The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South

By Schantz, Mark S. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Root of All Evil: The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South


Schantz, Mark S., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


The Root of All Evil. The Protestant Clergy and the Economic Mind of the Old South. By Kenneth Moore Startup. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Pp. 218. Acknowledgment, introduction, epilogue, notes, bibliography, index. $48.00.)

Rather than conforming to the acquisitiveness and greed of their age, Protestant clergy ofthe antebellum South offered jeremiads against the spirit of "mammonism" they saw all around them. This is the argument advanced by Kenneth Startup, professor of history and academic dean of Williams Baptist College, in his compelling and important new book. Basing his study on a wide and careful reading of sermons, theological treatises, and the southern evangelical press, Startup maintains that "the slave state preachers were far from being an undifferentiated collection of cultural ciphers obsessed exclusively with denominational wranglings, frothy revivalism, or the defense of the peculiar institution" (p. 6). Instead, like Perry Miller's Puritan divines (whom Startup notes in his introduction), southern churchmen took a bold stance against the rampant materialism they saw at work in the land, exempting no one from their withering gaze.

Startup's interpretation of the southern clergy offers much that students of the Old South will find fresh. Take first his cast of characters. Startup's analysis acknowledges well-known ministers such as James Henley Thornwell but focuses much needed attention on the economic thought of the broad range of Protestant southern clergymen, many of whom "knew grinding poverty" (p. 2). These men inhabited an Old South, like the one imagined by the historian James Oakes, that was liberal and acquisitive to the core, but rather than kneeling before the plantation elite, Startup's clergymen struck at the most cherished values of the Cotton Kingdom. They applauded the dignity of measured and patient human labor, condemned the planters for their ostentatious and frivolous ways, urged the practice of benevolence toward the poor, promoted manual labor schools, academies, and seminaries, asked for salaries only with ambivalence, and hoped that the Confederacy heralded the coming of a "biblical commonwealth" (p. 143). Southern ministers admitted the divine sanction for slavery, but they called on masters to reform radically its practice. True masters, they said, should stand in the light shed by the patriarchs and tend to the spiritual needs of their bondspeople before profit. "As an economic system alone," Startup argues, "slavery was indefensible to the clerical mind, which saw the institution as justifiable only insofar as it elevated the slaves" (p. 68). In Startup's hands the southern clergy emerge not as prickly apologists for the peculiar institution but as its most soulful doubters.

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