When the Baptists Became Respectable

Baptist preacherIn mid-18th century Virginia, the Baptists were downright subversive.  The most subversive were the Separate Baptists, who welcomed slaves into their congregations as spiritual equals, who allowed slaves and even women to preach, and whose patterns of loud, emotional worship owed a great deal to the religious traditions of Africa.  In those early churches, most members were poor, uneducated, and near the bottom of the social ladder.  They treated each other as equals.  All members of whatever race could bring their disputes to the congregation, and were subject to the same strict behavioral rules, enforced by the consensus of the congregation.

This frighteningly egalitarian culture lasted for less than 20 years.  Unlike their old rivals the Quakers, the Baptists were skilled at adapting to their society.  By the 1780s, “middling” people and even community leaders were joining in larger numbers, and Baptists were beginning to get self-conscious about the behavior of their worshipers.  By the time the Regular and Separate Baptists merged in 1787, many churches were making an effort to moderate the emotional expression of their black members.  At the same time, the roles offered to slaves and women within the churches were being sharply reduced.

The Black Creek Baptist Church, in Southampton County Virginia, was the only Virginia Baptist church to formally declare slavery “unrighteous,”  but even in that church only a very few members freed their slaves.  Both in the Black Creek Church and the Raccoon Swamp Baptist Church, a sister church just over the border in Surry County, records from the late 1780s and 1790s show no instance of a black person preaching or holding any office.  In 1785 the General Committee of the Virginia Baptists found slavery to be “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature” and a “horrid evil.”  But in 1793 same Committee reconsidered and decided to dismiss the subject.

The egalitarian tradition of the early Baptists lasted longest on the western frontier.  In the first two decades of the 19th century, Baptist churches in Middle Tennessee were still attracting black members, and blacks and whites were still worshiping side by side.  But black members did not criticize whites, and they did not vote.  As time went on, the two races increasingly met separately, and white preachers preached to them in very different ways.  A new minister of the First Baptist Church of Nashville explained the difference: black congregants were “generally dull of apprehension; they are, for the most part, strongly inclined to fanaticism;  and as church members they are litigious, and difficult to govern.  A sermon which to a cultivated white congregation, would be highly instructive and useful, is of very little worth to the colored people present… because the amount of thought is more than they can grasp, and the train of ideas not in a familiar direction.”  Little by little, the black Baptists withdrew, to found new churches where they could worship in their own way.

Further reading: Jewel L. Spangler,  “Becoming Baptists: Conversion in Colonial and Early National Virginia,” (Journal of Southern History, May, 2001,)  is a powerful article offering an in-depth analysis of the social and emotional experiences of early Baptists of both races, and the qualities that drew them to the Baptist church.

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