Journal of Southern Religion
Cynthia Lynn Lyerly
Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770-1810 (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Pp. 1-238. $45.00.

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      Lynn Lyerly's new monograph peels back two centuries of time to reveal an upstart Methodist movement that directly challenged the power structure and values of southern society. Anyone who became a Methodist in America before 1800 was entering alien social territory and aligning themselves with a group that was "ridiculed, feared, and harassed" (p. 101). This self-styled "peculiar people" appealed to the legally powerless and the oddballs in society, especially to white women, free blacks, and slaves. Lyerly's story opens in 1770, as Methodist preachers took their message from the Delmarva Peninsula into Virginia and North Carolina, establishing a dense network of house churches and local class meetings. Within four decades Methodism had mushroomed into a national phenomenon--arguably the largest and most influential social movement in the early republic.
      Although not a separate church until 1844, Methodism in the South

"Lyerly has read widely on the subject of slave religion, but the reader misses a more explicit discussion of slaves' spiritual experiences-- experiences that revealed common ground between African folk religion and Christianity."

took on a distinctive regional character, shaped by the institution of slavery. Lyerly's primary sources support a declension theory of southern Methodism: as the church grew in size and acceptance by the dominant culture, it sacrificed the moral high ground on the altar of progress. Specifically, with increasing pressure from members and outsiders alike, the church abandoned its original antislavery witness to try to Christianize the institution it could not abolish. Lyerly argues that later church historians shaped the Methodist past to fit this pro-slavery ideology by omitting references to the early testimonies against slavery. Finally, white women and black men lost their prominence among the lay leadership as house churches gave way to church buildings; as southerners dug in to defend slavery; and as domesticity became a middle class ideal. Lyerly's analysis focuses on the pre-declension phase, when, for a few brief decades a rag-tag collection of socially marginal religious enthusiasts did nothing less than turn the world upside down.
      Lyerly's account of such world-inverters breaks new and very important ground. Her approach is unique for offering two perspectives at once--of those people inside the Methodist fold, and of those looking in from the outside. In each discussion of Methodist beliefs and practices, she offers parallel examples of how outsiders viewed the same things. For example, other scholars have documented the Methodist challenge to southern definitions of manhood. But Lyerly's evidence helps readers understand why Methodism aroused such ire in many white southern men. This dual perspective requires a conceptual juggling act of no mean proportions. And Lyerly makes the juggling look easy with a creative structural framework. After two introductory chapters, the succeeding four chapters showcase the ways that Methodist doctrines, values, and practices inverted the power structures in relations between the sexes, races, and classes. And even when focusing on one of these elements, she never loses track of the others. For example, white southern men frequently reacted violently to defiant wives, children, and slaves who attended Methodist preaching against their orders. Lyerly argues that Methodism threatened such men not only because it distracted their labor force and made social subordinates into spiritual equals, but because it tried to strip white southern men of their moral authority by branding their values and behavior as sinful. This brilliant conceptual approach unlocks the "psychological, social, and intellectual changes Methodism wrought," on its adherents and on southern society (p.4).
      Lyerly's success is even more remarkable given the difficulty of her task. Anyone who sets out to examine the conceptual fiction of a monolithic "mind" is entering problematic territory. The reader immediately wonders whose mind the author is talking about. Surely there was no one southern or Methodist "mind." But Lyerly dodges the pitfalls and transcends the problems. Unlike Perry Miller, she does not posit a paradigmatic value system based on the ideas of elite men. And unlike W. J. Cash, she does not analyze southern "types" of her own making. Instead of defining "mind," she simply uses the synonyms mindset and world view, terms that educated readers will understand. Although aware of the diversity within Methodism, she focuses on the common ground. And she introduces readers to a cast of characters from almost every representative group--from the formerly unheard-of Sarah Jones, to the venerable Bishop Francis Asbury--a large enough sampling to make the reader trust her portrayal of clashing world views. Lyerly is up to this daunting task because her research is creative and exhaustive, and because she incorporates concepts from the Annales School, from cultural anthropology, and from literary criticism's emphasis on language. Thankfully, she does not explain these concepts; she just uses them to help the analysis unfold.
      Although the monograph is clear and convincing, it may be too brief. Several topics needed more attention. Although she makes clear the pragmatic reasons--respect for their spiritual talents and unprecedented leadership opportunities--that drew blacks and women into the Methodist fold, she stops short of delving into the religious experience that fueled the courage to face resistance from their masters and husbands. One wonders whether her sources included such testimony from, for example, the spiritually gifted and passionate Sarah Jones. Likewise, Lyerly has read widely on the subject of slave religion, but the reader misses a more explicit discussion of slaves' spiritual experiences--experiences that revealed common ground between African folk religion and Christianity. The central Methodist doctrine of holiness, and the subject of Methodist mysticism also needed further development.
      This gap signals a larger problem for historians of religion. Both Lyerly and John Wigger, who provided an earlier addition to Oxford's "Religion in America" series with his Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America, acknowledge that Wesley's "scriptural holiness" was a defining Methodist doctrine. But that is as far as either goes. Without delving into holiness, Methodism in the early republic can seem, as it does to both scholars, like an individualistic religion without a clear social agenda. And free will seems to be the agent of salvation. But for truly devout Methodists, holiness and grace went hand in hand. One's will was not free to choose salvation. Only the Holy Spirit's grace could implant that desire in the human heart. And the drive to perfect both the self and society fueled Methodist reformist visions on both sides of the Atlantic. Lyerly and Wigger also fail to develop the subject of mysticism, a defining element in Lyerly's discussion of Methodist style. Neither scholar cites the classic works on the subject, and both mistakenly equate it with paranormal experiences such as dreams and visions. True, mystics throughout history have seen visions and dreamed prophetic dreams. But these things are only symptoms of a deeper desire for union with the ineffable common to all true mystics. The reluctance of scholars such as Lyerly and Wigger to touch the "hot potatoes" of holiness and mysticism signals the need for further study.
      Lyerly's story ends as it began, with individual Methodists combatting a sinful world. Fittingly, these two anecdotes are about women, the people most responsible for the success of Methodism in America. In the 1770s, Mary Hinde and her daughters had defied her husband Thomas's attempts to stop them from going to Methodist services, until he finally had a change of heart and converted--a well-chosen metaphor for the gulf between Methodist and secular southern world views. Forty years later, in 1810, Sarah Jones bemoaned the fact that she could not prevent her girls from conforming to fashion in dress, nor persuade her violent husband to emancipate his slaves--an equally apt metaphor for the dilemmas Methodists still faced. Sarah Jones knew that the world was a seductive place, and she feared the worst. After forty years, Methodists had begun to change sides in their struggle with the world. In 1770, they had been the challengers. But by 1810, they were the force being challenged.

Cheryl F. Junk, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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