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The Southern Conscience

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

However the authentic Puritan may have suffered from the loose attribution of varied qualities to his nature, the popular connotations of the term “puritan conscience” remain clear enough for present purposes. In Mr. Glenway Westcott’s “The Grandmothers” there is a patriarchal character, a hypochondriac, who was constantly a prey to the vague promises of patent medicines. For a time a small closet downstairs was given over to his treasured remedies; later, as he added copiously to his store of pill boxes and assorted bottles, it was necessary to devote an entire room upstairs to his healing pellets and lotions. When these quarters were beginning to seem cramped and inadequate, the old man, to the relief of the family, fell into a deep cynicism with regard to patent medicines. He then, as Mr. Westcott tells us, found relief only in Duffy’s Malt Whiskey, which he took by the teaspoonful—he being a total abstainer!

This state of mind I take as a perfect illustration of the puritan conscience. It demands a moral justification of conduct, albeit the purity of the spirit may be established through devious and evasive lines of reasoning. The three hundred and seventy-three pages of text and the two hundred and twenty-three pages of notes by means of which Professor Kittredge’s “Witchcraft in Old and New England” suffocates the suspicion that the American Puritan bears responsibility for the Salem massacres in 1692 may free the Puritan somewhat from the superstitious butchery associated with his name, but the far more subtle and more interesting imputation of popular usage still insists that “puritanical” connotes an inevitable demand for moral justification through a process of reasoning frequently specious.

From the European analogy of the last century we have the expression “Victorian conscience.” Alfred Lord Tennyson may be accepted as the prime manifestation of this phenomenon. The damsel at her spinning wheel in the tower in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” has vowed that she will cast no direct glance from her window, but apparently it is allowable for her to peer indirectly by means of the reflections in her mirror. Her sin, which brings sorrowful death, is only committed when she looks directly forth upon Lancelot; the mirror, representing an evasive path toward the same end, is then mystically shattered.

Risking a generalization, I think it fair to say that a primary urge towards moral justification is markedly absent from the Southern conscience. Characteristically the Southerner acts intuitively. He not often deems a simple rationalization necessary before his head can rest easily upon the pillow; his moral rectitude normally requires no constant bolstering up through tedious vindication of his conduct and desires. He trusts native patterns. Nothing more clearly demonstrates how near the ante-bellum South came to formulating an integrated and definitive culture than the fact that to this day the individual ethics and morality of her descendants should be submerged in a larger and inclusive social consciousness. As respecting slavery, drinking whiskey, and a state of class inequality, the Southerner felt no moral obloquy; these things were included in the social order for which he had complete respect.

The Southern conscience is unruffled by the act of lifting a glass with one hand and gesturing for prohibition with the other; the puritan conscience, however, would require a fragile explanation such as “What I am able to do with impunity would he injurious to weaker souls.” As a matter of fact, the South believes in prohibition much less as a moral principle than as a political instrument. The spectacle of a dry South, along with other and similar anomalies, must be viewed in the light of catastrophic changes which have attended the inevitable adjustment of the old regime to a new order which is as yet inchoate and undetermined. Principal among these changes is the present ascendancy of popular government.

When the populist parties essayed a stand against the former powers in the South, moral principles offered a convenient vehicle for revolt. Somewhat the same state of affairs attended the English revolt under Oliver Cromwell. The populists were first identified with the Anti-Saloon League; later with the revived Ku Klux Klan. The economic motivation present in the Grangers, Greenbackers, Free Silverites, Non-Partisan Leaguers, Farmer-Laborites, and Progressives of the Middle West was but vaguely apparent in the Southern phase of the same general movement. Thus it is that what appears in the present-day South as moral or religious fanaticism—by which I mean to indicate zeal for prohibition and anti-Catholic bombast—is in reality political radicalism. It represents social revolution. The recent controversy in the Alabama legislature over near-beer statutes, which amused the nation, was fundamentally political, not moral or religious, in significance.

