouring of the spirit on all ranks...
"A Heaven-Born Stroke": Evangelical Conversion
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3. On a snowy day in 1770, eighteen-year-old John Taylor, a resident of "Helltown," went to hear Daniel Marshall preach in the shadow of an abandoned chapel. During the year, Taylor and his friends had been attending evangelical gatherings for diversion and sport--a common practice among young white men on the Virginia frontier. On this particular day,...
4. "Putting on Christianity": Ritual Practice
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On a Saturday in October 1792, Elizabeth Powell recounted her conversion experience in the Brandywine meetinghouse of Chester County, Pennsylvania. The next day, she and Mary Davis waited to be baptized in the Brandywine River by Elder Joshua Vaughan. Before he could proceed, Joseph and Mary Powell interrupted the ritual to object to Elizabeth's admission...
5. "Holy Walking and Conversation": Church Discipline
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When Betsy Goodman decided to leave her husband in the spring of 1813, her action became a citable offense for the Boar Swamp meeting. At the same time, Betsy's mother, Judith Garthwright, was accused of showing partiality toward her daughter in the marital dispute rather than attempting to reconcile the couple's differences. Judith's noncompliance with church...
6. Sisters in Christ: Gender and Spirituality
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In May 1808, Abigail Harris outlined a plan to create a women's meeting in southern New Jersey. Only "single sisters of the Church" who were "serious or under serious impressions" could join. The group would meet to sing and pray together as well as read from the Bible and recite sermons. Besides religious worship, the women would "comfort, encourage &...
7. Free People in the Lord: Race and Religion
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When Samuel, a slave member of the Middletown meeting, died in 1796, his prodigious faith was noted in the church record: "this man was a example of real piety--he hath been a member of this church for near forty years--without ever a complaint." This is the only evidence that Samuel attended this church. His presence at monthly meetings was not chronicled,...
8. The Manly Christian: Evangelical White Manhood
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To prove the excesses of evangelical religion to the Philadelphia meeting in 1740, Ebenezer Kinnersley offered as evidence the sermon of a New Light Presbyterian minister, whose ranting proceeded not from the spirit of God but from "a spirit of confusion." Kinnersley noted that this cleric's "preaching of terror, in order to convince prophane, impenitent...
Conclusion: Baptists in the Early Republic
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During the summer of 1821, Jeremiah Jeter attended meetings, witnessed rituals, and heard sermons by Baptists and Methodists. He prayed, wept, and went without sleep searching for saving grace. Amid his spiritual struggle, he went to the funeral of a young man who had died of drunkenness and dissipation. Because the body had traveled far to be interned, the casket...
Appendix: Baptist Ministers in the Delaware Valley and Chesapeake
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List of Abbreviations
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The support of many people and institutions made this publication possible. I need to thank Rowan University for providing internal funding and release time to work on this book. Fellowships from a number of institutions also supported my research: the University of Minnesota, the John Carter Brown Center, the Virginia Historical Society, and the McNeil Center for Early...
Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2011
Series Title: Early American Studies