Review: Strangers Below

Andrew Gardner

Andrew Gardner is a PhD student in Religion at Florida State University.

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Andrew Gardner, "Review: Strangers Below," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Joshua Guthman. Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 232 pp. ISBN 978-1469624860.

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After hearing Ralph Stanley’s 2002 Grammy-award-winning performance of “O Death” from the film soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Joshua Guthman sought to discover the source of Stanley’s “lonesome sound.” He found the answer in the emotional uncertainty of nineteenth-century Primitive Baptists. Guthman’s Strangers Below: Primitive Baptists and American Culture persuasively argues that resonances of this Primitive Baptist heritage in Stanley and others’ music reveal how formal theological doctrines “escape their ecclesiastical bounds” and become embodied in cultural “practices and moods” (16).

Guthman carves out a more prominent historiographical position for this relatively small religious group. Rather than portraying Primitive Baptists as poor, rural individuals, he frames these anti-missionary Baptists as a group adversarial to the larger pro-missionary Baptist tradition. By reading denominational histories as imaginative documents, highlighting revivalist and salvific uncertainty, and situating this narrative in the unstable market economy of the antebellum period, Guthman convincingly shows how the emotions or moods of doubt and uncertainty saturated the Primitive Baptist experience. These Baptists failed to fit into the larger emotional standards—or “emotionology”—of nineteenth-century revivalists and instead cultivated their own emotional communities that affirmed their experiences of doubt and uncertainty.

The fourth chapter fits the most uneasily in the larger framework of the book. This chapter addresses the black Primitive Baptist experience in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Guthman highlights how this group cultivated embodied congregational practices that harkened back to “various forms of the circle ritual performed…in West and Central Africa” (112). In so doing, he attempts to show how black Primitive Baptists attempted to make spaces for themselves in the postbellum South. Given the importance of space to this argument, the chapter offers a more institutional perspective, focusing on black Primitive Baptists’ construction of schools and a national denominational body. While these differences mark this chapter as an outlier in the book, it offers an example of how theological doctrines were embodied in the practices and moods of a particular segment of the Primitive Baptist experience.

The final chapter addresses the question of the “lonesome sound” that spurred Guthman’s project, and it is the clear culmination of his work. Guthman explores the lives and music of Roscoe Holcomb and Ralph Stanely as he attempts to capture the Primitive Baptist essence of their sound. As Guthman argues, “a sense of uncertainty is encoded in [their] music” (142). The chapter succinctly encapsulates Guthman’s larger argument regarding the ways theological doctrine can become embodied in practice as well in a particular emotional mood. As Guthman shows, the principles and ideology of nineteenth-century Primitive Baptists can be heard in the musical sounds and performances of Holcomb, Stanley, and others.

While Strangers Below offers a compelling argument for the ways this music embodies a nineteenth-century Primitive Baptist ethos, Guthman might have better situated his study within a larger Baptist historiography. He begins his treatment of Primitive Baptists in the nineteenth century at Abbotts Creek Baptist Church, but he does not trace the history of this congregation to its founding in 1756 nor to its “mother church,” Sandy Creek Baptist Church, a Separate Baptist congregation, founded a year prior. Such a connection would have allowed Guthman to examine Sandy Creek’s pastor Shubal Stearns, a preacher known for his distinct musical preaching style. As it stands, however, an analysis of this history as well as the role of musicality in preaching remain vacant from this study. By not including any of this history, Guthman’s work raises questions as to the distinctiveness and heritage of this allegedly Calvinistic “lonesome sound.” At the very least, a discussion of the musicality of preaching would have offered another helpful stratum to an already layered study. In addition to missing this opportunity, at times Guthman over-zealously characterizes Primitive Baptists in ways that belie their small size and countercultural nature in the American religious landscape.

Guthman’s Strangers Below is nonetheless filled with great insight. The book should be of interest to scholars of southern (and specifically Appalachian) history, emotion, and religion, religion and popular culture, as well as to scholars of Baptist history. Guthman contributes greatly to the history of this small group of often overlooked nineteenth-century.