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

By Robert Elder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
A Voice at Its Full Thunder
Evangelical Oratory, Honor, and the Self

When Samuel Wells Leland visited his family in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1854, he immediately heard that “some distinguished ministers of the Methodist Church in Columbia” were in town for their annual conference. Leland, a Presbyterian, nevertheless took advantage of every opportunity to hear the visiting Methodists preach, and he recorded an atmosphere of crowded churches and expectant crowds that waited to hear the more famous preachers ply their craft and consumed multiple sermons every day of the conference. Leland declined to attend a sermon by the famed South Carolina Methodist William Capers, “as I have often heard him,” but attended a sermon by Georgia Bishop Lovick Pierce. “The church was filled to overflowing,” remembered Leland, “and although the galleries even were occupied, by the whites, yet hundreds were without seats.” Pierce, buoyed by the occasion and the crowd, lived up to his reputation. “He preach[ed] from the text ‘and I determind [sic] to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified, etc.’” wrote Leland in his journal. “He fully came up to the general expectation, and was at times thrillingly eloquent.”1

The Methodists that Leland heard in Columbia in 1854 represented a significant variety of a central figure in the South—the orator. Oratory was more important in the South than it was elsewhere in the nation, and as producers of public speech, orators were inextricably bound up in the public world of politics, religion, influence, and honor. Evangelical clergy gave addresses on important occasions, argued points of theology in public debates, paid close attention to the physical and performative aspects of their craft, and took pride in their ability to reach into the deep recesses of the human heart. Evangelical preachers interpreted their abilities and successes as a mixture of oratorical skill and the influence of the Spirit, and they developed a singularly evangelical style that emphasized the humility of the orator alongside descriptions of heroic feats of eloquence and inspiration.

The traditional link between oratory and honor in the South hinged on orators’ ability to influence their audiences and compel them to action.

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