Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America
Like many late eighteenth-century American Baptists, Virginian John Taylor endured months of bodily agonies and the "paradoxical religious phrenzey" of the conversion process (2). Nevertheless, to become a Baptist minister, Taylor had to eschew conversion's physical excesses, and discipline himself and his congregation to exhibit bodily restraint and decorum. For Janet Moore Lindman, Taylor's religious regeneration is an apt metaphor for the paradoxes and corporeality of early American Baptists' beliefs and practices. In Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America, Lindman argues, "The body served as an instrument of spiritual rebirth, sacred performance, and physical restraint that engendered Baptist selfhood" (180). Lindman finds paradoxes in corporate as well as individual bodies. Although early Baptists are recognized for their assertions of religious liberty and spiritual equality, Lindman maintains that their white male leadership built an institutional church based upon a patriarchal model, which accentuated secularized race, class, and gender hierarchies. While in Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Christine Heyrman charts Methodists' transition from social [End Page 500] radicalism to patriarchal conservatism, Lindman argues that mid-Atlantic Baptists embodied both polarities from their beginnings in North America.
To understand these paradoxes, Lindman analyzes the development of Baptist churches in Pennsylvania and Virginia over the long eighteenth century, with an emphasis on intercolonial connections. The historiography has emphasized Baptists in New England and southern states, making Lindman's research on Pennsylvania an important intervention. Although small in number, Lindman argues that Pennsylvania Baptists asserted far-reaching influence through the Pennsylvania Baptist Association (PBA) founded in Philadelphia in 1707. As she explains, Baptist churches in both colonies faced assaults on their bodily integrity. While external persecutions bound Virginia Baptist communities together, Pennsylvanians faced the internal threat of heterodoxy as they navigated the slippery slopes of religious tolerance and ecumenism in a competitive religious marketplace. In a context of Baptist congregational autonomy, the PBA asserted institutional conformity by ruling on conflicts over ritual practices.
The heart of Lindman's book goes beyond institutional history to analyze how gender and race shaped early Baptists' communal experience. One of Lindman's strengths is her creative deployment of body theory to understand how Baptist beliefs translated into corporeal practices. In biblical imagery, the body signifies the community of believers united by both horizontal spiritual kinship ties and hierarchical patriarchal relationships. Lindman's extensive analysis of journals, letters, church records, and denominational histories demonstrates that in spite of Baptists' reputation for egalitarian ideals, their church government reflected biblical hierarchies as well as "secular indices of social status" embodied in race and gender differences (7). Building upon her previous articles, Lindman argues compellingly that the creation of the ideal Baptist body through the tripartite process of converting, ritualizing, and disciplining congregants' bodies reinforced these disparities.
Lindman's thoughtful gender analysis of male converts exemplifies the tensions in Baptist practice. Conversion marked an egalitarian moment in which men and women experienced the liberating physicality of conversion in a racially mixed community. However, as Lindman demonstrates, the bodily spectacle of irrational passions combined with traits of evangelical manhood like "tenderness, sensitivity, earnestness, and self-sacrifice" contrasted with the ideal masculine attributes of rationality and restraint (172). Like Heyrman, Lindman finds that critics accused male evangelicals of "effeminacy," precipitating a gender crisis. According to Lindman, white [End Page 501] Baptist men reasserted their manhood by affirming "female dependency, white supremacy, black subordination," and male dominance in the church polity (165). Egalitarianism had its limits.
Lindman employs body theory to explore Baptists' corporeal rituals, including their central rite, the public bodily spectacle of baptism by immersion. She maintains that baptism simultaneously empowered the congregants who witnessed the ritual and affirmed the hierarchical authority of the presiding white male minister. By contrast, Baptists' foot washing ceremony symbolized power inversion as it was patterned after the biblical account of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. Foot washing potentially created social disorder, as it required white men to humble themselves before white women and free and enslaved African Americans. For Lindman, the decline of foot washing in both Virginia and Pennsylvania demonstrates the evolution from early egalitarian experiments in congregational practices to a conservative nineteenth century Baptist denomination.
Baptist women's disciplined bodily comportment following conversion also countered accusations of social disorder. Although the mid-century Great Awakening provided white and African American women with opportunities to assert spiritual authority, Baptist culture relegated women to a female-centered sphere of "domesticated piety based in family, friendship, and community" (113). Nevertheless, Lindman notes that women asserted their right to vote on congregational matters, challenging the biblical precept that women should remain silent. Lindman's fascinating analysis of the debates over women's suffrage at the 1746 Philadelphia Baptist Association's annual meeting reveals a conflict between Baptist women's assertions of their rights as full church members and white men's fears that the more numerous women might usurp their authority. The PBA ruled that women could vote with "a mute voice" using only bodily gestures, but later rulings returned some voice voting rights under male oversight. The disputes continued throughout the century. Lindman provides an important prelude to later debates on women's rights in the secular polity.
Lindman demonstrates that like white women, African Americans found opportunities to assert authority through preaching and community participation. Still, her study of church courts underlines the restrictions on white women and African Americans' freedoms. White male leaders presided over autonomous congregational courts that exercised surveillance over members, targeting white women and African Americans' misconduct most frequently. [End Page 502] For enslaved African Americans in Virginia, church courts reflected and enforced secular court indictments. In view of Lindman's findings, it is not surprising that African Americans increasingly sought autonomy in separate black churches. Lindman could have further analyzed the differences in church discipline in Pennsylvania and Virginia congregations, but she convincingly reveals the possibilities and limits of Baptist liberty.
While Lindman's use of body theory is effective, her methodology deemphasizes a central pillar of the Baptist faith: the authority of the "Word of God" embodied in the Bible. In addition, American Indians hover on the sidelines of Lindman's account, raising questions about their relationships with early Baptists. Nevertheless, Lindman provides an engaging embodied account of mid-Atlantic Baptists that contributes significantly to early American religious history.