Fear, Sex, and Language in the Bible Belt

John Corrigan

Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor of Religion, Professor of History, and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University

Cite this Article

John Corrigan, "Fear, Sex, and Language in the Bible Belt," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018): jsreligion.org/vol20/corrigan.

Open-access license

This work is licensed CC-BY. You are encouraged to make free use of this publication.
Creative Commons License

Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt has been fundamental to my thinking about religion in America since its publication twenty years ago. For years it has been required reading in my undergraduate survey of religion in America, and it has been a standard in my nineteenth century century graduate seminar. I estimate that as many as one thousand of my students have reviewed the book (a requirement in my survey course), including one who wrote a remarkably informed review, but one that I discovered in the end to be a little too remarkable, it being drawn mostly verbatim from the review that was originally published in this journal. That JSR review praised Southern Cross as “a wonderful book—incisive, far-seeing, and passionate,” a good call in my opinion, but it left out that the book was groundbreaking, judicious, and timely. It was the last of those virtues that made the book especially important to my teaching. In the late twentieth century, when the writing on the wall was unmistakable that religion and politics were entwining in new ways, and that regional differences had something to do with that, Southern Cross provided a lead to refining our conceptualizations of the relationship between the South and the rest of the country, religion-wise. It did so by further clarifying that the South, historically, was neither stable nor static, but rather was dynamic, protean, a hybrid not a monolith, its social instability guaranteed not only by the oppressive racism and patriarchy that constantly churned its class-saturated cultural world, but also by the fearful dreams of the region’s Christians.

The colonial South north of Florida was more inclined to a practical and commercial view of the aims of settlement than the builders of the holy commonwealths of New England or the Spanish Catholics who established a string of missions from St. Augustine to Biloxi. For New Englanders, the world was enchanted. The “desart” of the New World was rich with miracles, at once mysterious, powerful, dangerous. Wolves might shape-shift into Indians, witches, demons, or other animals; winds blew and tides surged as never before; the smells of both death and perfume were always in the air; monsters were born of women; and God’s hand could be seen in everything. New England was a “world of wonders” that never ceased to startle and amaze. The Spanish, equally intoxicated by wonder, searched for the Fountain of Youth, spoke of proximity to Eden, and believed in cities made of gold bricks. The Virginia Company took a less fantastic view of their operations in North America and the English emigres who dutifully constructed Anglican churches in the tidewater and later the piedmont were less interested in the ethereal than the material. Class status, patriarchy, manners, respect for elders, the racial divide, and the nonstop game to acquire land structured the sensibilities of Virginians and eventually the communities of Charleston and Savannah and points inland. New Englanders and the Catholics in La Florida bled religious emotion all over the landscape. In the South, the “highly restrictive emotional regime,” as Kyle Osborn recently has phrased it, determined a different religious world.1

But then evangelical missionaries arrived. Framing her argument for the infiltration of evangelicalism into the unexcited religiosity of the South, Heyrman characterized the stepping-off point for evangelical missionaries as the cultivation of fear in southern hearts. “It became the goal of evangelicals,” she wrote, “to persuade both the Anglican faithful and the unchurched that resting content in this kind of Christianity entailed a dangerous complacency” (8). Persuasion took the form of fostering belief in an invisible world of demons and devils, with its vast horrifying landscapes of hellfire and wailing souls, and its manifold realities of pure evil represented not least by the characters who were consigned there: killers, rapists, traitors, the dishonorable. Understood within the broader context of Western religious history, evangelicals preached an enchanted world. They coaxed from Anglicans and the unchurched a cultural memory of a wondrous unseen territory. It was not, however, a world teeming with angels or restorative fountains, but with the horror and misery conjured by Dante, Bosch, and Milton. Heyrman’s detailing of the process of evangelical fear-mongering is crucial to the argument of the book. It is not often fully observed by readers who focus on the subsequent discussions of evangelical adaptation to the cultural mores of the region, and especially regarding patriarchy, class, age, race, and other such factors. The emotional framework for the conversion of the South to evangelicalism is of utmost importance for appreciating the subsequent history of the South, including the events of the twenty-first century.

