"Tell About the South: Why Are They So Religious?"
The Inaugural Sam Hill Lecture in Southern Religious History
in Religion, University of Florida
The University of North Carolina Asheville, April 2009
Sam Hill’s 1966 clarion call, Southern Churches in Crisis, shaped the fields of southern history and southern religious history for decades to come. Kenneth Woodward lauded it in Newsweek, saying, “the core of Hill’s carefully spun-out criticism is theological. Southern fundamentalism, the 39-year-old professor charges is not fundamental enough, its concentration on man’s need for individual forgiveness by a righteous God reduces the full Christian message to ‘a relatively short catalogue’ of selected doctrines, according to Hill; and in the hands of Southern preachers this selectivity ‘often amounts to manipulation’ of the Bible itself.”(1) In a flurry of later articles and books Hill explored the depths of southern religion belief and life. How could one summarize the South’s fascinating religious development? What accounted for the fusion of religion and culture in the region? How could one explain the differences between the religious beliefs and experiences of blacks and whites in Dixie? Those and other questions Hill asked continue to animate new discussions and spark new debates.
In honor of Sam Hill’s many accomplishments in the field of Southern religious history, the University of North Carolina at Asheville established the annual Sam Hill Lecture series in 2009. Although Sam spent many years at the University of Florida—where he is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Religion—he has many ties to North Carolina.
He earned his Ph.D. from Duke University and was one of the founding members of the Religious Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since retiring from the University of Florida, Sam has been a part-time resident of Black Mountain, NC. Thus, UNC Asheville chose to honor this “almost” native son with a lecture series that was launched in conjunction with the establishment of the Department of Religious Studies there, and we are pleased to announce that the JSR will be the official forum for these lectures.
What follows is Hill’s insightful, provocative talk, “Tell About the South: Why Are They So Religious?”
For Southerners, there is supposed to be only one book worthy to be spoken about reverently. But for the elite—such as we are, it should go without saying, the fiction of the great writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty) and a few others is in the race even if always finishing a poor second.
“Tell about the South,” says Shreve McCannon in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! What is it we’d like to know? In this case: Why are they so religious?
The high-falutin Faulkner who returned to Mississippi after WWI and time in the Royal Flying Corps, was called “Count No ‘Count.” You have heard of him—be sure to read him. Faulkner (1897-1962), the fiction writer of elaborate proportions regionally and internationally. Winner of a 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature. Creator of Yoknapatawpha County, somewhere in Mississippi, “a postage stamp of native soil” that delivers to our imagination and knowledge the grist mill of southern life, life in a failed putative nation but wondrously rich and enduring culture. If the Dutch made Holland, why couldn’t Mr. Bill make a county?
Readers of his novels will know that his peculiar manner of expression “tell about the South,” belongs to his stream-of-consciousness writing. The sentence that we are addressing emanates from inner reflecting done by Quentin Compson’s Canadian roommate at Harvard, McCannon, for whom puzzlement over the Mississippian’s ways is standard not just to him but to all the nonsoutherners in Cambridge—and that is nearly everybody.
To Shreve, the rest of the condescension runs even more strangely: “What’s it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?” Puzzlement is far surpassed by a patronizing attitude expressed in near-comic hyperbole: why do they live at all? “Why do they live at all,” is certainly over the top, over the moon, I am inclined to say. One could answer, variously: it’s home; much about it is attractive, fetching; they live there because—why shouldn’t they? They eat and drink, adore and despise, feel, imagine, dream, respond, ignore, work and play, have families, laugh, tell stories, go to church, sleep and plan and worry, and on and on like human beings everywhere.
Unable to trade in fictional musings, I decided to be my prosaic self when taking advantage of the master writer’s formulation. “What do they believe there?” occurred to me as a possible predicate. But that can’t get us anywhere, really—too broad, too general. “Why are they so religious?” was not an issue the Harvardians of 1910 would even have known about, their knowledge so scant and blinded concerning anything resembling a factual description. They were fascinated—or is it repulsed?—by everything southern without bothering to make sense of the place and its people. But for us this query is pertinent. Indeed, why are they/we so religious, then and now?
