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

By Robert Elder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Dual Citizens and a Twice Sacred Circle
Men, Women, and Honor in the Local Church

When Nathan Bedford Forrest met his future wife on a dirt road outside Hernando, Mississippi, on a Sunday in April 1845, it was hardly clear they would make a good match. Forrest would go on to international fame as a Confederate cavalry commander and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, but he was already a figure of local distinction. Less than a month before he met Mary Ann Montgomery, he had shot two men on the streets of Hernando in a fight that was less duel than brawl. The story had it that he pursued two other men from the scene with a Bowie knife when he ran out of ammunition. The fight made the papers in nearby Memphis. When Forrest came upon Mary Montgomery and her mother that Sunday, their wagon had become stuck in the mud on their way to church. Forrest, it seems, was headed in a different direction. After a short courtship marked by plenty of persistence, Forrest convinced his intended bride that he would make a good husband. But her uncle and legal guardian, the Reverend Samuel Montgomery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, had his doubts. “Why Bedford, I couldn’t consent,” the Reverend Montgomery said, according to one witness, “you cuss and gamble, and Mary Ann is a Christian girl.” “I know,” Forrest replied, “and that’s just why I want her.” Forrest and Mary Ann Montgomery were soon married despite the groom’s decided lack of religious credentials.1

The Reverend Montgomery’s unease in this story seems to illustrate precisely the sharp conflict that historians have described between the religion of honor practiced by many southern white men and the ethics of evangelical religion to which Mary Montgomery and her uncle were devoted. But in another sense Forrest’s reply warrants its own examination since it implies a more complex view of the relationship between honor culture and evangelicalism in the South. Often historians have portrayed a South under the sway of two competing moral communities, honor and evangelicalism, which are assumed at most times and in most places to have been at odds. Furthermore, the contradiction is generally expressed in gendered terms, with a masculine honor ethic arrayed

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