Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Yvonne M. Pitts

Committee Member 1

John Larson

Committee Member 2

Sarah Barringer Gordon

Committee Member 3

Frank Lambert


This dissertation argues that Baptist churches served as important legal sites in the trans-Appalachian West from the Revolutionary period to the outbreak of the Civil War. By looking at how members and non-members approached their local churches for matters of dispute resolution over time and space, it illuminates a local legal culture transforming under the pressures of legal, economic, religious, and cultural change. Legislative enactments and new understandings of the family gradually weakened churches' authority over their members' domestic relations. An expanding market-economy necessitating predictable and presumably neutral dispute resolution led many to decry their churches' factionalist-produced decrees. Some churches refused to get involved with messy economic disputes and sanctioned members' resort to state-based law. Others emerged as sites through which whites strengthened the region's consolidating racial hierarchy, disproportionately focusing their disciplinary proceedings at their black brethren. Furthermore, religious dissension wrecked trans-Appalachian Baptist churches during the 1820s and 1830s, leading to a decline in disciplinary activities. Divided by doctrinal schism, some opposing church factions engaged in lengthy legal contests and opened the door for state authorities to meddle in ecclesiastical affairs. In the end, this dissertation contends that the persistence of churches' law-producing operations during the post-Revolutionary period--and the practice's later diminishment during the antebellum era--shaped the contours of American religious and civil authority and held repercussions for the process of separating church from state.