Mapping Evangelicalism: Reflecting on Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross through the Lens of Historical GIS

Nicole Myers Turner

Assistant Professor of African American History at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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Nicole Myers Turner, "Mapping Evangelicalism: Reflecting on Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross through the Lens of Historical GIS," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Among the many glowing reviews of Christine Heyrman’s Southern Cross was one that suggested the book would be used for a long time to come. The review was right. This roundtable on the twentieth anniversary of its publication is evidence. The book made a major contribution to the study of evangelicalism by problematizing a central assumption popular in the 1980s—that the South was always an evangelical stronghold. The book challenged this assumption by providing a carefully researched, compelling narrative of the evolution of evangelicalism. The research was so fine that the book was awarded the Bancroft Prize. The question, the story, the research, all garnered admiring recognition then and twenty years later, these same facets make this book an intriguing read through the framework and methodology of historical geographic information systems (GIS) mapping.

This book provides a useful basis for thinking about mapping religion because at its core it is a story of place and the dynamic changes in the elements of culture that define a place. Heyrman’s telling of the story of this place is particularly notable because of the way she separates religious culture from the other facets of southern culture—slavery and the patriarchal household—and because of how she defines the region by linking common cultural values across geographic distances. In addition to the supple use of the concept of place, Heyrman uses the concept of movement to explain how evangelicalism became integrated into southern culture. Methodists’ reliance on itinerant ministers and Baptists’ tendency to avoid this practice crystalized the central tension between evangelicalism and southern patriarchal culture—the displacement of the patriarchal authority. Through these depictions, Heyrman makes a spatial argument about evangelicalism’s rise in the antebellum South without explicitly calling it to the fore. With the benefit of the past thirty years of scholarship on GIS mapping from many disciplinary angles, I call out how much the spatial narrative of the rise of evangelicalism shapes the argument and contributes to the continuing influence of this well-lauded study. I use a “systematic spatial analysis” to illuminate how Heyrman’s depiction helps us understand how and why religious culture changes.1 A systematic spatial analysis of how evangelicalism became part of southern patriarchal slaveholding culture that engages the themes of region, movement, place and location, illustrates how mapping evangelicalism could complement Heyrman’s description, generate new questions and insights about religious culture and explain how evangelicalism was not just a factor but a force in cultural change.

Mapping the spread of evangelicalism would complement Heyrman’s depiction of how evangelicalism marked the south as culturally distinct. Heyrman used the western frontier to highlight how evangelicalism adapted to the southern cultural landscape. The western frontier of Tennessee and Kentucky were connected to, but distinct from the South of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, and as such provided a contrasting point of comparison against which southern evangelicalism appeared more sharply. For example, women were more readily displaced from leadership in the settled south than in the western frontier. In Heyrman’s account the west received southerners, sometimes in groups large enough to affect the composition of the emerging communities and large enough to play a role in changing community norms and practices. The western frontier was a place where women’s subordination was constantly being remade (“a continuing achievement,” she called it). A map might enhance this depiction further. The difference in women’s status in these two regions at the same time begs the question of why these differences existed.2 Since maps make arguments about the relationship between places and invite the viewer to interpret the argument, mapping the places where women were pushed out of leadership and the places where their leadership endured could set up the viewer to ask questions about why the differences existed. This set of questions would lead the viewer to the insight about the distinctiveness of the south that the contrasting depiction of the western frontier provided. Such a map would complement Heyrman’s written explanations of those differences and clarify the role of the western frontier as a point of comparison. It would also further extend discussion about defining the region and the role of religion in creating that place.

Distinctions between the southern and western frontier regions illuminate what was special about the southern evangelicalism, but the constant movement of itinerant ministers fostered conflict that, once resolved, played a salient role in establishing evangelicalism on firmer ground. Mapping these movements could generate new questions and insights about itinerancy and the development of evangelicalism. Heyrman’s depiction of itinerant preachers illuminates how much the evangelicalism’s spread relied on their movement. Heyrman theorizes that the lack of an itinerant ministry (and not the democratic culture) in Baptist churches fostered schisms and the emergence of new churches in that denomination. Meanwhile, itinerant ministers built networks of support among the farmers’ wives who hosted and supported them. Mapping the spatial data related to itinerancy might extend the story about the significance of itinerancy. Seeing the temporal and spatial relationships between events might shed further light on causation.3 This is particularly relevant to the relationship between itinerancy and schism. Heyrman explained how the tensions that emerged from itinerancy manifested in conflicts between the young preachers who traveled and were imbued with more authority than the older patriarchs and located ministers in their congregations. Might there be other factors that increased the possibility of schism that can be understood by knowing and seeing a bit more of the geographic and temporal proximity of itinerants, churches and schisms? Might it help us learn more about how migration might spread ideas, conflict or how much an individual caused communities to divide?

One way that place and movement come to play in Heyrman’s study is through the relationship between the itinerant ministers and women. The constant movements of the itinerant minister made them need the hospitality of the small farmers’ wives. Their travels brought them into intimate contact with these women, and they personally learned of these “mothers in Israel’s” spiritual gifts. It is impressive, then, that despite itinerant travel drawing on women’s service, the dominating forces of patriarchal control triumphed in occluding and excluding women from authoritative leadership because itinerants’ recognizing these women threatened patriarchal power. This development reminds me of the adage, “wherever you go, there you are.” So, while itinerancy surely created tensions between young and old men, it was not sufficient to overcome the structures of patriarchy. If mapped, these movements could demonstrate the connection between itinerants and women leaders, between located ministers and schism. Perhaps we could better understand the magnitude of movement—how many people moved and to where and how often such movements resulted in schisms—and we might be surprised to find a tipping point for movement that would inform current studies of migration, religious practice, and conflict. Mapping these movements could also shed light on how evangelicalism as a culture, rooted in movement, also created space.

