In-fighting in legal history

DavidsForkBaptistChurch3 Recently I had the pleasure of reading some work on a topic near and dear to my heart: intra-group disputing within religious communities in legal history.

Dylan Penningroth is working on a fascinating project in part on litigation within African-American churches from the Civil War until WWII. Jeffrey T. Perry has done similarly intriguing research on dispute resolution among 19th-c. Kentucky Baptist churches. Both projects reminded me of the Zoroastrian temple trust litigation I write about in my book.

For projects like ours, these questions are important:

1. How should we understand the spillover effect? How and why did some disputes within the religious community end up in court? Was it because the community’s internal dispute resolution mechanisms were insufficiently robust ? How about audience and notions of collective reputation, shame and honor? Were there religious and social prohibitions on washing the group’s dirty laundry in public? Did the simple possibility of taking an inside dispute outside erode the autonomy and integrity of the internal system? Did the individual’s self-interest propel him or her into court with the hope of winning the legal lottery–even if the same person in principle objected to exposing the group’s fights to public view?

2. What was the relationship between law and group identity? The usual focus is on how the group’s values, history and practices (as represented by particular factions) shaped law. Many of us have a rich body of primary source materials here, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to find that the lawyers and even judges were also members of the community in question. A much harder thing to trace is how legal outcomes may have shaped the group’s values, practices, and identity, in turn. Did people start to think differently about their faith and what it represented following certain legal developments? The social absorption of legal outcomes is tough to track. We may have to get creative about the sources and methods we use here. But if we can do it, we can illuminate the ways in which law and identity fed each other.

To read more of Jeff’s work, see his PhD dissertation, “Protectors of the Peace: Baptist Church Tribunals and the Construction of American Religious and Civil Authority, 1780-1860” (Dept. of History, Purdue University, 2015). Jeff also has this article out.