Gregory A. Wills Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). Pp. 195.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Baptist churches in the South seem to have had at least three primary purposes: to preach the gospel, to bring sinners to repentance, and to throw people out of the church. In this study of Baptist church discipline, Gregory Wills explores the paradox of church life evidenced in the way an American Protestant tradition understood dogma and democracy. Wills begins with a reference to the now twenty year old controversy inside the Southern Baptist Convention, a controversy which pitted "fundamentalists" against "moderates" and has essentially created multiple fissures in what was once one of America's most intact religious communions. Wills believes that, at least in part, that controversy and others like it were informed by the effort of Southern Baptists to have it both ways. On one hand they were democratic communities, promoting individual and congregational autonomy and freedom At they same time, they stressed a "democratic exclusivism," drawing ritual and doctrinal boundaries that separated them from other denominations and brought disciplinary actions against those persons and churches that did not adhere to the appropriate ethical and dogmatic ideals.
Wills, church history teacher and archivist at
"Wills concludes that women were 1.5 times more likely to receive sentence of excommunication than men were."
the Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, a center of controversy in the unending SBC divisions, offers a superb history of the rise and fall of disciplinary practices among Baptists in the South from the eighteenth to the beginnings of the twentieth century. He begins by defining "democratic exclusivism" evident in the radical congregationalism, conversionism, ritualism and disciplinary practices of early Baptist churches. He writes that "As Baptists saw it, both the preaching of the gospel and the exercise of church discipline served the vision of the pure church by separating the righteous from the unrighteous." (17) Likewise, they were primitive and "pure" democracies, peoples' churches, in which laity and clergy fought vehemently and cooperated energetically in fulfilling the gospel commands. The reputation of gospel churches were at stake when impure church members went unchallenged. Discipline was necessary to redeem the fallen and preserve the integrity of the congregation. Wills writes: "When churches encountered troubles, ecclesiastical detectives could be counted on to round up the usual suspects-- first among them being neglect of church discipline." (35) And discipline they did. Baptist church records from this period are filled to overflowing with accounts of persons warned, rebuked, excommunicated and restored for a wide variety of offenses. Excommunication was a particularly powerful moment when, "in the presence of the Church," an individual was given "expulsion from its fellowship & privileges." (43)
Disciplinary actions against women were particularly common. Wills concludes that women were 1.5 times more likely to receive sentence of excommunication than men were. He also notes that "swift censure" for sins such as drunkenness or adultery was brought against all social classes, but "social position usually made a difference." (55) Whites and blacks worshiped together in the pre-abolitionist times and slaves were the object of discipline in Baptist congregations. Occasionally, slaves themselves could seek disciplinary action against oppressive "Christian" masters, but little punitive action was taken.
Wills also shows how discipline was related to dogmatic issues in Baptist life, particularly violation of "creeds" and theological systems, particularly Calvinism. While he is correct in asserting that Baptists were indeed a somewhat (my word) creedal people, he probably does not give enough attention to the nuances of the creedal/non-creedal tension in Baptist life. In a sense, Baptists were selective creedalists, who refused to admit that they were as bound to "man-made" documents as they really were. At the same time, there were significant exceptions, especially evident in the Separate Baptists, who were unashamedly dogmatic, but absolutely refused to write or use confessions of faith. Individualism or what is sometime known as soul liberty meant that Baptists who disagreed over dogma simply split and formed two Baptist groups, each denouncing the other, but tenaciously clinging to the Baptist mantle.
The final sections of the book detail the decline of discipline and the growing hesitancy to humiliate persons, particularly socially significant individuals in Baptist churches. In a sense, modernity caught up with Baptists and by the early twentieth century their documents indicate a decline in excommunications and other public denunciations.
Wills' work is a fine contribution to Baptist and Southern studies. It comes at a time when many conservatives and moderates bemoan the loss of discipline and the admission of persons to the church who do not uphold the moral demands of the "pure" faith. At the same time, many of the most conservative churches have developed an admissions policy, which creates huge congregations and makes it impossible to monitor the behavior of all but the most recalcitrant of members. As always, discipline for racism is largely ignored, while "safe sins"—those around which the congregation can generally agree—(homosexuality, abortion, Disney World) receive the strongest attacks. Likewise, and Wills might have made more of this, Baptists seemed to have learned that their strenuous practices of discipline meant that sooner or later almost every member of any congregation would be called into question. They came to recognize, implicitly or explicitly, that if they dragged one person through the door to discipline, they might one day be forced to drag everyone. Wills' work is a thoughtful analysis of an historical practice with decidedly contemporary implications.
Bill J. Leonard, Wake Forest University Divinity School