Review: Varieties of Southern Religious History

Seth Dowland

Seth Dowland is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University.

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Seth Dowland, "Review: Varieties of Southern Religious History," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Regina D. Sullivan and Monte Harrell Hampton, eds. Varieties of Southern Religious History: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Mathews. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015. ix + 310 pp. ISBN 9781611174885.

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This intriguing collection of essays makes a fitting tribute to Donald Mathews, whose pioneering scholarship helped to define southern religious history as a field. Mathews’s many essays and books pushed against narratives of American religion that were dominated by white northern Calvinists. In a similar vein, the essays in this book push against conventional readings of southern religion, providing readers with a fascinating cast of characters that enlivens and complicates stories of the South’s religious past.

About half of the essays use biography to show new dimensions of southern religious history. Wayne K. Durrill’s examination of Nat Turner’s apocalypticism brings together meteorological history and the history of a Virginia millennial revival in 1830 to show how Turner’s revolt emanated from distinctive local contexts. Turner’s story takes on a new cast as Durrill reads him as engaged in an ongoing struggle about how to interpret the natural world, a debate that pitted scientifically inclined elites against apocalyptic prophets like Turner. Ruth Aldean Doan likewise revises our understanding of a famous nineteenth century character—in her case, William Miller. Doan demonstrates how Miller’s leadership of a millennial movement derived not from charisma but rather from his more mundane accumulation of traditional authority among local communities that respected his reading of scripture. Miller, in Doan’s reading, comes across as motivated but not eccentric.

Two essays demonstrate the complexity of nineteenth-century women’s history. Cheryl E. Junk unfolds the saga of Frances Bumpass, who in 1851 became editor of a Greensboro, N.C., Methodist newspaper, the Weekly Message. Bumpass inherited the role from her husband, who died young. She used the Message as a mouthpiece for the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification and survived a strenuous challenge to her legitimacy as a female editor from Leroy Lee, editor of a rival newspaper. Bumpass’s story provides an example of how one woman carved a space for herself in the mid-nineteenth century South. Robert F. Martin details the rather different career of Annie Wittenmyer, who spearheaded several evangelical social reform movements. Wittenmyer earned her greatest prominence as the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, though Martin shows how Wittenmyer’s steadfast focus on “Gospel temperance” gradually lost ground in the late 1870s. A more politically savvy Frances Willard eventually wrested control of the WCTU from Wittenmyer, whose fall from the spotlight coincided with the “twilight of evangelical reform.”

In one of the most fascinating contributions to this volume, Emily Bingham delves into the story of her paternal great-aunt, Henrietta Bingham. The elder Bingham grew up in Kentucky but spent the roaring 1920s in London, where she attracted lovers of both sexes and transgressed southern racial mores by singing with African-American musicians. She also underwent treatment by psychotherapist Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud’s biographer. While London was more open-minded than Louisville, the English population still thought of psychotherapy as lewd. Yet here was a bisexual southerner serving as a key subject in Jones’s paper, “The Early Development of Female Sexuality.”

Two other essays similarly turn their sights abroad, examining how American Christians influenced foreign lands. Gavin James Campbell details the story of Niijima Jo, a Japanese man who escaped his native country in 1864 and wound up in Massachusetts, where a local merchant paid for his schooling at Amherst and Andover Seminary. Niijima became an important cultural translator of Christianity to Japan’s senior deputy education minister, Tanaka Fujimaro, when a cohort of Japanese leaders visited the U.S. in 1871. Later in the volume, Daniel R. Miller tells the poignant tale of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) mission in Cuba, launched just one year before the Castro revolution. The Cuban CRC survived in spite of limited contact with Reformed Christians elsewhere. In fact, the lack of contact contributed to the development of a Christian identity that was partially compatible with the revolutionary spirit of Castro’s Cuba.

This festschrift offers a feast for students of southern religion, from the opening essay on the unsettled politics of a biracial church in the eighteenth century to the final piece on the role of anti-Catholicism during the 1960 presidential election. Like Mathews himself, the essays in this book showcase broad reading and draw on various bodies of scholarship while maintaining the tight focus of narrative history. Southern religious history brims with fascinating characters and surprising contexts, and these historians honor their mentor well by paying careful attention to the nuances and complexities of their stories. The appendix, which lists all of the dissertations directed by Mathews, further confirms his singular influence on this subfield. These essays will delight readers looking for new angles on southern religious history, and they ought to serve as models for future researchers on how to weave together fascinating narratives with well-honed arguments.