Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

"The Secret Exercises of the Closet": Privacy and Power in North Carolina's Antebellum Episcopal Diocese

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

"The Secret Exercises of the Closet": Privacy and Power in North Carolina's Antebellum Episcopal Diocese

Article excerpt

In 1826, the bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina visited St. James Church in Wilmington where Adam Empie served as the pastor. There, the bishop discovered just how beloved Empie was. From his conversations with St. James' parishioners the bishop "ascertained the high regard they entertain for their pastor." The bishop's conclusion was that Empie had done much "in favour of the distinctive principles of the church, and the vital doctrines of the Gospel."1 Indeed, remembering his relationship with the people at St. James Empie recalled that "he had been requested by many of his late beloved parishioners to publish" his final address to his parishioners before he retired.2 According to the bishop and the recently retired pastor, he had done much to shape the minds and hearts of his congregation. Empie argued in favor of the Episcopal Church effectively, and his parishioners loved him for it.

One of the recurring themes in Empie's collection of sermons- the book his parishioners requested him to compile-was the importance of privacy. According to Empie, every Christian knew "the plague of his own heart." Individuals knew their "peculiar wants, mercies, and grievances; peculiar temptations, trials, difficulties, and duties-many of them of a secret nature, known only to Cod and himself." Rather than seek the assistance of a minister, however, Empie advised that diese matters were more appropriate for private rather than public worship. These matters were more appropriate for the "secret exercises of the closet." ' In other sermons as well, he made this remarkable concession to his congregations. In another sermon, Empie once again reminded his audience Üiat particular sins of individual Episcopalians were inappropriate for public worship. Since each person knew best his or her own weaknesses it would more appropriate if these sins "if diese are ever unfolded to die eye of mercy, it must be in die privacy of our hearts and our closets."4

The importance of privacy reflected Empie's views on the matter, but what can be said about the broader society in which he preached or even his own congregation? His reflections on privacy reflect rather nicely the conclusions Christine Heyrman reached regarding "evangelical" religion in die antebellum South. As Heyrman noted, the typical Southern white man was uncomfortable with early evangelical demands that he should agree to "curb his authority within the home by submitting to the nde of the church, a court in which his wife, children, and slaves might appeal any master's dictates." As Heyrman argued, however, by the 1800s evangelicals were abandoning their earlier attempts to inspect and discipline household matters. Evangelicals "no longer" attempted "to dominate the private realm of the household."5 If Empie's collection of sermons is any indication, it would seem that North Carolina's Episcopalians shared with their evangelical neighbors an unwillingness to make claims upon the private lives of their congregations.

Of course, one minister's collection of sermons cannot be used to support generalizations about a whole diocese. In a diocese including thousands of people, it would be challenging to rely upon even a dozen or so ministers to establish such a claim. All too often in the history of Southern religion it has been assumed that what a minister-or several ministers-said in the pulpit nearly reflected the sentiments of the people who sat in the congregation. In her exploration of South Carolina's yeomen, Stephanie McCurry relied in part upon the sermons of ministers in Lowcountry South Carolina for her analysis. In a powerful book arguing that large slaveowners and yeomen farmers shared a common interest as masters over both slaves and women, McCurry was forced to draw upon fairly limited sources to prove what the yeomen were thinking. As one reviewer pointed out, the "only people who make a connection between the defense of slavery and a hierarchical social order that subordinates women and children in the household are a handful of planter ideologues and a few preachers. …

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