By the post-War II period, Americans generally were becoming evermore curious about the South, owing partly to the topic of “civil rights”—a term that, by the way, rang no bells for me when first the Truman administration began to use it. Among the several aspects that impressed “Northerners” (an ascription rarely used by those thus referred to), the religious life of the region ranked high. By the time current students at University of North Carolina Asheville were born, the religious dimension of regional life was famous—sometimes infamous. I offer one piece of suggestive evidence: students’ confusion over the distinction between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., has been detected on more than one exam in Religious Studies classes.
Where do we start? With two elementary facts of southern history that set it off from the rest of the nation—of which, by the way, it has never not been a part; not even during the formal secession of 1861-1865. First, the presence of a pervasively bi-racial culture, African and European, as if somehow they could co-exist; and second, the significant absence of European immigrant sectors of the population, with their distinctive cultures. The most superficial glance at the population of any southern city alongside New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, or any others makes a strong case. Minor exceptions are surely visible, there being a dusting of Italians, Poles, Germans, Spanish, and other European and northern hemisphere people present in cities and towns of the South. The most dramatic instance of this exception is the presence of southern Jews—who live in several coastal cities and throughout Florida—who trace their origins to Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
One “elementary fact,” note, points to presence, the other to absence. By the way, are we on firm footing to analyze a culture by what is not there? Yes, we are in this case, since the southern region was part of a much larger national scene, whether the people of the smaller unit liked it or not. There is some correlation in that dual condition, but mostly, the South has comprised a southern hemisphere people, Africans, from many places and varieties of the sub-Saharan mass of that vast continent, together with a northern hemisphere one, Europe, especially England, Scotland, Wales, the Netherlands, and Spain during the colonial era on this continent. There is no use trying to compare any of the former peoples alongside any of the latter. What is striking about this datum is that this composition characterizes no other nation or continent, not even the “northern” section of the USA.
We are on less firm, more interpretive, ground when we suggest that a third characteristic distinguishes the South: namely, the assertion that the southern population is more attracted to personal, individualistic, experiential modes of religious experience than are their fellow countrymen north of the Mason-Dixon. At least since 1825 or so, the South’s pattern has been more “populist,” less formal, more explicit, more expressive, more overtly warm, “evangelical” in one usage of that rather complex—and rich—term. This hypothesis will claim our attention later when we raise the larger, titular issue of this paper: just what are the factors that have created the South’s religiosity; in other words, why are southerners so religious?
The region’s history is surely a major factor. Yale historian Jon Butler says that colonial America was “awash in a sea of faith.” In the very first southern settlements, Virginia and la Florida, two European forms were present, each as a motivating factor for settling at all. Both were traditional, endemic to the societies from which the immigrants came, and meant to have exclusive place, respectively, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. However, even this early, when Europe’s patterns faced off with American experience, the latter won out. By 1700 the southern landscape featured Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Roman Catholics. (They, of course, were joining on the larger scene Native American spirituality, also vestiges—probably more than vestiges—of African traditional religions and sub-Saharan Islam.) To those Protestant heritages were soon added Methodism (actually originating on this side of the Atlantic), Lutherans, and Moravians. Any claim to an exclusive hold on the local population was already destined to fail, following a season of faltering. Legal Anglican establishment worked only so well as the “state religion” from Florida to Maryland.
|"But our point is that regional society would seem to have had a running start on being a religious culture."
We must take care to avoid the so-called genetic fallacy, that is, attributing to the founding period the causative role for later conditions, resulting in a demonstrable and predictable continuity linking them. If you know how something began, you understand it. Not so, of course. The religious history of the American South cannot be comprehended by reference to the early state of things. But our point is that regional society would seem to have had a running start on being a religious culture. In any case, the people we are talking about brought with them from Europe and Africa an indeterminate degree of religious awareness and familiarity.
Many years ago, I was part of a panel of representatives of the large regional denominations convened to discuss historical relations between them. Speaking with a regretful tone, the Presbyterian spokesman lamented the fact that by 1750 the population was his tradition’s “for the taking,” as he put it, but sadly that did not happen. Incidentally, we are entitled to ask, just how bad is it that your group did not play the de facto role of being the established church? Does any group really want to be the dominant force of religious influence and responsibility in the realm? The empirical reply among the southern religious is both “no” and “yes.” That reply turns out to be part of our story.
