Historian Greg Wills on the Demise of Church Discipline

Gregory A. WillsAmerican Baptist Historian Greg Wills has written a tremendously helpful book on Baptist polity in the south during the period of 1785-1900. One of the striking features of Baptist life in the antebellum period noted by Wills was a strong emphasis on church discipline. Things have obviously changed and in the following selection, Wills opines on why this command of Christ to His church may have begun to be ignored.

After the Civil War, Baptist observers began to lament that church discipline was foundering, and it was. It declined partly because it became more burdensome in larger churches. Young Baptists refused in increasing numbers to submit to discipline for dancing, and the churches shrank from excluding them. Urban churches, pressed by the need for large buildings and the desire for refined music and preaching, subordinated church discipline to the task of keeping the church solvent. Many Baptists shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency. They lost the resolve to purge their churches of straying members.

No one publicly advocated the demise of discipline. No Baptist leader arose to call for an end to congregational censures. No theologians argued that discipline was unsound in principle or practice. No “freedom” party arose to quash the tyranny of the redeemed. It simply faded away, as if Baptists had grown weary of holding one another accountable.

Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 9.

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