Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. By Christine Leigh Heyrman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
Christine Leigh Heyrman explores the foundations of the modern Bible Belt in her work South Cross. Heyrman finds that evangelicalism spread slowly to the South, which the Anglicans and the non-religious had traditionally dominated. She contends that the three major Southern evangelical denominations, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, succeeded in winning over the South by appealing to lower classes and by placating social ills. As settlers moved to the frontiers, they brought religion with them and slowly began the processes of creating the modern Bible Belt, which is now synonymous with the South.
Heyrman believes that primarily an influx of Scot-Irish immigrants and the effects of the American Revolution spread evangelicalism in the South. As these immigrants moved onto the frontiers, they brought their religious beliefs with them. Heyrman finds that the immigrants did not Christianize the non-religious frontier people whom they encountered, but rather brought such large numbers of evangelicals westward that the religious affinity of the land changed. The American Revolution also lessened the hold the Anglican Church in the U.S. This opened lower classes and the upper class for the influence of the three major denominations. By the mid-1800’s, over a quarter of the Southern population belonged to an evangelical church and over two thirds attended services. This represents a dramatic increase in less than a century.
Though evangelicalism eventually dominated the South, it created many social tensions as well. The evangelicals, and especially Methodists, found their core values at odds with their reality. While they espoused a belief in respect for the elderly, a focus on families, and confidence in the leadership of patriarchal men, they often found their congregations led by single, young men. They advocated greater freedom for the poor, women, blacks, and slaves. In a society based on a male hierarchy, this new religious system appeared threatening. Baptists and Methodists adapted to the Southern sense of manliness in order to attach followers. They organized debates, camps, and imitated the Southern master, but opposed the more aggressive displays of masculinity in drinking, brawling, and gambling. This allowed them to grow their congregations and gain acceptance in the South. Ministers also faced the inherent religious and moral problems of slavery. A message that preached religious freedom or spiritual independence for slaves obviously undermined masters’ authority and presented a far more equalitarian religion than most whites desired. Rather than forcing the issue, evangelicals focused their attention on winning white souls and justified slavery when necessary.
The author contends that this study is necessary because the Old South evangelical churches are the direct ancestors of modern Protestant churches across the U.S. She harshly criticizes previous generations of ministers for ignoring social problems, because that set a precedent that continues in churches today. Heyrman relies heavily on letters, journals, and autobiographies for her work, which creates a rich narrative. Her narrative is filled with stories and anecdotes to the point that readers are left wanting more analysis. The book sets a strong foundation for historians to begin to understand the Bible Belt, but more research is needed.
Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. By Christine Leigh Heyman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
It is hard to imagine the American South apart from evangelical Christianity, but the Southern part of the United States did not always represent evangelicalism, something that did not take hold in the region until the early part of the nineteenth century. In her book Southern Cross, author Christine Heyman points out that in the era of Thomas Jefferson, those who did not attend church, along with many Anglicans in the larger coastal cities, dominated the Southern population. Evangelicalism did not begin to penetrate the South until just before the American Revolution, when Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians began making inroads into the backwoods areas largely ignored by the Anglican clergy. Heyman attributes this gradual rise of evangelicalism to two distinct events that began to occur in the mid-eighteenth century. First, settlers began to spill out of western Pennsylvania into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, bringing with them independent Baptist beliefs that began transforming the upper South. Additionally, revivals in the northern United States and England prompted many congregations to send missionaries into the South to plant churches.
There was nothing inevitable about the spread of evangelicalism into what became the Bible Belt. The first and primary opposition came from slaveholders. Evangelicalism taught that slaves as well as masters should be saved, and this doctrine struck at the heart of the slaveholding South. Therefore, Southern evangelicals began reinventing their message during the years preceding 1800. Evangelical preachers made the decision to primarily try and save white souls, as they pushed slaves to the periphery of their congregations. At the same time they sought to bring slaveholders toward the center of the evangelical movement. Another adaptation undertaken by evangelical churches during this period was the yielding of ultimate authority from clergy and church leaders to families, particularly the heads of nuclear families.
In the agrarian South people moved in nuclear families and the evangelical churches began to encourage the “’cult of domesticity,’” an Eden-like sanctuary in which to nurture spiritual beliefs. They also encouraged the father to take control as the ultimate authority over women, children and most importantly slaves, further encouraging patriarchal slaveholders to take part in this spreading form of religion. The various evangelical denominations also encouraged participation by women as the center of home life to take an active part in church affairs, but the author maintains that most of all evangelical churches continued to court men as the slaveholders and heads of household, and to cultivate them above all else.