We need now to note how unreligious the region’s population and worldview were before the beginning of the national period. Probably the Presbyterians were indeed the sector most well aware of their religious heritage and their beliefs. Yet many of them bore the marks of a society in Christendom in which there was widespread ignorance of and indifference to the society’s church, its teachings, and responsibilities. They were Scots-Irish Calvinists all right, but that fact had served as much as an ethnic identifier as it had a spiritual home. Awakenings were occurring in Scotland as well as in New England, and soon, the South. In the 1740s and 1780s events that came to be called “revivals” broke out among the usually rather staid Presbyterians in Virginia and Maryland. The warm-hearted among Anglicans, many of them, were feasting on the inner workings of the Spirit and were on their way to becoming Methodists. Perhaps most importantly, some disaffected, separatist Congregationalists migrating south from New England helped lead the way for many Dixie residents to see the light by catching the spirit of revivalism; they became Baptists. This latter movement spread rapidly. We must note, however, that from the 1690s on there had been more traditional English Baptists along the South Carolina coast. But the newcomer upstart Baptist zealots began to set the tone for religion among the rank-in-file citizens.
All of this continued to catch fire as the population moved across the Alleghenies. The Cane Ridge revivals of the first years of the nineteenth century in Kentucky generated increasing aggressiveness in converting the uninstructed and uninspired to turn to the Lord in contrition for the new life. Baptist and Methodist ranks especially swelled. Not to be overlooked, though, is the origin of the Restorationist movement among followers of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Theirs was a mission that was as effective north and west of the Ohio River as south of it. Also to be noted is the rationality of the preachments of these “Stoneites” and “Campbellites,” resulting in the fact that hard-nosed doctrine, not just personal religious experience, was a part of the spread of new forms of Protestant Christianity, often a contentious part at that.
What of the large population of the people traditionally called “Negroes”? Theirs is a quite distinctive history and one that was to maintain staying power. Few of them were Christianized during the colonial period. From the time of the American Revolution forward, that condition changed. Debate over the motives of the ruling white people in seeking to convert and catechize them has a long history and continues. Was it supposed that bringing them into the Christian fold would have the effect of making them, the great majority human chattel, more servile and docile? Were those white people who seemed genuinely concerned about the Africans’ souls upright in their intentions? Whether motives were single or multiple, noble or prudential, much energy was expended toward their Christianization. Both the slaves and the free “people of color” responded in large numbers and with enthusiasm. When emancipation occurred, effectively at the close of the War Between the States—to employ a southern sobriquet—so many African Americans had aligned themselves with church and had, in the process attained experience in leadership within it, that those people were in position to help create separate congregations and, of great importance, organized denominations.
This institutional factor affected the churches of both peoples. For the greater part white people were relieved to have “their own church.” Within the black community, experience in belonging and, as noted, exercising leadership, gave rise to the first institutional creation of the freed citizens. According to the terms of each, singly, both achieved real freedom by means of this new development. Church membership figures among both peoples soared. The post-Reconstruction South was moving toward a virtual saturation with church members and a concomitant religious culture. All of this was taking place, let us remember, for the first time in the region’s history.
But institutional change was not the whole picture. Remarkably, the black church found itself developing a theology that had held scant attraction up until that era. Sermons that dealt with both the experience of personal salvation and of assuming social responsibility were becoming common. Increasingly the popular white churches, especially the Baptists, had very largely turned their mission to the conversion of the lost. Worship services, so named, were becoming to all intents and purposes evangelistic opportunities—even though all or nearly all the people in attendance had experienced conversion.
The prevailing Christian ethic called for righteous living at personal and interpersonal levels, a mandate that was held up vigorously. On the more complex matter of altering social arrangements, that is, in bringing about a just society and exerting influence generally on public life, was not seen as the churches’ responsibility. There were exceptions to this perspective, such as temperance (really prohibition), Sunday behavior, and marshaling against worldly amusements. With regard to the number one item of the South’s larger social context, the “race issue,” little was said or done. In fact, only radical individuals and ad hoc organizations brought that concern under public consideration. Being kind to all people, regardless of color or other factors, and having integrity in all dealings, were extolled and expected. But securing and guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities for all people was rarely viewed as the churches’ business.
