Monday, August 24, 2009

Baptist hippies

In Virginia, Baptists were the hippies of the 1760’s through the 1780’s. They did not take LSD or listen to psychedelic music but, like the hippies of the 1960’s, Virginia Baptists of the latter portion of the eighteenth century opposed much of the political and social orthodoxy of the day. As Rhys Isaac explains in is Pulitzer Prize winning book entitled The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, Virginia Baptists were “countercultural.” However, unlike the libertine cultural dissent that characterized the hippie movement, Baptists offered an austere reaction to the dominant culture’s typical indulgences. Furthermore the emotional expression encouraged in Baptist gatherings of this period was considered ridiculous to the reserved worship practices of the aristocratic establishment.

At first the Baptist subculture of Virginia was easy for the dominant societal structure to ignore. Robert Baylor Semple, the earliest Virginia Baptist Historian, stated, “When the Baptists first appeared in … Virginia they were viewed by men in power as beneath their notice; none, said they, but the weak and wicked join them; let them alone, they will soon fall out among themselves and come to nothing.” The “men in power” were wrong; the countercultural Baptists grew rapidly. While there is clear evidence of the presence of Baptists in Virginia as early as 1699 their growth accelerated greatly after Daniel Marshall, who hailed from the historic Sandy Creek Baptist Church in North Carolina, began to preach in neighboring Virginia in the late 1750’s. By 1770 there were 18 or 19 Baptist churches with approximately 850 members and by 1774 there were 72 Baptist churches with over 5,000 members. By 1790 there were 210 Baptist churches with 20,861 members.

According to Isaac, Virginia Baptists aggressively pressed “a revolt against the traditional system” in the state. A gentleman from Loudoun County reported that the Baptists were “growing very numerous … and quite destroying pleasure in the Country; for they encourage ardent Pray’r; strong & constant faith, and an intire Banishment of Gaming, Dancing and Sabbath Day Diversions.” The solemn sobriety of Baptists seriously questioned the appropriateness of societal features that were considered crucial to the methods of association of the establishment. Not surprisingly, then, the Virginia power structure became alarmed by Baptist growth.

It may seem strange that a solemn movement that opposed dancing, drinking, games and other forms of merrymaking would become so popular. Isaac attributes the growth of the comparatively stern and sober Baptists to a need that they filled primarily among the poorer and less educated members of society. Isaac reports that the dominant Baptist message offered an escape from many harsh realities of the life of small farmers through a “supportive, and orderly community” that Baptist leader John Leland called “a congregation of faithful persons, called out of the world by divine grace, who mutually agree to live together, and execute gospel discipline among them.”

In Isaac’s view a vitally appealing feature of the supportive fellowship offered in Baptist churches was the comparative equality within the congregations. Baptists “conducted their affairs on a footing of equality so different from the explicit preoccupation with rank and precedence that characterized the world from which they had been called.” To Isaac the fact that numerous Baptist preachers rose from obscurity to assume important leadership roles in the movement is evidence of the equality fostered by the group. Persons of such low position would never have been given opportunities for leadership in the traditional order.

Semple cites a spiritual dimension as the reason for the popularity of the stern and sober Baptists rather than sociological factors only. He reports a revival—a miraculous spiritual awakening—that began in 1760 with a church formed from Daniel Marshall’s missionary efforts from North Carolina. The revival continued until the beginning of the Revolutionary War when a period of serious spiritual decline commenced. Shortly after the war, in 1785, another period of revival began and continued through 1791 or 1792 during which time “[t]housands were converted and baptized.” Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth reports that the latter period of spiritual awakening produced as much as an elevenfold increase in Virginia Baptist numbers.

Whether the growth of Baptists in Virginia in the last half of the eighteenth century should be attributed to sociological factors or spiritual awakening or some combination of the two, there can be no doubt this growing movement that aggressively opposed the customary bonding methods of the establishment and cast aside traditional notions of rank and privilege posed a great threat to those in power. Baptist success in converting slaves also inspired a good deal of hostility from the Virginia aristocracy. According to Semple, among the earliest converts apparently resulting from Daniel Marshall’s missionary work in Virginia “were several white members besides a large number of blacks, belonging chiefly to the large estate of Colonel Byrd.” As these slaves, many of whom “became bright and shining Christians,” scattered from Byrd’s estate, many persons in other areas were “brought to the knowledge of the truth.” The success of Baptists among slaves “was spectacular” according to Isaac and aroused great enmity from the establishment.

Therefore, as Isaac notes, it was because this new religious movement in Virginia was “a rejection of the style of life for which the gentry set the pattern” that Baptists began to be persecuted greatly. In a letter from Urbanna Prison dated August 12, 1771, Baptist minister John Waller relayed his account of the scene when an enraged county magistrate, the pastor from the local parish of the official state church and several others broke up a Saturday gathering of Baptists. Waller and five others were taken into custody. Two of the Baptist prisoners were scourged by one persecutor and then other persecutors, presumably squeamish over the violence, put a stop to the whipping. The Baptist who was most severely scourged before the beatings were halted was released and commanded to leave the county by noon the following day or he would be imprisoned. One Baptist was set free for unknown reasons. The rest were handed over to the sheriff to be placed in jail with the order that they were not to “walk in the air” until their court date which was two weeks later. According to Waller, the offensive gathering of Baptists was listening to a sermon based on James 2:18 when the meeting was broken up by the authorities. The prisoners were held on the charge of “mutiny against the authority of the land.”

This particular incident of persecution was cited because it so explicitly shows how Baptists were the hippies of Virginia for a while in the latter part of the eighteenth century—their worship gatherings were considered “mutiny against the authority of the land.” They were countercultural, struggling mightily against cultural norms. It should be noted that there were many other incidents of persecution of Virginia Baptists in this period, some of them far more severe than the one described above. During this period more than half the Baptist preachers in the state were jailed.

Largely because of their firsthand experience with religious persecution, Baptists became a countercultural force pressing for religious liberty expressed through the complete separation of church and state. Their efforts were effective not only in Virginia but in the nation as Baptists became crucial players in a chain of events that gave us the Bill of Rights. So we can be thankful for the “Baptist hippies” of the late 1700’s.

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