Christine Leigh Heyrman. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Pp. xi + 336.

          This is a book that penetrates beneath surfaces. Heyrman has explored an impressive array of sources, synthesized them into an intriguing narrative, and offered us a set of original and provocative insights. She takes us as close to the grassroots of southern religion as we have ever been taken, and her graceful account alters the way we look at the subject. Like any other significant contribution to a field of scholarship, moreover, the book also raises difficult questions of method and interpretation.

          The argument is that it took a long, hard struggle for the South to become the Bible Belt, not only because the eighteenth-century Anglican establishments ridiculed and hindered the Methodist and Baptist exhorters who eventually prevailed but also--and this is the heart of the matter--because the first generation of zealous evangelicals seemed to subvert the values that most southerners of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries held dear.

          To become an evangelical Protestant meant joining an exclusive and demanding

"Undoubtedly some of the surprise--and appeal--of the book lies in its ironic revelation that one of the strongest critics of "family values" in the early South was the revivalist wing of the Protestant churches."

movement that estranged people from their natural communities, undermined hierarchies that most people valued, drew converts into religious exercises that seemed morbid and superstitious, and lowered barriers between blacks and whites. The evangelicals almost gave the game away, moreover, by relying on young and boyish preachers who made one mistake after another and by trying to usurp the social functions that southerners had learned, by hard experience, to assign to tightly-knit families. Undoubtedly some of the surprise--and appeal--of the book lies in its ironic revelation that one of the strongest critics of "family values" in the early South was the revivalist wing of the Protestant churches. At the same time, the evangelical clergy and their followers subtly upset the balance of gender relations by forging alliances between the preachers and pious women and by giving women the authority to resist their families, whether in choosing their husbands or deciding where and when to join a church.

          As a continuing threat to southern social mores, the evangelical churches would probably have remained marginal and troublesome communities, but gradually after 1800 preachers and laity hungry for wider influence made the collective decision to accommodate themselves to the region's deep-seated attitudes and practices. They opted for an older and more domesticated clergy; they ceded authority to the family and its patriarchs; they placed limits on the initiatives of women and sanctified the social distance between blacks and whites; and they promoted an image of the preacher as a man's man, a tough-minded and tough-bodied paragon of masculine and military virtues. They changed the image of the evangelical. While holding on to an evangelical message distinctive enough to make them stand out from the crowd of good old boys sitting around the courthouse, they won the culture by becoming more a part of the culture.

          For the most part, I am convinced. Heyrman has put flesh on the great sociological abstractions of Weber and Troeltsch about how sects become churches by embracing and accepting more and more of the surrounding culture. The book will serve the classroom well; it will also serve well the guild of historians, partly because of its success in weaving neglected and obscure sources into a plausible and revealing narrative but also because it raises questions with which all of us struggle. My reflections on the book's methods and strategies, therefore, are not really criticisms of the book. They are musings on issues that bedevil all of us who try to give plausible accounts of the past.

          The first issue is what I might call the problem of "everydayness." In brief: when people write things down, they tend to record the unusual, not the taken-for-granted. It is understandable that nineteenth-century southerners would take special note of contests with the devil, family conflicts, fights and confrontations, spiritual despair, and threats of suicide. The routine, the ordinary, the unremarkable--all of this fades into the background. But when the historian collects these dramatic reports and puts them together on the printed page, they can seem to represent the ordinary. Was it ordinary for conversion to result in family conflicts? Or were these the unusual instances that ended up in letters and journals precisely because they were unusual? And how would we know in the absence of the quantitative evidence that lies beyond our grasp?

          The second issue is what I would call the problem of "collective action." When select members of a group decide and act in a particular way, how much do they represent the mind of the larger group to which they belong? The question emerges, for instance, when we speak of "the clergy." Heyrman speaks of "the clergy" wanting to "have it both ways" by discounting belief in demons while playing on other supernatural beliefs (p. 76), but maybe the clergy were as baffled and divided by this as anybody else. She concludes that "most" of the clergy after 1800 denied that the devil could take visible form (p. 72), but since we have no way of asking them, I'm not sure that we know how they would have answered. She writes that "the clergy" were quiet about how the devil appeared because they thought it "much better to allow the laity to believe in whatever sort of demon they chose" (p. 58), but maybe they were quiet--if indeed most of them were--because they were themselves baffled and divided about the question. I have often made similar kinds of claims on the basis of the same sort of evidence, but I continue to puzzle about the matter.

          The third issue is the problem of how we assess motives. Did evangelicals change their attitudes and practices in order to make their message acceptable to other southerners? Or did they change not because they wanted to attract others but because they had simply become more like the others, apart from any evangelistic motive?

          But this is enough. The book is clearly important, informative, and wonderfully entertaining. It provides in many ways a model of careful research, imaginative interpretation, and marvelous literary facility. Heyrman has given us colorful and detailed insights about human emotions and actions that have remained surprisingly hidden from us. This is a style of religious history that stretches the boundaries of the genre, and all of us profit from it.

E. Brooks Holifield, Emory University

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

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