Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt
By Christine Leigh Heyrman
Alfred A. Knopf
336 pp.; $27.50, hardcover
Univ. of North Carolina Press, $16.95 paper
Evangelical Christianity seems as natural to Southern culture as grits, stock-car racing, and tobacco farming. But in this sweeping reinterpretation of the origins and growth of evangelical religion in the land of cotton, University of Delaware historian Christine Heyrman persuasively argues that things have not always been that way. Indeed, evangelicalism proved a latecomer to Southern life, not gaining a firm foothold until nearly the middle third of the nineteenth century.
Evangelical shock troops, mostly Methodists and Baptists, arrived in Dixie in the mideighteenth century. Though they should have been well poised to scavenge marooned Anglicans after the Revolutionary War, plus the very large number of "worldlings" lacking any semblance of a church affiliation, they nonetheless faced an uphill battle all the way. So the question is, Why did they have such a hard time for so long?
Heyrman contends that the majority of Southerners found evangelicals too countercultural, too subversive of conventional mores—in a word, too odd—to take seriously. For one thing, in the beginning evangelicals seemed excessively introspective, overly concerned to chart the slightest variations in the temperature of their souls. Their propensity toward extreme emotion—weeping, fainting, prostration, and the like—offended the natural reserve of common folk whose hardscrabble lives offered little room for such luxuries. And evangelicals seemed to many to spend entirely too much time worrying about the meaning of dreams, apparitions, natural portents, and the ever-present threat of a physical Devil.
More crucially, early evangelicals offended social mores in countless ways. They countenanced the religious views of women, especially mature matrons. They encouraged converted women to teach and to speak publicly of their religious experience (though they rarely permitted any to preach). Evangelicals urged men of all ages to avoid the pastimes cherished by the majority of Southern males, including fighting, gambling, drinking, parading, cockfighting, and horseracing. They refused to pay the customary deference to the gentry. And they disrupted timeless protocols about the family, too. Men and women sat apart in worship; evangelical churches placed discipline in the hands of church elders rather than patriarchs of households; and they made clear that the bonds of faith took priority over kith and kin—with the result that evangelical fervor sundered families as often as it bound them. White evangelicals denounced slavery and, in limited ways, even subordinated themselves to the spiritual mentoring of blacks. Little wonder, then, if common folk worried that evangelicals threatened the tacit understandings on which Southern culture was founded.
In the most arresting chapter of Southern Cross, Heyrman shows that evangelicals particularly aroused antagonism by their willingness to give authority to brash young men—Methodist itinerants and Baptist farmer preachers still in their twenties and early thirties. These "young gifts," as believers often called them, possessed a degree of spiritual leverage unparalleled in living memory. Methodist itinerants, in particular, held the very keys to the kingdom in their callow hands, baptizing, marrying, burying, controlling access to the Communion table, and, most portentously, guarding the power to expel the wayward from the body of Christ. All too often, it appeared, the zealousness of youth turned into the zealotry of the crusader. Where the seasoned pastor might have tempered justice with mercy, the young gift administered justice by the letter of the law—then rode away heedless of the human consequences.
But things did not remain such. Evangelicals did win the South, albeit ever so gradually. And they won, Heyrman argues, by selling out. She never puts it quite this baldly, but that is what it amounts to. In almost every respect, she contends, evangelicals—at least white ones—imperceptibly accommodated themselves to prevailing social conventions. Hence, by the midnineteenth century, they had tempered the display of emotion in their meetings, downplayed the physical reality of the Devil, relegated women to subordinate positions in the church and in the home, gave fathers control over the spiritual discipline of their families, and compromised their resistance to slavery. Above all, they replaced a clergy corps of young gifts, as rigid as they were rigorous, with a new one drawn from the ranks of mature men sensitive to the pragmatic necessities of accommodating human frailties.
Heyrman's argument, bold and powerful though it is, invites critique. For one thing, she pays little attention to the role of theology. She rightly insists that the heart of evangelicalism lay in the "language of Canaan," the language of the contrite soul seeking reconciliation with God through the submission of the mind, heart, and will. Yet Heyrman barely acknowledges that theological structures might have prepared the way for the contrite heart to emerge in the first place, or that theological ideas might have structured religious life and debates long thereafter. Nor does she allow much room for the possibility that evangelicalism grew partly because outsiders came to believe the truth of their message. After all, evangelicals were good preachers and furious publicists, and it strains common sense to think that outsiders dismissed all those words as only "flapdoodle and wind."
Still more problematic is the Edenic model that underlies the entire book. In the beginning, Heyrman effectively says, there were giants in the land, men and women who rode tall in the saddle, heedless of popular opinion. But little by little, the desire for social approval and numerical success tempted them to crouch lower and lower until they had rendered themselves virtually indistinguishable from the mass of worldlings around them.