If the South had actually possessed even a mild form of religious fanaticism, or a more decided moral consciousness, there would have been many more divisions of religious thought than a backward glance discloses in the region. When one has named the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists, he has encompassed the list of widely distributed and influential coteries. Profound delving into the conscience produces a separation into many cults. Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Quakers, Seventh Day Advcntists, Lutherans, Mormons, Spiritualists, Con-gregationalists, and Catholics are few and far between in the South. That mosaic of conflicting tables of the divine law which covers the map of California is not to be observed in Georgia. And in spite of her reputation for revivals and evangelism, the South has not yet toed the mark with a Billy Sunday, an Aimee McPherson, or a Wilbur Glenn Voliva. Except for the misleading political manifestations which have been mentioned, serious and soul-stirring rivalry among the sects has never flourished in the South. By nature the Southern conscience is charitable and tolerant. Among the Baptists, for instance, there is the pleasant saying that anyone can be an Episcopalian, since the tenets of that church never interfere with one’s religion.

At the same time, it is true that Southern conduct with respect to ethics and religion has now and then chilled the marrow of outside observers, who, if the truth be known, do not like us very well anyway. To the adverse critics, whose backs are bent under the sins of our region, the Southerner is generally content to state simply that outsiders do not understand him. Southern assurance is not a pose; it is a real quality, one tangible enough to cause a kind of frustrated rage to burn in the hearts of those who have tried to penetrate the armor of a civilization which in its time has come very close to being definitive.


A few years ago the world buzzed with indignation over a certain abortive trial in Dayton, Tennessee, at which Mr. Clarence Darrow and Mr. William Jennings Bryan furnished a grotesque spectacle to an audience which gasped and shuddered anew for many days as the newspapers milled fresh evidence of religious bigotry and abysmal ignorance in the Tennessee back country. After the world had subsided somewhat from the shock of appalling discovery, its agreeable smugness was punctured a hit by an article appearing in a current magazine under the title, “Why Pick on Dayton?” The author contended that the “monkey trial” might have taken place in almost any other part of the United States as well as at Dayton. He named the personalities of Mr. Darrow and Mr. Bryan as the basis for dramatic conflict, and held that the environment had been a non-essential element in the performance. One might go further in this direction with the assertion that a location in Kansas, Ohio, or Indiana, where larger auditoriums and hotels and better railroad connections would have been available, might have done even better by the venders of hamburger sandwiches. Nebraska, after all, has first claim to Mr. Bryan. New York guardians of liberty might have saved railroad fare and voluminous perspiration by setting the measurably dubious scholarship of Mr. Darrow against the ardour of their own Dr. John Roach Straton.

Mr. Darrow and Mr. Bryan, nevertheless, were contending over a law passed by the state of Tennessee; the native population was spiritually involved on the side of Mr. Bryan and was consequently a party to the argument. When the shrewd lawyers of the Chicago Tribune chortled over Mr. Henry Ford’s lack of elementary education—in that celebrated case which gave rise to Mr. Ford’s fretful utterance that “history is bunk”—no derogation attached to the city of Detroit or to the state of Michigan even when court evidence sustained the Tribune’s forthright characterization of their god as an “ignoramus.” But the gimlet questions and ironic sneers of the sallow Mr. Darrow were taken as indictments of the state of Tennessee, and indeed of the entire South, by most of those who sniffed at poor Mr. Bryan’s un-familiarity with Biblical text. Those who sensed that the entire South was involved were correct in such an assumption; but they were wholly incorrect in their tacit conclusion that the basis for conflict was a quarrel between science and religion isolated from broader contiguous phenomena.

Here was no mortal combat in which soul and intellect wrestled in bitter throes over a controversial theological dogma. Here was no racking debate such as those which stirred the mediaeval scholastics, or which furrowed the brow of Ralph Waldo Emerson or tortured the spirit of Jonathan Edwards. The Tennessee people were threatened by an alien force which sought to destroy their self-determination. Led by certain of their own people, whom they trusted without argument, they had placed on their statute books, without great ado, a certain law which seemed to conserve the integrity of their customs, a law protecting the churches about which their social patterns, their essential culture, foregathered to an important extent. One may safely assume that their knowledge of theological dogma and of ecclesiastical systems was as loose and scattered as that of Mr. Bryan. Unfamiliar with the weapons of philosophical contention, and not particularly interested in the paraphernalia of abstract reasoning, they nevertheless clearly understood that foreign bodies of explosive power were being hurled into the midst of a social order which they enjoyed, cherished, and were determined to maintain.

