Autobiographical Reflections on Southern Religious History

Article excerpt

Autobiographical Reflections on Southern Religious History. Edited by JOHN B. BOLES. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2001. x, 272 pp. $34.95.

IN 1981 a group of scholars gathered in a Tallahassee motel room after a second day of papers at a conference devoted to varieties of southern religious expression and experience. Over the course of conversation, smoothed by bourbon and beer, they set about telling their personal stories of faith and scholarly inquiry, noting especially how the one intersected with the other. Several among this little church broke into hymns of the old-time religion they knew from their southern youth. Even those who did not know all the words, or share the personal memory of growing up in the Bible Belt, were welcomed into the fellowship with nods and embrace. It was a true spiritual moment. It also said much about how and why such good people came to study southern religious history. Theirs was a search for self as much as an inquiry into historical patterns and issues. And they have joyously proclaimed so ever since.

A good many of those offering autobiographical reflections on southern religious history in John Boles's compelling collection of autobiography, historiography, and history were in that Tallahassee motel room, and their accounts in this book echo their witness in 1981 and after. The genesis of this book is in that need to tell about themselves and "the South" as a way to understand their scholarship. It's only natural. This particular book derives specifically from a "mini-symposium on southern religion" held at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1997, at which the authors assembled to discuss their own work. Boles followed up with an invitation to each person to write an essay exploring the ways their personal lives, in and out of the South and from various faith traditions, affected and informed their interest in southern religious history and culture. In the great tradition of the religious confession, they responded with personal accounts of surprising candor and conviction, and in several cases even of conversion. Collectively they present the reader with a short course on the historiography of southern religious studies, from Samuel Hill's path-breaking work almost a generation ago in getting both the "folk" and race into discussions of the meaning of southern religion to more recent efforts to broaden the inquiry to include non-evangelical viewpoints and women in assessments of the southern religious terrain.

Although the collection crosses a broad spectrum of belief and scholarship, several themes predominate. Most significant is the extent to which the scholars, especially those who grew up in the South, sought in southern religious history answers to their own social and spiritual experiences. Several wanted to give their own people their due, especially those from the supposedly "less respectable" pentecostal, evangelical, and other "felt" religious sects in the hills, the kinds mocked by H. L. Mencken but more significantly also dismissed as unworthy by those sitting in the red-brick churches in town. Also, after World War II the New England Puritan narrative and paradigm still so dominated American religious history as to leave southern religious history virtually unstudied-so much so it almost seemed undeserving of serious scholarly attention. By their own accounts, scholars such as David Edwin Harrell, Jr., and Wayne Flynt, especially, sought to right the record-and along with others did so in seminal works that brought the Disciples of Christ, pentecostals, so many Baptists, and others outside the mainline churches into full view. The danger in such inquiry was that interest might beget apology rather than scholarship. The other concern was that a critical look at one's own church and faith might foster personal doubts and declension, which occurred in at least two instances. Especially interesting in that regard are the faith journeys from evangelical and/or fundamentalist backgrounds to Episcopalianism related by two authors. …