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"Essential reading for those interested in where the study of the subject might be headed."
— Journal of Southern Religion
"The essayists present thought-provoking research that will inspire further conversations about this large topic."
"[A] masterful analysis of the interaction between black and white evangelicalism. . . . [The] categorizations (racism, racial interchange, and interracialism) have never been clearer, more precise, or more stimulating."
— Arkansas Historical Quarterly
Jon F. Sensbach
Poor Charles Woodmason. For three years, from 1766 through 1768, this Anglican man of the cloth tramped tirelessly through the Carolina backcountry, taking the Word to the unconverted. No matter how many miles he walked or how earnestly he preached, he found himself losing the battle to his hated rivals, the Baptists, who were "stir[ring] up the minds of the people against the Established Church." His famous journal of those years, into which he poured his frustrations, remains a vivid chronicle of the time and place, wonderfully entertaining in its undisguised contempt for the backcountry settlers, whom he called "the lowest Pack of Wretches my eyes ever saw, or that I have met with in these Woods-As wild as the very Deer," and the itinerant Baptists, to whom the unchurched flocked. These "New Lights" were no better, Woodmason thought, than a "sett of Rhapsodists-Enthusiasts-Bigots-Pedantic, illiterate, impudent Hypocrites-Straining at Gnats, and swallowing Camels, and making Religion a Cloak for Covetuousness[,] Detraction, Guile, Impostures and their particular Fabric of Things." Presbyterians, too, were "vile unaccountable wretches," Quakers he called a "vile licentious Pack," and "in the Shape of New Light Preachers," Woodmason said, he had "met with many Jesuits." Little wonder, then, that the "sects [were] eternally jarring among themselves," and that among "this medley of Religions-True Genuine Christianity [was] not to be found." By turns self-pitying and boastful, Woodmason vowed to "disperse these Wretches," which he thought would "not be a hard Task, as they [would] fly before Him as Chaff."
The New Lights did not fly before him, and, we now know, they got the last laugh; the plain folks' rough-hewn, egalitarian religion triumphed over that of the snobbish cleric. It was then, in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, that the stamp of evangelicalism was imprinted on the South. It has since come to be identified as the characteristic mark of southern religion. Evangelicalism helps explain what historians have called the "distinctiveness" of southern religion and the continued vitality of religion in southern culture. Religion is said to be more important in the region than elsewhere; religion and the American South, Donald Mathews has written, "belong together"; they are "fused in our historical imagination in an indelible but amorphous way." The region has been called "Christ-haunted." Indeed, scholars have concluded that "the central theme of southern religious history is the search for conversion, for redemption from innate human depravity." In his landmark study of 1977, Religion in the Old South, Mathews explained that his purpose was not to give "a history of the churches, nor of the denominations, nor of the theology, nor of the religious culture of the Old South," but rather to explore "how and why Evangelical Protestantism became the predominant religious mood of the South." The central tenet of that purpose, wrote Martin Marty in the book's foreword, was "to speak of southern religion as a gestalt, a whole, a belief system that helped many sorts of men and women make sense of a world." And according to Samuel Hill, one of the pioneers of southern religious historiography, so ironclad has been the grip of evangelicalism that it has rendered the South historically a "limited-options culture." Writing in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Hill suggested that in "hardly any other aspect has the limitation of choices been more pronounced than in religion." The influence of Catholicism and the few Protestant churches outside the evangelical fold has been scant, and as a result "the impact of a single coherent way of understanding Christianity is extensive and tenacious in the South."
The writing of southern religious history has accordingly proceeded from shared assumptions. Knowing that evangelical Protestant modes of worship have dominated the region since the early nineteenth century, historians have naturally sought to explain why that should have been. Plumbing the eighteenth-century record for answers, they have found plausible ones. Rhys Isaac mapped out important terrain in several essays on eighteenth-century evangelicalism that became the core of his immensely influential The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Isaac and others pointed to the institutional weakness of the Anglican Church and to its austere formalism, which alienated many ordinary worshippers; to the inroads made by Separate Baptists and Methodists beginning in midcentury in the southern British colonies; to the disestablishment of religion after the Revolution and the egalitarian appeal of the evangelical churches to humble folk, both free and enslaved; and to the cyclonic effect of the Second Great Awakening at the end of the century, which drew thousands of people hungering for spiritual renewal into the emotional and experiential embrace of revivalist fellowship in camp meetings and new congregations. In the rise of a distinctive southern religion, historians agree, two essential ingredients were its biracial character and its creative fusion of European and African belief systems.
