The Southern Way of Religion

By Boles, John B. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Southern Way of Religion


Boles, John B., The Virginia Quarterly Review


As a boy growing up in the rural South in the 1950's, I took absolutely for granted the cultural primacy of religion (meaning, of course, evangelical Protestantism). Every person I was taught to respect was . a church member. School opened each morning with prayer, football games and the summer rodeo began with prayer, any gathering from a family reunion to a Rotary Club lunch could not begin without prayer. Church services were held Sunday morning and evening, with Wednesday night prayer services. Every summer there was a scheduled week-long revival, with services each night. Every sermon I heard was structured to come to an emotional climax pressing sinners to convert, and we all waited-with the choir singing softly-as the preacher offered the altar call. While there were a variety of Protestant churches in my community, they all represented the evangelical wing of Protestantism: there were no Catholics, no Jews, no Episcopalians, not even Presbyterians, but there was every type of Baptist imaginable, with a sprinkling of Methodists, and assorted independent Bible churches, holiness churches, and Pentecostals. Mine was a situation common to much of the South, though older regions, and more affluent areas, would have Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. I later came to realize that I had grown up in the Bible Belt, but it never occurred to me then that my religious situation was different from that in other regions.

Not until I went to college and began to read American history did it slowly come to dawn on me that my religious background was at least to a degree out of the national mainstream. I noticed that while my history textbooks sometimes included religion-Pilgrims and Puritans in New England, Transcendental ministers and religious reformers in the antebellum North, Social Gospellers in the late l9th-century North, and religious thinkers like Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 20th-century North-the only mention of religion in the South was the embarrassing episode of the Scopes Trial. Religion seemed largely a factor in the North's history while the South seemed, by omission, to be an irreligious region. The textbook history was clearly at variance with my own historical experience. When did the South become religious, Protestantized as it were? What had been the influence on the region of this religious tradition? Was the Southern experience with religion different from the Northern (or national) experience? Was there a distinct Southern way of religion?

Whenever one attempts to describe Southern or Northern religion, it must be understood that large-scale generalizations are to be made; religion in both sections is too protean and complex to be completely subsumed under any generalization. That said, I wish to suggest some of the characteristics of what I call Northern or national U.S. Protestantism and then compare that with the Southern religious tradition. Moreover, I want to describe the historical origins of this Southern way of religion and indicate its broadest features, and I hope in the process to help explain certain aspects of the religious landscape of the late-20th-century South.

The Northern Protestant tradition is, in the most general sense, the institutional and intellectual expression of Puritanism, that body of beliefs and practices that English religious reformers brought to New England in the second quarter of the 17th century. Puritanism was a doctrine-centered movement that usually held in creative tension both rationality and faith, and it proved to be an adaptive, evolving religious system. No historical snapshot, as it were, can fully capture its dynamism or reveal the full complexity and range of its power, but several useful generalizations can be offered. Puritanism for all its emphasis on the individual's probing, introspective relationship to God never made a fetish of individualism. Rather, Puritanism emphasized the individual in community, in relationship to other believers, and Puritans did not characteristically strike out alone for the frontier but moved as part of believing church communities.

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