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Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture.

Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture. By Joshua Guthman. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 219 pp.

Strangers Below is not a typical history of a denomination. Joshua Guthman has not presented a theological history, an institutional history or an ecclesiastical history, but has examined Primitive Baptists from a "lived history" perspective (p. 12). He set out to tell the story of Primitive Baptists through both their religious experiences and their emotions as they interacted with a changing American culture. Guthman has tried to tell the story of Primitive Baptists without reducing their experiences to either merely cultural revolt or theological dissent (p. 13). He asserts that Primitive Baptists were unique among the emerging evangelical factions seeking to shape the American Protestant story. Primitive Baptists were a people "beset by doubt" and this doubt, rather than ecclesiastical structures, social class, or theological ideology, mobilized their communities in their war against their Missionary Baptist brethren (p. 14).

In five chapters plus an epilogue Guthman narrates this emotive nature of the Primitive Baptist experience. Chapter one functions as an overview of the movement. Here Guthman helpfully suggests that Missionary Baptists lauded the successes of their new institutions at the expense of individual Baptist leaders such as Luther Rice. The institutions survived in spite of the weaknesses of their founders (p. 34). Primitive Baptists refused this historiographical model and instead continued to laud their ancestors. Primitive Baptists preferred the "older Baptist tropes" of the persecuted minority and the remnant church in the wilderness (p. 43).

Chapter two elaborates more fully on the emotive content of Primitive Baptist faith. Although they were affected by the broader evangelical revivalism, Primitives failed to cultivate the "normative emotional style of evangelical Protestantism" (p. 47). Guthman argues that the most "compelling explanation" for the rise of the Primitive Baptists is the doubt that persisted in their existential selves (p. 48). This self-doubt and a pessimistic worldview appear clearly in the lives and actions of Primitive Baptist leaders C. B. Hassell, a businessman and preacher, and Joshua Lawrence, a pastor in North Carolina. Guthman makes a compelling case that the pessimistic worldview and emotional experiences of these Primitive leaders fueled their invectives against the Missionary Baptists.

Chapters four and five depart from the antebellum origins of the Primitive denomination to first examine Black Primitive Baptists who established congregations after the Civil War across the South. Finally, Guthman examines how the pessimism and Calvinistic ethos of the Primitive Baptist movement made its way into folk music exemplified by "stars" such as Ralph Stanley and Roscoe Holcomb.

Black Primitives present an interesting caveat to the typical Primitive Baptist trajectory. At least in Alabama, Black Primitives seemed to be less pessimistic than their white counterparts. These Primitives participated in "broader civic, educational, and religious efforts" (p. 101). Although sectarian, they "moved nimbly between black Calvinistic sectarianism and optimistic ecumenism (p. 107).

Church historians will benefit from reading this volume and its alternative presentation of religious life. As important as institutions and theology are, there is a place to contemplate how religious feeling can shape religious decisions.--Reviewed by Michael A. Dain, associate professor of religion, Wayland Baptist University, Lubbock, Texas
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Author:Dain, Michael A.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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