Important considerations, all. The significance of evangelicalism in southern history is beyond dispute. But to invoke its influence as "a gestalt, a whole," or a "single coherent way" of explaining southern religious history is to force too unwieldy a subject into too narrow a paradigm. To equate evangelicalism with southern religion is to convey that there was an air of inevitability about the outcome of eighteenth-century religious change and turmoil. The need to explain the origins and durability of Protestant evangelicalism, especially its Baptist and Methodist forms, has inadvertently imposed what we might call "the burden of southern religious history" on the study of the region. In following the evangelical trail, we risk reducing the colonial and revolutionary periods to a kind of foreshortened prelude to the seminal Cane Ridge revival of 1801, and we slight important forms of religious expression that had nothing to do with, or were later overshadowed by, evangelicalism. Most broad discussions of early southern religious history have adopted an English, Protestant perspective, have underestimated the impact of Catholicism and Islam, and have overlooked the fact that Protestants-in fact, Christians in general-were in the minority in most of the region through the 1760s. Protestant denominations outside the framework of the Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians have typically fared little better. The weight of an apparent Protestant evangelical destiny simply overwhelms the narrative of southern religious history, suggesting that the South was overwhelmingly evangelical in periods long before that triumph was achieved.
Christine Heyrman's acclaimed 1997 work, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, challenged the momentum of this narrative, urging us instead to look at the South through Charles Woodmason's eyes and to reconsider the period when the New Lights were the upstarts, contentious but still outnumbered, the objects of disdain and fear for a majority of southerners. Evangelicalism, Heyrman writes, "came late to the American South, as an exotic import rather than an indigenous development," and hence was not at all assured of dominating the region's religious landscape. Rather, only after a protracted struggle against-and by making numerous compromises with-strong opposition did the evangelicals win any kind of mass support and a firm foothold, and they did not accomplish even that before the second and third decades of the nineteenth century.
Heyrman's revisionism casts this crucial phase of southern religious history in welcome ways. Yet while her approach deepens our view of southern religion in the eighteenth century, the eighteenth-century South encompassed an even broader narrative of religious struggle, declension, and reinvention. We need to amend the traditional notion of the colonial South as the five southernmost of the thirteen British colonies and instead consider all the territory that would later gain the modern geopolitical appellation (however nebulously defined) "the South," "that wide and diverse region that stretches from the Baltimore suburbs to Irving, Texas," as Mathews describes it. Including the French and Spanish colonies and the Indian interior in this framework not only rearranges our mental map of the colonial South, but also forces us to reconsider the very idea of southern religion before the Bible Belt.
From this perspective, the eighteenth century, far more than a mere enabler of the evangelical moment, was easily the most volatile and dynamic period in southern religious history. At no other time was the South so much a part of the transatlantic religious world and receptive to so many international influences from the British Isles, France, Spain, the German lands, and Africa. During the eighteenth century, the South contained more forms of spiritual expression and saw more cataclysmic changes in religious practice than perhaps any region at any point in American history. Not all faiths held equal stature or ability to influence the course of the region's spiritual outlook, to be sure. But the true measure of the South's religious complexion lay in its unprecedented mix and confrontation of Indian, African, and European beliefs, a process that long preceded, and later encompassed, the rise of the evangelicals. Whatever it became later, the South in the eighteenth century was hardly a limited-options religious culture.
The story of the pre-Bible Belt South that emerges in recent scholarship describes the rise, adaptation, survival, or disintegration of religious communities up to now accorded little recognition. Venturing beyond evangelicalism's rise from the Anglican seedbed of Britain's southern colonies, much of the new work shows that religion was a key venue of both cross-cultural exchange and bitter antagonism in the struggle for power among many people across a huge swath of territory. Four prominent themes in the recent literature point the way to such an interpretation: the role of Indians, an inherent part of the southern religious landscape, as they struggled to survive the demographic and cultural losses wrought by European colonization; the incorporation of the colonial South into the transatlantic spiritual world (a theme that highlights the prevalence of several kinds of evangelicalism in the region); the role of religion as agent of cultural domination, resistance, and mediation among contending peoples from three continents; and the connections between religion and gender, especially the cross-cultural role of women's spirituality.
