The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860

By Robert Elder | Go to book overview

Introduction

The story of the rise of evangelical Christianity in the South is usually told as an arc running from early opposition to eventual accommodation and, finally, cultural dominance. The story is often tinged with sad irony, for while early evangelicals challenged many of the cultural shibboleths of the South, including the authority and cultural dominance of the planter class, the constrained place of women in southern society, and even, in their most countercultural moments, the subjugation of black slaves, their descendants were among the most vociferous supporters of the southern way of life only a few decades later. Descriptions of the conflict between evangelicalism and the southern mainstream have often focused on the tension between evangelicalism and the South’s culture of honor. Historians have described a fundamental and radical difference between the worldviews of those who embraced evangelical religion and the typical southerner (or at least the typical, white male southerner), narrating the clash between early evangelicalism and honor under chapter titles such as “When Worlds Collide,” and “Turning the World Upside Down.”1

The effect of viewing evangelicalism in this way becomes clear as the story progresses, as, in this view, the early promise and purity of evangelicalism evaporated in the heat of the campaign to save souls and win influence in southern society. From this point of view the tale of evangelical acculturation in the South can only be told as a tragedy, a story in which a promising beginning did not lead to its promised end. “Southern whites,” one historian wrote eloquently of this process, “came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent.” Yet in this narrative, evangelicalism was clearly more transformed than transforming, as evangelical support for slavery seems to prove.2

The success of evangelical religion in the South begs for a more complex answer than the capitulation of evangelical values to southern honor and southern slavery. This books asks readers to look at the interaction of evangelicalism and honor in the South from a different perspective, and as part of a much larger story. Both traditional and radical, evangelicalism

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