Discipline in the 19th century, in most denominations, was swift and severe. No one was immune. Pastors, deacons, and laymen alike were brought to public trial for public sins. More often than not, the occasion for discipline centered around the sins of drunkenness and “scandalous living.” The latter usually was related to popular vices that were declared unacceptable by the churches—card playing, horse racing, and dancing among others. Typically, public drunkenness was the most prominent culprit and, as often as not, it was the clergy who were accused and brought before the church conference for censure.
Discipline was a fair but serious business. Proof was required. In fact, in some churches excommunication was the penalty for false accusations. The purpose for discipline seems to have been threefold: (1) to protect the church from both moral and doctrinal error; (2) to protect individual church members from contamination by association with the fallen; and (3) to provide rehabilitation and restoration for the fallen one.
When an individual was forgiven, the sin was forgotten. Even the guilty, upon repentance, were restored to full fellowship. In one case, a church member was tried on charges of immorality and was exonerated. His accuser appealed, but the church again declared the accused to be innocent. In the same church conference, the vindicated defendant was elected as a ruling elder for the church.
Usually the churches attempted to follow the biblical guidelines for the discipline as outlined in Matthew 1:8. Private meetings with the accused were required before the investigation could be brought before the larger congregation.
About the Writer: William F. Davidson was professor of Church History at Columbia International University, in Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Davidson is an alumnus of Peabody College, Welch College, Columbia Bible College, Northern Baptist Seminary, and New Orleans Baptist Seminary. The Ayden, North Carolina, native also served as pastor of Free Will Baptist churches in Kentucky and Virginia.