Granting at once that their showing, through their champion, was inglorious on the strange plane where the fantasy was enacted, it remains obvious that their immediate victory was complete on the plane where their fundamental interests and concerns naturally rested. When in answer to Mr. Darrow’s sneering thrusts Mr. Bryan was content to repeat, “I believe it if it’s in the Bible,” the native audience echoed assent, for to them such a statement was equivalent to their real sentiment: “We care little for the terms of your argument and less for what your estimate of us may be. We should thank you for non-interference; but if you insist upon argument, we are willing to return conventional answers to everything you put forward, until you tire of the monotony and go away.”

If any lesson is to be learned from a retrospective glance at the Dayton trial, if it can be regarded as more than an isolated and spectacular performance, the superficial observer might point towards religious bigotry, ignorance, and stubborn fundamentalism. But a more incisive analysis would disclose a people fighting for a whole civilization. If such a conception suggests a culture harmonious and integrated in all its parts, then I believe that such a picture would accurately represent the role of religion in the South. A less unified civilization might be compared with a man who, upon being struck on the left arm by an assailant, would use only his left arm in defense and counter-attack. A more unified anatomical structure would feel injury throughout the whole body, and in defense would be conscious of contending for the welfare of the whole rather than for the single part.


In his stimulating essay entitled “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” which forms one chapter in “I’ll Take My Stand,” Mr. Allen Tate writes in a manner so casual that the reader is likely to overlook the depths of his implications. Brilliantly he advances the revealing observation that the Southerner’s religion is uncodified mainly because the Southerner has been satisfied to rely upon what Thomas Jefferson conceived as a sense of “taste.” Mr. Tate believes, if I interpret him correctly, that the South has lost an opportunity to embody its essential tradition in a systematized religion, and that, having done so, the present possibilities of consolidating a body of tradition are dependent upon the instrument of politics.

Agreeing with Mr. Tate that the South has never derived a religious code suited to its peculiar characteristics, one may at the same time discern that several practices and points of view touching upon religion have been peculiar to this region. For instance, church-going has been much more a part of the purely social life in the South than in other areas of the United States. When Mr. Tate says that the “professional man of religion” these days in the South seems to “speak from the tripod” less than he formerly did, I should not be sure that he is correct were it not for my confidence in him as a competent historian. Cases which have fallen under my observation lead me to believe that a peculiar fervor often identified with religious emotionalism is frequently to be remarked in the politics, business enterprises, and communal promotions of the present-day South. When Mr. Tate, speaking of the authoritative position formerly held by the Southern minister in his relationships with the layman who inclined towards philosophy, says that “we have none of that respect now,” I am privately of the opinion that he could not display his slate throughout the South without numerous awkward misgivings.

Rivaled in his position as undisputed center of the social structure, the Southern minister has often strengthened his authority by cultivating secular relationships in order to meet the new economics on neutral ground. The slipper of the Anglican divine moves in earnest grace across the ballroom floor at country clubs, and the heavier foot of the Cal-vinist regularly marks the turf on many a putting green. Any slackening of the churchward procession in recent years has been compensated by a concourse of ministers around the festive noontide board of Kiwanis. Mohammed has gone to the mountain.

If the South has been disinclined towards systematizing its conscience in the form of an indigenous religious creed, its use of the church has been stamped with an emphasis upon broadly social values rather than upon an intellectualiza-tion of morals. The predominantly rural character of the South has greatly influenced such a tendency. Religion and secular life have exerted reciprocal influences because the church usually has been the place for social gatherings. Even at barbecues, political rallies, and county fairs the people are likely to wear their Sunday clothes, and there is likely to be a certain grave suggestion of church manners and inflections.

In the rural districts and small communities of the South the church has been the center of most socialized forms of artistic experience. It is there that the people have heard nearly all the music which has entered their lives. From the juvenile tunes attending the dropping of pennies in the cradle roll class to the solemn dirges accompanying the fall of fresh earth on the grave, church songs are the ones which they have whistled or hummed at work and play; and pianos in their homes have seldom vibrated to the measures of any music except that of the hymnal. What the introduction of popular dance songs and musical comedy hits by the radio will bring about cannot be predicted with certainty, but I suspect that it will tend to show that the former exclusive selection of church music was dictated by a limit in choice as much as by devout preference. A similar question now hangs between church attendance and movie patronage. Whatever of oratory, stagecraft, inspiration, literature, emotional experience, and exaltation one enjoyed in the rural South was likely to be centered in a large measure in the church. Comparatively well educated, mystic and remote, the minister was impressive as being the only man in the community who regularly spoke in public, read books, and performed in a setting conducive to drama and imaginative pleasure.

