Evangelical Religion, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South

The Sacred MirrorRobert Elder is an assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University. He is the author of The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (2016). Elder is currently working on a biography of John C. Calhoun.

Histories of southern evangelicalism between the Revolution and the Civil War usually hold to a modern historiographical version of the old Puritan declension narrative. In the modern version, early evangelicals initially challenged both slavery and a deeply ingrained honor culture among white southerners, but sometime around 1820 they sold their birthright as social radicals for a mess of hominy in order to win influence and souls, especially white male slaveholding souls. As one historian eloquently put it, “Southern whites came to speak the language of Canaan as evangelicals learned to speak with a southern accent.”[1]

The evangelical transition from opposition to accommodation in the South has some merit, and a compelling narrative arc, but it sets up a binary that obscures as much as it reveals when it comes to honor culture, which most historians of evangelicalism have equated with a sense of pride and a propensity to violence among southern white men. In my book I set out to move beyond the opposition/accommodation binary and this narrow definition of honor in order to describe the more complex ways that the language, practice, and structure of evangelicalism overlapped and intersected with honor culture in the South in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nothing illustrates this complexity better than a story told by the Methodist minister William Capers, which I tell at the beginning of my second chapter. In his autobiography, Capers vividly describes an incident that occurred at one of the small, backcountry churches that lay along his circuit in the Chester district of South Carolina in the first decade of the nineteenth century. At one of his stops, a place called Carter’s meeting house, a large congregation had gathered, composed of members of the local Methodist society as well as the local community, all interested in the church trial of a woman accused of adultery, which Capers conducted according to the Methodist mode of government. As Capers remembered, “Her father-in-law, and the connections on that side generally believed her guilty,” while the woman’s husband loudly and pitifully proclaimed her innocence, being, as Capers thought, “partially deranged” by the shame of the situation. All the community, including the society members, were “intensely enlisted” on one side or the other of the matter, and when a group of society members chosen by Capers found the woman guilty, the crowd erupted into violence. In the midst of the fight, Capers saw several society members doing their part and the “poor crazy husband fighting his father.”

This story serves as a striking illustration of the way that the practice of church discipline in evangelical churches throughout the South intersected with the concerns of honor, shame, and reputation. And this was not an accidental or isolated occurrence. From the eighteenth century onward, evangelical churches worked their way into the fabric of communal life in the South as public spaces where community opinion coalesced in the form of church verdicts, and where rumors, insults, and reputations were openly probed in ways that don’t fit easily into the opposition/accommodation model. As I argue in the book, I think the best definition of an honor culture is one in which individual identity is largely defined by communal authority and opinion. In a society with few institutions that could plausibly claim to represent “the community,” the united verdict of a church court was an incredibly powerful thing, and churches were inescapably part of the manufacture and maintenance of honor, reputation, and standing in their communities. This process was not without friction, as the ideals of the evangelical community sometimes clashed with the trappings of male honor and the rowdy world of male recreation outside the church. But the areas of congruence were always at least as significant as the areas of conflict, and the assumptions that underlay both honor and evangelical life about the relationship between individual identity and communal authority allowed the church to speak in a way that southerners understood and embraced.

The story also illustrates my larger argument about the nature of evangelicalism during this period. I see my work as an of exploration in a specific historical and cultural location of the arguments that scholars like Charles Taylor have made about the emergence of the modern self, especially the emphasis on personal knowledge as the only true knowledge and the anchor of identity. I argue that southern evangelicalism nurtured both an individualistic sense of the self, as evidenced by its emphasis on conversion, AND a deeply rooted respect for communal authority that is clearly evident, for instance, in church disciplinary records and stories such as the one Capers told. The tension for early southern converts was not, or not only, individual identity vs. community and family (or religion vs. honor), but which community should serve as the community of authority in their lives. That’s very different from our usual notion of evangelicalism, southern and otherwise, as the religious mode of modern individualism. It points to the deep structural harmonies that existed between honor and evangelicalism during this period and suggests that instead of seeing evangelicalism as the harbinger of modern forms of identity, we should see it instead, as Bruce Hindmarsh has argued in the context of early modern England, as embodying a significant alternative to modern identity.

