Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South

Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South

Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South

Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South

Synopsis

In the years leading up to the Civil War, southern evangelical denominations moved from the fringes to the mainstream of the American South. Scott Stephan argues that female Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians played a crucial role in this transformation. While other scholars have pursued studies of southern evangelicalism in the context of churches, meetinghouses, and revivals, Stephan looks at the domestic rituals over which southern women had increasing authority-from consecrating newborns to God's care to ushering dying kin through life's final stages. Laymen and clergymen alike celebrated the contributions of these pious women to the experience and expansion of evangelicalism across the South.This acknowledged domestic authority allowed some women to take on more public roles in the conversion and education of southern youth within churches and academies, although always in the name of family and always cloaked in the language of Christian self-abnegation. At the same time, however, women's work in the name of domestic devotion often put them at odds with slaves, children, or husbands in their households who failed to meet their religious expectations and thereby jeopardized evangelical hopes of heavenly reunification of the family.Stephan uses the journals and correspondence of evangelical women from across the South to understand the interconnectedness of women's personal, family, and public piety. Rather than seeing evangelical women as entirely oppressed or resigned to the limits of their position in a patriarchal slave society, Stephan seeks to capture a sense of what agency was available to women through their moral authority.

Excerpt

After attending Cumberland Presbyterian services in the spring of 1842, Kentuckian Mary Craddock assessed her spiritual successes and failures and pondered her future:

[The] spiritual death that reigns in my family occupies much of my
thoughts and my anxiety is great, all is dark no prospects of better days
before my weak vision but: I often fear that I come too far short of doing
my whole duty in different stations in which I have to act, as a wife as a
neighbor, as a mistress, and as a Christian, all of which are very important
stations and I am convinced I should take great care in letting my light so
shine that others seeing my Godly walks and good words … glorify God.

Craddock’s reflections on how evangelical piety shaped her relationship with God and her family illustrate the tensions that white evangelical women experienced across the antebellum South. Her writings illustrate the psychological turmoil of a woman whose family refused to share her faith. Craddock believed that her family’s failure to convert suggested that . . .

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