We know what shaped life in the early twentieth century South: race. So proposing class as a basic category of analysis surely springs from a longing for novelty—the desire to say or see something new, simply for the sake of being new, even if the evidence can scarcely support it. Emphasizing class in regional religion seems an irresponsible dismissal of the central premise in a volley of well-respected recent works: that race—both the white obsession with defining it, and the black challenge and critique of it—was the defining feature of life in the South in the years 1900–1950. The South of this era, these works all tell us, can be tersely described by its dominant culture: it was the “Jim Crow” South. Race, not class, shaped the contours of life throughout the region, in all sorts of ways both official and mundane, and certainly in religion too.1

When I first began my own dissertation research, trying to figure just what exactly I was writing a dissertation about, I went in with two basic premises about the early twentieth-century South, the “New South”: that race was paramount in defining identity and the parameters of life, and that the region entered the twentieth century as the poor part of a prospering nation. Both had been clearly impressed on me by my graduate training, and both premises shaped my basic frame of reference as I dove into source materials. I started with the most accessible sources, the writings left by black and white leaders in the two largest denominations of the region, the National Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. As I read newspapers, books, field studies, meeting minutes and specially targeted surveys, class leapt out to me forcefully. Denominational leaders explicitly and recurrently imagined religious lines of difference, between propertied, professional types like themselves, and the impoverished, unlettered masses. All were nominally “Baptist,” and yet denominational leaders saw plenty of work to do in reforming and refashioning the religious life of the poor majority. In their self-understanding and sense of regional religious life, in their conceptualization of religious work to be done, class was the operative dynamic. These religious officials were acutely class-conscious.

I am not a Marxist, and at the time I had very little training in class analysis, so at first I did not know what to make of what I found. It did not fit easily into my frame of reference, other than to show that denominational leaders were sharply aware, not necessarily of the “poor region/prosperous nation” binary, but rather of how regional prosperity and poverty had shaped religious difference. “Propertied southerners/poor southerners” was their imaginary dividing line.

An older historiography had, in fact, framed regional religion in class categories. In their classic synthetic works, C. Vann Woodward and George Tindall imagined the different forms of religion as cultural manifestations of a socioeconomic hierarchy. In Origins of the New South, 1877–1913, Woodward noted the massive expansion of the Baptists and Methodists in the New South era and then argued:

[T]he socially undistinguished, the poor, and the illiterate, neglected by the more respectable sects, found refuge in premillennial cults. Despairing of blessings in this world, they generally looked forward to a cosmic cataclysm that would cast down the mighty and exalt the humble. Lumped together as “Holy Rollers” by “respectable” parishioners, they were given to uproarious practices that had characterized some of the older sects in their more primitive days.2

Tindall gave a more explicit hierarchical ladder in The Emergence of the New South, 1913–1945:

The legendary rank order of denominations from the aristocratic Episcopalians to the democratic Methodists and Baptists did not always prevail, but Southern congregations of whatever sect were more than apt to reflect class distinctions. In striking contrast to fashionable uptown churches in the flourishing cities, rural churches shared the distress of the countryside … Somewhere outside the pale were the growing premillennial sects, the “Holy Rollers” to their mocking superiors, who substituted “religious status for social status” and abandoned this hopeless world for sanctification, regeneration, and the Holy Ghost. And beyond them lay the “vast rural underworld of poor whites and poor Negroes” who danced in the “jooks” on Sunday night without knowledge of the puritan Sabbath.3

Woodward (who grew up in Methodist circles in Arkansas in the 1910s and 20s) and Tindall (from a Baptist background in 1920s and 30s South Carolina) were closer to the era they studied, both personally and chronologically. Surely there is a grain of truth in their characterization—a grain that emphasizes the real power of class in regional religion. Yet their analyses are worth quoting not because of their accuracy, but because they succinctly expressed such a common—yet deeply inaccurate—way of imagining class and regional religious life. This way endures (when and insofar as people think about the relation of class to religion), and it needs to be dismantled if we are going to think about class—but in nuanced, not mechanical ways.

