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

By Robert Elder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
True Honor Comes from God Alone
Evangelicalism and the Language
of the Alternative Community

How can ye believe, which receive honour of one another, and
seek not the honour that cometh from God only?

—JOHN 5:44, KJV

In an address to the undergraduates of South Carolina College in the 1840s, the Reverend James Henley Thornwell described the task that lay before him that day as college chaplain. “I shall feel that I have accomplished much if I have disarmed you of your prejudices against the evangelical scheme,” Thornwell proclaimed. “Never, never be ashamed of the Gospel,” he warned, “never be ashamed of a crucified Saviour and an indwelling spirit.” Arming his audience against the barbs of antagonists they were unlikely to encounter in South Carolina in the 1840s, Thornwell admonished, “Let not an atheists’ laugh or a skepticks jeer deprive you of the richest honour that God can confer on man,” he exclaimed, “—the honour of sharing with His own Son in the glory of His Heavenly Kingdom.”1

In this address, Thornwell employed a distinctive interpretation of the gospel that appealed to the two poles of social experience, honor and shame, between which his audience lived their lives. His address represents a late variant of an argument that can be traced through evangelical sermons and memoirs from the eighteenth century to the Civil War, an argument that appealed to southerners’ most basic assumptions about themselves and the sources of their identity. True honor, evangelicals argued, came from God and could only be properly judged by his people, who were to endure and even welcome the shame of the world as honor before God. Few historians have examined exactly how southern evangelicals actually thought, spoke, wrote, and argued about the ideas of honor and shame, and how they related these ideals to the sacred story of the gospel. Indeed, most considerations of the relationship between evangelical religion in the American South and the culture of honor that existed throughout the region have found

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