The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760

The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760

The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760

The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760

Synopsis

During the late seventeenth century, a heterogeneous mixture of Protestant settlers made their way to the South Carolina lowcountry from both the Old World and elsewhere in the New. Representing a hodgepodge of European religious traditions, they shaped the foundations of a new and distinct plantation society in the British-Atlantic world. The Lords Proprietors of Carolina made vigorous efforts to recruit Nonconformists to their overseas colony by granting settlers considerable freedom of religion and liberty of conscience. Codified in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, this toleration ultimately attracted a substantial number of settlers of many and varying Christian denominations.

In The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism, Thomas J. Little refutes commonplace beliefs that South Carolina grew spiritually lethargic and indifferent to religion in the colonial era. Little argues that pluralism engendered religious renewal and revival, which developed further after Anglicans in the colony secured legal establishment for their church. The Carolina colony emerged at the fulcrum of an international Protestant awakening that embraced a more emotional, individualistic religious experience and helped to create a transatlantic evangelical movement in the mid-eighteenth century.

Offering new perspectives on both early American history and the religious history of the colonial South, The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism charts the regional spread of early evangelicalism in the too-often neglected South Carolina lowcountry--the economic and cultural center of the lower southern colonies. Although evangelical Christianity has long been and continues to be the dominant religion of the American South, historians have traditionally described it as a comparatively late-flowering development in British America. Reconstructing the history of religious revivalism in the lowcountry and placing the subject firmly within an Atlantic world context, Little demonstrates that evangelical Christianity had much earlier beginnings in prerevolutionary southern society than historians have traditionally recognized.

Excerpt

Although evangelical Christianity has long been and continues to be “the predominant religious mood of the South,” historians have traditionally described it as a comparatively late-flowering development in the Atlantic Protestant world. Donald G. Mathews in his seminal Religion in the Old South (1977), for example, described prerevolutionary southern revivals as evolving only after the mid-1740s. Samuel S. Hill in his influential coda to Religion in the Southern States: a Historical Study (1983) stated that “if one wanted to pinpoint the salient beginning [of southern Christian evangelicalism], he would turn to the 1750s or perhaps the years just after 1800.” Similarly, Christine Leigh Heyrman in her award-winning Southern Cross: the Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1998) writes that “evangelicalism came late to the American South, as an exotic import rather than an indigenous development.”

Such descriptions of evangelical ascendancy in the colonial South are demonstrably deficient. Indeed, one of principal aims of this book is to show that Protestant evangelicalism had much earlier beginnings in prerevolutionary southern society than historians have traditionally understood. At the heart of the work is a detailed examination of key efforts at religious renewal and revival in the colonial South Carolina lowcountry from roughly 1670 to 1760. Stemming from the colony’s pluralistic religious heritage and all of them equally expressions of a desire for religious reform, these efforts constituted an important first step in the process by which evangelical Christianity eventually came to dominate southern religion. As we shall see, the rise of evangelical Christianity in colonial South Carolina was shepherded in by a diverse group of hitherto obscure and half-forgotten people, people who came from both the Old World and the New. It reached a climax in what Pietist leader John Tobler described for a Swiss almanac as a “great awakening.” And, of even greater, long-term significance, it foundationally shaped the evolution of organized Christianity in the Lower South.

This polyethnic region, comprising southern North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and, after 1763, East and West Florida, was not only one of the . . .

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