We have before us the anomalous situation of white Christians’ disengagement from most matters of social and political importance, most dramatically the place of racial justice, achieving the policy of “civil rights,” while the black churches were devoted to the integration of personal and social concerns. Perhaps there was some cause and effect relation between the rather different courses the churches’ missions were taking; perhaps not. Although there were still sharp distinctions between white and black churches, it was the case that the latter began early to yearn for the way of life that the ancient Hebrews had enjoyed. We need to draw attention to the fact that all of this was occurring in the southern section of the “American Israel,” a self-identification more and more common as Manifest Destiny and similar tropes were capturing the American imagination.
Up to this era in American history, as we have noted, southern society had moved from casually religious to nearly saturated with Christianity. Yet one more season of major social and cultural change was to occur that sealed that condition. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, regional life was on the move, a condition that correlates with the movement of many people from farms to towns and cities. Economic conditions were undergoing a steady downturn as farming became less prosperous and other kinds of employment more so. Well, if not quite more “prosperous,” at least of a different sort. The Industrial Revolution was shifting into high gear. Textile factories and mill villages were making the transition to becoming collectivities large and small. Much of this was occurring before the coming of automobile transportation. Families were leaving their rural setting for the hope and promise of a better life. While the work was hard and dangerous, checks were steady and reliable even though small. Mill towns also offered the “company store” where food, clothing, and other supplies were available near by and, most notably, on credit. A panacea had not arrived, but a modicum of stability came to prevail.
Mill owners also constructed churches. (A debate similar to that over the motives of white people’s efforts to Christianize their fellow citizens who were of African descent applies with regard to mill owners’ motives.) The reigning largest denominations claimed many of them. But in this sector of the population, and some others, dissatisfaction with the religious status quo was building, accompanied by ambition to shape their own church life. The working classes were not being reached and touched by the growth in size and the types of worship and architecture that were more and more common among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. They were seen as having gone high-falutin’. All of this helped bring into being new forms: Pentecostal, Holiness, new Baptist groups, and others. These were the “sects,” the churches on the wrong side of the tracks. The lower classes now had their own churches, and something similar was occurring within the black population. The larger congregations in the towns became “the First Church” or “the church on the square” or the “downtown church,” centers of community leadership, with well-developed organization, trained ministers, fine buildings, and more formal services. The pace of “modernization” was quickening.
Of a piece with these shifts was the increasing tendency of the popular denominations to organize and centralize. They created publishing houses, brought into being mission programs, foreign and domestic, founded or took over seminaries, and established headquarters from which cooperative efforts were generated, their products then supplied to congregations. As they attained standing, they mounted a pedestal, a condition that made loyalty to them by the churches to be seen as a virtual requisite. One outcome of this commitment to business-like practices was to evoke reaction. “Boardism” was denounced, local or small group cooperation was advanced by a sizable minority of the membership, eventuating in intra-ranks squabbles and in some cases the forming of breakaway organizations. While Fundamentalism—not to be equated with biblical literalism or generic Evangelicalism—was hardly on the horizon before 1910 or so, certainly not so in the South, a spirit of exclusiveness and contentiousness broke into the open. It was, then, scarcely surprising that formal ecumenical ties were viewed by many with suspicion. This reaction only confirmed the disposition to mind their own business, whether with reference to the congregation or to the regional denomination.
Of course, the patterns of religious life prevalent and powerful in the American South were to persist, in growing, reinventing themselves, and responding to the ever-changing social, racial, political, demographic, and economic shifts taking place. By the 1930s, some sectors of the regional church were becoming more aware of the national Christian scene. In 1939, to take the best example, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, restored its connection to northern Methodism—a tradition not instinctively inclined to splinter, by the way—in the country at large, the Methodist Church resulting.
It follows that the basic patterns of organized Christianity—apart from the Jewish population, there was little else—were pretty well in place before the outbreak of World War II. What made up that new configuration that had been so long building?
