William K. Bunner, History 481 K

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Chapel Hill, N.C.: U. of North Carolina Press, 336 pages.


It is hard to criticize any book that wins an award as prestigious as the Bancroft Prize. However, this volume is a bit of a disappointment. Evangelicalism in the South is presented in a loosely defined region that covers the upper South, border states and even the Midwest. In an attempt to be more lucid, Heyrman has written a novel like narrative with thesis sentences invariably at the end of paragraphs. What claims to be a study of the origins of the Bible Belt during the Second Great Awakening and through the Jacksonian Era, omits the Stoneites, Cumberland Presbyterians, and the Baptist Charleston Association altogether, and manages to lose the mainstream Presbyterians along the way. By the end it is a study of itinerant Methodist clergy and Baptist ministry, based primarily on their diaries and journals. The Midwestern evangelist Pete Cartwright retains his Southern heritage seemingly because his militant sword of the Lord polemics fit the model the author sought to create. Further, the thought of the evangelicals is presented with no intellectual framework nor with any social context beyond the church.

While the book may not do what is claimed for it, it does succeed at two of the tasks the author sets out for herself. It answers two irksome questions for historians of the South and for American religious scholars. Why did the established Anglicanism and rational deism fail to make inroads in the South? Why did evangelicalism, despite its egalitarian bent antithetical to Southern society, win out so convincingly by the 1830's?

The first question is discussed within the first chapter. Anglicanism was hated by the religious of the South, particularly Baptists and others persecuted by elites on behalf of the state. Only 10 percent of white Southerners were religious in 1776. Nearly all the pietistic and many others disliked Anglicanism for its embrace of customary cultural pleasures like dancing and gaming which were anathema to the more ascetic evangelicals. Others disliked the coercive aspects of the State church. The Revolution resulted in the removal of a plurality of the Anglican clergy. On the other hand, the Deists, whom Thomas Jefferson predicted would come to dominate, lacked the presence or educated populace necessary to gain. T his gave openings for the evangelicals.

Christine Heyrman's most persuasive argument is that evangelicalism took hold because the evangelicals themselves reinvented their religion and adapted to Southern culture over two generations to become the beginnings of the Bible Belt. By using archetypal ministers like John Taylor, Stith Mead and Freeborn Garrettson, Heyrman demonstrates how evangelicalism reacted to different cultural groups -- the youth, slaves, women and finally white males -- to ease initial anxiety against evangelicals and ultimately create a Southern hegemony for these denominations.

The earliest evangelicals preached of the reality of Satan in his visible forms. They emphasized the need for crisis conversions, and the adult baptism of the Baptists was considered a foreign practice. Even more threatening was the egalitarianism strand of evangelicals that opposed hierarchies of slavery, gender and class. The author covers the process of adaptation by the religionists in convincing detail in the final three chapters of the work.

Conflict existed between youth and adults in a setting where youth was far more numerous than the aged. Evangelicalism appealed to the young, who in the early national period provided the itinerant evangelicals necessary to spread the gospel. Deference by the young toward their elders was frequently at issue. Youth "claims to preference, sanctity and authority" within the clergy caused "a sharp, protracted generational conflict" (p. 86.) Dealing with this was a problem in both the hierarchical Methodist structure and among the more egalitarian Baptists. The Methodist clergy was impeded in adapting from its ascetic tendencies until the death of Bishop Francis Asbury in 1816.

Loyalty to family became subsumed to loyalty to faith, especially among those who received the call as did Stith Mead, who criticized his father for causing another son to burn in hell. There was a slow reconciliation to family loyalty, which with attendant values returned by the 1830's. The context, however, was within a restored family patramonial hierarchy.

Evangelicalism offered independence of spirit to slaves, but the evangelicals quickly abandoned their early abolition tendencies. Eventually the prevalent position was that of support for the peculiar institution. Women also had a prominent early role among evangelical groups. Like slaves they played roles as exhorters, prophets and even upon occasion preached. However, the clergy restored congregational gender stratification to foster evangelical growth in the South. Heyrman suggests that they silenced women and slaves to win over men. The clergy diminished their early intrusions into the patriarchal home and adopted military posturing. Heyrman suggests that the latter was at first a part of Methodist strategy to overcome accusations about their loyalty during the Revolution.

That the subversion of minorities to the dominant domestic and social order took place to gain male participation is amply demonstrated cannot be denied. The author fails to provide any milieu for a comparison. Instead she notes that the evangelicals attacked marginal subversive groups like Quakers, Shakers, and Native Americans, and the secular mechanism of divorce to support this order and family values. Such groups were easy targets for preachers, but the perceived efficacy of such attacks in bolstering evangelicalism is not convincing.

Finally, Heyrman provides a provocative epilogue that suggests that this early era not only led to the creation of the Bible Belt, but in its stratification according to age, race and gender, set the agenda for current religious culture among evangelicals including the "Promise Keepers." Convincing? No. Provocative? Yes. The book is definitely worth reading, despite its limitations.


homeReturn to the American Religious Experience