The depth and breadth of a culture of fear, grounded in anxieties about death and the beyond, is expertly evidenced in Southern Cross. It is clear in Heyrman’s narrative that fear itself in fact was always close to the surface of southern life and that the work of evangelicals in frightening their target populations was neither arduous nor slow in producing effects. It would have been mildly surprising had evangelicals not succeeded as they had. Slaveowners lived in constant fear of revolt, fear that the currents of violence that flowed through southern plantation life would at some point change direction and carry them off. Well before Nat Turner, that anxiety was highly-pitched. In the late eighteenth century, as evangelicals made their way into the region, slave resistance was broadly reported, as in the case of the uprising at Bowler Cocke’s plantation in Hanover, Virginia in 1770. There, the “Negroes belonging to the plantation having long been treated with too much lenity and indulgence, were grown extremely insolent and unruly; Mr. Cocke therefore had employed a new Steward.” The slaves in turn “threatened to kill the Steward as soon as he came to the plantation,” and consequently attacked him and his deputies “with desperate fury, armed with clubs and staves.”2 However real it got, southerners could not confess their fear of slave rebellion without admitting the ever-present dangers of slaveowning, but then such an admission would have contested the wisdom of the plantation system itself. Framed together in such a predicament, the oppression of slaves and the repression of fear were conjoined.

The discussion of fear in Southern Cross is set within a narrative that addresses issues not only of race, but the broader matrix of southern anxieties about social order. It offers a picture of the fear of social chaos, a sense of the tenuousness of southern society even as the surface of that society gave the appearance of rooted tradition and stable relations among its constituent parts. When evangelicals began making headway—and did so while challenging the legitimacy of status based on wealth, sex, race, age and other factors—southerners became even more alarmed, more fearful that their order was threatened. That cascading emotional response played perfectly into the hands of evangelicals, who had names for it (fear of God, fear of hell, fear of the devil), a framework for understanding it as a spiritual crisis, and a use for it. Part of my enthusiasm for Southern Cross when it was first published was for its foray into incorporating emotional life into historical scholarship. That its contribution on that front has held up well over time bespeaks the carefulness of the analysis and also respect for what was in the sources, a strategic practice that enabled recognition of feelings as just as important as ideas about race or class.

Historian of American religion Amanda Porterfield has written insightfully about the issue of sex in early nineteenth-century evangelicalism. She has pointed out how evangelicals linked skepticism to sexual immorality and how they condemned “sexual license” as a serious threat to social order. The struggle against religious skepticism was advanced in “the onslaught of evangelical campaigns linking sexual permissiveness to infidelity” and given a sharp focus as evangelicals “paired vices of skeptical reason and sexual pleasure.”3 In the South, sex was one more thing constrained within a culture of manners descended from a racial patriarchy. Sex was a particular problem in the South, moreover, because of the pervasive worry that white women would have sex with black men. One reason that sex was highly charged in the South was because it potentially brought together so many related fears, including upheavals of orders of race, class, male authority, honor, reputation, and the various biological concerns over miscegenation. Given its particular interwovenness with race, especially, it would be surprising if, in cultivating fear among southerners, evangelicals did not address the fraught issue of sexuality as a way of challenging the unchurched or the relaxed Anglicans. After the Civil War, as southerners labored to fashion a workable understanding of what had happened and who they were, miscegenation became a more serious issue.4 As the plantation culture suffered damage, sexual manners and mores remained central to the project of a reimagined South. Southern Cross, were it rewritten today, could draw upon the intervening two decades of historical scholarship on evangelicalism and sex to great advantage. There is a fear there, about sex as with race, an anxiety about the power of desire and the desire for power.

Heryman emphasizes the importance of language in the rise of the evangelical movement in the South, proposing that it “unified all evangelicals in the early American South” (1). Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists shared an understanding of language—certain words, phrases, tropes, canons—as a currency that circulated among the converted, representing their experiences, the places and times of their experiences, and their aspirations for living a regenerate life. The details of doctrine were less important than the shared recognition that a certain experience, expressed in linguistic codes, formed the core of spiritual life: “While differing over which theological beliefs most closely conformed to biblical teachings, and how best to organize their churches, all spoke the language of Canaan” (4). Talk of God and the soul was a performative feat, carried off successfully by the initiated, questioned by the uninitiated, and sought after by the curious and especially by those whose fear was breaking the surface of their manners. The language of Canaan for all its effectiveness in communicating a certain understanding of evangelical religious experience nevertheless was a fluid and shifting language. The dramatic adaptation of evangelicalism to southern social conventions—a development articulated in the perfectly crafted locution that it “learned to speak with a southern accent”—was enabled by the slipperiness of language as much as by the specific meanings that language conveyed (26).