[1] Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 27.

CFP: Lenses and Contacts: Framing Early America

Call for Papers

Lenses and Contacts: Framing Early America
McNeil Center Biennial Graduate Student Conference
Philadelphia, 5–7 October 2017

How vast is too vast? How small is too small? Where do you get your frames? In recent years, scholars have been questioning traditional boundaries and envisioning new frontiers. The advent (and departure?) of the Atlantic World has sparked new ways of framing the field and mapping the space of early America. Scholars are also polishing off traditional lenses of analysis such as politics, economics, and intellectual history. This conference will focus on  established historiographical frameworks and new directions. Papers could address topics including but not limited to: spatial lenses, including Atlantic, continental, global, and local; people, places, and ideas on the margins; histories from above and below; perspectives on race, class, gender, and sexuality in early America; ways of knowing, including religion, environmental, scientific, and medical histories; networks and crossings—disciplinary and otherwise.

Graduate students in any relevant discipline are invited to submit proposals, which should include a 250-word prospectus and a one-page curriculum vitae together in one pdf document labeled with the applicant’s last name. Please include your name, your paper title, your institutional affiliation, and your email address at the top of the first page of the proposal. Conference presentations will be limited to twenty minutes. Participants will receive some financial support for travel and lodging expenses. Applicants should e-mail their proposals by 15 March 2017 to mceas@ccat.sas.upenn.edu.

Decisions will be announced in late May 2017.

Introducing The Panorama: Expansive Views from the Journal of the Early Republic

Check out the newly launched The Panorama, the digital forum for the Journal of the Early Republic. The Panorama explores teaching, researching, and communicating about the Early American Republic in an informal and collaborative fashion, supported by, and extending, the scholarship published in the JERThe Panorama is planning roundtables on a variety of subjects over the coming year, each with a series of posts by practitioners in the field; we look forward to having readers join freewheeling and productive conversations in the comments.

In Memoriam: David Jaffee

Sadly, SHEAR lost our good friend, scholar, and teacher David Jaffee on January 20, 2017, after a valiant struggle with pancreatic cancer.  A native New Yorker, David received his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Trained in colonial American history, David soon became interested in American material and visual culture and reinvented himself as a scholar who focused on how objects and images could speak to history. He was Professor and Director of New Media Studies from 2007 to the present at the Bard Graduate Center; from 1987 to 2008, he taught at City College of New York.  The author of People of the Wachusett (1999) and A New Nation of Goods (2010), he was a prolific essayist and workshop instructor who introduced many students to the study of non-literary documents. He is survived by his daughter Isadora Jaffee, his beloved Schneider cousins, and by legions of friends and students inspired by his kindness and generosity. Memorial gifts may be made to the David Jaffee Fellowship in Visual and Material Culture at the American Antiquarian Society, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609 (http://www.americanantiquarian.org/jaffee-fellowship).

A memorial session will be held Sunday, March 26, 2017, 10:30-1:30 at the Bard Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street (between Columbus and Central Park West) New York, NY; His exhibit on the Crystal Palace will be on view at the Center.

Deadline Extended: SHEAR Dissertation Prize

Deadline for submissions for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize extended to Friday, February 17.

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic invites submissions for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize. The Prize will be awarded to an exceptional dissertation pertaining to the history of North America from 1776 to 1861. Within that period, the dissertation may treat virtually any aspect of history, including political, social, cultural, or literary history.