The “big three,” Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, dominated the landscape. Indeed, they achieved a popular hegemony, a condition that was significantly true in the white sector. The first two had developed strength in numbers and influence in both the white and black communities. The white Southern Baptist Convention blanketed the region, irrespective of class, size of community, influence, or power. In point of fact it emerged as THE regional church. But Methodists too were everywhere, their presence expected, their acceptance total, their roles endemic. Presbyterians tended to be concentrated in rather specific locales, where the Scottish and Scots-Irish population had been since the eighteenth century. Their relatively smaller membership was deceptive. Overrepresented in the “better” classes, they were leaders in communities, the professions, and education. A town of any size was apt to feature a congregation of each of those three—or, in the cases of the largest two, those two being effective in various kinds of neighborhoods, both among the leadership classes and as a fixture in the working class sections of town. Even in black churches, the class factor might prevail; the Baptist congregation(s) of higher social standing would be joined by other more “plain folks” congregations. Elitism was no respecter of races.
In tackling the subject of denominational strength, we come upon a clue for explaining “WHY they are so religious,” in Quentin Compson’s stomping grounds. The question why certain bodies are so prevalent and dominant turns out to be pretty closely related to the question of why the region’s people are adherents of the Christian faith at all. Indeed, it is correlated with why the life of the region, its people and its culture, gave rise to the population’s religious tastes and to different groups’ effectiveness.
|"Every poll of the last half-century or so has shown the South to be the most religious region in the nation, not just in size but also in intensity."
Every poll of the last half-century or so has shown the South to be the most religious region in the nation, not just in size but also in intensity That is really saying something, since for a long time Roman Catholicism has informed the culture of New England, big cities almost everywhere, and the Southwest. The great majority of European and Latin American immigrants who have taken up residence here from the 1830s forward have been Catholic. Yet, the South, anything but a Catholic stronghold, turns out to be more self-consciously religious than any area of that historic communion’s deep penetration. (By the way, a recent study refers to Roman Catholicism in the South as “a tolerable alien.”) The recessive place of that Church left the way open to the formation of a new hegemony. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Is there then something about the history and make-up of the South that propels this tendency toward culture saturation, singular in the American experience excepting only the Mormon strength in Utah and nearby states? We have to conclude that the answer is yes.
At the empirical level, there are multiple denominations, quite a bundle of which we may call “popular.” That is, there being more middle and lower class people in this region (as everywhere, of course), churches that have aggressively and sensitively reached out to the unchurched have been successful. Baptists, Methodists, and Churches of Christ, Pentecostal, and Holiness members, have bestirred themselves seemingly to go everywhere and have appealed to a wide spectrum. Generally speaking, the other groups, ranging in size from quite large to small, have been the spiritual home for particular clusters: such as Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Mennonites and their historic kinsmen, and Roman Catholics. We should note in passing that denomination-driven reasons for affiliation have diminished in recent decades.
The spread of church membership, thus, has been incremental, from low coverage in the colonial period, to the nineteenth century as a season of growth, then to comprehensive presence in the twentieth century. Causes have centered in the churches’ response, meaning in part at least some degree of adaptation to the society they so seriously wanted to impact. They were evangelistic churches, traveling light, going near and far, to bring the message of Christ to the people. Among the several traditional ministries of the Protestant churches, introducing individuals to Christ to bring about personal salvation took precedence for the Baptists, the Methodists, and the so-called sects.
That of course is not all they did; far from it. A theology caught on—in the nature of the case—that taught that one who is a saved Christian was a disciple who was expected to live out the life of love, caring, taking responsibility for one’s neighbors, and building a righteous society. Methodism in particular had been devoted to this multi-faceted ministry from its beginnings. For that reason, and related to its having some roots in an establishment culture (England), they practiced a belief that society was more than the sum of its individual human units; instead, society had an ontology of its own. Put another way, Methodists sought to bring Christian values and concerns to society understood as a corporate entity. Thus, they were active in public affairs that involved the entire population.
It is time to return to the fact that there was so much for the churches to do. From the earliest days on, there were scatterings of Christians, most of whom were passive toward spreading and planting churches. This condition, for one thing, reflected the state of religion in the British Isles. More often than not, the English, Welsh, and Scots took faith for granted, whether seeking to practice it or not, habitually leaving the “business of the church” to heritage and to the government in an Establishment society. Until the mid to late eighteenth century, religious enthusiasm and fervor were at a minimum—again, not unlike the situation in the lands from which they came. If there was to be vital religion here, by contrast it had to be generated from the bottom up, by the people themselves, certainly not taken for granted.
