Reflections on Christine Heyrman's Southern Cross

Jason C. Bivins

Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University

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Jason C. Bivins, "Reflections on Christine Heyrman's Southern Cross," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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This book is a lamp. I have been reading it periodically, in parts or in whole, for most of its published life. I have taught it to students, and learned from it immeasurably myself. Having the occasion to reread it during this crazed summer, I continue to find new delights in it. Not just the sheer pleasure of reading Heyrman, who is a dazzling writer, nor the exquisite (and often deeply amusing) hooks and anecdotes that pepper each page. The book is a marvel in its continued illumination of new dimensions of American religion, southern culture, and public life more broadly.

For anyone who has read the book, it goes without saying that Heyrman’s command of the archive is off the charts. But beyond diligence and capaciousness of investigation, this work helps us understand the particularities of nascent evangelical ways of viewing the world, and of experiencing that world bodily and emotionally. There are several dimensions to this, as I read the book. First, is what we might think of as the habitus of enchantment and demonology. Heyrman devotes a chapter explicitly to this theme, focusing not only on the objects of early evangelical scorn—those lesser others, like the “Madeira-tippling, money-grubbing wastrels” who embodied wrongful clergy—but tracing the ways demonology takes shape through the sobriety/enthusiasm dynamic that is pervasive in this early tradition. She draws a bead on the fantastical, demon-haunted imaginary that’s always here. And indeed, when we read about Glendinning, we are tempted to think about the possible centrality of demonology to far more than evangelicalism alone: the “spooky spectacles” are those of the demos itself, a larger Freudian fort-da at the heart of public conceptions of citizenship, no mere remainder from the purported triumph of reason but evidence of how each new America is always also Greil Marcus’s “old, weird America.”

Heyrman also shows us not merely how central gender and race were to the fashioning of evangelical selves, but how these categories cannot be understood without attending to the tightly woven relation between sentimentality and exoticism. And we can, in some sense, see all the different dimensions of her understanding at work in the outrageously compelling Mary MacDonald anecdote that opens the book, surely one of the very liveliest openings to a work of American religious history (and one that I use in my classes, year after year after year). But Heyrman’s analysis of gender extends beyond domesticity and the feminine to take in the cultivation of sentimental attachments fundamental to itinerancy itself, where the evangelist is an object of desire and also a confirmation of our own (possibly dangerous, possibly gendered) desires. What’s more, her focus on the complexities of mastery and manliness is truly rich, ranging from the ruggedness of John Brooks (who intimidated one fellow so much that he is said to have escaped up a chimney) and the gendered critique of certain preacherly enthusiasms (e.g., Dougherty’s “lady” voice and Asbury’s long lashes). Heyrman is equally subtle in her reading of race. For however compelling and undeniable is the American fear/fascination in the face of race and the “exotic,” Heyrman links it to evangelical confessional impulses in ways that provoke us to associate race-talk, and perhaps Other-ing more broadly, with the American therapeutic, the inverse (or the deflection) of the demonological obsession.

There is also, of course, the rich treatment of bodily enthusiasm and emotions in Southern Cross. Before Ann Taves’s equally marvelous Fits, Trances, and Visions, Heyrman traced the agonisms of the evangelical body and performance. What I find so enriching about this treatment, though, is the elegant way Heyrman suggests that these debates about religious expression are simultaneously debates about liberal persons and citizenship. If doubt, wonder, and witness make for a history and an identity, then being seen—with all its controversies over expression and enthusiasm—is part of constituting a public will. It is utterly fascinating that questions of theology, praxis, and religious style are being worked out not just simultaneously to those of public life and national identity but in conversation with them. Behind the all-American theme of citizens “touting their peculiarities as superiorities,” Heyrman directs us to see the fear of popular power behind many of these stylistic, performative anxieties. The crafting of spheres for performance, domesticity, and race, then, was essential to the formation of liberalism’s institutional and emotional regimes.

Finally, perhaps the largest and most lamp-like implication of Heyrman’s text is providing us a window into a vivid historical moment during which very different groups of Americans strove to create “religion” over and against enthusiasm, magic, and diabolism. That very enchanted quality to things American—which Cotton Mather knew, though invisible, and which Francis Asbury sensed as a power that moved in competing moral currents—was what made possible the performative, emotional thrills of the new evangelical idiom, drawing on sources at the boundaries of respectability and the salvific. Dreams, visions, visitations, and ecstasies spilled over what extant authorities could control, and thus unsettled the boundaries of religion. Yet, this was the boiling, bodily work that pointed not to the rejection of the category but its refashioning.

Like the very best academic work, there is the text itself—abundant, admirable, creative, compelling—but also the worlds of thinking into which the text delivers us. The first time I read this book, the southern roots of my father’s side came alive in my imagination and I understood my family and their region a bit better. In all my subsequent readings, including this summer’s, I came also to understand better the region in which I’ve lived since 2000. The book’s deep historical, and theological nuance evokes a roiling rather than a temperate past, filled not just with demons contesting the devout but multiple and competing Christianities. It is a typology of early evangelicalism, a compendium of interiority, and a record of religious domesticity and emergent publics. Flannery O’Connor once attested, “It is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth.” Heyrman’s book does that, too.