Samuel Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1999 (Pp. lxix, 234; $29.95).
It is good to see this book in print again. A work that set out to be both a history and a prophetic call for transformation in southern religion has in the last thirty years itself become part of history and transformed both churches and scholarship. Having a copy is like holding a facsimile of some time-tested text. This is not because Hill’s original 1966 work is no longer relevant, but rather because Hill’s text has had such a profound influence and contained such original insights. As I have argued elsewhere, Hill’s 1966 text is profoundly relevant today, perhaps even more so than Hill himself would acknowledge. In addition to the original text in full, this new edition has two essays which blend historiographical and biographical reflections with a new, although more nuanced, prophetic call for the churches of the contemporary South. Therefore, this new book is not simply a republication or a new edition, instead it is a “revisitation.”
Samuel Hill humbly identifies three justifications for the republication of his 1966 Southern Churches in Crisis. The first is the “continuing life of the original book . . . Somehow this particular book continues to be read, quoted, and cited--despite having been out of print for nearly a quarter century” (xi). The second justification concerns the “dramatic changes that have occurred in southern religious life since 1966 . . . Whatever the crisis may have been during the 1960s, it is hardly that now” (xi). The third reason is that the study of southern religion, long neglected, has in the wake of Hill’s 1966 book become its own scholarly enterprise.
|"Hill sees his neglect of African Americans as both a massive academic and personal failure which resulted from 'my own limited vision and undersized heart.'"|
Each of these justifications has a corresponding feature in the “revisitation.” In relation to the continuing life of original book, Hill has written an introductory essay entitled “Southern Churches in Crisis Revisited.” As a result of the burgeoning of southern religious studies, a list of “key” works in the field since 1990 is included. Finally, in response to the changes within southern religion since 1966, Hill has written another essay entitled “Thirty Years Later: An Interpretive Essay.”
In the first introductory essay, Hill gives a largely biographical account of the writing of Southern Churches in Crisis. He notes that “Southern Churches in Crisis was a theological treatise from beginning to end, perhaps more so than almost all other studies in that era.” Hill concedes that “I did not check my personal investment in the subject at the door of my study. Those were critical times, and I was a man of the church who cared considerably about how things were to turn out.” Reflecting on influences and impulses, Hill writes that “besides being a tract for the times, the book was a confessional manifesto resulting from personal pilgrimage” (xiii).
Hill then points out a number of weaknesses in his original study. He misdiagnosed the motivations of Presbyterians in the 1960s and generally lumped believers together in a haphazard fashion, ignoring both denominational and personal distinctions and variations. Hill sees his neglect of African Americans as both a massive academic and personal failure which resulted from “my own limited vision and undersized heart” (xvii). In addition, Hill maintains that the scholarly research into African American religious history had not yet been done, and that much of it still needs doing. After discussing some major landmark texts in the study of African-American religion and the interaction between African and European religious practice in America, Hill writes that in retrospect “ I wish that I had at least acknowledged how interactive the two racial religious formations had been, how mutually implicating they were. Myopia took its toll, however, and that is a real weakness within Southern Churches in Crisis” (xix-x). Hill recognizes that the same is also true for his lack of discussion of women in the original text.
Hill then recognizes a number of other limitations and addresses a forthcoming publication by Beth Barton Schweiger, who maintains that southern religious studies is itself in captivity, mesmerized by many of Hill’s original ideas concerning southern uniqueness and the defining elements of southern evangelical Protestantism.
Hill ends this first introductory essay by suggesting two areas for further research. “One is the relative absence of ‘disciplined spirituality’ in the church life of the region. The other is the paucity of instances of radical Christianity and radical communities of faith” in the South (xxiii).
A “representative list” of studies since 1990 follows. This short bibliography is disappointing. While a comprehensive list of works since 1990 would not be expected, the list presented here is too small to be very useful for most scholars. The number of notable omissions is large. This list is a reminder of how few comprehensive bibliographies exist for the study of religion in the South. It would be a major contribution to the field if an electronic medium, such as the American Religious Experience or the Journal of Southern Religion were to compile an ongoing and comprehensive bibliography which would include not only published books and articles, but also dissertations and conference proceedings (both entirely absent from Hill’s bibliography). Until then, Hill’s bibliography provides a meager list of what is on offer for the hungry intellect interested in religion in the South.
