Review: The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism
Thomas J. Little, The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1760. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. 280 pp. ISBN 978-1-611-17274-4.
Until recently, scholars of the colonial Lowcountry South have seldom presented the region as deeply religious, much less as puritan or evangelical. Thomas J. Little’s The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism illustrates just how wrong that assessment has been. Roots of religious revivalism came with Carolina’s earliest permanent settlements. From the religious tolerance embedded in the colony’s founding document (Fundamental Constitutions) to the transmission of puritan influences from New England and the Caribbean, to the influx of European pietism, Little methodically lays out the development of an evangelical foundation among Carolina dissenters and Anglicans alike. Well researched and written, this impressive book leaves few stones unturned, demonstrating the early and sometimes pervasive presence of revivalist religion in the colonial South. Long before the proto-typical nineteenth-century southern revivals, evangelicalism flourished in South Carolina.
Little’s careful analysis of contextual details yields valuable insight on the Lowcountry’s complicated religious landscape. For example, he clarifies how the Test and Church Acts (1704, 1706) were both positive and negative for evangelicals in South Carolina. While the original intent of the 1704 Test Act was to help High Anglicans gain the ascendancy, the effort backfired. This act so strongly regulated non-Anglicans that it drove latitudinarian moderates into dissenter churches, increasing their majority. Later in that same year, an establishment act passed, creating six parishes with “a sort of Presbyterian church government from below” (61). While this act empowered Anglican laymen over clergy, dissenters saw it as detrimental, since it gave their Anglican equals a political advantage. Dissenters successfully lobbied to rescind both acts. Although the new 1706 Church Act gave evangelical dissenters a place at the political table, it “checked the growth of dissenting Protestantism” for a time by virtue of a settled establishment (49). Nevertheless, dissenters would keep coming to the colony (especially after 1720), bringing their evangelical tenets with them.
One of the most important developments toward building South Carolina’s pluralistic society was Governor Nathaniel Johnson’s township plan (1731). Designed to make the colony more secure by bringing in Protestant immigrants, the plan enhanced “an ever-widening stream of pluralistic Christian expression” and “engendered an important shift in the ecclesiastical balance of the colony” (83). Yet, as Little shows, the dissenter presence was so pronounced, even prior to the township plan, that some denominations were dividing up into New and Old Light camps, evidence of an active awakening ethos a decade before the First Great Awakening.
Little’s placement of George Whitefield into the context of an already ensconced evangelical presence is especially helpful. The famed controversy between Whitefield and Alexander Garden, South Carolina’s commissary for the Bishop of London and St. Philip’s rector, was not so much a new battle for Garden—who had long engaged dissenters theologically—but an old one with new clothes (Whitefield was an evangelical Anglican!). Not only did Garden feel the need to keep dissenters at bay for the sake of Anglican hegemony, he had to figure out how to minimize “the spell Whitefield had cast over his [own] flock” at St. Philips (131). Charleston and the surrounding region were ripe for heart-felt religion, not because Whitefield was preaching something new, but because he was bringing full circle something robustly familiar.
Typically understood, revivalism, insofar as it impacted the colonial South, was more disruptive than harmonious. Although Little documents the battles, he rightly shows that evangelical religion actually promoted consensus. Even as early as the 1720s, “there was a decided turn toward inward, experiential faith . . . giving rise to the formation of a new religious synthesis and sowing the seeds for the Great Awakening” (185-186). As tumultuous as events swirling around Whitefield seemed, his evangelical message helped enhance a “cooperative ideal” (186).
Scholarly and accessible, this work strikes a balance of breadth and depth. While Little covers a vast range of mainline and radical groups over an even broader space of time (1670-1760), he provides an impressive depth of analysis throughout. He takes the reader deep into church records, books, sermons, and pamphlets. Although one can get bogged down with these excursions, the benefit is well worth the effort. Possibly no single volume to date provides a more thorough documentary examination on both seventeenth and eighteenth-century religion in the Lowcountry South, making The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism a must read for the student of early American religious history.