Dissertations successfully defended in calendar years 2015 and 2016 are eligible. To submit a dissertation for consideration, please first send a one-page letter of inquiry accompanied by a brief prospectus, sample chapter, and current CV to:

Robert Lockhart, Senior Editor

University of Pennsylvania Press

3905 Spruce Street

Philadelphia, PA 19104

The prize committee will then invite finalists to send complete dissertations for consideration, and the winner will be announced at SHEAR’s annual conference in July, where a workshop with the prize committee will also be held. The author will receive a publishing contract, and the manuscript will be published as a volume in the book series Early American Studies, cosponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Call for Applications: JER Reviews Editor(s)

The Journal of the Early Republic (JER) seeks applicants for a three-year term editing its book reviews section, effective July 2017. The Editor (or Editors) of Reviews manages the solicitation, review, and acceptance process for book reviews and longer review essays published by the JER. Duties include identifying appropriate titles for review and corresponding with presses to ensure that JER receives review copies, identifying potential reviewers and assigning books to scholars with particular expertise in the subject matter, sending books to reviewers and following up with them until submission, providing editing for style and form for submitted reviews, allotting received reviews to particular issues, and organizing the sequence of reviews within a given issue. Minor institutional support to cover costs of shipping books to reviewers is highly desirable. Please submit letter of application and c.v. to jer@shear.org. Review of applications will begin March 1, 2017.

Zara Anishanslin on Portrait of a Woman in Silk

Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. Her book Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World was recently published by Yale University Press.

At first glance, this portrait seems to send a straightforward message. It appears to be yet another example of a colonial American posing as a refined member of transatlantic British culture, signaling her gentility through the metropolitan luxury goods she wears. But the portrait visualizes more than just the likeness of a long-dead woman. And it tells more than a simple narrative of status and emulation. Rather, this thing fashioned of oil paint on a framed canvas is a revelatory object, a seemingly-typical portrait that narrates a much more complex story about global economy and individual lives and labor in an age of rising—and falling—empire.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing (1710-91). The Philadelphia-born granddaughter of Philadelphia’s first mayor, Quaker Edward Shippen and wife of merchant-mayor Charles Willing, she had given birth to six of her eleven children when she posed for this portrait in 1746. The dress she wears is made of silk designed by Londoner Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), one of early modern Britain’s few women silk designers. Garthwaite designed the bold botanical textile pattern for one of her frequent customers, master weaver Simon Julins (c. 1686/8-1778), in the summer of 1743. Within three years of the pattern’s creation, the woven silk had crossed the Atlantic to Philadelphia. There, Willing had it made into the dress she wore to sit for her portrait by Newport, Rhode Island itinerant painter Robert Feke (c. 1707-c. 1752). This 1746 portrait of a woman in silk brought these four geographically separate lives together in one object. Together, they form a transatlantic network unknown to them but no less evident to us looking back. From the mind of the designer to the hand of the weaver in London, across the Atlantic to the body of the sitter and the eye of the painter in the colonies, we can trace the creation, travel, and histories of this silk and this portrait as they were made, sold, bought, and used.

But this single portrait tells us much more than simply the biography of an object, and the microhistories of this network of four. It also contains macrohistories—of thousands more people, events, and ideas—all similarly connected by things around the British Atlantic. Portrait of a Woman in Silk argues that the production, consumption, and use of commodities in the eighteenth-century British Empire created object-based communities that tied its inhabitants together, while allowing for different views of the Empire. The many histories hidden in this object—created by two women and two men, two colonials and two Londoners—lay bare a mental and material world created by women’s labor as well as men’s, and a transatlantic economy driven as much by colonial Americans as metropolitan producers. Americans were not just avid consumers but also sophisticated producers, motivated to make and buy things by political, cultural, and personal concerns far more complex than emulative refinement alone.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk spans the collective lifespan of the designer, weaver, wearer, and painter who together created the single object at the heart of the book. The chronological accident of their birth and death dates means that this history of the long eighteenth century arcs from the Glorious Revolution to George Washington’s first presidency. Tracing the full life cycle of this network means that the hidden histories captured within this portrait tell tales of what wove the British Empire together, how it unraveled, and how new empires—on both sides of the Atlantic—came to be.

