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Monday, November 18, 2019

New Light Baptists (and other denominations of the colonial era)

Some time ago, while reading The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution, featuring the journal and sermons of traveling Anglican minister Charles Woodmason, I came across the term "New Light Baptist" and was curious to know more. Woodmason speaks of them in scathing terms, as he does of every other denomination and most people groups in general, but being raised in a Baptist church myself, I was curious to know.

Wikipedia (which tends to be better sourced these days than it once was) offers a good discussion on the subject, but I also found this snapshot of the religious landscape of the colonial era:

Early New Englanders generally practiced congregationalism, though by the 18th century they seldom thought of themselves as the spearhead of the Reformation. A wave of revivals known as the Great Awakening swept New England beginning in the 1720s, dividing churchgoers into New Light (evangelical Calvinists) and Old Light (more moderate) wings. An increasing minority were calling themselves Baptists.

Nearly all Europeans in these colonies were Protestants, but individual denominations were very different. There were Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Mennonites and Quakers. While the Church of England was the established church (the official, government-supported church) in the Chesapeake colonies, German and Scottish non-Anglicans were migrating south from the middle colonies, and Baptists were making their first southern converts. Although most Chesapeake slaves were American-born by the late 18th century, they practiced what they remembered of African religions, while some became Christians in 18th-century revivals. [from New Light Schism]

The terms "Old Light" and "New Light" have been applied over the years to several denominational splits, but during the Great Awakening, the debate raged between those who argued that Christianity was more about right doctrine and theology and those who emphasized personal transformation as a result of one's theology. Old Lights were criticized for only caring about one's beliefs, while disregarding behavior such as drunkenness and greed; and New Lights were criticized for their focus on experience and emotion. What began as a split between Presbyterians and Congregationalists birthed the movement called New Light Baptists, when a group of folks influenced by George Whitefield's preaching decided they could find no evidence in Scripture of infant baptism.

John Smyth
But this was not the first time people dissented with such widely accepted theology. There is debate over whether the Baptist church finds its roots in the Anabaptist movement (many say not), or can trace its roots all the way back to the time of Christ, but many say that the movement which led to the modern Baptist church had its beginnings in 1609 Amsterdam, with a man named John Smyth, an English Separatist. These roots, then, cling to the history of the Puritans and Pilgrims, and led to a division between "General" and "Particular" Baptists, who argued whether Christ's atonement applied to all people, or just to God's elect. (Similar debates went on in the Presbyterian Church, famed for following the teachings of John Calvin.) Smyth was eventually imprisoned for his dissent with the Anglican church.

Another Baptist of note was Roger Williams, who founded the very first Baptist congregation in the American colonies (1638, Rhode Island). Not until the First Great Awakening, however, did the term "New Light" become associated with Baptists, when many of them broke away from their Calvinist leanings and it was not held as a complimentary term by those of more established denominations.

Woodhouse rails against New Lights as unlearned, unstable, overly emotional, given to fleshly impulse and vice. He bemoans their lack of Scriptural grounding, their quibbling over liturgical service elements while indulging in public indecency, and their exercise of spiritual gifts as a cloak for sinful indulgence. Doesn't sound so different from criticism between churches today, does it? His accounts tell of shenanigans ranging from a sensuality to rival any modern tabloid, to the cultish and downright criminal. Just the reading of it is enough to make one question one's entire upbringing.

It just goes to show that even the most august structures can have less than auspicious beginnings ... and human nature has certainly never changed, when left to itself.

Despite all that, the Baptist church as a whole found a home in the Carolinas, put down roots, spread across the colonies and into the frontier, becoming a solid, established expression of early American faith alongside more settled and staid denominations.


Additional sources:
New Lights (from NCpedia)
Old and New Light (from Wikipedia)
Baptists (from Wikipedia)

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