But the question remains for the early South, just as it does for the South of the twenty-first century: what, if anything, was conveyed in language beyond a sense of a shared emotional experience that exchanged a certain measure of guilt and fear for a sampling of assurance and peace of mind? How did language communicate that experience; was a performance of language itself the experience; was ambiguity of expression the central fact of the performance; and/or was language simply as a species of embodied transaction the main event? With regard to the last of these, was the act of “speaking” a different language, less than the actual act of naming, a physical exercise— and a deliberately public one— that formed evangelical identity and differentiated those speakers from others? That was the gist of Harry S. Stout’s analysis of the speech of late eighteenth-century New England evangelical preachers, the seedbed for those who came to the South.5 It is clear that by “language” Heyrman means more than just words that mattered in the progress of evangelicalism in the early South. The language of Canaan was a worldview, a way of life, a knowledge and attitude publicly enacted. And the case seems to be similar with regard to the contemporary South, where a large majority of evangelicals have little idea of the doctrines associated with the churches they attend.6 To speak out, to rebel, to invoke images of cosmic accounting and justice, to publicly demand honor: these have been hallmarks of the South, of the Confederacy that was formed to preserve southern slaveholders, of a popular culture featuring pickup trucks and fast cars, college football pageantry, accented speech, guns, distinctive music, and a suite of emotional rules that have been reversed over two centuries, from repressive to aggressively expressive. But aside from the circus at Dayton, Tennessee in 1925 and the occasional disagreements among leaders of religious associations, there has been little interest in doctrine. The language of Canaan remains, but it is language in the sense of a cypher, the encrypted instructions for belonging, part feeling, part belief, part behavior, part tradition, part resistance to tradition, all performance.

These thoughts about feeling and speaking suggest potential historical connections with the not-South. That is, the South of the Bible Belt might be let out a notch or two, geographically-speaking, in order to take into account the course of evangelical growth in other locations. While it is a truism nowadays to observe that the global context matters, Southern Cross for all of its clarity and insight begs revision with an eye to the international setting of southern evangelicalism. Charles Reagan Wilson’s Southern Missions: The Religion of the American South in Global Perspective (2006) made a good stab at defining the ways in which events in Europe helped shape the coalescence of evangelicalism in the South. Recent research by Paul Harvey, Emily Clark, Travis Glasson, and others has demonstrated the importance of north Florida, the Caribbean, and Africa to the history of religion in the South. Jon F. Sensbach, who writes about a South “before the Bible Belt,” likewise has prompted scholars to reconsider how and why evangelicalism emerged against the background of other religious histories of the South, including Spanish/French Florida and the Caribbean. And the ascension of the idea of an Atlantic World over the last twenty years has altered the terms guiding any history of religion on the eastern shores of North America. My sense is that while the core arguments in Southern Cross would stand up well to additional analysis incorporating international events, the argument will improve through some comparative elaboration of the ways in which evangelicalism accommodated itself to equally fraught contexts in Africa, the Caribbean, and the British Isles.7

In 2018, there is a rich white man in the White House who came to power stoking the fears of Americans. He inflamed their anxieties about immigrants, liberals, the media, globalism, the deep state, and above all race. His base was and is white evangelicals. In his own way, he is a missionary carrying to disenchanted Americans a gospel of fear and a promise to relieve it. Donald Trump, a New Yorker who has never been an evangelical, has reinvigorated the Bible Belt, blindly reaching into its worried heart and drawing out of it, for fresh examination and appraisal, the demons and devils who took up residence there generations ago. His redeployment of the language of Canaan has taken the form of a wink, wink/nod, nod exercise, a message conveyed less in a transparent vocabulary than in dog whistles and innuendo, a language that amounts largely to alarmist warnings about colored bodies. His language of Canaan, as in the early evangelical South, is a theater of fear.8

I intend to read many more student reviews of Southern Cross, a groundbreaking book that still offers the clearest and most thorough historical explanation for the beginnings of the Bible Belt. Hopefully none will be versions of this one, or of the others published as part of this panel.


1 Kyle Nicholas Osborn, “Masters of Fate: Efficacy and Emotion in the Civil War South” (Ph.D. diss., University of Georgia, 2014).

2 Virginia Gazette, January 25, 1770.

3 Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 89, 93.

4 Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).

5 Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34 (1977): 519–533.

6 See the summary in “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey: Executive Summary,” Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, September 28, 2010, <http://www.pewforum.org/2010/09/28/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey/> (accessed Sept. 4, 2017).

7 Charles Reagan Wilson, Southern Missions: The Religion of the American South in Global Perspective (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), Paul Harvey, Christianity and Race in the American South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Emily Suzanne Clark, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Travis Glasson, Mastering ChristianityMissionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (New YorkOxford University Press, 2012); Jon F. Sensbach, “Before the Bible Belt: Indians, Africans, and the New Synthesis of Eighteenth Century Southern Religious History,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, eds. Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 5–29 and “Religion and the Early South in an Age of Atlantic Empire,” Journal of Southern History 73 (2007): 631–42, and Before the Bible Belt: Religions of the Early South (forthcoming, Harvard University Press).

8 Related commentary on this point is Randall Balmer, “Under Trump, Evangelicals Show Their True Racist Colors,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2017. <http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-balmer-evangelical-trump-racism-20170823-story.html> (accessed Sept. 6, 2017).

css.php