Given this chronology, SHEARites might well be tempted to flip to the end of the book. The last section of the book focuses on the American revolutionary era from 1763-78 and includes a Coda set in 1791. The final chapter discusses the economic and political ramifications of the 1763 Treaty of Paris for silk producers and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic. Focusing on women laborers as well as men, it investigates how protestors in Britain and America alike imbued the wearing and weaving of that most symbolically luxurious of fabrics—silk—with political meaning. This interconnected history is one that encompasses both weavers’ violent protest in London’s streets and scientifically driven efforts—often spearheaded by women—to build American silk manufacture. The chapter ends in 1778, with the American Revolution well underway but hardly settled. This untraditional chronological ending point might be somewhat unsettling to historians of the early republic. But the choice was deliberate—in part to avoid the book seeming like a teleological march toward American independence.

That said, one of the reasons SHEARites should find the book of interest in its entirety, rather than just its last part, is that it adds to our comprehension of how, as John Adams famously put it, “Thirteen clocks were made to strike together.” To understand this history, we must consider the clocks themselves. Chief among the arguments made in Portrait of a Woman in Silk is that not just the four people who together created this single object, but thousands more people, were connected through producing and consuming things like it. Whether they were textiles or clocks, people created both mental and material worlds—imagined communities—through making, buying, and using commodities. We are, for the most part, accustomed to thinking of early American history as regional history. We tend to emphasize differences among New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South; differences between systems of labor and slavery; or differences between religion and ethnicity. But from New England to the Lowcountry South, colonists shared the experience of making and buying objects like portraits and silk. Production and consumption of such things allow us to consider connections that cut across regional distinctions in early America. They also recast our traditional chronological notions about the so-called consumer revolution and the imperial marketplace, forcing us to find the roots of revolutionary era patterns of production and consumption not in the 1760s or 1740s, but as far back as the 1720s. Tracing the histories hidden within these objects illuminates the development of a shared colonial identity that might be called “American” (and indeed, at times was so labeled by colonists themselves) that predated the American Revolution by decades.

A last note on why SHEARites might read Portrait of a Woman in Silk is a methodological one. The four identifiable people connected to this silk and this portrait were all literate, all financially solvent, and yet essentially unexplored by historians. Most likely this was in part because each left a very sparse trail in archival documents like letters, diaries, and probate inventories. But each did leave behind was a trove of material and visual culture. Using the things they created and used as historical evidence brought their lives out of the historical shadows. Hidden histories are bound to emerge when, instead of using material culture to answer historical questions, we make the material culture itself the question.

Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America

Cover: Thundersticks in HARDCOVERDavid J. Silverman is an award-winning professor of history at George Washington University. He is the author of the new book, Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America.
Between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries, indigenous people across North America revolutionized their lives with firearms. The implications of this intervention, however, are complex, resting on how Native people incorporated guns into a vast range of their military, political, social, cultural, and economic activities.

The revolutionary potential of firearms extended from their destructive power, something historians have routinely downplayed. It has become commonplace for scholars to contend that firearms were attractive to Indians mainly because of their so-called psychological effect, referring to the terror and amazement produced by their pyrotechnics. Supposedly, early modern firearms, particularly the smoothbore, flintlock muskets which predominated until the early nineteenth century, were too inaccurate, slow to load, unwieldy, and fragile to supersede the bow and arrow. Indigenous people judged otherwise. They made the musket their weapon of choice in close-range ambushes, sieges of fortified settlements, and even hunting. The emergence of rifle technology in the mid to late eighteenth century, and of breech loaders, repeating rifles, and six shooter pistols in the mid nineteenth century, only accelerated this trend. Natives eagerly sought firearms not because they were dazzled by the technology. Rather, they realized that differential access to guns had become a key determinant in the rise of some Native peoples, and the vulnerability of others to captivity, enslavement, dispossession, horse raiding, and death, specifically the Five Nations Iroquois, the slave-raiding tribes of the Southeast (Westos, Savannahs, Creeks, and Chickasaws), the Osages of the Missouri-Mississippi confluence, the Comanches of the southern Plains, the Blackfeet of the northern Plains and Rocky Mountain West, the Nootkas of Vancouver Island, and the Sitka Tlingits of the Alaskan panhandle.

