Title: Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt
Author: Christine Heyrman
Categories: Evangelicalism, American South,
Place: The South
Time Period: 1740s-1830s
Heyrman outlines the growth of evangelical Christianity (primarily Baptists and Methodists) in the South during the 18th and early 19th century and in particular a shift that took place in the early 19th century in which evangelical clergy began to accommodate and adapt to try and fit the values of Southern white patriarchy. Far from being inevitable, the growth of evangelicalism was gradual and only successful by fundamentally changing their approach to proselytizing.
In the 18th century, Heyrman describes how evangelicals were shocking weak in the South. Far from being synonymous with the region as they are today, they enjoyed relatively low membership rates and, in fact, most Southerners were either hostile, wary, or indifferent to them. They first started to make inroads around the mid-1700s and in particular were driven by the migration of Scots-Irish Presbyterians (although all of the groups struggled against the entrenched position of Anglicans in the region). The Revolutionary War expelled many of the Anglicans while also slowing the growth of Presbyterians, but Methodists and Baptists still couldn't capitalize in the region for several decades (until the early 1800s). Why is this?
Heyrman details how early evangelicals presented a direct challenge to the unity of southern communities by challenging the established hierarchies that defined them. First, they elevated youth to a position of power, primarily embodied by young, male Methodist itinerant preachers. Second, they prized religious bonds over familial bonds, which threatened the patriarchal authority of husbands and fathers. This emphasis ran the risk of evangelicals associated with other radical groups (primarily Indians and Shakers). Third, they encouraged the participation of women, some of whom before 1800 could even hold church positions. This was compounded by early evangelical emphasis on trying to gain entrance into the household as the basic unit of worship, which threatened the domestic hierarchy of patriarchs. Finally, they encouraged proselytizing and limited participation from African-Americans (as an extreme demonstration of the power of God's will that "anyone can be saved"), which directly challenged white slaveowners. Heyrman also ties this theme of "mastery" into one of masculinity, as early evangelicals were seen as effeminate.
In the early 1800s, evangelicals made a strategic turn in all of these areas. They acknowledged the power of white patriarchs in the South by restricting the participation of both women and African-Americans in church affairs. They also modified their approach in order to gain better access to households, while simultaneously emphasizing the more public realm of behavior to reassure husbands and fathers that they could run their homes without interference. Finally, they crated a more aggressively masculine identity that embraced martial valor and rhetoric in order to assert their own manliness and appeal to southern white men.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Evangelicalism was not inevitable - in 18th century was surprisingly unpopular in the South (threatening to white patriarchy)
- Strategic shift to try to fall in line with Southern patriarchal system in early 1800s
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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