While itinerancy, migration, and movement clearly set up conflicts that explain how and why evangelicalism took root in the South in the ways that it did, the fact that the conflicts were initiated by southerners bring into view how religion worked as a force for cultural change. It was not a clash of regional cultures like a north-south divide that produced the tension but, rather, the religious ideal that conflicted with other cultural norms of the South. This may seem obvious; religion was the central issue in Heyrman’s text. But analyzing developments through the framework of place and noting the locations or even origins of key figures allows the power of religion to come more fully into view. The characteristics that make the South a distinctive place, separate from the North or western frontier, were its cultural practices around emotions, worship, gender roles, and family life. In this context, evangelicalism was a new cultural form that had to adapt to the South in order to survive. What is striking is that the purveyors of this new cultural form were themselves southerners. William Glendinning, who figures prominently in the first chapter, was sent from Virginia for respite in North Carolina to deal with his demons. John Meacham also hailed from Virginia, and he traveled to Georgia and back. While Heyrman made great use of these individuals to depict the generational gaps that emerged, the fact that they were themselves southerners was less pronounced.

Heyrman’s study illustrates how much can be profitably understood about religion without explicitly adopting a spatial methodology. I have endeavored to illustrate what can be further understood by explicitly naming and using such a framework in place by describing (or in some cases imagining) what new insights, views and interpretations might emerge from mapping the spatial data and systematically asking questions about place and space. Mapping projects of the sort I have described could be used to engage students in primary source research. One way to begin exploring the nuances of the spatial narrative would be to return to the southern evangelical literature with the intention to limn the spatial data from the narratives. Identify places, events, and dates, but with the intention not just to catalogue but to represent them spatially and interpret the relationships among the data. Gathering information about where ministers went and what they did might be the basis of such an exploration. Such a project would have the further benefit of engaging students in primary research that focuses on central questions in the field and uses new technologies.4

In addition to opening new research angles and methodologies, spatial analysis puts religion in a new explanatory light and highlights the value of spatial analysis to the study of religious history. This study helps us look at the interaction between religious culture and other cultural elements, thereby transforming religion from just a characteristic or descriptor of a place into a force that defines a place.5 In this case, the conflict between evangelicalism and southern culture helped define the South. It causes us to ask more questions about the culture of a place and time when a new religious cultural form like evangelicalism emerges. Additionally, this study also reveals that religion is also a spatial entity. Whether one thinks about the catchment of a particular church community and how far stories from the church discipline meeting might spread from the church meeting, how broadly felt a church schism might be, the influence of a pastor or itinerant minister might be, the development of religious spaces is revealed as an important part of the narrative. How much do people move, and how does the movement that religious communities foster whether through traveling ministers or yearly associations affect the community and the larger landscape? How does religion create movement? What does religious movement create? And how might it define the cultural, political, social landscape of a place? These questions call religion into view as a spatial element.

Southern Cross, when viewed through the prism of historical GIS mapping, reminds us of how much history, especially religious history, happens at the intersection of time and space. It helps us to see the intersection of religious community and place, space, movement. The study’s strengths reveal the explanatory utility of thinking about religious community through the prisms of place, space, and movement, for generating new questions about the role of religion in defining and shaping a place that go beyond religion as a descriptive characteristic. And it shows us something new. This depiction of religious culture encourages attention to cultural exchange in a way that is too easily reserved for “others.” Further, Heyrman’s narrative is thoroughly suffused with geographic data, and invites us to consider how some of the mapping methodology might be engaged to reframe understanding of what religion is. I am left wondering if evangelicalism might be understood literally as movement and not just a movement.6 Might that better underscore its power, force, and efficacy for changing the landscape of human relations?

1 Kim Knott has created a systematic spatial analysis that engages a different set of themes than the ones I deploy here. Kim Knott, “Spatial Theory and Spatial Methodology, Their Relationship and Application: A Transatlantic Engagement, ” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77, no. 2 (2009).

2 This analysis is informed by Christina Dando’s discussion of the early twentieth century suffrage map, used by suffragists to make the argument for the need for women to have the right to vote. Their map depicted the states that had woman suffrage in white and the states that did not in black. Dando acknowledges the implicitly racialized iconography of this representation, but the underlying attempt to visually compare the status of different places is what is useful here. For more discussion of the suffrage map, see Christina Dando, “‘The Map Proves It’: Map Use by the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” Cartographica 45, no. 4 (2010).

3 Yuan et al. argue for the value for mapping to reveal causation. May Yuan, John McIntosh, and Grant Delozier, “Gis as a Narrative Generation Platform, ” in Deep Mapping and Spatial Narratives, ed. David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015).

4 See, for example, Visualizing Emancipation, <>. This project involved students in the process of research as described in Scott Nesbit, "Visualizing Emancipation: Mapping the End of Slavery in the Civil War," in Computation for Humanity: Information Technology to Advance Society, ed. Justyna Zander and Pieter J. Mosterman (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013).

5 Elaine Peña reflects on the relationship between nationalism and religious culture and informs this discussion. Elaine Peña, “Beyond Mexico: Guadalupan Sacred Space Production and Mobilization in a Chicago Suburb, ” American Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2008): 721–747.

6 Thomas Tweed advances a definition of religion based on movement. Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).