Arms races erupted across Native America as indigenous people came to terms with the military potential of firearms, the implications of which are best understood through the lens of political economy. Indeed, a people’s stockpile of arms and access to economic resources became mutually reinforcing. Without guns and ammunition, it was difficult to defend and expand the group’s hunting grounds, trade routes, and targets of captive raids. Likewise, without these economic resources, a people could not acquire weapons to defend themselves and pursue their economic interests.

Consequently, Native polities cultivated arms trade with multiple sources to ensure dependable flows of munitions at low costs, even in the event of war with the societies of those suppliers. Sometimes the arms dealers hailed from different nations, such as England, France, the Netherlands, or Spain, or different colonies of the same nation, in the case of the English provinces of the Atlantic seaboard. In other times and places, munitions came from one or more Native groups playing the role of middleman between colonial markets and Indians of the interior, as in the cases of the Wichitas of the southern Plains and the Crees and Assinboines of Canadian subarctic and Plains. The point of cultivating so many trade partners was to prevent foreigners from turning the people’s dependence on firearms into political and economic weakness.

Indian polities used commercial and military leverage to shape these relationships to their advantage. They warned gun dealers that they would take their trade elsewhere unless they received gunsmithing, powder, and shot on acceptable terms. They threatened gunrunners who did business with them not to supply their rivals. Traders who bent to these demands often found themselves with customers so loyal that they could be trusted to repay large extensions of credit, even in the absence of formal legal mechanisms to enforce these agreements.  Gunrunners who ignored the Indians’ conditions suffered a loss of business, at best, and sometimes the loss of their lives. Such tactics were basic to the intertribal and Indian-colonial weapons economy throughout its lengthy history.

The widespread success of Indians at building and maintaining large arsenals of firearms reveals the high degree of interdependence between Indians and Euro-Americans. This interdependence stemmed from a number of factors.  For one, Indians were the main suppliers of the colonies’ beaver and otter pelts, deer skins, and buffalo robes.  The fur trade was big business in nearly every colony in its opening decades and, in some cases, throughout its existence.  Some fur trade enterprises had influence in the upper ranks of colonial and imperial government; thus, Indians sold valuable resources to weighty interests.  What they insisted on receiving in exchange, above all else, were munitions and gunsmithing. The Indians’ Euro-American trade partners could either meet this demand at reasonable cost or lose their Native customers and risk turning them into enemies. Colonial and imperial authorities, knowing all too well about the high cost of warring against Indians, responded by making gifts of munitions and gunsmithing a routine part of their diplomacy with them.  Oftentimes, presents of these goods and services were so common that powerful Indian groups no longer had to pay for them to any significant degree.

The Euro-American inability to control the Indian arms trade should serve as one of the prime examples of “rogue colonialism” (coined by Shannon Lee Dawdy) in which colonists of all ranks pursued their own gains, often illegally, in opposition to the directives of central authorities and against the security of their neighbors. Even during periods of Indian-colonial warfare, Euro-American states struggled to cut off their Indian enemies from munitions, as in King Philip’s War, the Tuscarora War, Pontiac’s War, and the Second Seminole War. There were always traders who refused to abide by such restrictions, despite the risk of capital punishment.  Most startling were examples of government officers and military men who turned to the black-market trade with Indians to line their own pockets. Government could seem fictional when it was incapable of preventing its own people from arming their enemies. To the limited extent that colonial states managed to reduce Indian military supplies during times of war, it was usually by enlisting the help of Indian allies, largely by plying them with arms.

Indigenous dependency on the technology of Europe and the United States never rendered them politically or economic dependent on colonial or imperial states. Most Indian nations remained well armed right up to the moment of their subjugation to Euro-American authority. In some instances, they wielded better guns and were better shots than the colonial forces that confronted them. To the extent that Indians held back the colonial tide, it was in part because of, not despite of, their adoption of firearms. Gun dependency was not a Trojan horse for colonialism.

