Just had a couple of good days at the Evangelical and Reformed Historical Society at the Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I did not find what I was looking for. (But I did slip over and visit Midtown Scholar, finally. Nice.)
I need evidence for how German Reformed congregations in Piedmont North Carolina practiced church discipline. Did they do the same as the Baptists and Quakers and admonish and rebuke people who drank, skipped church, or abused their families? Can we just apply what we already know about Bs & Qs to this small group that had a presence in my area?
The German Reformed were Calvinists, the same as Baptists. But unlike the Baptists, they had a catechism and a liturgy and various rituals (the Lord’s Supper) that structured their worship. But like the Baptists (and unlike their non-Calvinist Lutheran cousins), the GRs got into the whole revival and protracted meeting business.
So I couldn’t find any church (or, consistory) records that contained proceedings of disciplinary actions. The few church records I found (Stiener’s in Alamance, Pilgrim in Davidson) contained only membership lists and records of baptisms and communion services. Nothing on trials.
I’m thinking they didn’t really do discipline the way we think of it. What seems important to these GRs is the Lord’s Supper services, baptisms, and confirmations. We’ll get back to this lack of discipline in a minute.
I did find the manuscript records of the North Carolina Classis starting in 1844 (that’s the state-level organization, like the Baptist State Convention or the Presbyterian Synod.) From these records I learned quite a bit. For instance, they were late to the education and Sunday School bandwagon, the only time they engaged with missionaries was when they asked for some, and while they hated intemperance and other forms of drinking, they acted like they had never heard of the temperance movement. (This last fact already has a place in my temperance section.)
But in other ways, they are exactly like other evangelicals of the time and place. They advocate Christian slaveholding practices, promoted the concept of the family altar, and remained firmly orthodox on all doctrinal matters.
Their annual reports on the “State of Religion” sound just like the Methodist and Baptist versions. In fact, there is a standard evangelical trope/outline for how these reports are written:
1. Things are gloomy. Religion and Truth are loosing ground,
2. Because of impiety and neglect,
3. We are thus paying for our sins,
4. But there is hope, or daylight, ahead,
5. If we continue to struggle, we can get there. (We are never there.)
6. All of it, the neglect, impiety, and struggle, are bad, but not bad because they are firm evidence and proof that God is at work. And that right there is reason for hope.
The good reports are just the opposite:
1. Things are looking up. Revival is afoot,
2. But there are still problems and we still need to struggle with them, or else.
I’m pretty convinced that the years 1849 through 1851 saw a general revival of religion across the Piedmont. I think nearly every denomination notes remarkable gains in piety and members during these years. Then it fades. (Yes, the same years of the Wesleyan episode. Not a coincidence.)
Anyhow, I didn’t see anything about church discipline in the Classis records, but I didn’t expect to. Classis didn’t do discipline any more than the Baptist State Convention did. It did, however, accept queries from churches, and in 1844, Brick Church in Alamance asked,
“Resolved that Classis be requested to take under consideration and determine how long members of the German Reformed Church ought to be allowed to enjoy church membership after absenting themselves from the Lord’s Table and the house of worship, without a good excuse, before they be stricken off.”
Being absent from a Baptist church or a Quaker meeting will get you rebuked real quick. This is the kind of thing discipline was on top of because that’s how you remain vigilant for the health of your congregation. That a GR church obviously wasn’t paying attention to that suggests to me they weren’t really paying attention to that kind of discipline at all. The health of a GR church seems to have been measured by attendance at Lord’s Supper, by baptisms, and by confirmations. Those lists that make up most consistory records.
Classis responded that when a person was absent for a year, then they can be stricken off. Discipline taught patience, but that kind of laxity just ain’t gonna fly with the Baptists.
Why is any of this important? After all, the GRs don’t appear to have numbered more than 1,500 in a white population of 500,000. (The GRs pastors were terrible number crunchers, so that’s an educated guess.) There were more Methodists in Guilford County (probably, I don’t know) than all of the GRs in North Carolina.
Well, for one, everything we know about church discipline in the south, we know from the Baptists. (And you already know we don’t know about Methodist discipline, really.) So it’s nice to get the view of a different group, particularly if that different group did it…differently. (Remember, I’m interested in this region because it has a reputation for not being on board with the mainstream in some upcoming events.)
How the GRs approached discipline gives us an idea about how a whole group of people approached issues of morality and behavior in civic and political life. For instance, an outstanding scholar recently wrote an article in the NCHR about the temperance movement in Rowan County, the seat of the GR community. He noted that temperance didn’t do so well there because people in the countryside just were not interested in joining secular temperance societies. I think that the GR church was largely ambivalent about temperance is a better explanation than urban/rural divide he offered. (And you can bet that Baptists and Methodists in the countryside largely—but not always—went for temperance. Their preachers were pushing it.)
So, I still got a lot of thinking to do on this one.