The Southern Way of Death: The Meaning of Death in Antebellum White Evangelical Culture
Sparks, Randy J., Southern Quarterly
I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1935)
Since Philippe Aries published his path-breaking study of attitudes toward death in Western culture, studies of the topic have proliferated, but despite that outpouring of scholarship, relatively few studies have focused on the American South. What is perhaps even more surprising is that few scholars have explored the impact of evangelicalism on the cultural attitudes surrounding death and dying. Even scholars as sophisticated as Aries himself ignore the most powerful religious movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and its transforming effect on society and culture. While death is a common denominator in human experience, anthropologists have found that the responses it evokes are incredibly various. Death rituals, then, throw "into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed."1 An examination of white southern religion and the culture of death reveal the ways evangelical southerners understood death and dying. As evangelicalism spread to more and more southerners during the antebellum period, it provided the lens through which southerners viewed the final stage in the cycle of life. Evangelicalism shaped the social and cultural patterns surrounding death and provided the rituals that marked the occasion.
"Our people die well," said John Wesley. Scholars of death and dying agree that Western attitudes surrounding the end of life changed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and they have generally ascribed this change to the impact of the Romantic movement. But the rising tide of evangelicalism should not be overlooked in this regard, particularly in the southern United States where the movement had a profound social and cultural impact. Beginning with tiny churches and a handful of members in the colonial period, evangelical churches expanded rapidly in the South after the Revolution, particularly after the outbreak of the Great Revival in Kentucky in 1801. Like wildfire, revivals spread across the region and brought tens of thousands of converts into the rapidly growing Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. While it is difficult to determine church membership across the South with any degree of accuracy, local studies have found that evangelicalism spread rapidly throughout the antebellum period. While evangelicalism began as a religion of the plain folk in the colonial South, it moved up the socio-economic ladder and converted more and more members of the planter elite as the nineteenth century progressed. In some areas up to two-thirds of white families had some evangelical church affiliation on the eve of the Civil War, and planters played a prominent role in church leadership.2
As Wesley's quote suggests, evangelicals faced death in a different way from the non-converted, and as the evangelical ethos spread, their beliefs permeated southern society. The certainty of death and judgment was a constant theme for evangelical ministers. Preachers used their most graphic oratorical skills to paint the torments of the damned, the "rush of agony!," and the horrors that awaited "the lost spirit in hell." The famous Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow, who frequently preached at camp meetings across the South, told his audience that "Eternity is the country to which all are traveling; sleeping or waking, they progress with unremitting speed ... there are two places of destination ... one being attended with ineffable pleasure, the other with weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth." Such sermons had the desired effect; one minister looked back on his conversion and reported that from the age of nine or ten he had "serious ... fears when reflecting on death and eternity . …