The importance of firearms to indigenous fortunes meant that guns also became an essential part of Native cultures, including gender systems. Indigenous people incorporated firearms into ceremonies ranging from coming-of-age rituals to burial. They imbued firearms with supernatural associations, decorated the weapons to express these ideas, and fired celebratory volleys to honor their deities. They also used guns to express their notions of gender. Guns grew so essential to masculine achievement that, in many times and places, an Indian man was rarely if ever seen abroad without a musket and ammunition bag slung over his shoulder.  Among the Blackfeet, capturing an enemy warrior’s gun became the greatest honor a man could accomplish in battle. Learning to make basic gun repairs and mold lead shot, never mind shooting guns accurately, joined the list of things a Native man needed to know. By contrast, Native women rarely used firearms, even when their lives were in peril, based on the principle that women were meant to give and sustain life but not take it.  However, women did participate in the material culture of firearms, using their expertise in leather working, sewing, and beadwork to produce gun bags, ammunition pouches, and war shirts. These were new ways of expressing longstanding gender roles.

This history of guns in Indian country demonstrates how indigenous people used firearms to reshape their world during the age of colonialism. Some Natives, for greater or lesser periods of time, used guns to accumulate wealth, power, and honors, which is to say, to become ascendant.  Such stories offer an important counterpoint to the still widespread assumption that First Nations generally plunged into a downward trajectory of death, land loss, and impoverishment at contact with Euro-Americans. Thundersticks challenges the notion that a disadvantage in arms somehow accounts for indigenous people’s ultimate subjugation to Euro-American authority. Native economic power, business sense, and political savvy determined that was not the case. However, it is equally critical to acknowledge that gun-toting Indian groups nearly always arose at the expense of other Natives, sometimes many others.  Just as the story of the United States should not be told simply as the triumphant rise of a democratic nation of liberty loving people, neither should the advantages Indians wrested from colonialism overshadow the costs. Capturing the full range of Native experiences with firearms helps us to grasp the dynamism and darkness of colonial America viewed from Indian country.

SHEAR Dissertation Prize

The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic invites submissions for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize. The Prize will be awarded to an exceptional dissertation pertaining to the history of North America from 1776 to 1861. Within that period, the dissertation may treat virtually any aspect of history, including political, social, cultural, or literary history.

Dissertations successfully defended in calendar years 2015 and 2016 are eligible. To submit a dissertation for consideration, please first send a one-page letter of inquiry accompanied by a brief prospectus, sample chapter, and current CV to:

Robert Lockhart
Senior Editor
University of Pennsylvania Press
3905 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

The deadline for submission of preliminary materials is February 1, 2017.

The prize committee will then invite finalists to send complete dissertations for consideration, and the winner will be announced at SHEAR’s annual conference in July, where a workshop with the prize committee will also be held. The author will receive a publishing contract, and the manuscript will be published as a volume in the book series Early American Studies, cosponsored by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Case for an Electoral “Pause”

Over at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy’s blog, SHEAR members John L. Brooke and Andrew W. Robertson make the case for an electoral “pause” in anticipation of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. Here is an excerpt:

[T]hose who view Donald Trump’s accession to the presidency with apprehension should make use of the much-needed “pause” in the presidential trajectory afforded between Jan. 6 and Jan. 20 by the “contingent” election conducted in the House. This hold on the electoral process would allow Republican and Democratic House members additional time to reflect on concerns about Russian interference in the election and Trump’s possible violation of the emoluments clause, either of which might render him unsuitable or ineligible for office. Taking a cue from Hamilton, officeholders and shapers of public opinion could help to steer the House vote. Like Jefferson, Republicans and Democrats might work towards a compromise on basic policy. This might reassure members of both parties that whoever won the presidency would not cause a radical break in foreign policy or renegotiate the national debt.