That Old-Time Religion – Charles Dew

Originally from here.

Southern CrossA history of evangelical faith in the South.

The religious history of the American South is fascinating scholarly terrain. Anyone who doubts this should read Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross, an extraordinarily rich exploration of the first hundred years of evangelical faith in the South. Her book transports us back to what the author accurately describes as ”a world marooned from living memory” — the decades from the 1740s to the 1830s when the Baptist and Methodist churches were taking shape in the region. As we enter this world of mud-splattered itinerant preachers on their scrawny horses moving across the Southern landscape, we are in for more then a few surprises.

”There was…nothing inevitable about the triumph of evangelicalism in the South,” Ms. Heyrman observes. Young Baptist and Methodist preachers seeking to win Southern converts in the 18th century faced a formidable phalanx of opposition, and for good reason. Their fiery message of salvation initially carried with it a radical challenge to both white supremacy and male dominance in the region, Ms. Heyrman, who teaches history at the University of Delaware, points out. Not until the evangelicals learned to soften their tone and modify their theology — a process that began in earnest in the first decades of the 19th century — did their ”language of Canaan” sweep across Dixie.

In their quest for ”the rebirth of the fallen soul” and ”the regeneration of the corrupt heart,” the early Baptist and Methodist ministers took aim at a wide variety of sins and sinners. ”Worldlings” who sought happiness in hedonistic pleasures like dancing, drinking and gambling were one target. So too were the humanists (like Thomas Jefferson — a ”demon” in evangelical eyes) who extolled the rational virtues of the Enlightenment. And slaveholders were targets as well. Blacks were God’s children too, the insurgent churches believed, with souls worth saving. Methodist and many Baptist clergy opposed human bondage and at first called on believers to manumit (release) their slaves.

The evangelicals also honored women in ways that white Southern men found disturbing. The early preachers gave consistent credit to ”the spiritual capacities of white women” and affirmed the right of women, both black and white, to bear witness to their faith in public. ”Before the appearance of evangelicals in the South,” Ms. Heyrman notes, ”there had been no tradition of according women any kind of spiritual authority,” with the lone exception of ”the increasingly despised and dwindling Quakers.” As a consequence, Baptist and Methodist churches became ”the only settings in the South in which white men were required to compete for standing not only with white women but also with African-Americans.”

Not surprisingly, adult white male converts were relatively few and far between in the 18th-century South, a situation evangelical leaders found increasingly disturbing as the turn of the century approached. In Ms. Heyrman’s words, the church fathers came to believe that they ”could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children and slaves.”

So the leadership began to trim. First, they muted their opposition to slavery and slaveholding. No more ”ringing denunciations of slavery . . . issued from the mouths of…Baptist and Methodist preachers,” as had been the case in the early days. By 1784, Methodists had formally abandoned their efforts to restrict slaveholders from membership, and Baptists increasingly saw nothing incompatible in being a Christian and being a slaveowner. Worship services became racially segregated affairs, and the ministries of black preachers were largely restricted to slave communities across the South.

Women were eventually put in their place as well. Evangelical clergymen — usually young, frequently itinerant and often unmarried in the 18th century — became older, more settled and more married in the 19th. And this emerging church leadership began to preach a different gospel regarding women. They drew an ”identity between female piety and domesticity” and insisted ”that a woman’s way to eternal bliss lay in devotion to her family.” Patriarchal control of the household was affirmed, and ”preachers now took pains to assure both themselves and the readers of their memoirs that they brooked no nonsense” from women, Ms. Heyrman writes.

At the same time, a muscular Christianity took hold in Southern evangelical churches in the first half of the 19th century. The language of warfare and martial imagery became commonplace in religious settings. The ”model man of God,” Ms. Heyrman writes, was transformed from the earlier image of the ”willing martyr” (who might, in fact, even be drawn from the ranks of ”puny, sickly, bookish sissies” in the 18th-century South) into something quite different — the man of God as ”a formidable fighter.” A new class of ”warrior preachers” came to dominate the Southern evangelical scene, with profound implications for a section increasingly given to calculating the value of the Union as the 19th century wore on.

Piecing this fascinating tale together was not an easy task. To recover her story, Ms. Heyrman plowed through sources that would deter all but the most intrepid of historians: the manuscript diaries and journals kept by Baptist and Methodist clergy as they went about their daily tasks in the 18th- and 19th-century South. ”What they record is utterly mundane and completely absorbing,” she writes. ”The voices of people silenced by obscurity in a world that has slipped far away from the present echo in every entry.”

Ms. Heyrman has given us a great deal to think about in this wonderfully told and beautifully written story. In the end, we are left to ponder what the South, and indeed the United States, might look like today if those 18th-century evangelical firebrands with their message of freedom for slaves and recognition for women had managed to carry the day.

About Wesley Gospel is self-published in the spirit of John Wesley and the Reformers, as when they used the printing press. The truth of God won't be censored or suppressed!
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