26 Mar

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997)

Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how evangelicalism spread to the American South from the 1740s to 1830s. Southern Cross surveys the diaries of itinerant Baptist and Methodist preachers to recognize “why southern whites of all classes long kept their distance from evangelicals” (26). Heyrman argues that evangelicalism did not gain widespread support in the South among white Southerners until the 1830s. In its incipient years, evangelicalism challenged the social and familial roles of the Anglican South, particularly the patriarchy of white masters. Itinerant preachers “realized that the future of their churches in the South depended on more than yielding ground to gentlefolk and slaveholders. It would require winning humbler folk as well by altering, often drastically, many earlier evangelical teachings and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black, as well as their positions and relationships between the church and the family, and between Christianity and other forms of supernaturalism” (26). By the 1830s, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent” (26).

Summary

In the eighteenth century, the largest number of churchgoers in the South were “Anglicans, members of the colonial church of England who later came to be called Episcopalians” (7). The First Great Awakening (1730s to 1740s) did little to affect the religious atmosphere of the southern colonies. From the 1740s to 1760s, some evangelicals moved to the South to proselytize, and more settlers moved south and southwest bringing their pietistic traditions. Heyrman notes, “All of those migrants and missionaries carried into the South the conviction that spiritual rebirth was essential to salvation, and the most militant among them, Baptists and Methodists, aimed at nothing less than teaching all Southerners the language of Canaan” (11). To do this, evangelicals attacked the “popishness” of Anglicanism with its rituals and holidays, and sent young, itinerant preachers to the backcountry. Evangelicals gained some membership numbers and established churches. By 1776, however, evangelicals numbered less than 10% of the southern white population. After the American Revolution and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, evangelicals (Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians) gained only a few more adherents. By the early 1800s, evangelicals comprised only 17% of the white population and 8% percent of the enslaved population. “Why,” asks Heryman, “was it that evangelicals, although now invested with every advantage, still struggled to claim the soul of the South?” (23). The answer: Evangelicals challenged the social hierarchies of Anglicanism and southern culture.

These challenges angered and frightened most white laypeople, particularly white masters. Evangelicals preached about the sinfulness of humans, the torments of hell, and Satan and demons’ ability to interact with and take visible form in the world. This supernaturalism frightened white people in at least three ways. 1) It equated Satan with “the black man,” who represented the powerfulness of enslaved people. 2) It appealed to enslaved men and women who regarded supernaturalism as an integral part of religious life. 3) It frightened whites who also believed in the power and literalness of Satan. Evangelicals also challenged social hierarchy by sending out young, single, itinerant preachers. These young men challenged southern culture’s emphasis on patriarchy. These men did not defer wisdom to age, they were unmarried in a society that preferred marriage, they were single men interacting with married women, and they demanded reverence and respect from all classes of southern men. Evangelicalism also upset traditional understandings of family. Ministers ridiculed marriage, rarely dated, and married late. They expected loyalty among evangelicals after conversion, not among family members. They also upset hierarchies by seeking the conversion of women first and being in close proximity with women alone. They allowed women to speak in public, give testimony, and receive revelations. Women’s newfound spirituality looked hyper-sexual to white, male southerners. The language of family and “God the Father” in evangelical circles also undermined the earthly family. The emphasis on an intimate relationship with the male Jesus upset notions of masculinity. Moreover, ministers denounced social interaction among families and communities by denouncing dancing, parties, and drinking. Poorer white males even detested evangelicals who seemed to disrupt their relationships with white masters. Evangelicals challenged all levels of southern culture and society. These challenges hindered the popularity of evangelicalism. By the early 1800s, evangelicals recognized these stumbling blocks and altered their messages.

Evangelicals tamed their emphasis on Satan and supernaturalism to appease whites. This also meant segregating churches and seeking approval from masters to preach to and baptize enslaved Africans. Taming supernaturalism meant curtailing African participation in evangelicalism. Evangelicals stopped women from preaching and specking in public. They associated female piety with the home and domesticity. Evangelicals married and had families. They deferred power and authority to white masters. “What had come to matter most to men of God was what had always mattered most to men of honor: vindicating their mastery within the public sphere” (252). Evangelicalism draped itself in southern culture and society in order to win the souls of the South. Evangelicals came to resemble white masters. After winning the white masters, evangelicals were able to win the unchurched, white, lower classes from the 1810 to 1830s.

Historiography

Southern Cross examines the spread of evangelicalism contra Nathan Hatch’s notion of democratization. Unlike Hatch, Heyrman recognizes, firstly, that regionalism was important to the growth of evangelicalism. Hatch suggests that “The choice to study common developments springs from a conviction that certain underlying cultural dynamics of this period are not reducible to distinct regional characteristics…no section of the new nation was exempt from a democratic upsurge in religious matters” (12). Heyrman shows that regionalism impacted the spread of evangelicalism in the South. Evangelicalism challenged the establishment of the Anglian Church in the southern colonies and southern culture. Regionalism hindered and postponed the democratic upsurge in religious matters.

Heryman also challenges Hatch’s notion of democratization and popular religious movements. Evangelicalism was not a democratizing movement in the sense that it liberated people from social mores and promoted equality. To be sure, the movement attempted these things in its early years in the South. The moves toward liberation, however, were not successful. Evangelical ministers eventually re-inscribed the social order and gender roles of southern culture, and supported slavery. Evangelicalism did not liberate or embody the values of ordinary citizens. It actually did the opposite. Thus, Heyrman redefines the meaning of a popular religious movement: “This is the truest sense in which southern evangelicalism was a dynamic and popular movement: It was being reinvented during the very decades that it took root in that region, transformed by the demands of laymen and –women and the responses of clerical leaders” (27). A popular religious movement is the reinvention of religious values to meet the needs of particular laypeople, clergy, and culture.

Southern Cross is also important for what it says about the characteristics of evangelicalism. The dominance of evangelicalism in the South was not inevitable. Evangelicalism struggled for almost 100 years to take root in the South. Only when evangelical ministers conformed themselves and their messages to southern society and culture did it survive and thrive. Moreover, evangelicalism in the early nineteenth-century looked strange to many people. Its focus on supernaturalism and Satan frightened people. Evangelicals tamed supernaturalism to appeal to southerners. This is an important point. However, the degree to which evangelicals actually tamed supernaturalism may be debated. Recent studies show that belief in the supernatural grew throughout the nineteenth-century. In Heyrman’s story, supernaturalism all but disappears from evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the main point still stands. Evangelicalism of the early nineteenth-century was not the evangelicalism of the mid- or late-nineteenth century. Evangelicalism is not a static force or category that describes one particular theology and practice of Christianity.

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