“Meddling with Emancipation”: Baptists, Authority, and the Rift over Slavery in the Upper South
In 1808, a crisis occurred in the Mount Tabor Baptist Church of Kentucky. In the ten years since its 1798 constitution, the members had communed closely, addressing each other as brother and sister, ritually washing each other’s feet in keeping with early Christian practice, watching over each other’s conduct, remonstrating one another when necessary, and celebrating the Eucharist. Their fellowship was shattered in April 1808 when John Murphy, clerk of the church, rose from his seat and “declared non-fellowship with the church on account of slavery.” Following Murphy’s lead, Elijah Davidson then rose and withdrew from the church because it tolerated slaveholding among its members. In the following five months, two men and four women left the church for the same reasons.1 Far from a singular event, this rupture was repeated in churches across the state and was the culmination to a decades-long debate within Baptist churches in the Upper South over the issue of slaveholding. Before the crisis was settled, Baptists would be forced to rethink their doctrines, worldview, and relationship to the new republic.
KeywordsSlave Owner South Fork Republican Government Constitutional Convention Civil Authority
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.
- 2.Itinerant preachers deliberately sought out and included slaves in their meetings. As early as the 1780s, some churches were evenly divided between black and white members. By 1790, most Baptist churches in the region were biracial congregations, and African Americans made up nearly one-third of all Virginia Baptists (30.35 percent). Robert G. Gardner, Baptists of Early America: A Statistical History, 1639–1790 (Atlanta, GA, 1983). Because membership was not a right that could be secured through simple attendance, parental membership, or an owner’s membership, these numbers represent conscious choices by slaves. The broader relationship between slavery and evangelicalism is crucial to understanding the values of the evangelical sects and their position within southern society before the Civil War. For important voices in the debate, see Sylvia Frey, Water From the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, 1991); Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York, 1997); Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (1982; repr., Chapel Hill, NC, 1999); Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago, 1977); and Randolph Scully, “ ’somewhat Liberated’: Baptist Discourses of Race and Slavery in Nat Turner’s Virginia, 1770–1840,” Explorations in Early American Culture 5 (2001): 328–71.Google Scholar
- 19.J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists From 1769 to 1885, 2 vols. (Cincinnati, OH, 1885), 2: 47Google Scholar