So something approaching a vacuum prevailed. Why not let it continue to prevail? Why take matters in hand to replace the let-things-work-themselves-out mentality with a change-the-world agenda? Responses to that issue are multiple and complex, surely. Owing to transcendent as well as empirical factors—so this believer maintains, as might any person convinced of the reality of what we may broadly call “mystical” or “numinous” dimension in human experience—the message of the Christian faith attracted notice and, more and more frequently, people’s positive response. There were doubtless some unworthy motives behind aggressive efforts to Christianize the population. We have noted some already. Another motive was offsetting Roman Catholic influence that threatened to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon society as the people moved west. French and Spanish settlers were not far away, after all. French anticlericalism and secularism in particular were to be avoided. And there were surely some shysters among the preachers in the several newly created settlements near and beyond the Mississippi and in the new Southwest. Citizens in this burgeoning democracy did not intend to tolerate authoritarian anything, including church. Then too, some of the driving force imposed on the people was guilt and fear, surely not redolent of the Christian message of love and a calling to vital worship.
Here the facts oblige us to recall that some real continuity persisted between classic New England perspectives and the quite un-European religious patterns developing on the western fringes of American society. In the older southern societies, back east, American improvisation was in evidence, to be sure, even if its styles bore minimal resemblance to the less restrained forms out west. Ideas, cultural and social heritages, do not roll over and die, after all. Also a portion of the leadership in the new sectors was educated, or at least aware of descending from the somewhat more tradition-conscious eastern seaboard states. There was novelty—embodied in the “American originals”—about the emerging American traditions in religious life and practice, but there was nothing spanking new under the frontier sun. Of course.
Some years ago, I began searching for traits, dispositions, approaches, and convictions that were shared among the successful denominations, that is, those who attracted and won over the largest share of population. Early, the Baptists and Methodists were the flagship bodies, later the Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness forces dominated the high growth bodies on the southern scene. I offer this simple listing as one person’s effort to identify those qualities.
The formula is BAMI. “B” refers to the BIBLE as the only, vigorously upheld authority for belief and practice. “A” points to ACCESS, meaning that all people, not any special class of persons, social or professional, have im-mediate (i.e., unmediated) access to the Almighty. “M” suggests that the dominant ethical concerns refer to MORALITY as carried out through a largely individual, interpersonal ethics, much more so than social ethics. “I” is shorthand for INFORMAL, worship as intimately personal, self-generated, rather than pre-scribed, formally performed in a group setting.
To whatever degree this listing is authentic and helpful, its main benefit for this “Why are they so religious?” essay is to put us on track toward where each trait came from. Which Christian sub-traditions or cultural conditions, we are asking, offered the approaches that caught on, that came to measure (hardly to define) the heartbeat of what we are calling southern religion. Some traits “got took,” that is, they opened doors toward attracting men and women to the churches.
The BIBLE as authority of course is a generic characteristic of the Protestant tradition, all of it, most vociferously among Presbyterians and Baptists (the Calvinist tradition). ACCESS smacks also of Protestantism generally, but Methodism’s commitment to the “witness of the Spirit” looms large, as does the Baptist conviction of the “soul competency of the believer.” MORALITY as personal and interpersonal ethics may be traceable to the rural, simple culture that the two popular denominations began to minister to quite early. There were really few complex social lineaments that governed life as long as the people lived on farms and in villages. INFORMAL showcases the power of the left-wing of the Reformation, most significantly handed down to the South through the Baptists. In sum, some blending of received theology, social-cultural conditions, and ecclesiastical improvisation served up the religious resources that the population found agreeable, even compelling. Social, public ethics simply did not obtain in that world. (As an aside, I mention that Roman Catholic ways and means scored a resounding zero on this test. Episcopalians are not far behind in their stuffy high-churchism, usually viewed as all but indistinguishable from Catholicism—you have heard that Episcopal clergymen are really Catholics who flunked Latin. Presbyterians drank fairly deeply at this well, but showed little passion to convert the unconverted, settling too easily for the come-if-you-want-to, we-are-here approach.)
