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.

26 Mar

Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989)

Nathan O. Hatch examines the cultural and religious history of the early American republic between 1780 and 1830. The Democratization of American Christianity is a history of popular religious movements– including the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons–and their popular leadership. Hatch argues that “the theme of democratization is essential to understanding the development of American Christianity,” (3). The Second Great Awakening “sprang from a populist upsurge rather than from changing mores of established parishes….The heart of the movement was a revolution in communications, preaching, print, and song” (226). The Second Great Awakening was not a force of unifying revivalism. It delineated social conflicts among clergy and laymen that emerged from the social conflicts of the American Revolution.

Summary

Hatch traces the “fault lines” of democratization to the American Revolution, “the most crucial event in American history” (3). According to Hatch, “The Revolution and the beliefs flowing from it created a cultural ferment over the meaning of freedom. Turmoil swirled around crucial issues of authority, organization, and leadership” (6). This political and social turmoil incited struggles for religious authority among educated clergy and ordinary men. These struggles were also fueled by agrarian unrest that “was tightly linked to a vein of radical religious protest” (31). Common-folk preachers emerged from this crisis of authority who promoted mixtures of high and popular culture, expressed varied opinions, and exalted youth, free expression, and religious ecstasy. These ministers preached against established denominations, supported individuals’ interpretation of scripture, and deferred to the supernatural. These ministers formed five popular religious movements that exemplify the democratization of Christianity: the Christian movement, the Methodists, the Baptists, the black churches, and the Mormons. These movements highlighted the crisis in authority in popularity culture and expressed a “democratic spirit” in three respects. First, they denied leadership to the learned and elite, and approved the use of vernacular in word and print. Second, they empowered ordinary people by encouraging the recognition of the supernatural in everyday life. Third, they gave ordinary people the right to think and act for themselves, even in theology, as exemplified in development of a popular religious print culture.

Despite these democratic notions, “religious demagogues” emerged as leaders of these movements who quested for a new religious order. Among these popular movements, restoration movements, including the Adventists and Millerites, gained influence. These latter movements were made possible by “the sharp blows of the democratic revolutions in severing taproots of orthodoxy [Calvinism, the Reformed tradition] and the disconcerting reality of intense religious pluralism in the early 1800s” (169).  By the mid-nineteenth century, “the early republic’s populist religious movements were undergoing a metamorphosis from alienation to influence” (193). The denominational landscape of America was transformed by the nation’s democratic upheavals in three ways. 1) Leaders of the popular religious movements brought change to the established churches (Finney promoted Methodist revival techniques among Presbyterians); 2) The preachers of these movements sought respectability, gentility, and legitimation; 3) The trend toward formalization and respectability brought a new wave of “religious firebrands” (195). Popular religion in America rested on the paradoxical relationship of democratic leadership: common-folk preachers fitted the Gospel to ordinary Americans while they also re-inscribed order, tradition, and authority. It also rested on the “pervasive quality of dissent” in America. The democratic spirit influenced American Christianity to such an extent that “popular culture in the early republic became manifestly Christian” (209).

Historiography

The Democratization of American Christianity was a response to the void in the 1980s on the religious history of the early American Republic. Hatch suggested that this void emerged because of three trends in scholarship. 1) Historians treated the early American republic as a bookend to either the American Revolution or the Jacksonian era. Thus, the era was deemed insignificant in itself. 2) Historians did not question the ubiquitous linking of the Great Awakening with the Revolution. They traced America’s root and future identity to the revivals of the eighteenth-century. 3) Scholars continued to produce historical narratives that favored elite churches and clergy.

This book urges scholars to move beyond studying American Christianity from the perspective of elite theologians. This method of study obscures transformations and power struggles in religious leadership that emerged during this time and continued to shape American Christianity. Hatch’s method looks to ordinary men who challenged denominational authority and structure, and, in doing so, “rose to leadership positions” in popular religious movements. Hatch shows that religious debates in the early American republic were not merely clashes over theological and intellectual differences, but also social struggles over power and authority.

Hatch suggests that “historians failed to appreciate the influence of popular religion in a culture shifting from classical republican values to those of a vulgar democracy and entrepreneurial individualism” for three reasons. 1) Historians from the 1950s to 1980s downplayed the social impact of the Revolution. They assumed the Revolution was about defending “home rule,” not about social conflict. And, in the same vein, they assumed that the Second Great Awakening was about deepening religious piety, not about social and religious turmoil. Revivalism, for these historians, becomes the unifying force that drove American Christianity. According to Hatch, “Revivalism as a principle agent of change has obscured the achievements of flesh-and-blood leaders and the dramatic strategies to forge new movements. It has also blurred the vastly different social functions the revival could assume for proponents as diverse as Lyman Beecher and Francis Asbury” (222). Moreover, the Second Great Awakening had been interpreted “as an attempt by traditional religious elites to impose social order upon a disordered and secularized society.” Neither of these interpretations allowed for the power struggles experienced between the clergy and laymen, between institutions and new movements.

