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C h a p t e r S i x The Dissenters Baptists and Congregationalists in a Separatist World Two groups of migrants, some seventy-two people in all, gather at Clay Pit Creek in Middletown, New Jersey. It is September, still hot and a bit dry. The leaves have not yet turned, but fall is approaching. A wagon train loaded with supplies and the migrants’ belongings is forming in a grove a relatively short ride from Shrewsbury, where most of the migrants have been living. The oxen swish their tails languidly, while the children exchange excited glances about the journey ahead. The atmosphere is hopeful, almost festive. Friends are arriving to bid the migrants good-bye, bringing food and drink for the enjoyment of all. This will be the last meal before the fifteen wagons pull out. But before the departure and the good-byes, there will be a farewell sermon.1 The picture is idyllic and quintessentially American, repeated countless times since the first settlers arrived on the shores of the New World. The picture has a Protestant tinge, too—an entire church congregation is picking up and moving en masse from Shrewsbury, New Jersey, to western Virginia, some four hundred miles away. Beneath this placid farewell scene, however, lurks something harsher: a group of religious dissenters is struggling with life in the new American republic. The year was 1789. The Shrewsbury church, founded by a group of Seventh Day Baptists in the 1740s, had suffered through eight years of the American Revolution and another eight years of postwar economic turmoil. Moreover, it had long struggled with dissension within its ranks. By migrating, these Seventh Day Baptists were seeking to start anew on the frontier—a timeless motivation in American history. A century earlier, something similar occurred, and it occurred in a surprising place: the Hartford congregation of Thomas Hooker. Reverend Hooker had led his followers out of Massachusetts Bay to the Connecticut frontier in 168 Journeys of the Pure 1636, and, through the force of his charismatic personality, he had succeeded in building a strong congregation in the years that followed. But appearances were deceiving there, too. When Hooker died in 1647, serious divisions came to the fore. The fissures that surfaced were so deep and irreconcilable, a dissenting faction decided to abandon Hartford to start a new congregation in western Massachusetts. The religious causes of the exodus were far more overt in Hartford than in Shrewsbury, but the two episodes highlight an important theme in migration history: the role of a dissenting culture in Protestant mobility. Earlier chapters in this volume touch repeatedly on this theme, showing the numerous ways that conflict contributed to migration. In addition to the problem with the “withdrawers” who left for Massachusetts, Hartford faced a challenge from “outlivers”—congregants who lived a distance from the meetinghouse and were unhappy about it. A restless and peripatetic Devereux Jarratt, searching to become reborn, took on the staidness of the Anglican Church and its followers . Scotch-Irish Presbyterians split into feuding camps colorfully known as New Lights and Old Lights, while southern Methodists divided over slavery. Despite their diversity, these conflicts share a common thread: in a dissenting world, Protestant believers did not hesitate to speak up for what they believed was right or needed. Such impulses were present from the earliest days of colonization, as the story of the Hartford congregation reveals, but they strengthened during the revolutionary era. Imbued with republican notions of freedom, common people seized on the heady promises of the period to reshape Christianity in their own image. Evangelism, already a potent force in America, benefited the most. The expansion of a dissenter culture in the late eighteenth century was a messy process, filled with conflict and volatility as people pressed ahead with their vision of what popular religion should be. As the Shrewsbury incident shows, the conflicts could take many forms. The disputes bedeviling the Seventh Day Baptist Church arose out of complex internal congregational dynamics involving religious, political, economic, and social forces. The complexity of the conflicts in Shrewsbury contrasts sharply with those in Hartford. In the latter migration to Massachusetts, the disputes emanated from theological and personal clashes with the minister, with the unhappy dissenters fully explaining their reasons for leaving. In the Shrewsbury migration , however, the internal problems were more opaque and more layered. Religious conflict intertwined with family relationships and with powerful outside forces, including the American Revolution. 169 The Dissenters A Baptist Dissenter...


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