Book review: “Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860”

Menikoff, Aaron. Politics and Piety: Baptist Social Reform in America, 1770-1860. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publicaitons, 2014.

Aaron Menikoff fills in important gaps in Baptist history with this well-researched study of Baptist involvement in social reform between the American Revolution and Civil War. He is well-prepared to write on the subject, with a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and experience as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield, a Baptist.
This book debunks the common idea that Baptists in the 19th century were only concerned about personal salvation, and neglected social issues. He first examines the overall attitude of Baptists toward salvation, morality, politics, and church and state, with particular emphasis on how Baptists held in tension the idea that church and state should be separate, yet a nation needed to be virtuous to survive. In other words, the Baptist understanding of separation of church and meant the government had no right establishing a particular religion, but this did not mean a separation between church and society– far from it.
Next, Menikoff examines how this Baptist attitude played itself out in five major issues of the time: political parties, slavery, the Sabbath Mail Controversy, poverty, and the temperance movement. He shows the majority Baptist approach to each issue, while also revealing how different Baptists took different sides on each of these issues. ]
On political parties, Baptists usually avoided endorsing candidates or parties, yet spoke out on political issues, and some were more directly involved as candidates and supporting parties.
On slavery, Menikoff shows the complexity and diversity of Baptist views, including the colonization movement to resettle slaves in Africa. While Northern Baptists generally joined the abolitionist movement and southern Baptists opposed it, he shows how there were southern Baptists opposed to slavery in the south as late as the 1830s, and Baptist leaders like Richard Furman called upon slaveholders not to neglect the spiritual needs of their slaves.
The Sabbath Mail Controvesy is largely forgotten today, but at the time there was great religious opposition to the delivery of mail on Sunday, including most Baptists. He tells the fascinating story of how a Baptist Senator, Richard Johnson, gave the Congressional report supporting the delivery of mail every day, calling his fellow Baptists hypocrites for trying to unite church and state over the issue.
On poverty, the author shows how Baptists were active in relief efforts for the poor, although they often blamed the poor for getting themselves into their situation and focused on targeted giving of the “deserving poor.”
The temperance movement to abstain from alcohol was the most popular Baptist cause, as all Baptists saw alcohol abuse as a major social problem. However, Menikoff shows that Baptists also had different opinions over the temperance issue, especially defending the liberty of conscience for individual Baptists who drank moderately, and those Baptists who opposed to political efforts at prohibition on the grounds that it mixed church and state.
This book gave me a new perspective on several issues, especially the fascinating Sabbath Mail Controversy as well as how complex and diverse Baptist opinions were on slavery in the south. Menikoff’s research is carefully documented, with hundreds of footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography, leaving a rich resource for further study on the subjects covered. It is not light reading, but for those interested in Baptist history, it is rewarding, indeed.

About Bob Rogers

Hospital chaplain in Mississippi. Adjunct history professor (online). Formerly a pastor for 33 years in Mississippi and Georgia. Avid cyclist.

Posted on January 1, 2021, in Books, history, Southern Baptists and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Shirley Wiltshire

    Sounds like interesting read on role Southern Baptist has played in society and social issues.

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