Date

2015

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

Master of Arts

Department

History

First Adviser

Najar, Monica

Abstract

The desire of post-Revolutionary Virginia Baptists to publish a record of their own history speaks to the mindset of early American nationalism, where the recent boom in the popularity and accessibility of print allowed for various groups to proclaim themselves truly American in a definitive manner. Often, this process played out in newspapers and pamphlets, as public debates and assertions of nationalism by partisan groups constantly redefined what it meant to be a true American. However, the discourse was not limited to circulatory accounts. The writing of histories, on all scales, including regional, partisan, denominational, and ultimately national, allowed for a process of continual redefinition of identity, as many groups sought to claim a heritage to the true sense of nationhood. The Baptists, long supporters of the cause for religious liberty entered into the public arena of political discourse by claiming their heritage of nationalism in order to advance their own political agenda. While proponents of this Baptist nationalism found their roots in other contemporary public assertions of American national heritage, they set themselves apart both by claiming a heritage to Revolutionary ideology that predated American patriotism, as well as by attributing to their cause a sense of sacred significance. In laying claim to American nationalism, Baptists of the early republic began to exhibit a sense of collective political identity that was largely based on non-religious factors, and in several instances resulted in a perceived compromise of the religiosity that was so evident in their earlier accounts. In order to further legitimize their sect and appeal to the wider public, Virginia Baptists in the early Republic collectively wrote their own history in a manner that emphasized their Revolutionary political heritage almost as much as it emphasized their religiosity. In order to do so, Baptist leaders and historians memorialized the actions of their forebears in ways that placed them squarely within the political discourse of nationalism, and specifically utilized their struggle for religious freedom as evidence of a legitimate claim to America’s national identity and heritage. The Virginia Baptists of the early republic experienced an ideological shift from their forebears that reflected the changes occurring in American society at large. After the Revolution, various peoples attempted to delineate a national identity that was both inclusive of the nation’s many different inhabitants, and also held an idealistic standard for those inhabitants to constantly strive toward. As this fictive national identity existed in a state of constant contestation, various, but not all peoples had the opportunity to lay claim to the growing concept of American nationalism. As a national political culture developed, several religious leaders engaged in public contests of nationalism in order to increase their religious groups’ hold on the moral governance of American society, but they did so in ways that suggested to many other religious leaders a general declension in religiosity from prerevolutionary times. Exclamations of declension serve as evidence that Baptist nationalism did exist, as several ministers and other Baptist leaders lamented the effects of political participation on Baptist piety.

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