Title: Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt
Author: Christine Leigh Heyrman
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
• Well-written, easy to read history of the Bible Belt
• Helps make current attitudes and beliefs more understandable
• History of the American Bible Belt
• Explains how and why evangelical Christianity caught on
• Describes historical roots of contemporary religious attitudes
What few people realize is that Southern culture changed — or perhaps corrupted? — evangelical Christianity. Southern Evangelism started out as a fringe movement, challenging the dominant Anglican institutions and practices. Anglicanism made relatively few demands upon members and evangelicals regarded this as leading to "dangerous complacency." Over the course of a century, the sects which began by opposing slavery, class privilege, and traditional roles for men and women ended up their staunchest and most virulent defenders.
How all of this happened is the theme of Christine Leigh Heyrman's exhaustive and engrossing study, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. Heyrman begins with the observation that almost a century elapsed before evangelical Christianity "won the attention, if not the allegiance, of a majority of southern whites." Using of original material like diaries, letters, and other original documents, she paints a compelling portrait of the economic, social and religious turmoil of that century, from the 1740's through the 1830's.
Early on, the South was resistant to the emotion-laden revivalism characteristic of evangelical preaching. The people found these wandering preachers bizarre and the authorities tended to lock them up as troublemakers. Baptists told slaves that they should be free, told women that they should have an equal say in religious matters, and told converts to be willing to leave their families. They even encouraged spiritual intimacy and equality between the races.
Later, Methodist preachers came along and raged against vices like cards, guns, dancing — in short, everything which made the South that bastion of macho chivalric leisure it had become among the upper classes. This distaste for hunting, shooting, dueling, riding to hounds, cursing, dancing, drinking, and gambling caused Methodist preachers to viewed as effete and effeminate by the plantation aristocracy.
First the Baptists had challenged their power, then the Methodists challenged their masculinity — hardly a good foundation for converting Southern society. The messages spread by these young, itinerant preachers threatened the authority of Southern planters and businessmen. Even Southerners of quite ordinary means objected to what the evangelicals were doing, despite the fact that there was no direct challenge to how they lived.
The flip side of this coin, however, was that women and slaves found the messages to be inviting and liberating, but they couldn't bring these denominations enough converts and, thereby, social power. As Heyrman explains what her sources reveal:
Taken together, what they tell is why southern whites of all classes so long kept their distance from evangelicals. Present, although not predominant, in those pages are disgruntled laymen and -women who complain of Baptist preachers insulting local grandees or Methodist ministers condemning slavery. But far more common are middle-aged farmers who storm that Methodist preachers have disputed their authority over the household or turned the heads of their wives, and distraught matrons who fret that their newly pious daughters now shun unconverted kin, or that their once boisterous, swaggering sons have sunk into seeming madness from fear of hellfire and the devil.
In sum, what held the center of lay concern, what aroused their sharpest fears, were the ways in which Baptists and Methodists struck at those hierarchies that lent stability to their daily lives: the deference of youth to age; the submission of children to parents and women to men; the loyalties of individuals to family and kin about any other group; and the rule of reserve over emotion within each person.
How similar is all of this to contemporary complaints of conservative evangelicals about modernity, secularism, and everything else they hate? How the tables have turned... but why did they turn?
To be successful, preachers had to make themselves more appealing to those who were already in power in the South: the middle-aged white gentry. The preachers had to become older, more settled, more manly, and engage in less rabble-rousing. Women were pushed to the margins of religious authority as the religious message adopted the traditional Southern characteristics of placing women and slaves in socially inferior places. Finally, "family values" became a standard theme of sermons.
Eventually a synthesis had to be developed, allowing the "sinful" practices like drinking and gambling to be recognized as undesirable even as some indulgence was permitted. Evangelicalism had to move quite a ways from its earlier promise of equality and liberation because churches which once promise equality and liberation ended up in the nineteenth century "upholding the equality and honor of all white men." This is the Southern "family values religion" which still exists today, though it has spread out of the South and can be found around the nation: a religious movement that began on the dream of liberty and ended in a nightmare of authoritarian oppression.