While the first new essay will be interesting for students approaching Hill’s text for the first time, the second essay, titled “Thirty Years Later: An Interpretive Essay,” will have the most appeal for scholars. Hill begins by distinguishing the crisis of the 1960s from the crisis (Hill himself questions the use of the word) of the 1990s. The former he sees as the result of a broad and very real cultural upheaval that spilled into the southern churches. The later is in his opinion an internal affair, “initiated by the churches and having to do with parochial matters, quite pointedly their doctrinal orthodoxy” (xxx).
Hill identifies a new ethical agenda as at the forefront of concern. The two most important features of this new ethical agenda are objection to both homosexuality and abortion. Most fascinating is the section of Hill’s essay entitled “Doctrinal Purity as Today’s Central Theme.” Here Hill maintains that an emphasis on rational purity has replaced the heartfelt conversion experience as the central theme of southern religion. Hill sees this to be both a real and a new development. “If earlier the test of legitimacy had to do with the claim of having God’s presence and forgiveness known with certainty to be in one’s life, the evaluation now pertains to a claim of orthodoxy” (xl). While much of this discussion is concerned with the Southern Baptist Convention and is somewhat questionable in its comprehensiveness, it certainly makes for an interesting argument and is a further demonstration of Hill’s fearlessness in revising his initial observations.
While the essays provide for interesting reading, a number of the old limitations continue to creep in. For example, in his discussion of “The New Political Ethic,” Hill notes that the political shift in the South is an important topic in recent scholarship. Throughout his discussion of the shifting allegiance among southern white voters from Democrats to Republicans, one is painfully aware that his analysis is solely concerned with the “white population” (xlix). After Hill’s heartfelt apology for his previous myopia, it is interesting to see its persistence. While it is true that historically most white people in the South voted Democrat and only recently have begun to vote Republican, it is also significant that the southern African-American population has made a switch in the opposite direction. In this section and throughout Hill’s discussion of the new emphasis on rational purity, one cannot help but think that Hill is referring somewhat exclusively to white male religious leaders in the South.
Moreover, Hill has not lost his ability to preach through his scholarship. He chides the new emphasis on rational purity since it preempts “any notion of unconditional love.” Furthermore, “absolute adherence to the truth . . . supersedes acknowledging their worth as the persons they are in and of themselves” (li). Hill further cautions that “an uncritical outlook always tempts toward idolatry” (lvii). These and other prophetic admonitions are not necessarily unwelcome, but should be treated with caution.
Hill also addresses some of the important religious continuities and discontinuities between the 1960s and the 1990s. The only important continuity he sees in southern religion is a consistent supernatural worldview. He writes that “a remarkable continuity binds the revivalistic Evangelicalism of the earlier period with the doctrinal rationalism of recent developments: the conviction that everything about the churches’ message and mission is supernatural” (lv). It is likely, however, that there are further important continuities, many extending from Hill’s original 1966 analysis.
The major discontinuity is the new emphasis on orthodoxy that has allegedly replaced experimental religion in the South. Hill sees this as having three causes. The first is the “loss of unrivaled . . . dominance in regional life” (lviii). The second is the “crusade to preserve or recover the old alliance between culture and religion” (lix). Finally, Hill judges “the crusade to recover and preserve orthodoxy to be impelled more by the churches’ diminished hold on the culture than by the rise of liberal beliefs” (lix). Hill concludes this section in saying “I surmise that the new Fundamentalism in the South amounts, in part, to a cry of the heart for the loss of the bond that for so long linked evangelical Christianity to the culture” (lx).
Hill ends his look at the last thirty years and the nature of the present with a look towards the future. He sees the possibility, although not necessarily the probability, of a rapprochement between liberal and evangelical Protestants. Finally, Hill concludes by saying, “Some of us have been remarking for many years that the study of religion in the American South is endlessly fascinating. Nothing has happened to alter that assessment or to diminish the significance of the interaction of religion and culture in that storied region. Human and cultural well-being are at stake, therefore the stakes are very high” (lxii).
As some one who has only come recently to the study of religion in the South, I am delighted to see this work back in print. After having to obtain my copies of the original work through rare book sellers, I am glad to know that today’s students can easily get their hands on this classic work, which continues to be relevant today. Libraries should certainly obtain this “revisitation” and students unfamiliar with Hill should go directly to this new edition. This book is not only a history and discussion of religion in the South, but also a primary text for historical study. Combined with the new introductory essays it is a gem for which both Hill and the editors of the Religion and American Culture series at the University of Alabama Press are to be congratulated. This book will certainly make for challenging reading in the new millennium.
Mark Bell, Balliol College