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Sixty-Second Annual Meeting

Holy Wars in the Old South:
Or, the Battle Among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians

Address by Christine L. Heyrman

On the last day of 1778, even as war raged between Britain and its former colonies, Nelson Reed knew peace. He was twenty-eight, a Maryland-born farmer who had taken up the calling of a Methodist itinerant. Now, as he was preaching up and down the coast of Virginia, Reed "found myself in a sweet frame of spirit and found great nearness to some Baptist brethren and prayed with them twice....O What a comfort is a christian that is free from party spirit." A few months later in March of 1779, Reed was lodging with a Baptist, a layman who "seemed very agreeable and was very kind." Then, just a few days later, Reed preached "with freedom and closeness" to an attentive and largely Baptist congregation, an experience so satisfying to all that, on the day following, he twice shared a pulpit with a Baptist preacher, John Waller, whom he then invited to attend a Methodist class meeting. Of that intimate gathering of the Methodist faithful and hopeful, Waller "much approved," prompting Reed again to praise the "comfort to be in love and unity together....the Lord pour out more of the true catholic spirit."

"Like ghosts [the Baptists] haunt us from place to place...O the policy of Satan...!

But...I shall not break my peace about it...I look upon them as objects of pity rather than objects of envy or contempt."

--From diary of Francis Asbury (1745-1816),
"pioneer bishop" of the Methodist Church

Nelson Reed came easily by the ecumenical sympathies that echo through the diary in which he chronicled his ministry during the late 1770s. Indeed, this godstruck young itinerant was merely repeating the sentiments of more senior ministers, some Methodist, others Baptist. They were evangelical leaders like the Methodist Joseph Pilmore who, in the years before the American Revolution, effused to his diary over the profound spirituality of both the Quakers and the Moravians, accepted numerous invitations to preach in the pulpits of welcoming Baptist clergymen everywhere between Maryland and South Carolina, and lavished praise on Pennsylvania as a colony where "Bigotry has but little place" and Christians "in general love one another." There was also Francis Asbury—the veritable patriarch of American Methodism—who in 1774 expressed the heartfelt wish that "all names and parties were done away—that Christians were all but one body."

Less than a decade after gaining Independece, controversy was well on the way toward supplanting cooperation among evangelicals in the South.
But that did not come to pass. Little more than a year later, the first signs of far less harmonious relations among fellow evangelicals appear in Asbury's journal. He complained that Baptist preachers were trying to persuade new Methodist converts that being merely sprinkled was no true baptism—that the Bible prescribed full immersion, "dipping," in the parlance of the time: "Like ghosts [the Baptists] haunt us from place to place," Asbury fretted, "O the policy of Satan...! But...I shall not break my peace about it...I look upon them as objects of pity rather than objects of envy or contempt." That reserve
did not last: by 1779, Asbury had broken his peace, lost his pity, and mustered his contempt: indeed, he had taken off the gloves and set about openly challenging the Baptists and schooling his less wary colleagues like Nelson Reed in the strategy of holy war: "...[the Baptists] are always preaching water to the people, and are striving to get into all the houses where we preach," Asbury grumbled to his journal, and then asked, "Must we...get people convinced, and let Baptists take them from us?" For Asbury, the question was already rhetorical: "No; we will, we must oppose," he continued, and then proceeded to tell how: "I met with a Baptist woman who warmly contended for dipping, as though it had been for life....She said, we must imitate our Lord. I said, our Lord rebuked the wind, and walked [my emphasis] upon the sea." Meanwhile, the Baptists were beginning to nurse grievances of their own against the Methodists, particularly in places like South Carolina where the Baptists had already gained a firm foothold and so regarded the Methodists as mere poachers and interlopers.

In short, within a single decade, controversy was well on the way toward supplanting cooperation among evangelicals in the South. Once they no longer confronted either a common enemy in an established Anglican church or a common peril in the upheaval attending the American Revolution, white Methodists, Baptists, and (I might add) Presbyterians joined a vigorous polemical warfare for the next half century. Only in the mid-1830s did their wrangling begin to ease up, mainly because all the South's white Protestants were coming to appreciate the importance of presenting a united front against the trumped-up threat of Roman Catholics and the very real and mounting opposition to slavery by Yankee evangelicals.

