For most of the colonial period, Virginia’s spiritual landscape was thoroughly dominated by the Church of England, which enjoyed a legal, and virtually unchallenged, monopoly of faith. Evangelical Protestant dissenters dramatically remade Virginia’s religious terrain, however, when they rapidly coalesced into congregations in the decades just before the American Revolution, and then overwhelmed a weakened Anglican Church in the war’s aftermath. Virginians Reborn examines the intricate processes by which one of these groups, the Baptists, was able to take root, expand, and successfully compete for converts. By 1790, Virginia was the most Baptist state in America, as well as the point of origin of a massive early nineteenth-century western migration that helped spread the faith across the country.
Based primarily on church records, ministers’ writings, local records, imperial correspondence, and newspaper accounts, this study looks at the geographical patterns of Baptist expansion, the techniques dissenters used to gain adherents, the distinctiveness of Baptist worship, and its cultural resonances in Virginia. The book traces how the American Revolution created a new context favorable to Baptists and how the rise of this faith echoed and reinforced the development of a distinctive, proslavery form of republicanism. As Virginians embraced new political forms and sought to reconcile them with slavery and household patriarchy, the book argues, they could find instructive models in the particulars of Baptist fellowship.
Ultimately, the book chronicles a dual process of rebirth, as Virginians simultaneously formed a republic and became evangelical Christians.
Winner of the Walker Cowen Memorial prize for an outstanding work of scholarship in eighteenth-century studies
An excellent book: well written, solidly grounded in archival research, contextualized in both the history and historiography, vigorously argued, and judiciously revisionist.
By focusing attention on the compatibilities rather than the conflicts between Baptist values and those of the Virginia mainstream [Spangler] inverts the traditional approach and provides critical new insights...This very fine study deserves to serve as a touchstone for emerging new interpretations of the rise of evangelicalism and its place in the origins of the New South.
Jewel L. Spangler is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Calgary and a former assistant editor of The Papers of James Madison.