Review: A Cautious Enthusiasm
Samuel C. Smith. A Cautious Enthusiasm: Mystical Piety and Evangelicalism in Colonial South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. xii + 260 pp. ISBN 978-1-61117-131-0.
This learned book guides the reader into the religious landscape of colonial South Carolina, exposing evangelical contours that many readers may find surprising. For some time, scholars have been demonstrating that South Carolina was not the religious wasteland that some contemporaries (often visitors whose accounts were published) and later historians judged it to be. Books like Louis Nelson’s The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina (2009) have taken up evidence ignored in some previous work, from archival church records to grave markers and communion silver, arguing for a vitality in Carolina religion that the literature had sometimes failed to notice. Smith carries that project forward in this book, using documentary evidence to expose mystical and political dimensions of evangelicalism in the colony.
What is evangelicalism to Smith? He notes that it is a multivalent phenomenon in the wider Protestant tradition, found in modes that may be both more subjective and emotive, or doctrinal and rationalistic. A major contribution in the book is the tracing of a mystical strand of pietism in Carolina evangelicalism, a tradition that carried medieval aspirations of union with the divine into the low country. Smith argues that this mystical tradition shaped political habits and was partially productive of the consensus (among whites) of the later colonial and revolutionary periods. This is an interesting challenge to the long-held view that revivals were socially disruptive in the early South. While some readers may feel that Smith defines evangelicalism too broadly, his careful argument illuminates the wide influence of evangelicalism in the region.
Indeed, for Smith evangelicalism did more to create a status quo than to resist it. He states that “evangelicalism’s transcendent and flexible qualities contributed to the formation of political and social consensus in the South, provided lowcountry Anglican elites a new means for perceived significance in the larger British world, helped transform in their minds the image of slavery into a uniquely Christian institution, and supplied impulse for a unified action into the revolutionary era” (8). Smith shows the power of established Anglicanism in South Carolina and also its flexibility as he follows the ministry of Anglican evangelical itinerant George Whitfield in the colony. Initial confrontations between Whitefield and senior clergy were followed by a more nuanced appropriation of the power of subjective religion by other Anglicans, lay and ordained. Smith finds elements of mystical evangelicalism in the lives of Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens, sons of St. Philip’s Church and members of the Anglican establishment. All this happened before the evangelical revivals of the nineteenth century, the era when scholars have located the emergence of a unifying evangelical ethos for the South.
The book is necessary reading for scholars of the early South, of southern religion, and of American evangelicalism. Students of political theory in early America with an interest in religion will appreciate it as well. It is decidedly a scholarly book, grappling ably with spirituality across hundreds of years in Europe and America. While John Wesley and George Whitefield will be familiar to non-specialists, Johann Arndt and Johannes Tauler may not be. The book is a history of ideas and religious affections; it traces their transmission and transformation, from personal spirituality to group political conviction. Thus it is rich and, at times, complex book.
A Cautious Enthusiasm is a deeply-researched and well-written volume that makes an important contribution to the continuing scholarly revival of the study of religion in early South Carolina.