Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt

Article excerpt

Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt. By CHRISTINE LEIGH HEYRMAN. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. xi, 336 pp. $27.50.

ONE of the most durable historical commonplaces is that God has always counted in Dixie, that, indeed, evangelicalism especially has been the one constant across time and space that has kept "the South" southern. Now Christine Leigh Heyrman comes along to uproot that once hardy perennial by suggesting that, far from being planted early in southern consciousness, evangelicalism came late and struggled to survive. By Heyrman's reckoning, despite strenuous effort on the part of Methodist itinerants and Baptist preachers, by 1810 less than 20 percent of all adult southern whites, and many fewer blacks, were formally within the evangelical fold. Yet, on the eve of secession, evangelicalism stood as the overwhelming religious force in the South, counting a majority of whites and many blacks as church members and commanding considerable social respect. The process whereby evangelicals moved from a despised minority at the periphery of southern culture during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries into the central square of southern life is the subject of Heyrman's elegantly argued and gracefully written book.

Relying largely on the manuscript diaries kept by young Methodist and Baptist preachers, Heyrman reconstructs what she has termed a world "marooned from living memory" (p. 6). From the 1740s through the American revolutionary era, evangelicals met opposition everywhere in the South. Not surprisingly, they took on the rational humanists, such as Thomas Jefferson, but, writes Heyrman, they "faced their most formidable challenge not in the few southerners like Jefferson who wanted children to think, but rather in the many who wanted them to dance" (p. 9). The "innocent mirth" tolerated by Anglicans made for a congenial culture and widespread support for the Anglican church before the American Revolution (p. 8). But a more intractable lot were the vast number of "worldlings," many newly settled in frontier areas, who profaned the Sabbath in drink and "debaucheries" and feared neither God nor the Devil. Into such a world the itinerants ventured armed only with Christian ardor and, too often, arrogant self-righteousness.

The evangelicals soon made themselves unwelcome by assailing social hierarchies and violating local cultural norms. Their spiritual egalitarianism fed a social criticism of all existing order. By making conversion the only measure of worth, they challenged the culture of white supremacy, masculinity, honor, and patriarchy that ruled low country and upcountry alike. In their methods and messages, the evangelicals threatened to overthrow society itself. They preached directly to slaves, embraced "saved" blacks as brothers and sisters in Christ and welcomed them as members of their churches, and even called on slaveholding believers to free their own chattels. They intruded into family relations by insisting that the "saved" must submit to the authority of the Christian fellowship rather than that of parent or husband. They acknowledged the spiritual gifts of women and gave them authority within their churches, not only in "promiscuous seating" regardless of sex but by letting them preach to mixed audiences. …