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Keywords

Baptists, Church and social problems, Church discipline, History, Religion – Social aspects

Abstract

In 1818, a letter signed “B.” was sent to The American Baptist Magazine and Missionary Intelligencer. The letter, titled “Things to be set in order in the churches,” stated that the Baptists’ “moral and social habits, including [their] general intercourse with the world, must be such, as to commend religion to all around us.” While all religions fashion themselves pure and saintly, B., and his Baptist contemporaries, truly believed that their discipline and social habits, not just their internal piety, made them the world’s saviors. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, American Baptist congregations were flourishing. In 1740, there were still only sixty Baptist congregations, but their numbers steadily grew into a strong and sustainable denomination. Baptist leaders coupled revolutionary democratization with strict rules and unfaltering discipline to create a system of beliefs that attracted converts. Discipline, the system of rules and punishments used by a church, prescribed the proper behavior for a church member and set up processes by which members were verbally reprimanded, suspended, and expelled from the church. Discipline can be found in all Christian denominations, but the Baptist’s democratic organization gave discipline a distinctive role in their churches: not only was it used to dictate proper roles to believers, discipline attracted and controlled members through its strictness, safeguarded democracy, kept members in the church, and maintained authority in the hands of Baptist leaders, a problem that other denominations, such as the Methodists, failed to address during this period.