Behind this model, scarcely hidden, are the ghosts of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim—and of Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr. The more one has of what is “real” (socioeconomic status, prosperity, knowledge), the less one needs of a passionate, all-encompassing religious identity. So, in Troeltsch’s categories, the “church” type is religion of the propertied, people who are doing well in the world, who have compartmentalized their religion because they simply do not need it that much, but who do gain from it a sanction for their prosperity and class position. The “sect” type, by contrast, is the religion of the unpropertied. Lacking the good things of the world, they look to religion for symbolic compensation. Their religion becomes all encompassing and openly passionate because they need it so much to give them identity. Yet the religion is persistently otherworldly: it trains the dispossessed to look to an imaginary otherworld for fulfillment and happiness. The different denominations may then be placed on this church/sect spectrum, based either on the primary class that composes them, or the tone and spirit of their religious life.4

This model does not work. Most basically, it suggests that class is ever and always culturally present, placing its stamp on different forms of religion. While class, in the specific Marxist sense of “relation to means of production,” may be perennial, this does not automatically mean that it is always culturally constructed and/or articulated. Some societies, and some eras, may culturally minimize or render insignificant the differing relations to the means of production. In a cultural sense, then, class may effectively not exist.

The question then becomes whether or not class was culturally constructed in the New South. Did it culturally exist? If it did, how might we think of it in relation to religion, in ways other than the mechanical ladder of socioeconomic “church” and “sect” types?

The New South, I have become convinced, was both acutely race- and class-conscious. Race and class were culturally constructed in elaborate and innumerable ways, from the everyday to the dramatic. In industry, textile workers, coal miners, and timber workers experienced sharp lines of difference between themselves and the owners and managers. In agriculture, tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers knew the divide between themselves and their landlords. (Small farmers, depending on local geography and circumstances, identified alternately with the landlords or the landless.) In both industrial and agricultural areas, commerce made for a prosperous group of merchants and professionals who identified with the owners of land and industry. In both contexts, the propertied and the poor did not eat together or socialize together. They did not intermarry, and they did not live close to each other. They listened to different music, and they enjoyed different forms of recreation. Clothing and comportment displayed different class status, as did paint on and flowers around one’s home. The propertied exercised political power, whereas the poor were disfranchised and excluded. Propertied people reinforced difference through various terms of ridicule for the poor, terms of ridicule that the poor were acutely aware of. The root of these divisions was not a personalized antipathy, however. Rather, they were the cultural elaborations that justified the power of the propertied and the (relative) powerlessness of the poor. In the circumscribed economy of New South, control of labor was the fundamental bottom line for prosperity.5 Contemporary U.S. culture may not be class-conscious, but the New South most certainly was.

What did religion have to do with this class construction? Or, turning the question around, how does this awareness of class in the New South lead us to see new things in the religious life of the society? I think it shows us three things that are actually present in the scholarship but definitely not highlighted as points of emphasis:

1) Class analysis helps to carefully periodize and characterize the rather amorphous entity that is “evangelicalism” or southern “evangelical Protestantism” (which primarily means Baptist Methodist Christianity). Evangelicalism has proven to be a highly adaptable religious form that significantly refashions itself in new contexts. The New South was such a new context, for new classes of people came to exist in the newly capitalist, market-suffused economy. In this new society evangelicalism expanded and became hegemonic for the first time, but it also changed notably from its antebellum configurations. Instead of emphasizing paternalism, patriarchal control of the household, and martial honor (as it had done for whites) or communal consciousness and a sacred cosmos (as it had done for blacks), it came to embody individual respectability, the cult of domesticity, and what Max Weber called “the Protestant work ethic”—for both blacks and whites.6 With these new points of emphasis, evangelicalism became a pillar of New South society as it coalesced in the 1880s and 90s, and it endured as a cultural staple until the mid-20th century, when the New South was unmade and a “Sunbelt” was created in its place. Though one strand of historiography has radically downplayed evangelicalism’s transformations over time,7 New South evangelicalism should be understood as a distinct religious type. Evangelicals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had not emphasized respectability, domesticity, and the Protestant work ethic, but as the South entered the twentieth century, these tropes became the core of (new) evangelical identity.