Southern colonial history, like American colonial history, was once written as though the human record of the region began with the arrival of Europeans. Indians, when they were mentioned at all, were generally portrayed as minor impediments to colonial settlement who, once subdued, vanished from sight. Though vestiges of those views remain in current writing about the South, excellent research during the last decade on Indians of the precontact and contact periods makes such approaches seem increasingly archaic. Indians, we are realizing with greater clarity, did not disappear, despite sustaining fierce population and cultural losses over the course of the eighteenth century. As late as the last quarter of the century, they still held a numerical majority and a political balance of power in some parts of the South. Yet scholars of southern religion have been slow to take account of the vast changes that accompanied the encounter between Europeans and Indians, and as a result Indians are still widely perceived as belonging in the realm of ethnohistory rather than as an integral part of a much more complex tapestry of southern religious history.
Indian religious history is connected to the demographic revolution that changed the face of the eighteenth-century South. Historians still debate the size of precontact southeastern Indian populations and the effect of the European incursions that began in the sixteenth century on them. Nevertheless, it is clear that as late as 1685, Indians still comprised about 80 percent of the population in the vast southern region from Virginia to Florida to East Texas. Outside of Virginia, where they had been virtually wiped out, Indians outnumbered the tiny European and African population by nearly twenty to one. But, as Peter Wood's population survey of the region shows, in the early decades of the eighteenth century Indian numbers shrank drastically from disease, warfare and conquest, and slave raiding. Meanwhile, European and African populations grew sharply, particularly in Virginia and the Carolinas. By about 1710, Indians had become a minority in the Southeast, though in large subregions such as Florida, Louisiana, and the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Shawnee interior (now Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky) they still far outnumbered colonists, and they continued to do so in many places well into the 1770s. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the rapid spread of white and black populations into Indian lands doomed native inhabitants to cultural and territorial dispossession, making them a tiny fragment of the population in a region they had once dominated. And therein lay the most profound change in southern religious history: the virtual replacement of Indian religions by Christianity and its hybrid Afro-Christian offspring.
This massive demographic and cultural shift had profound implications for the practice of religion at many levels. Indian decline and European ascendancy heralded a revolution in humans' relationship to the land, for example. Whereas Indians regarded the natural world as sacred and honored it with ceremonies and rituals before they hunted or used land, Europeans invoked Christianity to assert dominion over the landscape as an expression of private property rights grounded in a "natural" order supervised by man. Property ownership and husbandry were to provide the model of Christian civilization, which Englishmen expected Indians to emulate. As European tobacco and rice plantations and fence-enclosed farms replaced burial mounds and Indian worship sites of myth and memory across the southern coastal landscape, the alliance of religion with the world market incorporated the South ever more thoroughly in the eighteenth century. The conclusion of Tom Hatley's study of failed relations between Cherokees and white South Carolinians provides a haunting epitaph to Cherokee loss and the inverted religious symbolism inherent in it.
Excerpted from Religion in the American South Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Before the Bible Belt: Indians, Africans, and the New Synthesis of Eighteenth-Century Southern Religious History||5|
|2||Max Weber in Mount Airy, Or, Revivals and Social Theory in the Early South||31|
|3||Thou Knowest Not What a Day May Bring Forth: Intellect, Power, Conversion, and Apostasy in the Life of Rachel Mordecai Lazarus (1788-1838)||67|
|4||Confederate Sacrifice and the "Redemption" of the South||99|
|5||The Royal Telephone: Early Pentecostalism in the South and the Enthusiastic Practice of Prayer||125|
|6||Lynching Is Part of the Religion of Our People: Faith in the Christian South||153|
|7||Church Mothers and Migration in the Church of God in Christ||195|
|8||Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Evolution of Gospel Music||219|
|9||Women and Southern Religion||247|
|10||God and Negroes and Jesus and Sin and Salvation: Racism, Racial Interchange, and Interracialism in Southern Religious History||283|