To be sure, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were not the only competitors battling for advantage in the new republic's religious free market. These leading evangelical churches also exchanged vollies with the few stray Anglicans, Catholics, and Shakers in the South, as well as with schismatic groups splintered from their own churches like the Republican Methodists and the Cumberland Presbyterians. But it was the fray between the major church bodies of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians that figured as the main event, the routine title match, as it were, in most southern communities in the early republic. And what they were disputing focused mainly on each group's singular theological beliefs and ritual practices—for example, the relative merits of free will Arminianism and predestinarian Calvinism or the necessity of "dipping" as opposed to sprinkling.

The passions stirred by these religious quarrels might seem downright silly in this day and age, a time in which the many Americans who profess religious faith justly pride themselves upon being tolerant and ecumenical. So it takes a little imagination to appreciate how deeply such contests over doctrine and ritual practice engaged the South's white laity of two hundred years ago. Let's begin by revisiting the boyhood of one George Brown, a Methodist itinerant who grew up on the raw frontier of southern Ohio around 1800, in a community settled by other migrating Virginians. Listen to what he recalled:

"...the Baptists and Presbyterians commenced operations among the new settlers, and both denominations assailed the Methodists on points of doctrine. The Methodists allowed of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion in baptism. The Baptists held to immersion alone, and were close communicants. The Methodists taught the doctrine of general redemption, holiness of heart and life, the witness of the Spirit, etc., and that there was a possibility of falling from grace. Here both Baptists and Presbyterians met them in conflict, and the struggle between the parties was long and arduous.

Thus, in the days of my boyhood, was I made to see and understand the bitterness of heated controversy on the subject of religion. Yet, after all, good was the result, for the whole community went to searching the Scriptures daily, to see who was right. From parental teaching and reading the Bible, I deemed the Methodists to be right, and had my controversial sword whetted up, and ready for a passage at arms with any boy of my age in the neighborhood."

--George Brown, Methodist Minister, Ohio frontier, ca. 1800

Here is a marvelously vivid image of a world lost to us at the end of the twentieth century—yet it is utterly typical of the religious culture of the South at the beginning of the nineteenth. Literally every page of the diaries and memoirs written by preachers like George Brown confirms that southern whites—young and old, male and female—were consumed with the passion for such debates over competing evangelical teachings.

That being the case, evangelical preachers met with no shortage of feisty lay men and women eager and ready to engage them in open debate. In fact, it was not uncommon for lay men or women to interrupt ministers in mid-sermon, rising from their seats to offer their objections. A few laypeople even served advance notice, like the fairminded South Carolina Baptist in 1811, who drew aside a Methodist itinerant before he preached and "informed me he was trying to prove me a liar and wished me to know beforehand."

Such disputes often spilled over from public settings into the privacy of southern households—where visiting clergymen regularly found themselves served up over dinner as the main course for family members or guests. Enter one South Carolina household in 1796 where a luckless Methodist itinerant found himself breaking bread with a staunch Presbyterian layman who insisted on discussing the doctrine of limited atonement. "I beg[g]ed him to desist [but] He then got upon his Everlasting Covenant between the Father and the Son what was made from all Eternity, that the Son should die for a part of Adams posterity and not for the rest, I asked where he got that Covenant from, He said from the word of God, I told [him] he was mistaken [and]...looked upon such an assertion as a mere Sophistical production of his own brain."

Southern lay people not only prided themselves on being well versed in theology but those with fixed religious opinions took them much to heart. As much was brought home to Wilson Thompson, a Baptist minister and schoolteacher in southern Missouri, by his encounter with the father of one of his pupils, a man much averse to Thompson's own Calvinist views who

"...declared that I ought not to be permitted to live, for I was bawling and preaching around the country such doctrine as should never be tolerated, as election, predestination, and salvation for only a part of Adam's race, while another part was bound to suffer eternally.

He said that such doctrines were abominable, and the law ought to put to death every man that would preach them; but if the law would not hang such villains, he would kill them, and then, with an awful oath, he swore that I should never leave that spot alive, for he would break my skull and scatter my brains on that spot of the earth...."

--Wilson Thompson, southern Missouri

While such combativeness often wearied and sometimes terrified the clergy, they did, in truth, more than their share to foster the laity's fascination with denominational differences, right down to the finest points. Month after month, the most skilled ministers waged theological warfare in scores of denominational periodicals, the pages of which were crammed with eye-glazing debates over hair-splitting theological distinctions. Meanwhile, even young and inexperienced preachers took on rival churches in their sermons—indeed, that was regarded as an ideal way for these striplings to prove their mettle.

