Review: Southern Religion, Southern Culture

Christopher C. Moore

Christopher C. Moore is Instructor of History and Religion at Catawba Valley Community College.

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Christopher C. Moore, "Review: Southern Religion, Southern Culture," Journal of Southern Religion (22) (2020):

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Darren E. Grem, Ted Ownby, and James G. Thomas, Jr., eds. Southern Religion, Southern Culture: Essays Honoring Charles Reagan Wilson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. 141 pp. ISBN 978-1-4968-2047-1

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As someone whose own research has been deeply shaped by the work of Charles Reagan Wilson, this reviewer needed little convincing of Wilson’s enduring influence on modern-day scholarship. Still, each of the essays in Southern Religion, Southern Culture trod a path that Wilson blazed, and in so doing, deliver a persuasive testimony.

The book will interest those in many fields and subfields, including history, religious studies, sociology, memory, and race. As most of the essays stand alone, familiarity with Wilson’s work, while beneficial, is not prerequisite. The work is intended for an academic audience but, while some essays are more accessible than others, any reader curious about the variegations of Southern religion will find this book meaningful.

In his introduction, Darren Grem notes that “Wilson’s insight…was to draw the scholar’s eye outside the doors of religious institutions and denominations and into the landscape of southern popular religion” (xii). This observation encapsulates a major theme of the book, as an expansive definition of religion—through symbols, mythologies, rituals, or objects consciously or subconsciously set apart as holy—lies at the heart of Wilson’s work. Each subsequent essay, whether mentioning Wilson by name or not, takes an imaginative approach to the study of Southern religion. Taking a cue from the writings of Manuel Vasquez, Paul Harvey makes a clarion call for religious scholars to acknowledge that “religious expression has been embedded, embodied, and environmentally patterned” (11-12). Ryan Fletcher focuses on antebellum Arkansas, demonstrating how Episcopalians—sometimes through political savvy—flourished in the American South, despite the rising tide of evangelicalism. Otis Pickett uses the life and work of Presbyterian John Lafayette Girardeau to complicate prevalent interpretations of postwar memory. Examining the role of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in founding the Mississippi Industrial College, Alicia Jackson highlights how African Americans built a self-sustaining institution that defied the presuppositions of white paternalism. Randall Stephens looks at how Southern Pentecostals harnessed technology and media in order to sustain growth, even when the numbers in mainline denominations were declining. Arthur Remillard mines the culture of Southern athletics in order to dispute the notion that “muscular Christianity” was confined to the North. Delivering a powerful essay on the sacralization of objects in American culture, Chad Seales explores how relics have functioned in the Southern imagination, whether through the pageantry of Civil War reenactments or the specter of lynchings. Ted Ownby concludes the book by recognizing Wilson’s place as a pioneer of historical memory.

A particular strength of the book is its breadth. The essays are diverse, surveying Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. Just as important (and provocative) are the essays situated outside the institutional church—pieces addressing anything from the iconography of an Elvis portrait to the consecration of field goal posts. These latter studies, of course, run the risk of classifying so many things as religious that, in the end, nothing is religious. Expansion can breed dilution, and the endeavor to define religion—an especially onerous task among politicians[1]—can be just as fraught for academics. Refreshingly, though, Southern Religion, Southern Culture avoids this pitfall. Here broad interpretations of religion are not a gimmick; they are instead testaments to the pervasiveness of religious impulses, and to the reciprocal influence between the churches and culture of the American South. Wilson gave scholars permission to grapple with this dynamic church-culture interplay in new and creative ways, and since each essay bears his unmistakable imprint, Southern Religion, Southern Culture is a fitting tribute to one of the most influential scholars of Southern religious history.

[1] Martin Marty, “Defining Religion,” The Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, accessed March 6, 2019,