Book Review: Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America

By January 11, 2010

Our good friend Jonathan Stapley has sent along the following review of Janet Moore Lindman’s 2008 book on Baptist community in early America, focusing on the context such an subject provides for those interested in early Mormon ritual.

Janet Moore Lindman. Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 270 pp. Maps, charts, images, endnotes, bibliography, index. Cloth: $39.95; ISBN 978-0812241143.

Early American Christianity. Ritual. Gender. Race. Really, how could I not find Janet Moore Lindman’s 2008 study of Baptists interesting? Through valiant archival work, Lindman has amassed a corpus of data which she presents in a manner that illuminates several aspects of her subject in a helpful manner. However, I also found that the book lacks important developmental context for the topics that most interested me and, perhaps in an effort to present a cohesive narrative, the book tends to overly homogenize the early Baptist experience.

Lindman begins with two brief chapters introducing the Baptists in Pennsylvania and Virginia. In order to meet the publishing sweet-spot for pagination, this introduction is palpably scant. Though fairly dry, I found Davies’, Transatlantic Brethren, [1] and Morgan Edwards’ early writings [2] to be important supplements to contextualize early Baptist communities. Davies’ dense volume chronicles the origin of Baptists in Pennsylvania, the primacy of the Welsh among them and the important correspondence between Baptists in the Britain and those in America, a weakness in Lindman’s treatment. Edwards’ materials are a quick read and are the source for a tremendous amount of foundational data on Baptists. Even a cursory familiarity with these sources will help in a critical reading of Bodies of Belief. Still there are wonderful snippets in Lindman’s introductions regarding, for example, an excommunication of a Baptist for marrying outside of the faith (15-16), and nice treatments of major themes like the Keithian schism (14-17).

After the introductory chapters, Lindman then includes a section on Baptist ritual. As this is the area where I am most interested–specifically healing ritual–it is where I am going to spend the most time. Lindman describes the cohort of rituals administered by early American Baptists: baptism, love feasts (with holy kiss and right hand of fellowship), laying on of hands after baptism, anointing the sick, and washing of feet (though no treatment of the eucharist!). We tend to view early America as fairly anti-sacramental, so all of this stuff is exciting, especially for those of us who deal with ritual in other American traditions. Baptists generally abandoned most of these rituals (baptism excluded) by the late eighteenth century, but they are nonetheless important in understanding this small group (and potentially many other groups) during this time period.

While Lindman does offer some excellent examples of these rituals and describes their performance, I found that she did not adequately discuss the diversity in which various churches accepted or rejected certain rituals. Furthermore, she does not discuss some questions that arise from their simple existence. How did Calvinist Baptists understand anointing the sick, when such things were generally anathema to other American Calvinists and Calvin himself? [3] Lindman’s lack of engagement with the British origins would have helped here. Though her book does not engage American Baptist thought, Jane Shaws’ study of Enlightenment England adds tremendous context to its antecedent. [4] Lindman does not reference this study, which would have certainly prevented at least one important error in her treatment of anointing the sick.

The most prominent example of ritual anointing in the volume is narrated as the experience of William Kinnersley, who though previously opposed to it, in 1705 converted to the practice and healed a crippled girl (83). Unfortunately, the account Lindman cites not only doesn’t describe Kinnersely (he wasn’t born until 1711), it isn’t even American. Instead, Kinnersley found the popular healing account of Briton Anne Munnings in his father’s papers and gave it to Morgan Edwards who included it as an appendix in his Materials of the Pennsylvania Baptists. Several similar accounts circulated in Britain during the time period (see Shaw who cites the 1847 printing of the Cummings miracle, which happens to be available on Google Books). Edwards confessed in the introduction to his reprint that anointing had all but ceased by that time (1770) among British Pennsylvania Baptists, but Lindman doesn’t give us any clear reason why this might be.

