Review: Ministers and Masters
Charity R. Carney. Ministers and Masters: Methodism, Manhood, and Honor in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. 188 pp. ISBN-13 978-0-8071-3886-1.
Both insiders and outsiders have noted the many contradictions in the study of American Methodism as a social movement. Not the least is the contradiction that a denomination so opposed in its early days to slavery—and so committed, if awkwardly, to spiritual equality of the races—accommodated itself over time so completely to southern slaveholding society. This important new book by Charity Carney goes a long way toward explaining this contradiction by shedding light on the complicated interplay of religion, masculinity, and honor..
As Carney notes, Methodism’s “recognition of the equality of souls” led ministers “to craft a new type of patriarchy in the South—a Methodist patriarchy that both preserved and undermined the social hierarchy” and “transformed the meaning of masculinity for ministers,” to whom traditional arenas of masculine honor-gaining were off limits (5). At the same time Methodist ministers were transforming southern patriarchy, though, they were also becoming southern patriarchs, even if it was with a twist. “Methodist ministers,” Carney elaborates, “could never be typical southern men; their profession simply prevented it. But they could take on vestiges of southern manhood and become patriarchs in their own right. The story of the creation of Methodist masculinity offers insight into the pervasiveness of southern patriarchal ideals and the resilience of evangelical notions of spiritual equality. These two forces met in southern Methodism and produced a new type of religious standard separate from but deeply connected to conventional social practices” (9).
Carney presents an overall picture of what ideal Methodist manhood looked like and how it was maintained. Methodists were enjoined by their governing text of church law, the Discipline, to “avoid the worldly (and typically masculine) habits of ‘laying up treasure upon earth’ through seeking fortune or fame, ‘fighting, quarrelling, brawling,’ ‘drinking spirituous liquors,’ and ‘taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus,’ like politicking, frivolous socializing, dancing, and gambling” (13). Methodist preachers more often found themselves the subject of violence than the perpetrators of it, and gained a certain kind of honor in enduring it patiently. Yet they forcefully articulated their worldview in newspapers and sermons. Preachers also created a brotherhood of compatriot clergy through the deeply connectional nature of Methodist polity, while also transforming places like taverns into arenas of evangelism
Carney looks at four ways in which Methodism both developed and undermined patriarchy and hierarchy: denominational organization, marriage, child-rearing, and relationships with slaves. Through the “patriarchy of the pulpit” southern Methodist ministers understood themselves as part of a strongly hierarchical connection, subject to the will of bishop and presiding elder, continually following the models set forth by older and wiser clergy on higher rungs of the ecclesiastical ladder. They repeatedly rejected various agitations for more democratic reforms. It was therefore a patriarchy “centered on spiritual fatherhood rather than temporal mastery” (64).
In the other three arenas, though, the triumph of patriarchy was less sure. The relatively impoverished life of constant travel led by Methodist preachers meant that it was impossible for them to fulfill expected cultural norms as family providers. “Southerners expected patriarchs to provide for and protect their families and to establish an estate and a reputation in their community that could be passed on to the next generation” (90). Instead, preachers’ households “emphasized spiritual health over temporal needs and religious authority over patriarchal power” as itinerants depended on their wives to be in charge of family matters—financial, legal, and spiritual—for months at a time and their church communities to provide the basic necessities of life (90). Furthermore, while paying outward homage to the structures of southern society, Methodist rhetoric “created an inverted hierarchy in which young Christians proved their own spiritual authority over that of their parents,” and in which “at times, ministers took their message of spiritual equality even further and included slaves (the lowest members of society) in stories that condemned southern patriarchs for their spiritual blindness” (112). In the end, “Methodist writers crafted a complex dialogue that questioned the ultimate power of southern patriarchs while presenting the patriarch as vital to social and religious order” (141).
Many treatments of Methodism have tended to focus on its northern branches (with the notable exception of works by Cynthia Lynn Lyerly and Christine Leigh Heyrman), and this book provides a welcome “thick” description of southern Methodism—its ethos, its self-understanding, and its cultural adaptations. But it is not only of value to scholars of Methodism. It nuances our understanding of southern patriarchy and the ways in which that patriarchy could be questioned. It gives a window into how the roles of women and children functioned in southern society. And it implicitly asks broader questions about the place of religion in a slave-holding society—especially a religion which began with a biracial vision. It is recommended reading for all who wish for insight into those issues.