Forgotten History: The Radical Baptists

feetwashing(2)Until the 1770s, when the Quakers suddenly turned against slavery, Virginia’s Anglican elites had more or less made up their minds to tolerate them.  But the Separate Baptists sowed terror in Anglican souls.

The Baptists arrived in Virginia in two streams, the Regular and the Separate Baptists, beginning in the mid-1750s.  All of them shared the Quaker rejection of ecclesiastical authority, and the Quaker emphasis on a direct connection between God and the individual soul.  Like the Quakers, they organized their congregations as voluntary egalitarian communities, quasi-families in which strict behavioral rules were reinforced by the intimate involvement of their members in each other’s lives.  Like the Quakers, they rejected the most sacred rituals of the Virginia aristocracy: dancing, gambling, drinking, horse-racing, and the use of violence to settle disputes.

There was one striking difference.  Unlike Quaker meetings, all early Baptist churches were integrated.  Within the walls of the church, slaves and masters met as spiritual if not social equals.  While the services of the Regular Baptists were decorous and rational, those of the Separate Baptists were loud and fervent.  Blacks and whites participated together in a series of emotionally charged rituals, including footwashing, the laying on of hands, the right hand of fellowship, and the kiss of charity.  Not only that, but their style of worship borrowed heavily from African traditions, with passionate expressiveness leading to ecstatic emotional release.  In many instances, black congregants even preached to whites.  The fervor of the black worshipers provided a model for the whites, giving them permission to worship in a similar manner.

Although the two streams ultimately merged, the practices of the Separate Baptists had a profound influence on those of the Regular Baptists, an influence that has persisted for over two centuries.  It is hardly surprising that the Baptists were subject to even harsher persecution than that endured by the Quakers a century earlier.  Nor is it surprising that the Baptists quickly took the lead in the fight for religious freedom.

Further reading: The World They Made Together, by Mechal Sobel, casts a whole new light on the history of the early South.



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