Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews. Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004. viii, 340pp. ISBN: 0807855707. Reviewed by Bland Whitley for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Evangelical Protestantism may still define religion in the South and dominate historical scholarship on the subject, but this collection underscores the many tensions within evangelical faith and practice and the interesting adaptations that have occurred as a result of the interactions of southern Protestants and other Americans. While by no means rebutting the interpretations of southern religion forged by Samuel Hill and other prominent scholars of evangelicalism, the essays stretch beyond the usual terrain of southern Baptist-Methodist hegemony, temporally, geographically, and thematically.
In the opening essay "Before the Bible Belt," Jon Sensbach challenges historians to focus attention on an older South, one before evangelical or even European domination. Before 1800 the southeastern region played host to a more contentious religious life than perhaps has existed anywhere in American history. Native American faiths, Islam, Catholicism, and the whole range of transatlantic Protestantism jockeyed for position. Geopolitical factors governed the interplay of these faiths, but all contributed to the complexion of southern culture at the turn of the nineteenth century. Although Sensbach does not really connect this earlier period of spiritual ferment to the more familiar narrative of evangelical conquest, his essay acts as a powerful reminder that historians need to start asking how the collision of faiths during the eighteenth century (an interesting subject in and of itself) informed the later embrace of evangelicalism.
None of the subsequent essays addresses this question, but all explore a range of complementary themes and ask fruitful, original questions that promise an exciting future for the study of religion in the South. Beth Barton Schweiger's
already influential contribution "Max Weber in Mount Airy
" targets another temporal bias, challenging historians to see through the nostalgia that has long pervaded evangelical practice. Far from being a justification for and sustainer of premodern
values (as many of its proponents and analysts have suggested) "old-time religion" in the South has fueled modern innovation. The rapid institutionalization of revivalism allowed southerners to see themselves as upholding an older belief system while building modern denominational structures (identical in many respects to those of the North). Such an interplay
between tradition and innovation, "pure" expressions of faith and bureaucratic organization, and sacred and secular realms recurs throughout the collection. Anthea
D. Butler's "Church Mothers and Migration," for example, stresses the organizational abilities of women leaders in the Church of God
in Christ and also indicates the extent to which church mothers sacralized
what they viewed as traditional southern customs. In this way COGIC successfully transplanted southern rural mores and folkways to what might have otherwise been a hostile, secular, urban North. Similarly, Jerma
Jackson's analysis of the career of gospel-pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(also a COGIC evangelist) illuminates the process by which musical performance within Holiness-Pentecostal faiths forged the modern genre of black gospel, which Tharpe
further transformed by softening its edge for secular audiences. Jackson
rightly asks readers to see Tharpe's
career as a window into the formation of a popular religion connected in many respects to a mass consumer society.
Resistance to a firm analytical line between sacred and secular animates many of the essays. Thus, Kurt O. Berends's "Confederate Sacrifice and the 'Redemption' of the South" goes beyond earlier interpretations that have seen religion as merely a morale booster for, or drag on, the Confederate war effort. War transformed evangelical faith by sacralizing the violent sacrifices that so many southern men underwent. The sacrifice of Christ became intertwined with the deaths of Confederate soldiers, thereby making it hard to distinguish southern white efforts from espousals of Christian faith. Donald Mathews finds even more disturbing manifestations of faith in the theologically oriented "Lynching Is Part of the Religion of Our People." Mathews asks us to pay closer attention to the existential dimensions of faith––its confrontation with perceived evil and its deployment of righteous vengeance. Lynching in this sense was a kind of devotional rite for all too many whites. Yet lynching also confirmed for many evangelical blacks the importance of the Christian narrative. As Christ through his sacrifice had overcome the persecution he faced, so might African Americans in the South.
All the essays are attuned to the power of conversion and its centrality to the spiritual journeys of evangelicals, and indeed two of the more powerful contributions deepen our understanding of the dynamics of conversion. Daniel Woods's "The Royal Telephone" examines testimony of members of the mostly southern white Pentecostal Holiness Church
and finds a longstanding belief in direct communication with the divine. Experiencing faith for many adherents neither started nor ended with the gift of tongues, which Woods shows was simply one of many ways that Pentecostals accessed the divine. The variety of such communications goes a long way toward explaining both the explosive growth of Holiness and Pentecostal denominations and their tendency toward frequent schism. Emily Bingham's sensitive account of the spiritual life of Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, member of a prominent southern Jewish family of the antebellum era, addresses the attraction and revulsion experienced by non-evangelicals as revivalism increasingly came to define the region's religious culture. Bingham succeeds in grounding one woman's tortuous journey to Christian faith in a complex of familial, intellectual, and class concerns.
The collection ends with two essays that indicate how revising the ways scholars view the racial and gender dynamics of southern religion points to radically different interpretations. Paul Harvey masterfully summarizes the arguments of his recent Freedom's Coming (2004) in making the case for the inherently interracial character of southern Protestantism. Harvey has forged a richer and more complicated account of the paradox of biracial religiosity and expressions of Christian brotherhood coexisting with raw discrimination. Lynn Lyerly reorients religion in the South by placing women at the center of the narrative. It's a very different picture. Viewed through the religious experiences and institutions of women, southern Protestantism becomes an arena for the social gospel, challenges to patriarchy, and substantive, if tentative, efforts to cross the racial divide. Lyerly redirects attention, as all the essays do, toward a reassessment of the assumptions that have undergirded our image of southern evangelicalism and toward an appreciation of the variety of faiths that will increasingly define the region.
Keep in mind that I have only drawn out the themes that struck me as most compelling. Specialists in the respective fields covered by the individual essays can no doubt derive other questions. Religion in the American South
is essential reading for those interested in where the study of the subject might be headed.
Bland Whitley, Library of Virginia