My proffered interpretation, then, is that the churches of the people captured the gist of what “sold”—they “got it” as we say, what the hearers were attracted to because they found its message applicable to their lives, consistent with their accustomed ways of perception. After all, those hearers had done “a lot of living.” Life in the regional culture provided limited occupational, economic, and political options for a long time, but its ways of life throbbed with demands and challenges, a racially divided society that put the white citizens on constant alert, and by the memory and devastation issuing from the Civil War. Those features characterized the hard, tough side, the side that generated America’s finest literature for the century after that horrible struggle. What those writers had to work with may not have been wide, but it was deep. On the more pleasant side, they thrived under conditions that fostered a home, school, and church society. Family, community, and faith sustained the challenging experiences of many a soul for a very long time. Cosmopolitan few of them were, but they formed and celebrated a more localist culture replete with its own satisfactions.
As for the black population that was often nearly in the majority, well, that was another story. Slavery, then a segregation that was in some ways worse, not only could not stretch toward any rich human development, it shackled them in a prison-like existence. But the churches were there, vital in generating joy, hope, community, comfort, and assurance that in God’s eyes they were really somebody.
Through these developments the churches of the people were indeed enabled to “take the South” that much earlier had been the Presbyterians’ “for the taking.”
Mention of The War prompts our recalling that churches grew at an accelerated pace in the half-century after 1865. Many were convinced that those four years of travail and consequent devastation were the Lord’s punishment for the people’s indifference to godly things. But a people do not make much headway from negative self-descriptions. Instead, the religious dimension of regional life fostered a claim that their ways of believing in God and serving Him approached the ideal. Regional churches and beliefs assumed the mantle as being the hope of the world. The rest of America had compromised orthodox faith by giving in to modern currents of thought and morality. The South scaled the heights of human achievement by having the purest churches anywhere. That was regarded as far preferable to being “progressive” in industrial, intellectual, and economic matters. So there was nothing weird or inferior about the South’s ways. Observers like Quentin’s Canadian roommate just didn’t have eyes to see.
We have given insufficient attention to the transcendent, or mystical, or numinous aspects the southern faithful claim as foundation for their genuineness. Simple fairness requires that we honor people’s intentions. They intended to be responding to a divine Providence governing their lives. These folks upheld Holy Scripture as self-authenticating. They were “attracted” because they were infused, infused with the gift of reality, the message of the Bible. Empirical factors could account for particular tastes and ways, maybe, but not for the essence of what they believed and often practiced beautifully. As we have noted, great literature might abound in their vicissitude-ridden history, but every word finished a distant second to the Holy Word. So when I sing from the Anglican hymnbook, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” I can give full throat to “there are hundreds of thousands still.” They are not queens or shepherdesses on the green, they may not be found in lanes or at tea, but they may possess genuine faith.
Faulkner again. He described the impact of growing up in the South’s religious culture in the early twentieth century this way. “My life was passed, my childhood, in a very small Mississippi town, and that (religion) was a part of my background. I grew up with that, I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it. It’s just there. It has nothing to do with how much of it I might believe or disbelieve—it’s just there.” He was critical, of Baptist emotionalism and Calvinist fatalism, in particular. But his southern culture was suffused with the Christian outlook. A thoroughgoing Christianization had been accomplished. That condition is less prevalent by our time, but religion is still a powerful force and widely shared human aspiration. Perhaps you know that William Faulkner is buried in the churchyard of St. Peter’s Church in Oxford, Mississippi. The words on his gravestone read: “Beloved, Go with God.”
The University of North Carolina Asheville does well, in light of all this, to seek to establish a lectureship for the study of southern religious history. Pay only a little mind to the proposal for its naming—but I invite you to share with me the pleasure of this high honor. You can be sure of my gratification in having my name associated with it and gratitude for this recognition.
The subject is vitally important. Besides that, it is endlessly fascinating. I even recommend that you who are long removed from the college years try your hand at it in whatever ways you can.
Volume XII, Table of Contents
1 Kenneth Woodward, “War in the Bible Belt,” Newsweek, March 27, 1967, 91.