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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.