Journal of Southern Religion

Mulder, Philip N. A Controversial Spirit: Evangelical Awakenings in the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.  Reviewed by Barry W. Hamilton, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Overturning a monolithic view of evangelicalism in the American South, Philip Mulder provides a detailed picture of three traditions-Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian-that transformed the ecumenism of the 'New Light' into the particularity of denominationalism. Rather than presenting a united front with the other groups, each tradition engrafted the techniques of revivalism into its own religious perspective as a means of competing for converts. Through extensive research in primary source material such as diaries, church records and denominational publications, Mulder constructs his narrative almost exclusively from his sources rather than on a 'historian's imagination,' and thus strengthens his thesis of diverse evangelical origins. While this type of historiography often results in a 'patchwork' layout of information, the depth and breadth of Mulder's solid research convincingly establishes his thesis that the rich diversity of these traditions arose from the inner dynamics of each group.

"By reading his sources closely, Mulder avoids the overgeneralizations that often occur when historians assume uniform impact of movements."  


Mulder devotes most of his book to delineating the patterns and characteristics of each major tradition. For example, in Chapter 1, "Good Reasons to Believe," he carefully describes the appropriation of the 'New Light' by Presbyterians, especially by those in Hanover County, Virginia in the 1730s. Through intense exploration of his sources for the religious character and interests of his subjects, Mulder exposes the distinctive Presbyterian ethos of rational piety and concern with education, as well as the specific manner in which Presbyterians adopted the 'New Light.' By reading his sources closely, Mulder avoids the overgeneralizations that often occur when historians assume uniform impact of movements. Such preoccupation with detail often lacks perspective and insight into the larger significance; however, Mulder skillfully weaves his sources into an interpretive framework that stays focused on his central thesis. As diverse as his sources may be, Mulder brings them together through a hermeneutical lens that clearly reveals the inner nature of these competitive and irreconcilable traditions.

Mulder should especially be commended for his exemplary research on the Baptists, the least ecumenical of the three traditions. In Chapter 2, "Believe and Be Baptized," Mulder explicates the diversity and fractiousness of Baptist congregations that strove for the "highest original"-a restoration of New Testament Christianity. As he points out on page 37, "the correct mode of baptism strictly separated Baptists from non-Baptists and established a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders, true Christians and false." Baptists believed the Truth, and only Baptist teachings defined true conversions. These teachings, as well as the Baptist heritage of dissent, sharply distinguished this tradition from other churches. Mulder's thorough research and clear thesis also prevent overgeneralizations about this tradition as well as the others, including the organizational unity of the Baptists. By constructing his interpretation 'from the ground up' through close examination of historical texts, Mulder precisely articulates the distinctive nuances of Baptist churches, including their propensity for division and suspicion of authority that rose from their heritage as dissenters. This approach allows Mulder to keep together both the centrifugal and centripetal forces that comprised the distinctiveness of the Baptist tradition.

In Chapter 3, "Experimental Religion," Mulder focuses on the Methodists, particularly their system of circuit riders that contributed to the denomination's rapid rise in its early years, and the class system of 'societies' that shaped a distinctive Methodist piety. A transplant of its British parent, American Methodism embodied an organizational genius for spreading experimental religion through episcopacy. Recognizing the pivotal role of such figures as Francis Asbury, Freeborn Garrettson and Jesse Lee, Mulder correctly identifies their writings as representative of American Methodism and its formative impulses. Moreover, as with the Presbyterians and Baptists, Mulder compares and contrasts Methodism with these competing traditions and reinforces his thesis that each denomination constructed its own distinctive identity. His close reading of conversion narratives for each tradition especially sharpens the contrast between them and further strengthens his central thesis. Since his thesis strategically shapes his entire narrative from start to finish, Mulder constructs a coherent and credible historical narrative from a vast array of diverse primary sources.

In Chapter 4, "Contending for Liberty," Mulder discusses the impact of the American Revolution on the three traditions. Through disestablishment of the Anglican Church, the revolution intensified the competition between the new denominations. The free-market religious economy of the post-Revolutionary era thus contributed to the distinctiveness of each tradition, as Mulder states on page 89: "All three groups had to conform to a religious world that was defined not by Anglicans and dissent but by their interactions with each other." As a result of the revolution, the groups were transformed from dissenters into 'lobbyists' who struggled to gain advantage in the new political climate (p. 91). While Presbyterians more effectively influenced public policy in this era (p. 91-96), Baptists disrupted the patterns of establishment and aggressively advocated separation of church and state (p. 96-97). On the other hand, Methodists refrained from these debates, concentrating instead on stirring up revivals (p. 10l-102). Thus the political stance of these traditions reinforced the distinctive character of each denomination, a point that further strengthens Mulder's central thesis.

The remaining three chapters provide a detailed account of the further developments that took place among these denominations in the post-Revolutionary era as a result of the new competitive climate. Mulder provides extensive accounts of struggles among churches for converts as well as the struggles of converts to choose a suitable place of religious belonging. Churches balanced the need for discipline with measures of reconciliation to conserve members, and placed a high premium on loyalty to a particular tradition. One significant development that took place shortly after the revolution was the appearance of distinctive denominational publications that lauded the successes of each organization "by eulogizing the leaders and establishing their values as models for the rising generation" (p. 150). As Mulder states in his conclusion, "The most substantial adjustments the groups made were to use the tools of the New Light to further their rivalries, a trend that absorbed even the innovative Methodists" (p. 167).

A Controversial Spirit should find its place as essential reading in the field of religious history of the American South. Mulder deserves a respected place alongside his mentor, Donald G. Mathews, since he has contributed a definitive publication on the rise of denominationalism in America. Highly recommended.

Barry W. Hamilton, Northeastern Seminary

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

contents main page masthead advertisers e-mail