Journal of Southern Religion

Christopher H. Owen. The Sacred Flame of Love: Methodism and Society in Nineteenth Century Georgia. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998. Pp. xxii and 290. $50.00

          The received account of southern Methodism is of an egalitarian promise unfulfilled and an antislavery message betrayed. The freedom to preach openly and effectively seemed to depend on not antagonizing the powers that be. The very success of Methodists (and other evangelicals) in winning converts reinforced a growing desire on the part of many bishops and preachers to achieve respectability and influence. Anti-slavery principles, as Donald Mathews has shown, were eventually compromised away into meaninglessness, while Methodism became a powerful bulwark of southern society. Thereafter evangelical religion, in the view of such scholars as Samuel Hill, measured its success primarily in terms of quantitative growth, falling, as John Eighmy said of the Baptists, into "cultural captivity." Only African-American Christianity retained a degree of prophetic vigor that manifested itself in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

     On the whole Christopher Owen works within this model. He focuses his case

"Georgia Methodists underwent a slow process of 'southernization,' but it was, Owen insists, never complete."

study of Georgia Methodism on five "watershed decades" (xvi): the Great Revival of the 1800s, which assured that a fervent evangelicalism would provide the religious norm; the 1820s, during which Methodists began to win significant numbers of converts among planters and slaves; the sectional split in the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) in the 1840s, which promoted a southern Methodist self-consciousness and a growing alienation from other Methodists; the Civil War and Reconstruction of the 1860s when Methodists adjusted their views of the state to survive and even grow during the crisis of secession, war, and defeat and, most decisively, experienced a permanent racial breach in the church; and, finally, the 1890s when disputes between proponents of New South progress and upholders of tradition precipitated Methodist decline and allowed Baptists to surge ahead in numbers. This periodization, then, follows the traditional scenario of initial success, followed by sectionalization, racial division, cultural captivity, loss of purpose, and relative decline.

     In fact, however, Owen's argument in this thoroughly researched and well-written book is subtler than this brief summary suggests. Many of the plain folk among whom Methodism found its earliest converts, Owen argues, "were intent on obtaining land and slaves . . ." and they created from the beginning "a church tradition that was simultaneously southern and Methodist" (x). This dialectic between the southern setting and the Wesleyan tradition runs as a continuous thread, tying together a chronological narrative into an interpretive whole. Notably, what is "southern" in Owen's account includes the experience of black Methodists, first as slaves playing a formally subordinate role in white dominated churches and then after the Civil War as builders of their own African-American Methodist denominations.

     American Methodism as a whole contained a large dose of egalitarianism, in part, according to Russell Richey, because it was shaped in its confrontation with a very southern world of striking inequalities. But these inequalities were never altogether absent in Methodist practice, most strikingly with respect to slavery where anti-slavery principles were always fraught with ambiguities. While in the beginning, class differences tended to be muted, Methodist churches separated congregations by race and sex, thus recapitulating, as Owen points out, "a racially divided, male-dominated, but republican society . . ." (20). Full equality was thus a chimera from the very start.

     Despite their acquiescence in the racial status quo, Methodists, along with the Baptists, achieved striking success in winning converts among slaves. Owen rightly points out that the Methodists could not have achieved such gains by harping on the theme that slaves must obey their masters. In large measure Methodists must have been responding to genuine spiritual needs among white and black alike. While blacks nurtured as well their own religious sensibilities and practices, they remained, even with the emergence of separate black denominations following the Civil War, firm adherents of the distinctive religious traditions into which they had come as slaves.

     White Georgia Methodists eventually responded to growing antislavery sentiment in the North by defending the scriptural legitimacy of the peculiar institution (and, not incidentally, stifling any residual antislavery sentiment in their own ranks), but they "rarely praised slavery in the abstract" (53), maintaining instead that its existence 

"[Owen's] questionable assumption that the essence of agrarian discontent was to 'protect traditional ways' may lead to a too hasty identification of political movements and religious traditionalism."

was a purely political question in which the church had no business involving itself. Owen may play down too much the degree to which this position was self-serving. However, he may be right in arguing--implicitly against the view of southern religion and society associated with Eugene Genovese--that most Methodists based their beliefs "on New Testament ideas of individual repentance and conversion [and] not on a patriarchal, Old Testament social vision . . ." (62) that would have incorporated slavery into a single seamless social fabric. Following the split of Episcopal Methodism in 1844, Georgia Methodists underwent a slow process of "southernization," but it was, Owen insists, never complete. They continued to support the benevolent causes (missions, colleges, Sunday schools, temperance societies, and the like) that engaged evangelicals everywhere. Methodism did help the South define itself in opposition to radical reform but generally in terms of the "conservative, individualistic elements" of its tradition (59).

     With the end of the Civil War the secession of all but a small number of African Americans from the MEC, South, occurred with relative rapidity. Though more divided denominationally than ever before, Methodism survived the war remarkably well, and the growth in numbers of African-American Methodists was especially striking. Nevertheless, towards the turn of the century long simmering conflicts, especially among white Methodists, between much of the leadership and parts of the clergy and laity came to the fore. Basically, according to Owen, it was a struggle between those who sought to bring their church into line with the modernizing forces of the age and those, mostly rural folk, who clung to the traditional and simple practices of the past. Social changes that produced agrarian discontent and Populism also provided fertile ground for such religious movements as the Holiness revival, which greatly affected Methodism, and exacerbated the alienation of rural Methodists. These are themes that Owen discusses with much insight, but his questionable assumption that the essence of agrarian discontent was to "protect traditional ways" (150) may lead to a too hasty identification of political movements and religious traditionalism. By the turn of the century, then, the Georgia Wesley tradition began to lose its vibrancy. Methodist growth slackened, while Baptist churches surged ahead. Why they should have done so is still unclear. Owen's suggestion that the relatively weaker position of Baptists in cities lessened urban-rural conflict in that denomination remains undeveloped and not altogether persuasive. Clearly Baptists began to offer something to large numbers of people that the Methodists no longer could. Owen argues that the Methodists had been "the premier evangelicals" (16) because of their Arminianism and their fuller use of the camp meeting. Yet by 1860 Baptists may have already slightly outnumbered Methodists in Georgia. Methodists, Owen maintains, came to represent a cross section of the population, but so did the Baptists. Owen recognizes that Baptists were more successful in some areas, notably in the heavily slave populated low country, and (though no figures are given) less successful in urban areas. But these are scattered observations and do not add up to a coherent account of how much difference Wesleyan traditions, or Baptist traditions, really made. The regional patterns of denominational affiliation have to be studied more systematically, but to address this issue fully would require a very different book. As it is, Christopher Owen has provided a compelling narrative of how the members of one religious tradition sought to fulfil their sense of transcendent purpose within a slaveholding, racially divided, and class-ridden society.

Frederick A. Bode, Concordia University, Montreal

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

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