Barry Aron Vann. In Search of Ulster-Scots Land: The Birth and Geotheological Imagings of a Transatlantic People, 1603-1703
. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008) 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1-57003-708-5. Reviewed by David P. King, for The Journal of Southern Religion
What does In Search of Ulster-Scots Land
, a book largely devoted to seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterians' migrations to Ireland's Ulster counties, have to say about southern religion? Quite a lot, believes author Barry Aron Vann, associate professor of geography at Lincoln Memorial University. Waves of Ulster-Scots, or Scots-Irish Protestants, began to immigrate to the American South by the early eighteenth century, making up a large part of the region's ethnic heritage. But Vann's interest goes beyond genealogy and geography. He argues that it is the religious thinking of the Ulster-Scots that shapes their unique culture. Diffused through their immigration to America, these beliefs have also left a significant cultural imprint on the South. Vann declares that the conservative belief system, political ideology, and landscapes of the Ulster-Scots are mirrored in the contemporary culture of the "Bible Belt."
Vann is by training a geographer, and he engages the scholarly debates within his discipline. For instance, one half of his thesis examines population statistics and geographical features to argue in favor of scholars who insist that the Irish Sea served as a conduit rather than a barrier to immigration. These asides may be of less interest to a non-specialist, but Vann also utilizes relevant historical, theological, and sociological tools. Most interesting for general readers like me is the second half of his thesis—that a shared religious cosmos allowed Ulster-Scots and the Bible Belt to create distinct cultural communities. Throughout the book Vann promotes a robust historical religious geography, a category he elsewhere calls "geotheology" and defines as "aspects of place linked to worship and the divine" (7).
Bookended by a general introduction and conclusion, five of the book's six chapters deal with the seventeenth-century formation of an Ulster-Scots cultural community. King James I set the initial plans in motion for the lowland Scots' migration to Ulster in 1608. As an economic and socialization experiment, he created a plantation system that allowed Scots to settle in underpopulated areas of Ulster. In addition to economic benefits, the king's political agenda hoped that socializing with British subjects would civilize and Anglicize the unruly Irish Gaels. The problem, however, was that the Scottish immigrants were not good Anglicans but largely non-conformist Presbyterians. The intermingling failed to produce loyal British subjects but instead led to the creation of a dissenting Protestant Ulster-Scots land.
Vann believes his careful explication of the Ulster-Scots' theological system is the interpretive key to understanding the community they created. First, he notes that the rugged geography of the Scottish lowlands allowed radical dissent to remain unabated. Second, he argues for the Scottish dissenters' connection with English Puritanism. This Puritan connection allows Vann to develop what he calls the radical Scottish Presbyterians' "theocratic world view." This worldview bolstered the ultimate significance of the church above the magistrate. It also allowed the Scots to claim their country as a sacred land with a special purpose in the divine plan. Akin to a "city on a hill" or a second Geneva, they portrayed Scotland as the nexus of an imagined universal church community. They sought to implement this system politically. When they failed, they found themselves persecuted and often withdrew to safety in Irish Ulster. Like the biblical Israel, they lived between exile and the holy land, migrating back and forth between Ulster and Scotland. In so doing, they created a shared cultural and ideological community that spanned across the Irish Sea.
In a single final chapter, Vann ties his Ulster-Scots to the creation of the Bible Belt. After 1700, persecution led a number of Ulster-Scots to immigrate to America. They eventually settled throughout Appalachia and the Shenandoah Valley, geography strangely similar to the highlands they left behind. Beyond geography, Vann attempts to demonstrate a Scots-Irish geotheology by taking the categories he has developed for the Ulster-Scots and overlaying them onto the contemporary South. His evidence leans on educational institutions, country music, Republican politics, and the Christian Right. First, he traces the remarkable number of Presbyterian colleges, universities, and seminaries established in the Upper South. Far more numerous than in any other region, these schools promulgated the same theocratic belief system. Second, he relates the Scots-Irish's geotheology through country music. Vann finds a Protestant work ethic, a devotion to the South as sacred space, and a co-mingling of God and country evident in the Bible Belt's music from Hank Williams, Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive" to Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Third, Vann believes the conservative politics and theocratic leanings of the Religious Right only add to his argument.
To be more than simply suggestive, however, Vann needs additional evidence to make his case. He claims, "The Bible Belt clearly reflects the culture of a devout people whose ancestors lived in the highlands of Europe's Protestant Celtic fringe" (140). But he gives only passing mention to the complexities of defining the Bible Belt. What about the predominance of Baptists and Methodists who are conspicuously absent from Vann's southern geotheology? What about the intervening centuries? Is there room for notions of a unique American or southern experience, a rugged individualism, or the radical experiment of separation between church and state? The explicit connection between the original Ulster Scots and the contemporary Bible Belt seems overdrawn.
Even without buying the entire argument, Vann's suggestions are intriguing. While I sometimes quibbled with his broad interpretations of history and theology, I continue to find the category of "geotheology" potentially helpful. How might this term fit alongside David Chidester and Edward Linenthal's collection, American Sacred Space, or Charles Reagan Wilson's development of southern civil religion in Baptized in Blood? This literature appears outside the scope of Vann's field. The strength of "geotheology" as Vann develops it, however, resides in its capacity to link material locations and imagined communities. It is a significant category for investigating immigration and religion. In creating a unique religious thought world, the significance lies not only in what something is, but also what a community envisions that it might be. Analyzing these belief systems enables Vann to stretch the borders of cultural communities beyond mountains and oceans. It allows him to take the beliefs of his subjects seriously, an important lesson for all geographers, historians, and religious scholars.
The book is required reading for those interested in Scots-Irish heritage or southern Presbyterian history. Additional tables and appendices listing Presbyterian institutions of higher learning and biographical information on Irish Presbyterian ministers are helpful. Others will also benefit from Vann's work, even if it serves only as a reminder that attention to theology is important and that southern religion can be explored in far flung and unlikely places.
| Ph.D. Candidate in Historical Studies