Baptists in Early North America

Welsh Neck, South Carolina, Volume V

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Editor(s): 
John Barrington
  • Macon, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , January
     2019.
     356 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881466775.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this fifth volume of the Baptists in Early North America series, John Barrington lends his expertise as historian in locating South Carolina’s Welsh Neck Church within the broader milieu of 18th century North American society. Addressing cultural, religious, political, and even economic frameworks, Barrington’s robust historical study and considerable use of primary source documents provide a truly holistic look into Welsh Neck Church’s origins and place within the Baptist denomination, and the early North American and transatlantic world at large.

Although this volume includes other work and additional documents, Barrington explains that its primary purpose is his included transcription of the Welsh Neck Church Book, which is, in his words, the “most important record left by one of the most influential Baptist Churches in eighteenth century South Carolina” (i). Barrington substantiates this claim of influence throughout the first half of the volume by including historical detail of the ways in which Welsh Neck Church was impacted by 18th century transatlantic society. The WNCB is a collection of Welsh Neck Church’s records and meeting minutes spanning several decades of the church’s early life. Within this document, a vivid picture arises of the ecclesiastical practices of Baptists, which included baptisms, deaths, dismissions, excommunications, and even which members were assigned to go and rescue other congregants in danger of being lost to sins like drunkenness, gambling, adultery, dancing, and skipping church meetings. The WNCB illumines much about the social structures and stringent religious expectations of the era, and the church’s evolution throughout the years under each different pastor is visible within the structure of the book, and in what items are included—or omitted—in each entry.

Barrington prefaces the documents with an historical study on the 18th century world in which Welsh Neck Church was founded and found itself, and a brief history of the pastors who oversaw its growth (and declension) over the decades. Barrington details this succession, including short biographies of each pastor and an account of their accomplishments and experiences during and outside of their time at Welsh Neck. Through his depictions of leaders such as Nicholas Bedgegood, Elhanan Winchester, and Edmund Botsford, Barrington demonstrates how events occurring apart from their leading Welsh Neck Church impacted the very trajectory of the church, and in some respects, the Baptist denomination as a whole.

Undergirding this work is Barrington’s acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of religion, social mores, political climates, wartime concerns, and other cultural facets that come together to create the 18th century world as it is. Barrington’s work is exhaustive and reaches far beyond “church history.” This volume is holistic in its scope, and emphasizes not just material aspects of the religious atmosphere of Welsh Neck Church, but intangible aspects, as well. Barrington goes above and beyond simple historical inquiry by including leaders’ professed spiritual experiences, providing a great deal of insight into their theologies and practices, and tendering meaningful possibilities for their motivations. Barrington includes the pastors’ interactions with key religious figures and not-traditionally-Baptist beliefs. Woven throughout the work are the impacts of religious ideologies which were present or burgeoning among Baptist congregants, including Calvinism, Arminianism, and the Universalism that Pastor Winchester introduced and was later dismissed for adopting. It is notable too, that despite the ire Universalism drew from other Baptists and Welsh Neck Church itself, Winchester’s inclusive views of African Americans helped to galvanize his own Universalist ideologies, and to provide a foundation for Welsh Neck’s evolution into becoming an integrated church. Under Botsford, Welsh Neck Church incorporated a black congregation that it had earlier constituted and established as separate, and for a time afterward, the church was majority African American.

One particular point of praise for Dr. Barrington is in his treatment of the African Americans who were welcomed into the fold at Welsh Neck, under the pastorship(s) of Winchester and Botsford. Barrington details how freedmen and slaves—groups that included Native Americans—came to be baptized into Welsh Neck Church, and addresses how African and indigenous spiritual practices and European Christian practice had facets that made them, in some ways, mutually intelligible. Religious hybridity and the intersection of European Christianity with groups under European power in early North America are points of much discourse, and Barrington approaches this interplay adeptly, acknowledging the myriad religious and spiritual experiences of African Americans both in and outside of the Baptist denomination. Barrington finishes his work with an essay by Botsford, in which the pastor succinctly outlines what he feels is appropriate Christian behavior regarding slaves. The inclusion of this and Barrington’s analyses of Botsford and Winchester’s differing approaches toward African Americans in their congregations shows that the Baptist denomination was not monolithic, and beliefs and ideologies were as wide ranging within as they were without. However, this praise comes with a slight criticism; many commentaries on this volume, as well as the volume’s own preface are quick to convey that the African American experience in Welsh Neck Church is a vital part of the work. In the interest of a truly robust analysis of the church, biographical information on African American members or key figures within the African American church that Welsh Neck Church briefly incorporated would be a welcome and illuminating presence.

This volume—in addition to its existing and forthcoming counterparts—is valuable for historical scholars due to its utilization of source documents, and for Barrington’s careful and objective treatment of the origination and survival of Welsh Neck Church. However, Barrington’s work is not simply historical; his broad contextualization of Welsh Neck also makes this volume useful for audiences in a number of other disciplines: scholars of religion would benefit broadly, but those looking for more in-depth religious insight would find the inclusion of spiritual and theological analyses invaluable; those in anthropological fields could also benefit from the volume’s reliance on broader cultural and social contexts. In addition to these, the records contained within the WNCB could also be a vital resource for those doing genealogical research centering on Welsh Neck and surrounding areas of South Carolina.

Ultimately, whether read out of curiosity or more serious inquiry, this volume of Baptists in Early North America is not only foundational in understanding the Baptist religious and social climate of the eighteenth century, but also it illuminates how Welsh Neck Church and its contemporaries laid the groundwork for the ways that Baptist churches—and their members—shape and are shaped by their surrounding societies even to the present day.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ashley Ekmay recently completed a master’s degree in Religious Studies at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Barrington is Professor of History at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

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