Religion in Southern Culture: Classroom Notes

Charles Lippy/The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga


My course on Religion in Southern Culture has taken many different forms since I first introduced it at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga seven years ago. Sometimes, the shape of the course has depended on matters as simple as time the class meets. On several occasions, including the one that the sample syllabus represents, the class has meet just one evening a week for two and one-half hours. Other times, the class has meet for the more traditional three fifty-minute sessions a week. The student population varies as well. Evening classes attract more part-time students who tend to be older; many of them come with a keen interest in certain features of Southern religious life based on their personal experience. Most of the students, however, are under thirty years of age, and most have had at least some exposure to the Protestant evangelical style that has been so influential in the region.

"Chattanooga is in the heart of Cherokee country, and I am committed to making sure that we give some attention to the Native American religious culture indigenous to the region."

That evangelical style provides the center around which the course is organized. Were I teaching this course in a location other outside the South, I would have a different task at hand, for I would not have students who brought pretty much the same set of preconceptions about evangelical Protestantism to class discussion and would no doubt have to spend more time unpacking some of the basic dimensions of evangelical Protestantism. In southeast Tennessee, I feel that my task is somewhat different. As a historian, I am naturally inclined to look first at how evangelical Protestantism came to be so influential in a region, particularly when the Church of England was once the religious establishment in a good bit of the region. But I have learned that a good bit of conversation must be devoted to showing how evangelicalism is intertwined with population movement into the region, economics, political life, and so on. Since I also have taught a course on Women and Religion in America, I raise questions of gender and family when it came to the early evangelical presence.

The ramifications of the evangelical emphasis on personal religious experience come under scrutiny repeatedly, particularly its unwittingly making the individual the ultimate religious authority. Here I admit that I am setting the stage for later consideration of the matter of a personal ethic v. a social ethic, how Southern Protestants tried to avoid seeing slavery in moral terms, and the later image of the "Bible belt" as the last holdout with "blue laws" and the lingering sense that beverage alcohol, dancing, playing cards, and the like are morally suspect. But my professorial instincts push me to engage students in discussion about the variety that lurks within the larger evangelical family historically. Since I teach a short distance from Dayton, Tennessee, the Scopes Trial is fairly familiar to students, and we do give fairly careful attention to how evangelicalism and fundamentalism are related and how fundamentalism came in many instances to nudge out a broader evangelicalism in pockets of the South.

The pervasive presence of the Southern Baptist Convention requires that time be given to looking at the divisions among Baptists--and those among Methodists and Presbyterians--in the decades before the Civil War. I personally rely heavily on some of the interpretation advanced by C.C. Goen in Broken Churches, Broken Nation here, although time constraints do not really allow for reading this work. The remaking of Southern evangelicalism in the later nineteenth century and its support for what Charles Reagan Wilson has called a Southern civil religion are cognate concerns that follow. At times, I have had students read sections of Wilson's Baptized in Blood, especially since we are located just one hour from Sewanee and the University of the South (which actually had its origins on Lookout Mountain in the Chattanooga area).

Recently, I have used Christine Leigh Heyrman's Southern Cross and Ted Ownby's Subduing Satan to start students thinking about Southern evangelicalism and its cultural nuances, relying more on class time to talk about the colonial religious establishment, the impact of the Civil War, and so on. I have also had very good results using Donald Mathews's Religion in the Old South.

Having set the stage with this wide-ranging look at evangelicalism, the course turns to African American religious life. There are both obvious and subtle considerations that shape what I try to accomplish in this section of the course. On the one hand, I want to make sure students are aware that African American evangelical traditions are not just copies of the larger white bodies, even when they share a denominational name, but reflect a deep intertwining of things evangelical with dimensions of the African heritage, the experience of slavery, and a dynamic folk religious tradition. We also examine the way religious institutions have played a more central role historically in African American cultural and community life. I have regretted that few African American students have taken the course, for throughout I encourage students to draw on their own personal experience to illuminate what we are discussing in class, and we miss an important contribution here because the class has been consistently almost entirely Caucasian in terms of ethnic background.

The folk religious elements in the African American story become a bridge to looking at the religious culture of Appalachia, especially the mountain culture in the area that stretches from Alabama through east Tennessee, where we are located, into Kentucky. Many of the students at the University have family ties to the Appalachian region. We do devote a disproportionate amount of time to serpent handling for a variety of reasons. One of the first documented occasions when serpents were handled in the early twentieth century occurred at the East Chattanooga Church of God, so we are here talking about something that is local (and on a few occasions students have shared with the class family experiences with serpent handling), and a colleague in the psychology department has established an archive of materials on serpent handling. I do use the old "war horse" film, "The Holy Ghost People" (since the university does own a copy). But I also shift to other considerations, again using an old standard video presentation, "In the Good Old Fashioned Way" about the Old Regular Baptists. I have been delighted that students are able to make comparisons in terms of the importance of religious language, ritual, sacred space, and so on when we compare the two videos since on the surface they seem rather disparate.

