In keeping with their claims to an expansive authority over their congregants, many Virginia Baptist churches and associations insisted on their right to monitor master-slave relations and to debate the morality of slaveholding in the late eighteenth century. Yet in the 1790s, these efforts created enough dissension within and among church congregations that many Baptists began to reject antislavery statements to quell developing conflicts. Consequently, antislavery seemed to disappear in the region. But, in fact, far from capitulating, "emancipating Baptists" became more radical. Most vocal partisans migrated to Kentucky, a move that emboldened emancipating Baptists but ultimately marginalized the antislavery position geographically and politically. In the early nineteenth century, Kentucky became a battleground between those for and against slaveholding, resulting in hard-fought clash that divided churches and pitted old friends against one another. To stem the crisis, the Baptists made the unprecedented decision to relinquish any authority over the question of the institution slavery to the civil state, defining the issue as being outside the province of the churches and as the proper concern of the government. In abandoning their once jealously-guarded autonomy, the Baptists embraced the authority of the state, and, in so doing, they participated in reshaping the sacred and secular realms in the new republic, helping to define not only the appropriate boundaries of the religious realm but also the boundaries of the civil state in the early national era.
Journal of the Early Republic – University of Pennsylvania Press
Published: Jun 13, 2005
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