Emily Suzanne Clark
Emily Suzanne Clark is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University
Cite this Article
Emily Suzanne Clark, "Editor's Note," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/clark.
What does southern religion look like if we see it as part of the Atlantic world? Or, what does Atlantic world religion look like if we incorporate the South?
These were the main questions I posed to our forum participants. If I’m being completely honest, the inspiration for this forum was a bit selfish. The idea came from frustration while revising my dissertation into a book manuscript. Much of the scholarship on American religion and the Atlantic world focuses on the Northeast, and in many cases, the temporal framework concludes in the antebellum period. My research project did not seem to fit either of these characteristics; A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (UNC Press, 2016) focuses on the séance practices of New Orleans Afro-Creoles during the Civil War and through Reconstruction. I wanted additional conversation partners, and so I went out and found them.
In A Luminous Brotherhood I discuss how the group’s séances were more than simply talking to the dead. These séances were rich moments of exchange between a dynamic spiritual republic and a group of black New Orleanians eager to obtain full legal and civil rights. Members of the Cercle Harmonique (the name the Spiritualists gave themselves) were educated, raised in Catholic families, of at least middle-class backgrounds, and politically active. With these attributes, it comes as no surprise that their spiritual guides included figures associated with the French Revolution and modern reform, including: the famous French poet Pierre-Jean de Béranger, French revolutionary priests Henri Grégoire and Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal (the marquise de Sévigné), Terror leader Maximilien de Robespierre, French nobleman Constantin François de Chassebœuf (the Comte de Volney), French monk François Rabelais, and philosophes Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Deceased French kings, Napoleon Bonaparte, and figures from the Haitian Revolution like Toussaint Louverture and Alexandre Pétion also appear in the séance records. Clearly the influence of the Atlantic world's age of revolutions did not conclude in the early nineteenth-century. Reverberations of the French Revolution swept across gulf Louisiana through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. Conversing with such an illustrious spiritual republic, the members of the Cercle Harmonique reinvigorated the French Revolution's cry for “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” Local, national, and global contexts shaped Afro-Creole Spiritualism in New Orleans. This was southern religion and it was Atlantic world religion.
It is with this research project of mine in mind that I contacted our forum contributors. I encouraged them to think loosely about the Atlantic world in terms of chronology and geography. I wanted us to expand on concepts like transnational, globalization, and international.
In his essay “Evangelical Religion in the Revolutionary South: An Atlantic Perspective,” Christopher Jones turns our attention to southern and Caribbean Methodists. He tracks the rise of Methodism from a small group, to a national denomination, to “a full-fledged transatlantic movement.” Along the way, Jones uncovers a little-known group of black Loyalists who take their Methodism from the southern U.S. to the Bahamas and Sierra Leone.
Thomas Little’s contribution, “Evangelical Christianity in the Lower South: The Creation of a Southern Tradition in the Early Modern Atlantic,” rescues the religiosity of the Lower South from historiographical neglect. Little explores how southern colonial religion was vibrant and diverse long before the Second Great Awakening. Additionally, he shows us how southern evangelicalism developed a particular accent.
Alexis Wells examines how enslaved women's bodies became a crossroads of African religions, Christianity, and slavery's brutality in “The Gendered Ethics of Female Enslavement: Searching For Southern Slave Women’s Religions in the African Atlantic.” With her focus on women, Wells uncovers how sociological and cosmological foundations from around the Atlantic world generated “woman-gendered ethical cultures in the U.S. South.”
Finally, Jon Sensbach provides the response to our forum. In many ways, there is no other scholar who could fulfill this role better. Sensbach authored two articles that established a structural frame for this forum: “Beyond the Bible Belt: Indians, Africans, and the New Synthesis of Eighteenth-Century Southern Religious History” in 2004’s Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture (UNC Press, 2004) and 2007’s “Religion in the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire,” published in the Journal of Southern History. With these two essays in mind, we turn our attention to the relationship between southern religion and the Atlantic world.