Similar to her mistake with Kinnersley, Lindman also mistakenly ascribes a prominent anointing example to the great regulator and historian Morgan Edwards himself (82). The account actually recounts the experience of New Jersey pastor Abel Morgan. Perhaps some of Lindman’s confusion arose from her use of sources. In her description of several healings (83n21) she cites a cadre of nineteenth-century secondary and primary sources, when the secondary sources are simply quoting from the same primary sources that Lindman cites: Morgan Edwards’ Materials. Furthmore this collection of accounts does not distinguish between Virginia Separate Baptists, and the Welsh in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, when there were clearly enormous ritual disparities between them. Lindman notes that anointing was obscure, but failing to discuss its origin, demise, disparate implementation and Calvinist Edwards’ seemingly curious longing for its wider implementation (even praising German Baptists, the Pietist-Anabaptist Schwarzenau Brethren, for their practice) left me scratching my head. I have similar questions with regard to the other rituals.

Anointing the sick does not fill much of Lindman’s study, but it is the area with which I am most familiar. Consequently errors that I found in that section make me wonder if there are similar errors in areas with which I am not familiar. That said, Lindman offers access to a number of great sources. I found a couple of sources in her notes that I had not previously known (not having ventured to the great Baptist archives in the East, alas) and the folks at the VBHS have kindly hooked me up via correspondence.

Following the ritual chapter are chapters on church discipline, gender and race. I found a lot to think about in these chapters and they represent the newer approach to older Religion. This volume as a whole will be useful to anyone interested in early American religion and historians of Mormonism will find particularly intriguing data with which to probe the influences that informed their subject.


  1. Hywel M. Davies, Transatlantic Brethren: Rev. Samuel Jones (1735-1814) and His Friends: Baptists in Wales, Pennsylvania, and Beyond (Bethlehem, Penn: Lehigh University Press, 1995).
  2. E.g., Available digitally in Early American Imprints are Morgan Edwards, Customs of Primitive Churches; or a set of Propositions Relative to the Name, Matterials [sic], Constitution, Power, Officers, Ordinances, Rites, Business, Worship, Discipline, Government &c. of a Church; to which are Added Their Proofs from Scripture; and Historical Narratives of the Manner in which Most of them Have Been Reduced to Practice (1768: Philadelphia, n.p.); Morgan Edwards, Materials towards a History of the Baptists in Pennsylvania Both British and German, Distinguished into Firstday Baptists, Keithian Baptists, Seventhday Baptists, Tuncker [sic] Baptists, Mennonist Baptists (Philadelphia: Joseph Crunkshank and Isaac Collins, 1770); and Morgan Edwards, Materials towards a History of the Baptists in Jersey; Distinguished into Firstday Baptists, Seventhday Baptists, Tuncker [sic] Baptists, Rogerene Baptists (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1792).
  3. Ford Lewis Battles, trans. and John T. McNeil, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 2:1466-1468.
  4. Jane Shaw, Miracles in Enlightenment England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Excellent review, J; thanks for sharing it here. You definitely point to some small pitfalls that can lead to larger problems within the study. (or is it larger problems leading to these small pitfalls?)

    Does Lindman discuss theological embodiment much in relation to these bodily rituals?

    Comment by Ben — January 11, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  2. Thanks, Ben.

    There probabably isn’t a discussion of embodiment that you are looking for, but Lindman does approach the ritual regulation of the body and what that means. She emphasizes the metaphorical body of believers quite a bit as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 11, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  3. Thanks for the review, J. I’ll be reading this for a class this semester, and look forward to it.

    Comment by Christopher — January 11, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  4. thanks, J. I think there was a review of this over a RinAmHist over the summer and it looked intriguing. Nice to get your take on it.

    Comment by David G. — January 11, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  5. Here’s the review by John Fea that you refer to, David:

    Comment by Christopher — January 11, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  6. Thanks for the review, J.

    Comment by Jared T — January 12, 2010 @ 12:02 am

  7. That’s an impressive review.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 12, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  8. I wonder if talking about diversity of practice among the early Baptists is tricky. I you recall, Jane Shaw simply lumps all early English Baptists together.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 12, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

  9. I agree Steve, that is one of the most frustrating aspects of Shaw’s volume.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 12, 2010 @ 3:59 pm


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