While secret lodges gave men some touches of mysticism, symbolism, and ritual, the church was the only place where all might gather for the exercise of those functions which in urban communities are interspersed among libraries, concert halls, theatres, lecture halls, colleges, and art galleries. If artistic life was largely involved with the church, moral and philosophical considerations were even more so. The tenet that all good citizens must be churchgoers was hardly assailable, for non-attendance labelled one as anti-social, unmoral, unimaginative, inartistic, or dull. If in the South a few strictly urban communities have made their appearance within recent years, most of the inhabitants of them still carry the imprints of previous experience sufficiently to create a strong feeling that the church is the most tangible embodiment of idealism, aspiration, consolation, and morality. I have noted that the speeches of Rotarians, professors, and politicians in the South are rarely so secular as not to adumbrate the tone and gesture of ministerial utterance.


When that wave of religious fervor known as the Great Awakening swept the United States during the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the South was involved less than were other regions. Perhaps this was not so much because of the lack of religious feeling in the South as because of the fact that the form and structure of a unified society had already been determined in this section. The Southern conscience had previously been absorbed into an inclusive entity; consequently it was less subject to influence as an isolated aspect of regional consciousness. The thunderous echoes of Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield were mostly felt in the New England and Middle Atlantic states. When the righteous Edwards was playing a dismal Emily Post to moral conduct, the South was more intent upon the axioms of social grace. Respecting the morality of taking food, Edwards wrote as follows in his diary on the Saturday night of February 15, 1724: “I find that when eating, I cannot be convinced in the time of it, that if I should eat more, I should exceed the bounds of strict temperance, though I have had the experience of two years of the like; and yet, as soon as I have done, in three minutes I am convinced of it. But yet, when I eat again, and remembering it, still, while eating, I am fully convinced that I have not eaten what is but for nature, nor can I be convinced that my appetite and feeling is as it was before. It seems to me that I shall be somewhat faint if I leave off then; but when I have finished, I am convinced again, and so it is from time to time.” Without offense to the good Edwards, a Southerner might wonder whether personal morality and temperance might not exist without such agony of conscience and prose style. Confronted by the same momentous question while eating dinner, perhaps the Southerner, even in 1724, had contrived to express the point succinctly and with less pious fustian, giving rise to a regional proverb: “Always leave the table feeling that you could eat another biscuit.”

I mean thus to contend that the South does not wear its religion on its sleeve; to say that it has been without conscience and morality would be absurd. Deeply felt awareness of the ineffable reached its most active phase in the South during the years following the Civil War; but it was a sense of tragic desolation, rather than self-abomination and consciousness of sin, that led faltering ones to kneel solemnly at the altar of eternal wisdom and compassion. The close integration of religious practices with definitive and inclusive social patterns has given to religion in the South a greater vitality than a self-conscious and isolated morality could possess.

Some grieve lest the Southern jessamine and magnolia may lose the faint sweetness of their perfume in the smoke and steel of a new regime. Mr. Edmund Wilson has pointed out that the slave master accepted without evasion the moral implications of his acts; that writer, consequently, believes the Southerner suspicious of the “Northerner’s principles and pretensions—smelling hypocrisy in his human anxieties, mania in his moral idealism, and in his eternal insistence upon ‘service’ a compensation for the savageries of a society predatory and egoistic in the extreme.” While not convinced that Mr. Wilson has photographed the plight of Southern charity with absolute exactitude, one must thank him for a left-handed compliment. I confess, however, that I cannot feel the moral indignation to the extent professed by Mr. Wilson. Doing so would not seem consonant with the Southern conscience, which, to my way of thinking, is fairly civilized, and therefore able to walk out of a fine morning with due aplomb and equanimity, without sensing the visible presence of hobgoblins behind every rose bush.


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