Southern Cross at Twenty: Reflections on a Field-Changing Work

Elizabeth L. Jemison

Assistant Professor of Religion at Clemson University

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Elizabeth L. Jemison, "Southern Cross at Twenty: Reflections on a Field-Changing Work," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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As I reread my well-thumbed copy of Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, the timeliness of its arguments and the elegance of its storytelling struck me more clearly than they had in the years since I first encountered the work as an undergraduate. Heyrman synthesized scholarship across several fields while advancing what was a startling but compelling argument when she first made it—that the dominance of evangelical Christianity in the antebellum South was halting and uncertain, unlikely rather than inevitable. Southern Cross demonstrated this field-changing claim through an extensive collection of the journals and letters of scores of preachers, laypeople, skeptical observers, and others. Through Heyrman’s vivid prose, her readers do not simply hear ministers preach; we watch laywomen’s “faces on which the sun had set a spider’s web of wrinkles” as these faithful women scan the horizon for itinerants to appear (161). Twenty years after its initial publication, the book still speaks to contemporary debates in American religious history and southern history, with some of its arguments about how evangelical populism grew into a movement of apologists for patriarchal hierarchy perhaps more relevant today than when it was first published.1

The genius of Southern Cross lies in the way that it centers its analysis of evangelical Christianity squarely on issues of family, gender, and race. Through its wealth of primary sources, this work demonstrates that no study of southern Christianity can treat the hierarchical structures that increasingly defined the South as a distinct region as ancillary to evangelical devotional practice, church organization, or theology. Household order in a slaveholding society dictated the challenges of evangelical growth across the region and shaped the contours of southern evangelicalism’s eventual transformation into a religious system that upheld white men’s mastery over wives, households, and slaves. As Heyrman charts the challenges of youthful Methodist itinerants or local Baptist preachers, she never loses sight of the power of gender and racial hierarchies to direct the paths of southern evangelicals, as they resisted and accommodated these forces.

Before the Revolution, religion under Anglican establishments had rarely disputed patriarchy, yet, as Heyrman shows, as women and men in the early Republic began to make individual choices about adherence and church membership, men who might otherwise have been religiously apathetic became “furious opposers” of evangelicalism’s threat to their authority (189). Laywomen were serious theological interlocutors for local ministers, rather than merely hostesses or listeners. Brash young preachers presumed to have religious authority to override local kinship networks, sometimes launching into antislavery tirades against local leaders. Church structures, especially in early Methodism, reinforced these young preachers’ authority over church members easily old enough to be their parents. Evangelicalism disrupted marriage norms, too. Church discipline proceedings inquired into private family matters. Young women who followed the evangelical practice of marrying only other members of their church gave their congregations greater power than their parents in their choice of a spouse. Itinerants often lamented marriages among their ranks as the loss of previously faithful ministers to the worldly pursuit of a settled family. Some wives’ domestic labor lapsed because of their religious fervor, much to their husbands’ chagrin. Early evangelicalism in the South, Heyrman shows, did not merely upend devotional and worship practices; it sought to establish entirely new social and household norms with little regard, initially, for a slave society’s rigid hierarchies. Through such insights, Heyrman has demonstrated clearly that evangelicalism’s ascent across the region appeared thoroughly unlikely in its early years.

Evangelicalism shifted to accommodate southern hierarchy in order to grow across the region, and its expanding success reinforced these changes. Rather than entertaining laywomen as serious religious discussants, preachers began to pride themselves on correcting women and on women’s submission to men’s spiritual leadership. Local ministers reinforced husbands’ power over wives, even if the wives alone were evangelicals, as they encouraged women not to attend church if their husbands forbade it. Women increasingly waited to join a church of their husband’s choosing, rather than asserting their own choices earlier. Through such shifts, white southern men grew to embrace evangelicalism as a bulwark to their patriarchal power, rather than as a threat. Yet, this progress toward mastery was not absolute. Southern white men, worried by the emotive piety that evangelicals valued, continued to express concerns about what Heyrman terms the “unmanly dependence” of evangelical worship (214). Still, after the first quarter of the nineteenth century, southern evangelicalism had decidedly joined forces with southern social order, before the years when southern white evangelicals began defending slavery in earnest.

This central argument about the unlikely rise of southern evangelicalism and the ways that evangelicals embraced southern mastery in order to be embraced by southerners has become canonical for historians of American religion and of southern history ever since Heyrman advanced it. Evangelicalism must not be studied, this work clearly demonstrated, apart from rigorous analysis of the social hierarchies and other structures of power in which it embedded itself.  Yet, Southern Cross has also expanded historians’ understanding of religion and culture in this period in several additional ways. Heyrman explored religious worlds of Christian piety, demonic phantoms, and unexplained wonders far beyond the bounds of southern evangelicalism as she explained the unlikely rise and dramatic transformations of populist evangelicalism in the first decades of the Republic. In doing so, Southern Cross charts new paths forward for evangelical studies in particular and American religious history more broadly.