An anomaly in this reshaping of Southern evangelicalism to meet the standards of Southern society was the intolerance among the church leaders to any type of violence or drinking on the part of their male members. Heyman offers several explanations for this behavior, including the fact that the wished to represent evangelicalism well to the outside world, but at the same time to retain male converts by insulating them from worldly distractions that might interrupt their fellowship with the rest of the church.
The constant theme of Southern Cross is of compromise among Southern evangelicals to fit the mould of different parts of Southern society, from slaveholders to more common folk. This transformation involved the changing of many earlier evangelical teachings regarding the roles of women and slaves, and especially of the dominance of patriarchy and insular families. These changes allowed evangelicalism to take hold in the American South like it did in no other part of the country, creating the Bible Belt. In an ironic twist, Heyman notes that in the present day Southern evangelicals have returned to many of the uncompromising views that the original evangelicals who came to the South hoped would take root. But this time, evangelicalism is so deeply rooted in Southern society and culture that these uncompromising views are gaining much more acceptance than they did in the middle of the eighteenth century.
John R. Lundberg
Texas Christian University
Christine Leigh Heyrman, distinguished professor of history at the University of Delaware, depicts the journey of southern evangelicals as they rose from being societal outcasts to embodying the standards of Southern society in Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. At the turn of the nineteenth century, few would have imagined such a place of honor for the ragamuffin group of evangelicals, who drew most of their strength from the rising Baptist and Methodist churches. Yet by the 1840s, the church reformed its image through series of compromises with the Southern culture and established itself as a central force of the Old South.
By the time of the Revolution, Southern society had solidified. The Anglican Church maintained its place as the established religion, and the planter aristocracy assumed the role of leaders throughout the land. It is little wonder then that upstart Methodists and Baptists drew disdain as they began their evangelizing about their new, emotive faith. To those established in Southern society as well as those dependent upon the establishment, the radical religion of these new evangelicals could not be followed. To begin, their emphasis on conversion led many to fear the emotional strains that the teaching placed on susceptible victims. Individuals would enter dark depressions for days, weeks, or months, as they contemplated their eternal fate or did battle with their infernal enemy—Satan. Added to this mix was the obnoxious personalities of the young clergy of these denominations who received little training and too often found themselves in troubles with their communities. For Heyrman, this state of affairs is what causes the central place of evangelicals in the Southern community by 1860 to be so puzzling. How did this image change?
In Heyrman’s mind, the answer is simple—the evangelicals themselves changed. And they changed on many levels, from their practices of church discipline to their view of women’s role in the church. Both Baptists and Methodists grew to understand their Southern culture and adjusted their emphases in order to fit into the structure of Southern society. For example, beginning in the 1800s, although Baptists especially maintained their stand against drinking and other worldly activities, many evangelical churches began to taper off their cases of church discipline for all but only the most extreme cases, such as those times where private sin became a public spectacle. According to Heyrman, the evangelicals recognized the role of Southern Honor in their society. Fighting and coarseness had their places, but so did personal honor, which could be tarnished if people publicly humiliated themselves. In a similar way, evangelicals changed their view of the role of women within the home and in turn within the church. Drawing upon ideals of the “cult of domesticity,” preachers emphasized the primary role of mothers as the spiritual nurturers in the family, whose example of piety would lead her children (and perhaps her husband) to the promised path of glory. Instead of allowing women a new, vibrant role in a church that stressed the individual’s access to God and His Spirit, the church reinforced the patriarchy of the Old South. Thus by the time of the 1840s, the troubling and socially deviant side of evangelicals had vanished, and while they still maintained a stance as a quasi-prophet of the culture, the evangelical church refashioned itself and became acceptable to Southern society.
Heyrman’s work is both wonderfully written and well-researched. Her analysis of the shifts in evangelical temperaments presents interesting questions for future scholars to pursue—mainly how much of a counter-cultural role did the church actually play in the antebellum era? Some problems arise, however, in her characterization of the evangelical compromise. It seems that far from being conscious or even pernicious, the change in evangelical churches reflected the change that most newly formed groups went through. At first they defined themselves as apart from the culture and then as the first generation died off the children became less willing to maintain the militant stances of their parents, and the groups subsequently entered a period of “respectability.” They desired to be a part of society and also wanted to disassociate themselves from newly formed radical groups. These slight drawbacks, however, do not alter the usefulness of Heyrman’s narrative, which is crisp and enlightening.