The next section of the course looks at what I call "forgotten" aspects of Southern religious life. Chattanooga is in the heart of Cherokee country, and I am committed to making sure that we give some attention to the Native American religious culture indigenous to the region. I also am very intentional about looking at the Roman Catholic and Jewish traditions in the South; one year I was fortunate in that the Chattanooga Regional History Museum mounted an exhibit on Jewish life in Chattanooga at the same time I was offering the course--a field trip for extra credit followed. But given the rich history of Southern Judaism especially in places like Charleston and Savannah and the facts that Roman Catholicism had a presence in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana long before these areas were part of the U.S. and that the second Roman Catholic archdiocese to be established in the U.S. was in Bardstown, Kentucky, I believe students need to understand that there is a history here that parallels that of Southern Protestantism, one that means that Southern religious culture has never been quite as monolithic as it might appear on the surface.

Our location in southeast Tennessee also makes it imperative that we consider some other facets of Southern religious life. Collegedale, a pre-eminent enclave of Seventh-day Adventists, is a Chattanooga suburb; on a few occasions, I have had students form Southern Adventist University taking this course for transfer credit, and they have been able to enrich our class discussion with the perspective that they bring. The Churches of Christ and therefore the culture of Stone-Campbell Restorationism have a very visible presence in eastern Tennessee. Cleveland, TN, home to the headquarters of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN)--one of the region's (and nation's) major Pentecostal denominations--is just 25 miles away, and many of our students commute to Chattanooga from Cleveland. Hence I make sure that we give time to looking at all three of these, perhaps giving them more time than overall numbers warrant but surely not more time than their influence in the area from which we draw most of our students would suggest.

Finally, since Chattanooga is the home to at least three Mosques, one Hindu temple, and a couple of Buddhist centers, I end the course with some consideration of the impact of these traditions and the "new immigration" on established patterns of Southern religious life. When the class has met three times a week, I have sometimes been able to organize class visits to one of the mosques and to the local Hindu temple. In the year this syllabus represents, one student in lieu of a traditional research paper presented an hour-long video based on visits to Buddhist centers in several Tennessee and Alabama communities, along with interviews with persons who were actively involved in maintaining them.

Of course, I am painfully aware that there is a good bit that gets left out each time I teach this course. Although the university offers several courses in Southern literature through the English Department, I have rarely had students in the Religion in Southern Culture class who have had an interest in, say, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, or William Faulkner. I have mentally constructed a course on Southern religion using literature by writers such as these, but have not ever taught the course in this fashion. Sometimes we have looked more closely at a different range of current trends--a few years ago, for example, we spent more time on the so-called "fundamentalist takeover" of the machinery of the Southern Baptist Convention. There also has been precious little time to explore the way religious radio and televangelism have a distinctive Southern dimension.

Many of these areas I lift up as topics for research papers. As well, sometimes I have structured the course using in-class student reports in lieu of one or more written tests. Framing the questions which the students research and then talk about for 15-20 minutes has sometimes allowed a wider range of topics to come under consideration. But using that option depends to some degree on whether I have a reliable sense of enrollment at the time I construct the syllabus. One year, another time when the class met one evening a week during the spring term, advance registration was only around 14 when I put the syllabus together; however, the by the first day of class, enrollment had swelled to more than 30--a number almost too high for this kind of pedagogical approach to be effective.

As the attached syllabus shows, I also rely heavily for reading assignments on entries from the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South and the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture in areas where there is a dearth of accessible material for classroom use. When the class meets just once a week, I rely exclusively on "take home" essay exercises in lieu of in-class tests and try to structure those essays to weave together many of the threads that woven themselves into the reading and class discussion. Research papers or equivalent projects allow student to pursue individual interests. I first introduced this course under a "special topics" to see if there was adequate interest in adding it to the regular curriculum; student response has been consistent, and we now offer the course at least once every four semesters, attracting 25-30 students each time (with less than half majoring in the Department of Philosophy and Religion).

REL 334 Religion in Southern Culture

Spring 2001 Professor Lippy

We will examine the role of religion in Southern culture, past and present. Reading will highlight the evangelical influence, African-American religious heritage, Appalachian religious culture, the interplay of religion and culture, some traditions often overlooked or forgotten (Native American, Judaism, Catholicism, Churches of Christ, Seventh-Day Adventists), and contemporary trends. There will be some video presentations.