The book introduced scholars to the strength and appeal of southern Anglicanism, explaining how it posed a formidable challenge to early evangelicalism. Where earlier narratives emphasized the weaknesses of Anglican priests and parish models in the American colonies and the obvious advantages of evangelical insurgents against Anglican authorities, Heyrman insisted that Anglicans had many more advantages than the state-sponsored power of establishment. Anglicans’ comfort with dancing, drinking, and other amusements made evangelicals’ stringent eschewal of those pleasures hard to countenance. In Anglicanism, southerners found a gentle, palatable Christian practice, one that evangelical austerity struggled to match. Heyrman read evangelical accounts of the inadequacy of childhood Anglicanism as evidence that family devotions and catechesis laid the groundwork for many future evangelical preachers’ and laypeople’s conversions. For many, Anglicanism was a first step toward evangelical commitment, not a religious foil against which true (evangelical) Christianity emerged more clearly. Early evangelicalism in the South found most of its early converts among those already Christianized and catechized by competing groups, and Heyrman has shown that scholars of evangelicalism ignore Anglican piety at the risk of misunderstanding evangelical conversion.

Southern Cross avoids the Anglo-American Calvinist-centered approach that has remained dominant in many histories of evangelicalism, by casting a much broader net to understand evangelical antecedents and influences. Southern evangelicals learned from Jonathan Edwards and his congregants like young Phebe Bartlet, to be sure, but evangelical models also included Quakers in seventeenth-century England, and Moravians early eighteenth-century Berthelsdorf. Drawing from scholarship on early modern wonders across the Atlantic world and on the influence of Moravians and German pietists in the creation of evangelicalism, Heyrman brings early southern evangelicals into conversation with broader Atlantic and European religious movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Exemplary evangelical women faced accusations that their religious fervor suggested sexual license, much as Quaker and Shaker women experienced, a charge that later evangelicals would ignore as they painted a cult of domesticity back onto earlier generations. Heyrman illumines these unruly elements of early evangelicalism, epitomized by the fierce attacks of an anthropomorphic Satan on William Glendinning, a Methodist preacher. Satan prowled menacingly in early evangelical worlds of lay and ministerial imaginations. Southern evangelical preachers found regulating lay piety challenging, and some worked to tame the wonder-filled theological ideas of their congregations by painting such ideas as African. Relying on white southerners’ aversion to anything African, evangelical preachers reinforced racial hierarchy as they rejected excesses of personal piety. Through wide ranging reading in early modern and eighteenth-century Protestant histories and her own extensive source base, Heyrman resists reading later nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments back on her generation of early southern evangelicals.

That some questions persist in reading Southern Cross twenty years after its initial publication further reveals the strength of Heyrman’s work. I wonder how more analysis of the “language of Canaan,” specifically biblical references, might illumine the ways that early southern evangelicals shaped their arguments around family and social order as evangelicalism shifted from a countercultural challenge into a patriarchal system of mastery. Given the deep Biblicism of the book’s lay and ministerial subjects, analysis of how these figures quoted or referenced the Bible could add an important layer of depth to Southern Cross’s claims. Perhaps, too, those losing out amid evangelicalism’s southern transformation, namely women and African Americans, pushed back at these changes with Bible verses that suggested a more bottom-up ideal of Christian authority. Heyrman offers tantalizing clues that early evangelicals who were willing to upend southern family values read the Bible differently than those who, by the later antebellum decades, had transformed evangelicalism into a bulwark for slavery’s hierarchy. Young Methodist preacher William Spencer rejoiced in 1796 that although he “has left all to follow” the Lord, “I have Fathers and Mothers, Brothers and Sisters, houses and Lands in great Abundance,” suggesting, through paraphrasing Mark’s Gospel, that the Bible supported disruption to family order (149). A half century later, in his 1848 memoir, John Brooks adopted instead the martial Pauline language of mastery from II Timothy as he anticipated hearing God, “the commander-in-chief,” say to the faithful Christian soldiers, “you have fought a good fight, you have kept the faith” (244). Following these changes in this language of Canaan may have bolstered Heyrman’s successful arguments that evangelicalism transformed itself to become an anchor of the antebellum social order.2

Southern Cross remains a masterful treatment of southern religious history and an essential text for understanding the relationship between evangelicalism and social hierarchies of gender, race, and class in the South. Twenty years after its initial publication garnered the Bancroft Prize, this work offers important insights on the connections between evangelicalism’s populism and its support for patriarchal and white supremacist power. As Heyrman notes in an early discussion of southern patriarchal resistance to youthful Methodist itinerants’ authority, “a fine irony” emerged where “lay concerns for honoring those entrenched local hierarchies were expressed in demands for the ‘democratizing’ of Methodist Church governance” (100–101). Local southern communities sought to diminish itinerants’ power through greater lay leadership precisely because this more democratic structure would allow laypeople to enforce accepted social norms of deference to age, class, gender, and race. Such transformations repeatedly marked the historical narrative that Heyrman tells in Southern Cross. Evangelical populism did not merely fade into an endorsement of the patriarchal structures of a slave society; populism enabled this shift by giving lay leadership and local practices greater influence. Methodists and Baptists preached liberation to the oppressed and, increasingly, embraced the increasingly rigid patriarchy of their white male leaders—both lay and clergy. These men, mostly heads of modest households, and few of whom could afford to own slaves, found in evangelicalism a means to write themselves into the fabric of a society increasingly structured around slavery. The price for evangelicalism’s southern growth was its embrace of household and social hierarchies, and as Heyrman’s Southern Cross continues to teach its readers that southern evangelicals found the price a fair one as they created a southern Bible belt.

1 All parenthetical citations from the 1997 paperback edition: Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997; reprint, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

2 Spencer appears to paraphrase closely Luke 18:29-30 (similar passages to which appear in Matthew 19:29 and Mark 10:29–30). Luke 18:29–30: “And he [Jesus] said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” (KJV).  John Brooks referenced II Timothy 4:7 “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (KJV).