The frontier Baptist churches of the 18th and 19th centuries were self-governing democratic communities. As each new church was founded, its founding members met to draw up a constitution, setting out the articles of belief to which they all subscribed; a covenant, setting out the ways they would treat each other; and a set of “rules of decorum” governing the conduct of worship and business meetings.
Decisions on matters of faith, as well as matters of conduct, were made by vote of the male members, although, as we will see, black members gradually lost the right to vote. When a question proved too difficult, it was referred for decision to the quarterly meeting of the regional Baptist Association. In 1786, the Raccoon Swamp Baptist Church in Surry County, Virginia considered whether it was “reprovable for persons passing about after snuff in the time of Divine service, or not. Answer, it is.” Four years later, they debated whether “Election [was] binding over to Salvation, or Reprobation, to Damnation,” and decided that neither was irrevocable “without their secondary causes.”
Baptist churches were quasi-families, where members met in brotherly and sisterly love, harmony was all-important, and everyone’s conduct was everyone else’s business. Since individual members were constantly on the move, they devised ways to extend these family bonds to new churches, establishing networks of small communities that gradually extended across the South. Baptists moving west would obtain “letters of dismissal,” attesting to the genuineness of their conversions and to their good standing in the church they had left; the letters would give them entry into new churches in the places where they settled.
Quaker meetings followed a similar pattern, with a few differences. As with the Baptists, individual meetings were bound together in regional associations that met at regular intervals. Decisions on faith and conduct were made by the members, but with the Quakers no decision was final without consensus, and those who could not join in the consensus risked being “disowned.” As a distinctive social group, consciously separate from the larger society, Quakers also tended to migrate as groups rather than as individual families.
The Freemasons, like the Baptists and the Quakers, strove to extend the bonds of brotherhood beyond the narrow confines of the family. The structure of their fraternity, however, was organized and codified in a way that Baptist churches and Quaker meetings were not. That structure was laid out in the “Constitutions of Freemasonry,” under which decisions in each individual lodge were made by vote of the members according to proper parliamentary procedure. Local lodges were responsible to a central authority, with the members of each lodge having “the Privilege of giving instructions to their Master and Wardens, before the [quarterly meetings] and [the] Annual Grand Lodge too; because their Masters and Wardens are their Representatives, and are supposed to speak their Mind.”
Like the Baptists and Quakers, the Masons provided ready-made families for a nation on the move, islands of order within a chaotic world. Like the Baptists and Quakers, they monitored and regulated the behavior of their members. More involved in the world than the two religious groups, they also provided an extensive commercial network that supported the establishment of new business ventures. In similar ways, each of these three groups created seeds of trust and connection, and nurtured skills of self-government, that set the pattern for the multitude of voluntary associations at which de Tocqueville marveled, and helped to provide the foundation for a growing republic.
Further reading: Francis Fukuyama discusses these ideas at length in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of ProsperityShare