Review: The Sacred Mirror

Keith Harper

Keith Harper is Professor of Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Keith Harper, "Review: The Sacred Mirror," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Robert Elder. The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 263 pp. 978-1-4696-2756-4 cloth/978-1-4696-3757-1 ebook

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Generally, historians of the antebellum South do not link the region’s honor culture with evangelicalism. After all, the two simply do not go together—or do they? In The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790–1860 Robert Elder maintains that, far from being antagonistic, honor and evangelicalism actually complemented each other. It is a bold claim that will likely rile more than a few scholars.

The dominant narrative of religion in the Old South assumes that a fervent, experiential kind of evangelicalism took root during the Great Awakening. Warm-hearted evangelists preached a Christ of forgiveness. Church rolls swelled as rich and poor alike converted. For a moment, everyone worshipped together as spiritual equals. Unfortunately, early hopes for genuine democracy quickly faded. The number of slaves increased; the region grew wealthy and powerful. Elites from an honor-based culture held evangelicals in contempt. They refused to repent for a litany of sins, leaving evangelicals to shrink into the shadows. But if this narrative is true, how did the South become synonymous with evangelical religion? Elder answers that question by recasting Southern religious history not as a story of declension and capitulation, but rather as a synchronization of two cultures that were far more similar than dissimilar.

Honor is an ancient concept and, if Bertram Wyatt-Brown was correct, it is bound up with reputation. In the South one acted according to established norms that defined his/her standing in society. It was shameful to behave otherwise and, since one’s behavior was open to near-constant scrutiny, one’s peer community determined both who over-stepped known boundaries and the extent to which they were guilty.

According to Elder, evangelical churches followed a similar pattern, ordering belief and behavior among the faithful. Those not following clearly delineated standards of holiness were subject to church discipline. This is scarcely a revelation, but in comparing evangelical church culture and honor culture, Elder makes a convincing argument that the two often sought similar if not identical ends. His third chapter, “Dual Citizens and a Twice Sacred Circle: Men, Women, and Honor in the Local Church,” is perhaps his most important. With one foot in God’s kingdom and the other in the world, church members held a kind of dual citizenship. Consider violence, a prominent feature of the South’s honor culture. Churches could scarcely condone or overlook violent behavior. Yet, Elder finds evidence that suggests they tended to be more lenient in cases involving male violence. Moreover, Elder cites cases where non-churched individuals like Nathan Bedford Forest actually encouraged religion for the good of everyone in the community. Because they were accustomed to a world where communal authority shaped their identity, few southerners were surprised that evangelical churches cast personal identity in ways that resonated with the surrounding culture. In fact, it all seemed perfectly natural and Elder suggests that one cannot understand modernity in the South apart from this dynamic.

Occasionally an author treats the academy to a book that challenges everything we think we know in a given area. Robert Elder’s The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790–1860 is such a book. He uses an impressive array of sources ranging from sermons and diaries to letters and church records to produce a thoughtful, well-crafted book. Elder’s analysis focuses on South Carolina and Georgia, and some may complain that he needed a more far-ranging sample. He argues, for instance, that the so-called “Nullification Revivals” in the early 1830s galvanized honor and evangelicalism. He is doubtless correct for South Carolina and Georgia, but some may wonder if this was merely one manifestation of a phenomenon that had been at work for some time. He anticipates this criticism and notes that a broader swath of the South would have unnecessarily complicated an already complex study. His assumption that the rest of the South would not look fundamentally different from his sample is more reasonable than not, and subsequent studies will likely prove that he is right. Either way, Elder’s provocative argument is one reason why it is a great time to be studying religion in the South!