- Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America, and: Religion and the Making of Nat Turner's Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740–1840, and: God's Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World
Baptists exhibit a broad and varied history in colonial North America, ranging from establishing a colony of their own under Roger Williams to their persecution as a tiny minority in the early history of Anglican Virginia. Their history is only more dramatic in the national period, when the once reviled sect became one of the nation's fastest growing Protestant denominations. This was especially true in the South, where Baptists grew from a slender and embattled presence during the early eighteenth century to become the dominant evangelical church in the twentieth. Baptists have been expertly studied by a generation or two of leading scholars, but Janet Moore Lindman and Randolph Ferguson Scully both offer helpful studies. Lindman helps correct an overwhelmingly doctrinal and textual framework in the historiography (much of which has been denominational) by stressing the importance of the body, ritual, and gender. Scully trains a careful eye on the history of race among eighteenth-century Virginia Baptists leading up to the visionary Baptist preacher and prophet, slave, and would-be revolutionist Nat Turner. David Rowe provides an insightful biography of millennialist William Miller, one of America's most fascinating Baptists.
The temptation in studying religious groups, especially those that are marginalized and deemed sensational by virtue of their unusual behavior, is to focus on their doctrines. To be sure, Protestant sects have themselves encouraged this approach by investing enormous energy in what strikes many observers as dogmatic hair-splitting—whether it is prudent to preach extemporaneously or to read a prepared text, or how the third angel in the Book of Revelation is to be understood. But even embedded [End Page 538] in these arcane queries are conceptions and practices that urge scholars to look beyond the pedantic surface of dogmas to the robust worlds of felt life and lived religion.
Happily, Janet Moore Lindman steps out from traditional historiography to pay attention to what she aptly describes as the Baptists' "body-centered religion." Devoting an entire chapter to the careful description of evangelical conversion, Lindman shows how for Baptists getting religion was a deeply embodied experience, not a merely intellectual one. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Baptist faith spread through many practices, all of which were dedicated to constructing and maintaining community. Unlike some extreme Calvinists, the point was not to articulate an airtight message crafted in the meticulous interpretation of Scripture and the decisive application of the weaponry of polemical doctrinal interpretation, but to build up a countercultural ethos, an alternative way of being in the world. The body in question was not only the individual bodies of believers, important as they were, but the social body of communitas. Individuals submitted themselves to the collective scrutiny of the group. How one dressed, spoke, and conducted worldly affairs was subject to the shared inspection of the group. Decisions were made by congregational councils to endorse and promote the well-being of the entire community. (This might strike one as Utopian during the early days of the group in eighteenth-century Virginia, but by the end of the century it came to mean squashing dissent against slavery, because objections to slave ownership were considered partisan and therefore subversive of religious community.)
Lindman frames Baptist life in three primary activities: conversion, ritual, and discipline. "Ritual," she asserts, "served as a centerpiece of Baptist corporeal spirituality in early America. It became a primary means of evoking and retaining religious belief " (72). This gets the...