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

          Christine Leigh Heyrman's Southern Cross: the Beginnings of the Bible Belt is an exciting work of history. Its energy is almost natural, like wind or light, illuminating people's lives from up close, then going airborne with brilliant long-range views of religious practice and southern society. Although I have some criticisms of how the book suggests we understand the cultural significance of evangelical experience in the lives of nineteenth-century white southerners, this is a wonderful book--incisive, far-seeing, and passionate.

     Heyrman argues that we have misunderstood the ideological roots of the influence of evangelical Baptists and Methodists who arose in the South between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s. Because of this, we have misunderstood the social meaning of their proselytizing. To say, as have many historians, that these sects flourished because they appealed to followers in a "modern" way, that is, as individuals, with the promise of a loving, personal God, is to miss the ways in which evangelicals played upon antediluvian fears of physical evil and world-disrupting loss. And to say that the corporate growth of evangelical sects is best seen as a "democratization" of Protestant Christianity is to miss the key dynamics of the social setting that nurtured evangelical authority.

     Instead, Heyrman argues, the engine of evangelical power was conflict, a profound conflict arising from disturbances in social and personal life--both actual and feared--that marked a South increasingly strained by rural isolation, racism, and generational anxieties. Heyrman's evangelical enthusiasts are troubled, disruptive people. By the end of the eighteenth century, they were caught up in a potent yearning for--and fear of--a clear-cut path to God that would give direction to the social tensions that surrounded them. When many southerners did not share their sense of reality, evangelicals literally drove it home to them. They employed a sharp, incarnate vision of evil, and relied upon this fascination with Satan, and upon young, stirred-up preachers, to insinuate themselves into white households through their most vulnerable and receptive members--women and youth. The evangelical discovery was that social power could be seized by troubling the waters of domestic life, appealing to the discontent of sons and daughters, to the spiritual longing of women, and to the fears and fantasies that lay along the racial divide.

     This view of rampant evangelicals as rising from the depths of a disordered culture is exhilarating. It restores a sense of the naked power of their challenge (and, simultaneously, their likeness) to the sinners they saw on every side. From here, Heyrman goes on to argue that the direction of religious change was itself radically altered through a canny adjustment of evangelical ambitions. Their initial message proved over a generation or so to be altogether too disruptive to dominate the religious scene. Fervent evangelicals were compelled by popular rebuff to shave off their sharp edges in order to flow into the mainstream of power in a new, "respectable" southern society--meaning the white race, and adult white men in particular. By the 1830s, then, evangelicals had learned to put the lid on their ravenous vision of the devil, relying instead on a sense of incorporeal sin; they catered to adult, male-dominated family order (while still proselytizing youth and women); and they supported the rightness of slavery and racial hierarchy, willing to lose African American followers if they gained white ones.

     In telling the story this way, Heyrman is convincing in many respects. She vividly explores how religious experience in this era was the main fulcrum for a heavy load of social wishes and discontents. Religious expression, among other things, was an altogether worldly means for people to define and maintain their power while giving release to deep misgivings about the consequences of their own desires. Calculating God's judgment, evangelicals played with a vision of social chaos as a way of securing their social influence. In achieving this wonderfully wide-angled view, Heyrman at the same time keeps a sharp critical edge of detail, a vision of the personal poignancies and absurdities of the evangelicals' urge to witness Final Things, to be so much more than just themselves.

     The irony of all of this rings true, and Heyrman's sense of the worldly purposes to which evangelicals bent their faith seems to me almost always on target. But however satisfying--because it is so satisfying--her study raises without resolving important problems in how we are to think about change and continuity in matters of antebellum religious faith. There is, first, the matter of timing. The energy of this study and the weight of its sources rest somewhere around 1800. But in all five chapters, especially in chapters 3 and 4, Heyrman leaps quickly to the 1830s in the last few paragraphs. These leaps are an effect of her decision to frame her history as the "beginnings of the Bible Belt." This decision inscribes early nineteenth-century change in terms of a twentieth-century image of southern religion--an image born of a century when the South's evangelical fervor was far more salient in the nation because it was by then far more anachronistic. In thus aiming to pull us along quickly toward the 1900s, perhaps with a sequel in mind, Heyrman never really inhabits the 1810s and 1820s. And so the decades that bore the fruit of the Second Great Awakening--crucial years in the formation of the Methodist and Baptist churches--remain a kind of cultural "black box" in her study.

"Heyrman's view of evangelical culture is that it was essentially marginal and consciously packaged by obviously needy people."

     As a consequence, Heyrman's view of evangelical culture is that it was essentially marginal and consciously packaged by obviously needy people. This view inevitably makes "evangelicals" into a group apart from other southerners, a shrewd bunch in search of a strategy that would permit them to shed the "inconvenient legacies from the eighteenth century" (p. 217) which emerging social elites found so threatening. Yet it seems to me that in terms of daily social experience (as opposed to ideological infighting), in the flux of satisfactions and discontents that make up ordinary life in an era when no one knew that the Bible Belt lay ahead, the line between insiders and outsiders was not so sharp or the strategy so calculated. Seeing change in terms of "Baptists and Methodists refashion[ing] their faiths to win greater acceptance among whites" (p. 66) downplays the fact that change in something as complicated as religious belief is not so unilaterally manipulative. Who was an "evangelical" in society seems much more fluid and problematic than Heyrman allows. Often she uses the term to suggest "outside agitator," but this begs the question of how an experience this profound could happen without a source of discontent and wish arising from within the families and communities who came to believe. Surely in matters so perplexing and volatile as faith in God and the apprehension of some divine plan, evangelicalism can seen as having been created in southern households as well as insinuating itself into them, especially during the 1820s and '30s.

     This raises a second problem in the way this study suggests we think about religious experience as a force for change and continuity. This is the problem of how to come to terms--critical ly and historically--with the subjectivity of religious belief and its relation to religious practice. The practice of religion--the ways of proselytizing, for example, or of sharing devotion--served to make the subjectivity of faith as real as anything else in the world. In complex ways, religious practice both released and confined people's sense of themselves and others; it delivered and it deluded. But practice never quite exhausted the pool of subjective desires and needs that lay beneath it, although it reified them and held them up to the light. This dynamic--this refreshing of the subjective through common practice--is what makes religious sensibility a rare way to study the deepest ties between culture and imagination. But for all of this study's insight and richness, there is little sense of this subjectivity or of how we might go about understanding it. There is almost no exploration, for instance, of southerners' sincerely passionate concern for the fine points of doctrine and what it defined, or of their sense of the broader intellectual texture of faith and its relation to the knowledge derived from empirical means. Indeed, the whole puzzle of faith in historical context--its felt mystery and its inscription in culture--is pretty much telescoped here into matters of strategy and the acquisition of social influence. These criticisms, though, recall the many books that do not get us nearly as far as this one does, and it is not the least achievement of Heyrman's study that it embodies many questions of importance and excitement still to be asked about the making of evangelical belief in the South.

Steven Stowe, Indiana University

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

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