Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 / Edition 1

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No American denomination identified itself more closely with the nation's democratic ideal than the Baptists. Most antebellum southern Baptist churches allowed women and slaves to vote on membership matters and preferred populists preachers who addressed their appeals to the common person. Paradoxically no denomination could wield religious authority as zealously as the Baptists. Between 1785 and 1860 they ritually excommunicated forty to fifty thousand church members in Georgia alone. Wills demonstrates how a denomination of freedom-loving individualists came to embrace an exclusivist spirituality—a spirituality that continues to shape Southern Baptist churches in contemporary conflicts between moderates who urge tolerance and conservatives who require belief in scriptural inerrancy. Wills's analysis advances our understanding of the interaction between democracy and religious authority, and will appeal to scholars of American religion, culture, and history, as well as to Baptist observers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Wills's work is excellent, both in its scholarship and presentation.—Mississippi Quarterly

Wills has produced a splendid study that should long serve as a model of how to research and to write religious history.—Baptist History and Heritage

"Wills' work is a thoughtful analysis of an historical practice with decidedly contemporary implications."—Journal of Southern Religion

"Well written, this book is a model of using church records as key sources. Important for students of southern religion and culture and American religious life more generally."—Choice

".will make a significant contribution to the field of American religious history."—Paul Harvey, Colorado College

"It is excellent, a real breakthrough in the use of local church records. His impressively documented and compelling argument brings to light the practice of Baptist 'democratic' culture during the century in which the South took shape.... Structured as it is on an imaginative exploitation of rich local Baptist records, especially in Georgia, this innovative work will be welcomed by students of American religion and Southern culture alike." —Donald G. Mathews, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"Wills uses the prism of church discipline to examine critical questions of race, theology, the role of women, and the nature of the church as addressed by nineteenth-century Georgia Baptists. His well-written work offers a critical case study in Baptist polity and popular religion. The book is a valuable contribution to studies in grassroots Christianity in the South."—Bill J. Leonard, Wake Forest University

"This important study is going to generate a lot of rethinking and debate regarding the contested history of the Southern Baptist Convention."—George Marsden, University of Notre Dame

John Thomas Scott
Wills' work is excellent, both in its scholarship and presentation....[He] has effectively shown that most of what we think we know about Baptists in 19th-century America is probably not true and is certainly open to re-examination. -- Mississippi Quarterly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195104127
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/28/1996
  • Series: Religion in America Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Lexile: 1400L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Religious Authority and the Democratic Impulse 3
1 Democratic Exclusivism 11
2 Democracies Primitive and Pure 26
3 Democratic Authority 37
4 Democracy, Race, and Gender 50
5 African-American Democracies 67
6 Freedom, Authority, and Doctrine 84
7 Associations, Creeds, and Calvinism 98
8 Democratic Religion Transformed 116
Conclusion 139
Notes 141
Index 185
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