Hatch’s insights about social conflict and historical categories are invaluable. Yet, scholars may need to rethink Hatch’s notion that democratization stemmed from the Revolution. In recent years, scholars, like Linda K. Kerber (Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America) have moved away from seeing the Revolution as the most influential event in American history. They suggest that the Revolution was revolutionary in terms of ideas, not necessarily in terms of social conflict and action. The social statuses of enslaved Africans, women, and poor white males remained the same after the Revolution. The impact of the Revolution was not the event itself, but the ideas and social change that it fostered in the early American Republic. The early American Republic, not the Revolution called for social change. Democratization was an effect of social stagnation, not necessarily social change. People were not happy with the results of the Revolution. Nevertheless, Hatch’s insights about the Second Great Awakening remain significant for the study of American religion. The historical category of “the Second Great Awakening” obscures actual historical developments and the people involved.

Historians have also failed to interpret the influence of popular religion because 2) “church historians from the more popular denominations have had reasons to sanitize their histories” (223). Hatch suggests that some historian have focused on aspects of their own religious heritage “linked to cultural enrichment, institutional cohesion, and intellectual respectability” (223). These scholars presented histories of these movements as markers of civilization and progress. They ignore notions that churches and movements can act as forces of liberation and control. These historians also present Protestantism as a single, unified entity with a commitment to “the church.” Hatch warns that this presentation of unity obscures evidence and makes it “virtually impossible for church historians…to admit that God’s ultimate plans could entail the splintering of churches” (223). Church historians also presented the Second Great Awakening as a unifying force of evangelicalism in the face of secularism. Thus, American Christianity is always at odds with American culture.

Popular religious movements remained unexplored because of 3) the emphasis on class conflict, labor, and capitalism. “This neglect stems both from the neo-Marxist preoccupation with the formation of social classes and from the assumption that religion is generally a conservative and pernicious force” (224). Recent studies have incorporated Hatch’s criticism by incorporating the study of American religion with capitalism, the marketplace, and secularism. Studies also abound that trace evangelicals’ use of media in the nineteenth-century.

The Democratization of American Christianity revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about Christianity in the early American Republic. This book is not about popular religion in the sense that it looks beyond men in leadership positions. But, it opens the way for other scholars to delve deeper into the everyday religious lives of men, women, and children who influenced popular Christianity in the early American republic (See Heyrman, Southern Cross). Hatch shifts the study of American religion from elite to popular religion in order to see major transformations in the practice and popularity of Christianity.

18 Mar

David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (1989)

Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment investigates “popular religion” in seventeenth-century New England. Popular religion recognizes how religion “was embedded in the fabric of everyday life” of lay men and women.[1] Hall argues that popular religion in New England encompassed the clergy as well as laypeople, strict “Puritans” and “horse-shed Christians,” and theology as well as literacy, magic, the meetinghouse, and rituals. Religion in seventeenth-century New England “was a loosely bounded set of symbols and motifs that gave significance to rites of passage and life crises, that infused everyday events with the presence of the supernatural.”[2] The people of New England experienced religion as “a set of practices and situations that offered choice, that remained open-ended.” [3] The diary of Samuel Sewall, a prominent merchant and magistrate from Boston, illustrates the open-ended interpretation of religion experienced by seventeenth-century New Englanders.

Summary

Literacy and the interchangeability of print and oral media “were deeply consequential for popular religion.”[4] The people of seventeenth-century New England were highly literate people who revered the Bible as a commodity, a book, a talisman, and the Word of God. They read religious books, pamphlets, testimonials, and printed sermons. Protestant truths were directly accessible from these printed forms which embodied the Word. Yet, spoken sermons “were as sacred as the printed page” and hearing was like reading.[5] People listened to and annotated sermons which they read afterwards, and read printed sermons purchased from printers. The Word infused spoken and written words so that it conveyed truth in an interchangeable form to listeners and readers. This ideology of truth informed other printed materials that New Englanders read, which included almanacs, dirty books, fiction, tales of wonder, and witchcraft. People put the storylines of theology and popular print to work in popular religion. The “ways they viewed the world were sustained by print culture, and in turning to the books that circulated widely we encounter structure of belief, or as I prefer to say, the stories that lay people knew and used to understand the world.” [6] The market place and print media provided people with alternatives to strict New England Puritanism.

These alternatives emerged in the form of “wonders,” or ghosts, the Devil, trumpets, and the presence of the supernatural. A wonder “was any event people perceived as disrupting the normal order of things—a deformity of nature such as a ‘monster birth,’ a storm or devastating fire. Always, wonders evidenced the will of God.”[7] New Englanders, laypeople and clergy, wrote of these wonders in terms of the meteorology of Greeks and Romans, astrology, apocalyptic prophecy, magic, and natural history. They used wonders to explain the world around them, current events, and to oppose religious and political adversaries. While clergy imposed their own interpretations on some wonders, the sheer abundance of wonders ensured that the “process of interpretation remained open-ended” for laypeople.[8]

The meetinghouse functioned as a site for open-ended religious interpretation. In theory, the meeting house marked sacred space and set the godly community apart. It was a place for conversion testimonies, baptisms, communion, the elect’s governance, and sermons. But, laypeople struggled to meet the ideals of these activities in the meeting house. Many New Englanders never “found the confidence to testify about the work of grace.”[9] As a decrease in testimonials led to crises in membership, clergy called for the Halfway Covenant (1662). Adult non-members were allowed to baptize children to increase the church community. Many parents baptized their children to save them from damnation in case of infant death, not necessarily to tie themselves or their children to the community. Some people, uncertain of their election, refused communion for fear of the clergy’s promises that uncertain members would be punished if they partook in communion.

