Connecting Radical Protestant Communities in the Early Atlantic World

AHA Session 151
American Society of Church History 20
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Los Angeles Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Barry J. Levy, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Barry J. Levy, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Session Abstract

Communities of radical Protestants often resisted formal, institutional networks in zealous attempts to preserve autonomy and purify the flock.  These papers focus on the more informal, discursive networks that allowed radical Protestants in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries to hold together as confessional communities and occasionally transcend confessional boundaries in moments of ecumenical action. 

Marjon Ames demonstrates how written accounts of persecution spread throughout networks of Quaker and Seeker clergymen, forging a communal identity of shared suffering.  These radical groups exploited their own persecution as a rallying point for community identity, and suffering became a prerequisite for confessional leadership.  Communication networks within the Quaker and Seeker communities were likewise deployed in vigilant attempts to protect the faith amidst the tumultuous instability of the English Interregnum, an instability that offered both problems and promise for radical communities. 

Looking across the Atlantic, Adrian Weimer demonstrates how legal barriers forced religious minorities in New England to adapt the form and function of their communication.  Exploring messages sent during times of economic and environmental trauma, Weimer, like Ames, argues that suffering formed a key component of radical Protestant identity. Quakers and Baptists persistently framed hardship as necessary for the formation of holy affections, which in turn promoted legitimacy to outsider groups and holiness for the faithful.  Articulating the expectation for cheerfulness and patience in affliction formed a central theme in both Quaker and Baptist communication as they labored to maintain confessional networks in the face of political persecution and geographic isolation. 

Ben Wright focuses on one notable itinerant, Stephen Grellet, who traveled throughout the Quaker Atlantic network for the cause of salvation and antislavery.  Wright argues against historians who present early American antislavery as either conservatively elitist or paralyzed due to a lack of political capital by unfolding an ideology of conversion that led clergymen like Grellet to expect that both spiritual and temporal slave liberation would result from a groundswell of revival rather than political agitation.  Through this ideology of conversion, Quakers like Grellet established a discursive network which transcended the bounds of denominational faction and opened the way for the ecumenical networks of reform that would blossom into the religiously-rooted, radical reform of the antebellum era. 

These papers together demonstrate how radical Protestantism developed and manipulated communication networks throughout the Atlantic world to shape expectations and strategies for endurance in the face of persecution and foster a zealous missionary agenda for transatlantic conversion.

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