Review: Redeeming the Southern Family
Scott Stephan. Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women and Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. 304 pp. ISBN 9780820332222.
Scott Stephan’s Redeeming the Southern Familyexplores the centrality of domestic piety within white evangelical families in the antebellum South. Wives, who preachers deemed morally superior, assumed the responsibility of upholding Christian values within their families while guiding them through everyday life and major crises. These women used their faith to derive meaning from their families’ woes and triumphs, reifying their connections to God at these major life turning points.
Women’s domestic spiritual authority set them up for satisfaction and disappointment in their family lives. As moral caregivers, they took credit for bringing family members closer to God and carried the blame when husbands or children sinned or rejected their faith. Some mothers even blamed themselves when children died because they believed that God took away children who were loved too much (and thus turned into idols). Women who embraced the burden of leading domestic devotion experienced feelings of “self-importance mixed with self-abnegation, agency alongside resignation, and ultimately failure and anxiety interlaced with success and optimism” (2). This study strikes an important balance between recognizing the limits women experienced within patriarchal authority and their ability to make meaning and choices in spite of–and often because of–these restrictions.
The book analyzes evidence from evangelical women’s personal diaries and correspondences, as well as the family papers of elite families. While at times it is difficult to tell whether some examples represented larger trends in southern domestic devotion, this method provides a rich portrait of a handful of wealthy, educated families, including their quarrels and crises. Many of the women were married to ministers, and this evidence provides a window into how domestic devotion was connected to congregational life. In several cases, the author brings together multiple generations of family records, which illustrate that mothers brought their spiritual influence to bear on their children’s spouses and children’s children. Writings from multiple generations also allow Stephan to explore the continuity and changes in domestic devotion in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
The book is divided into an introduction, five thematic chapters, and an epilogue. After an overview of evangelical identity and worship patterns in the antebellum South, each subsequent chapter covers a significant stage in an evangelical woman’s life, including romantic courtship, evangelical marriages, childbirth and child rearing, and the death of family members. Stephan’s strategy is “to place individual women in the relationships that mattered most to them,” including their relationships with God, parents, siblings, in-laws, spouses, children, and, in some cases, slaves (10). He demonstrates that each relationship offered unique opportunities and limitations for women to experience their faith and exercise spiritual authority.
The most compelling contribution of this work is its exploration of evangelical deathbed narratives in a chapter entitled “Authoring the Good Death: Illness, Deathbed Narratives, and Women’s Authority.” Just as conversion narratives served as evidence that people had entered Christianity, deathbed narratives served as evidence that people remained committed to Christianity as they exited this life. Women played a central role at the deathbed, helping people die comfortably surrounded by family and prayers, and helping to narrate their last moments in ways that would convince others of their place in heaven. Women had a stake in constructing these narratives because, as leaders of domestic devotion, it was their responsibility to ensure that family members died as Christians so that their families could be reunited in heaven. Similarly, women found and discussed clues in the death events of nonevangelicals to confirm their fate in hell, as a way of warning to those evangelicals who wavered in their faith.
The biggest gap within this work concerns sexuality. Although the author hints at sexual rumors that could ruin a woman’s reputation, he omits the issue of sexual activity. There is no discussion of the role of intercourse in women’s daily physical and spiritual lives other than the fact that pregnancies did occur and men, especially ministers, were often out of the home for business. If this is an omission of the sources themselves - and one can guess why discussions of sex may not have appeared in women’s correspondences–it would have been helpful to hear the author’s interpretations of women’s silence on this matter.
Another limitation of this work is the author’s frequent adoption of his subjects’ distinction between evangelicals and “nonevangelicals.” Even though evangelicals made considerable efforts to distinguish themselves from all nonevangelicals, they had some important things in common with other religious people in the South. For example, Catholics, Jews, and evangelical slaves were also concerned at times with separating themselves from nonreligious neighbors and cultivating religion among family members. A more nuanced analysis of other southern religious perspectives would help to clarify what aspects of the domestic devotion described were uniquely evangelical and white.
This book’s in-depth look at women and domestic devotion makes a valuable contribution to the study of women’s history and southern religion. Stephan builds off of Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt(1997) and Cynthia Lynn Lyerly’s Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770-1810(1998) by turning to second- and third-generation evangelicals in the 1830s through the 1850s. The study provides an explanation for the overwhelming number of females who filled the pews of American evangelicalism: women were drawn to Christianity because they experienced a unique sense of purpose and fulfillment in their roles as “spiritual shepherds” to their families. The work accomplishes multiple tasks while remaining accessible and interesting, and I would therefore recommend this work for courses on women’s history, family studies, southern religion, and lived religion.