New Englanders also experienced open-ended religious interpretation in the rituals that occurred outside of church. Rituals of repentance and renewal took place in courts with criminal trials and witch-hunts, at home with deaths, prayers, fasting, and thanksgiving days, and in public places at executions and meetinghouses. A ritual “was a formalized procedure, a patterned means of connecting the natural and the social worlds to supernatural power.”[10] Ritual was a means of seeking order in the natural world by organizing life events and crises.

Historiography

Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is one of the most significant books in American religious history. Hall applied the notion of “popular religion” (or lived religion) from studies of religion and society in early modern Europe to American religious history. Prior to Hall’s work, Perry Miller’s The New England Mind stood as the most influential work on Puritans in America. Miller presented an intellectual history of Puritanism that focused on the theology and philosophy of the clergy. He argued that Puritanism fostered an intellectual legacy still present in 1939. Hall’s work departs from intellectual histories of Puritans. It looks, instead, to the lay practices at the meetinghouse and in everyday life. Hall refused to represent “the clergy as so dominating the churches that their way of thinking always prevailed.”[11] He also refused to write a history of Puritans. The term “Puritan” assumes “that the people of New England exemplified a total or perfect faith. I want to affirm the legitimacy of horse-shed Christians as well as the legitimacy of stricter patterns of behavior.”[12] Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment presents the ways laypeople agreed and disagreed with clergy. Popular religion “happened in conjunction with much sharing, and with a subtle process of selection between choices that the clergy helped initiate.”[13] Hall’s work moves the study of American religion away from intellectual histories to studies of lived religion. It also takes seriously the place of the occult and magic in religion. It also tried to move the study of Puritanism to the study of Christianity in New England. While the latter was an admirable task, “Puritans” and “Puritanism” remain dominant categories in studies that trace American evangelicalism to New England Puritanism.

This book also revolutionizes how scholars should think about the relationship between the marketplace and media. Hall saw both of these as foundational to New England religion. Printed materials sustained popular religion by circulating material that people used to make sense of their world. Moreover, Hall argued that these printed materials worked differently in New England epistemology. Printed materials and the spoken Word were interchangeable to such a degree that the spoken Word recorded in print form relayed the same concept of truth as the spoken Word. Although Hall did not go so far as to argue it, his notion of interchangeability has significant implications for understanding how New Englanders interpreted conversion testimonies, deathbed scenes, and witchcraft trail proceedings that were transformed into print. For example, oral conversion testimonies revealed the working of God on a human soul. When pastors translated and published these testimonies, the printed form was supposed to relay the same truth that the oral testimony had. Readers were to hear and see the testimony and the testifier through the printed word. The same is true of deathbed narratives. Dying New Englanders provided conversion testimonies at their deathbeds. Many of these testimonies were published for individual consumption. Readers were supposed to see the deathbed, hear the deathbed testimony, and see the manifestation of Christ that the dying saw. The printed word allowed readers to experience and see truth as if they had witnessed the testimony firsthand. Few scholars have taken Hall’s suggestion to its logical end (that printed testimonies and images revealed Truth; they were eyewitness accounts), except Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. Moreover, few scholars have recognized the degree to which Hall suggested that media, the marketplace, and culture influenced religion.

While Hall provides many insights for the study of American religion, he may have over-emphasized the open-endedness of New England religion and the power of laypeople to select their own interpretations. New Englanders’ certainly had some agency, but they were also constrained by social, religious, and cultural norms. For examples, people certainly had the power to choose what they read. But, not all people had the ability to access certain books. Some books were too expensive, some not available, and some were deemed too foul. The market place dictated what people could read and when. In this sense, the marketplace exudes a much more powerful force on religion and laypeople than Hall suggests. The constraints of laypersons also comes across in the strict gender roles that New Englanders adhered to. Women and children may have had less of an opportunity for the interpretation of religion than Hall suggests. For example, the clergy coaxed particular knowledge and experience from women who gave conversion testimonies. Many women’s narratives ended in a sense of doubt and uncertainty that many male testimonies did not. The coaxing allowed clergy to frame women’s narratives in a style that they, not the women, deemed appropriate. Nevertheless, Hall’s book remains instrumental for its emphasis on popular religion, and the relationships between religion, magic, media, and the marketplace.

[1] David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 3.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71–72.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid., 130.

[10] Ibid., 168.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Ibid., 11.