2) New South evangelicalism was given shape and definition through the denominations—primarily the Southern Baptist Convention and Methodist Episcopal Church, South, for whites, and the National Baptist Convention, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, and Colored Methodist Episcopal Church for blacks. Ironically, though both social relations and denominational life became separated by the new color line, white and black denominations taught a similar New South evangelical culture.8 This new evangelical culture was very definitely geared towards the new propertied class, who might be accurately called a “middle class” or “bourgeoisie.” Indeed, the new evangelical message of thrift and frugality, of hard work and self-restraint, with imaginative separation of home and work, was vital in shaping the new culture and identity of the propertied. It gave the emergent middle class a normative set of ideals, and it shaped the dominant culture of the region. It informed white racism, as whites categorically denied that blacks could exhibit respectability, domesticity, and the Protestant work ethic. At the same time it informed black challenges to racism, as black embodiments of precisely these things became a living rebuttal to Jim Crow.

3) Clarifying the bourgeois or middle class ethos of New South evangelicalism helps us see that it was conducive to only some people in the region—to the propertied minority, and not for the impoverished majority. Certainly, if the idea of hegemony carries any meaning, the poor felt the cultural force of this bourgeois message, and may have tried to imitate it, or felt ashamed that they were not doing so. Their resistance, their religious difference, was not automatic: class difference need not lead as a matter of course to religious difference. Yet, combing source materials from the poor, getting outside of what denominational leaders said and did, I am convinced that the New South poor did have their own distinct kind of evangelicalism, what elsewhere I have called “folk religion” or, in the words of one Georgia day laborer, “hard, hard religion.”9 This distinct strand of evangelicalism was also imprinted with class identity, but in this case with class realities in the lives of the poor: insecurity, instability, frustration, and marginalization. In local Baptist and Methodist churches, poor southerners of both races articulated and confronted these realities. Their religion was not otherworldly, but rather a candid engagement with the darker side of life in the New South. It was a “hard, hard religion” that wrestled with what one country song called “the cold hard facts of life.” In very different ways, then, the propertied and the poor inscribed their own new evangelical forms with their new class positions in the class-conscious New South.

  1. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Knopf, 1998); Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York: Pantheon, 1998); Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon, eds., Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University, 2000); W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Journal of American History 91 (March 2005): 1233–63; Jennifer Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

  2. C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), 452–53.

  3. George B. Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913–1945 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), 197–98.

  4. For a sweeping application of this model to an industrial county in the New South, see Liston Pope’s classic Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942).

  5. Brian Kelly, “Labor, Race, and the Search for a Central Theme in the History of the Jim Crow South,”Irish Journal of American Studies 10 (Dec. 2001): 55–73.

  6. Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); John M. Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875–1915 (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008). Ironically, class analysis is much more developed in the historiography of antebellum religion. We know a lot about how the evangelicalism that had first appeared in the South in the mid-eighteenth century was transformed in the early nineteenth century into radically different types, one that spoke to planters and prosperous yeomen, and another that spoke to slaves and free blacks. But we know little about how this adaptable evangelicalism was reconfigured in the late nineteenth century, as antebellum classes ceased to exist, and new classes—the thrifty, enterprising, calculating small capitalists lauded by Henry Grady and Booker T. Washington—came to exist. In fact, the question has hardly been asked.

  7. The leading scholar of evangelical sameness over time is Samuel Hill. For the earliest statement of his thesis, see Southern Churches in Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1967).

  8. Evelyn Books Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Paul Harvey, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists, 1865–1925 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

  9. See John Hayes, “Hard, Hard Religion: The Invisible Institution of the New South,” Journal of Southern Religion 10 (2007): 1–24, online at http://jsr.fsu.edu/Volume10/Hayes.pdf. See also Jarod Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).