The problem with this model is that if it were fully valid, evangelicals should have self-destructed long ago. But they have had a remarkable way of coming back in full force decade after decade. Heyrman nearly admits this point in the epilogue, where she acknowledges the countercultural character of contemporary movements like Promises Keepers.
Such questions pale, however, in the face of Heyrman's achievement. For one thing, most historians, not to mention most theologians and journalists, could take a writing lesson from this scholar. Many of her sources, she tells us with characteristic verve, consisted of clergy journals and diaries, "weatherbeaten books no larger than the palm of a hand, their stained, brittle pages packed with daily entries scrawled in a tiny, cramped hand, a barely legible script blotted with phonetic spellings." Methodologically, too, Heyrman proves herself a free spirit. And though she offers no hint of personal affiliation with the evangelical tradition, she takes it seriously as an important social movement worthy of study on its own terms. The book reveals not a trace of economic or psychological reductionism.
Of greatest interest to readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, perhaps, are Heyrman's insights into the dense realm of perception—how outsiders perceived evangelicals, how evangelicals perceived outsiders, how evangelical clergy perceived laity, and the reverse. As a case in point, we learn, through story after story, that the mass of antebellum Southerners resisted revival, not simply because they cherished their own cussed ways more (although some did), but also because they truly feared that evangelicals' ideological fervor would undermine the stability of social conventions hard won through generations of precarious living.
We learn, too, that evangelical fire-brands followed the ever-moving line of westward expansion, at least partly because revivals caused so much dissension in local churches that young pastors needed to keep moving in order to find fields of labor that hadn't already been worked over by older pastors. And we learn that pastors of all generations perennially had to cope with obstreperous members who challenged their sermons, criticized their personal habits, and, of course, kept them appropriately impoverished and thus, presumably, humble.
Though no area of American religious history has received more careful attention than antebellum evangelicalism, Heyrman has moved the story forward in ways both subtle and important. We come away from her book realizing that for all their faults, evangelicals still sought (in a classic phrase) to bear the hot coal of God's Word upon their lips and in their lives. For those of us who count ourselves latter-day heirs of those angular partisans, the reading of this powerful book should prove as unsettling as it is rewarding.
Grant Wacker is associate professor of the history of religion in America at Duke University and a member of Orange United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Daniel Pawley, associate professor of journalism at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minnesota
On an overcast afternoon in 1954, John Johnson, publisher of Ebony magazine, fired Ben Burns, his longtime executive editor. Burns left the Ebony offices with tears clouding his eyes, only to break into "convulsive" weeping when his wife, Esther, met him at the door of their home.
Why had Johnson done it? Burns was never sure. Was it simply the logical conclusion to Johnson's and Burns's endless bickering over how Ebony should read and what it should cover? Or was something rotten here: perhaps the fact that the fbi had been trailing Burns for 15 years (because he had once been a member of the American Communist party); might the J. Edgar Hoover machine have pressured Johnson into cutting Burns loose? Only Johnson could tell us now.
The Johnson-Burns story is the main element of Burns's must-read memoir, Nitty Gritty: A White Editor in Black Journalism (University Press of Mississippi, 1996, 230 pp.; $27.50, hardcover), but along the way he provides a superb anecdotal history of black American journalism—a world that is still terra incognita to most white readers.
The Johnson-Burns team seems an almost mythical embodiment of the editor-publisher relationship in American journalism. Here was Burns, a fatherless Jew from the Chicago slums, teaming up with Johnson, a fatherless African American from "Jim Crow" Arkansas, first on Negro Digest, then on Ebony. In at least 84 tries, there had never been a successful black magazine in America until these two got together.
We see Burns fighting furiously to get up to speed on black issues: learning culture and history, becoming street-smart, acquiring the vocabulary of "jive." We see Johnson at the Chicago newsstands, "priming the market" with his own money; inducing friends to buy his magazines; using his business savvy to get racist distributors to keep pace with Ebony's rapid growth.
After the flurry of those fun, early times, however, we see the ideological bone each man had to pick with the other. The essence of the problem was this: Johnson's ultimate goal in publishing was to escape the black press's radical label, and Burns was a radical. Together, they nobly charted a moderate course, which made Ebony during its heyday one of the great magazines of the century—but at what expense to the sandpaper relationship between editor and publisher?
Burns's orientation toward the black press had been strongly influenced by the great African-American intellectual Metz T. P. Lochard, who had received his Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. From his early editorial work at the Chicago Defender, one of the nation's leading black newspapers, through his long tenure at Ebony, Burns never lost the radical edge that led him to attack racial discrimination wherever he found it. Johnson, on the other hand, simply wanted to publish a "black Life magazine" that would explore "the happier side of Negro life," and as the man with the money, he squelched Burns's activist spirit at every turn.
Like partners in a troubled marriage that nevertheless gives the world a fine child to ponder, Burns and Johnson ground each other into helplessness right up until their divorce, yet gave the world Ebony. And the child appears to be doing just fine these days.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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