REQUIREMENTS: Regular attendance at class and familiarity with assigned reading are assumed. Attendance is required on days when written work is due. There may be unannounced quizzes on the reading at any time. If you handwrite your work, you must use INK. No make-up quizzes will be given. Excessive absences (more than two) FOR WHATEVER REASON may be sufficient reason for lowering the final grade; attendance will be taken before and after a break each week. All written work will be evaluated for form and content. In addition:

(1) Class participation (20% of the final grade).

(2) Two essay assignments, given out and due according to the schedule below (30% of the final grade).

(3) A standard research paper of at least 3000 words, using a minimum of ten sources (including books, articles, Internet sources, and the like) and prepared with standard documentation on a topic, theme, thinker, movement, or other issue relating to religion in Southern culture. Make sure the instructor approves your paper topic before you begin. The paper will be due on Monday, 16 April 2001.

(4) A take-home final exam, due no later than 7:30 PM, Monday, 30 April 2001.

CLASSROOM ETIQUETTE: All cell phones and beepers must be turned off for the entire class period. Also, please make sure that no watches beep quarter hours, half hours, and the like. Please refrain from reading books, magazines, study guides, and the like, or from copying notes from other students' notebooks. Unless you are taken suddenly ill, please do not leave during class. Please do not carry on conversations with those sitting near you (unless, of course, we are working in discussion groups). Finally, please remember that class begins at 5:30 PM. Coming in late disturbs all your peers in the class and should be avoided. These are basic guidelines that will help make our time together more productive, allow you to participate fully in class discussion, and keep your professor smiling.

SPECIAL NOTE: If you have a disability that may require assistance or accommodations, or you have questions related to any accommodations for testing, note takers, readers, and the like, please speak with me as soon as possible or contact the College Access Program Office (755-4006) with questions about services offered to UTC students with qualified disabilities.

OFFICE: My office is 232C Holt Hall. The office telephone is 755-4340. Normally I shall be there Mondays, noon-1:00 PM and 4:30-5:30 PM; and Wednesdays and Fridays, 2:00-3:00 PM. Appointments for other times are easy to arrange. Should you need to reach me in an emergency, my home telephone is 892-0355. My e-mail address is:

BOOKS: Frey and Wood, Come Shouting to Zion

Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt

Hill, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion in the South (recommended purchase)

Leonard, ed., Christianity in Appalachia

Ownby, Subduing Satan

If you choose not to purchase the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, you may use copies in Lupton Library or in the office of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. In addition, there are reading assignments from the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. There is one copy of that work in the reference section in the Lupton Library and one copy in the Southern Writer's Archives in the Lupton Library.


1. The Beginnings of the Evangelical Dominance in the South

1/8 Introduction; Heyrman, prologue and chap. 1; Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 855-59 ("Colonial Period")

1/15 Martin Luther King Holiday

1/22 Heyrman, chaps. 2 & 3

1/29 Heyrman, chaps. 4 & 5 and epilogue

2. Southern Culture Religion/Southern Religious Culture: Civil War and After

2/5 Ownby, Part I

2/12 Ownby, Parts II & III; "Fundamentalism" in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, 1288- 89; first essay given out


3. African-American Religious Experience in the South

2/19 Frey and Wood, as much as possible of the whole book; first essay due

2/26 Frey and Wood, finish; Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 108-12 ("Black Religion"), 106-108 ("Black Ministerial Protest Leadership"), 341-42 ("Invisible Institution"), and 528-31 ("National Baptists")


4. Appalachian Mountain Religion

3/5 Leonard, chaps. 1-4, 6-8; video presentation

3/12 Spring break

3/19 Leonard, chaps. 9-10, 12-19; video presentation; second essay given out


5. "Forgotten" Aspects of Southern Religious Life

3/26 Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, 407-13 ("Indian Cultural Contributions," "Indians before 1700," "Indians, 1700-1840", "Indians Since 1840"), 423-26 ("Catawbas," "Cherokees," "Chickasaws," "Creeks"); Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 336- 41 ("Indians, Southeastern Missions to," "Indians, Texas Missions to"); second essay due

4/2 Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 105-106 ("Black Catholics"), 647-60 ("Roman Catholic Church [in the South]," "Roman Catholic Church")

4/9 Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 349-62 "Jewish Charitable Organizations," "Jewish Immigration," "Jews in the South"), 530-32 ("Nativism")

4/16 Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 37-38 ("Antimission Movement"), 166-72 ("Churches of Christ"), 401-402 ("Lectureships"), 640-42 ("Restorationism"), 686-87 ("Seventh-Day Adventists"); research papers due


6. Contemporary Trends

4/23 Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, 859-64 ("Recent South"); Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, 418-21 ("Asian Groups"), 1297-1300 ("Politics and Religion"); final exam given out

4/30 Final exam due no later than 7:30 PM




© 1998-2003 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

This essay published 7/03

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