When the Quakers became Baptists

The Black Creek Baptist Church was established in Southampton County, Virginia, during or shortly after the Revolution, on the same small creek where a Quaker Meeting had been established several years before.  Like all other early Baptist churches, it had both white and black members.  The church records show that the members considered complaints by slaves against their masters, and in two instances actually expelled white members for “using Barbarity against their slaves.”

The records reveal something else interesting: the number of Black Creek Church members who shared the names of old Isle of Wight Quaker families.  Wills written before its founding show many of these future church members living next to each other, marrying each other, and acting as each other’s witnesses and executors.

Baptist and Quaker theologies differed dramatically. Quaker theology was and is based on belief in the perfectibility of man, and in a loving God whose goodness is manifested as an “inner light” in every human soul.  The possibility of salvation is open to all mankind, through each person’s own efforts.  By contrast, the Regular Baptists of that era were strict Calvinists.  They believed in the total depravity of man, the acceptance of the literal words of the Scriptures as the sole authority, and the election of a chosen few, predestined for salvation since the beginning of time while the rest of humanity was damned.  Quakers sat in silence, waiting for God to speak to them; the worship of the Baptists was loud and emotional.  The frequency with which the old Quaker surnames of Isle of Wight County appear on the membership lists of the Black Creek Baptist Church is testimony to the irrelevance of theology.

What the two faiths shared was an emphasis on the direct connection between the individual soul and God, and a fierce opposition to any state control of individual conscience.  Both offered believers an egalitarian community, governed only by its own members, which supported those members, arbitrated their disputes, and prescribed the rules of behavior by which they lived.  But the Baptist churches offered a more powerful emotional experience, a release from the losses and labors and casual brutality of daily life, as well as a more lenient set of behavioral rules.  And the Baptists allowed their members to keep their slaves.

Baptists provided their Quaker converts with a familiar context, and a familiar set of beliefs about the individual’s relationship with God, while allowing them to slip free of the rules about slavery and pacifism that had separated them from the broader society.  In the birth throes of the new nation, they allowed their converts to redefine themselves as full members of that nation, and of the slaveholding society in which they lived.

 

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