But what may have been the most successful forum for popularizing religious controversy were public debates between evangelical clergymen. These fascinating encounters—usually pitting a silver-tongued Methodist against some Baptist Son of Thunder—took place everywhere in the South after about 1800. Many debates lasted for several hours and drew hundreds of attentive hearers—I think because the etiquette of these affairs eerily mimicked the rituals of duels between gentlemen. Note the elaborate protocol of public debates held in 1819 between the Methodist John Johnson and his Baptist adversary, Jeremiah Vardiman. A famed Baptist champion, Vardiman was preaching throughout middle Tennessee, declaring his readiness to "sponge out any [Methodist] preacher"; Johnson tracked him down and took up the gauntlet. He confronted Vardiman in public meetings, proclaimed him a liar, offered to meet him in open debate; the challenge accepted, both men then decided the rules and questions for their encounter. All of these elements—the slight to honor, the charge and countercharge of lying, the challenge to settle scores at a future date according to mutually agreed forms—were drawn from the etiquette of the duel. Small wonder that so many Tennesseeans turned out for their final face-off.

I might add, too, that in their oral performances, both debates and sermons, evangelical preachers resorted to a most unexpected device to impress upon lay audiences the superiority of their own churches. This was humor—a choice that is surprising since those churches had earlier disdained "levity" as a snare of the devil and regarded laughing, in and of itself, to be every bit as bad as dancing and gambling. But by about 1800, evangelicals had come to appreciate the value of jokes—at least those made at the expense of
Early nineteenth-century Methodist preachers liked to refer to the Baptists as "waterfowl" and then set audiences chuckling with tales of how wily Baptist ministers tried "to turn chickens into ducks"—meaning, to lure away converts to Methodism and then rebaptize them.
rival denominations. For example, early nineteenth-century Methodist preachers liked to refer to the Baptists as "waterfowl" and then set audiences chuckling with tales of how wily Baptist ministers tried "to turn chickens into ducks"—meaning, to lure away converts to Methodism and then rebaptize them. So winning were these witticisms that they became a staple of pulpit discourse after about 1800, primarily because they worked: comical images of quacking Baptists were liable to linger in the memory of the laity and were equally likely, as jokes usually are, to be passed along.

Now, at last, I'll come to the point: All these stories leave little doubt that the old South was a culture deeply steeped in religious controversy. But their moral is not that white southern Protestants were singularly lacking in Christian charity toward members of rival churches—indeed, such charity was equally conspicuous by its absence among white northern Protestants, who also bashed one another, to say nothing of northern Catholics, with gleeful abandon. No, the moral of my stories is rather that most southern whites approached religion with a spirit of real intellectual curiosity. Their common theme is that white men and women of all classes, whether churched or unchurched, whether evangelicals or non-evangelicals, were fascinated by and uncommonly knowledgeable about the doctrinal and ritual differences dividing various Protestant churches. And knowing that they were goes a long way toward dispelling what may be the most persistent and misleading historical stereotype about the spiritual lives of early southerners.

Open any high school or college history textbook to the section covering religion in the early republic, and the chances are that you'll find reproduced some depiction of a southern camp meeting. Inevitably, the image is one of complete pandemonium: goggle-eyed, wildly gesticulating preachers are bellowing hellfire and brimstone before a crowd of lay people who are variously weeping or fainting or howling or twitching or rolling on the ground and generally behaving like the inmates of a lunatic asylum. Implicitly, students are being invited to contrast these pathetically mindless and unhinged southerners at worship with Americans in other regions, like the scholarly Puritans of New England and the sober Quakers of the mid-Atlantic, both of whom, as the text helpfully indicates, were reflective and reserved in their approach to religion. This won't do at all.

To be sure, there were some rip-roaring camp meetings in the Old South. And some of those attending were awakened entirely by feelings that melted their hearts rather than by any ideas that might have penetrated their heads. But camp meetings, however riveting as mass spectacles, were merely passing episodes in the South's long and complex spiritual history, and, as such, they don't take us very far in understanding the true character of religious experience among most southern whites. Looking beyond the camp meetings, as we've done this afternoon, introduces us to a more representative segment of the laity—to men and women who were thoughtful and discerning in forging their religious convictions and remarkably sophisticated in their grasp of theology.

Having said that, all that remains for me to say is this: Don't you all believe for even a New York minute that the mind of American Protestantism lay to the North and that the South supplied only its fire in the belly. Because that's just not the way it happened.

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