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The Southern Way of Religion

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

A s a boy growing up in the rural South in the 1950’s, I took absolutely for granted the cultural primacy of religion (meaning, of course, evangelical Protestantism). Every person I was taught to respect was a church member. School opened each morning with prayer, football games and the summer rodeo began with prayer, any gathering from a family reunion to a Rotary Club lunch could not begin without prayer. Church services were held Sunday morning and evening, with Wednesday night prayer services. Every summer there was a scheduled week-long revival, with services each night. Every sermon I heard was structured to come to an emotional climax pressing sinners to convert, and we all waited—with the choir singing softly—as the preacher offered the altar call. While there were a variety of Protestant churches in my community, they all represented the evangelical wing of Protestantism: there were no Catholics, no Jews, no Episcopalians, not even Presbyterians, but there was every type of Baptist imaginable, with a sprinkling of Methodists, and assorted independent Bible churches, holiness churches, and Pentecostals. Mine was a situation common to much of the South, though older regions, and more affluent areas, would have Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. I later came to realize that I had grown up in the Bible Belt, but it never occurred to me then that my religious situation was different from that in other regions.

Not until I went to college and began to read American history did it slowly come to dawn on me that my religious background was at least to a degree out of the national mainstream. I noticed that while my history textbooks sometimes included religion—Pilgrims and Puritans in New England, Transcendental ministers and religious reformers in the antebellum North, Social Gospellers in the late 19th-century North, and religious thinkers like Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 20th-century North—the only mention of religion in the South was the embarrassing episode of the Scopes Trial. Religion seemed largely a factor in the North’s history while the South seemed, by omission, to be an irreligious region. The textbook history was clearly at variance with my own historical experience. When did the South become religious, Protestantized as it were? What had been the influence on the region of this religious tradition? Was the Southern experience with religion different from the Northern (or national) experience? Was there a distinct Southern way of religion?

Whenever one attempts to describe Southern or Northern religion, it must be understood that large-scale generalizations are to be made; religion in both sections is too protean and complex to be completely subsumed under any generalization. That said, I wish to suggest some of the characteristics of what I call Northern or national U.S. Protestantism and then compare that with the Southern religious tradition. Moreover, I want to describe the historical origins of this Southern way of religion and indicate its broadest features, and I hope in the process to help explain certain aspects of the religious landscape of the late-20th-century South.

The Northern Protestant tradition is, in the most general sense, the institutional and intellectual expression of Puritanism, that body of beliefs and practices that English religious reformers brought to New England in the second quarter of the 17th century. Puritanism was a doctrine-centered movement that usually held in creative tension both rationality and faith, and it proved to be an adaptive, evolving religious system. No historical snapshot, as it were, can fully capture its dynamism or reveal the full complexity and range of its power, but several useful generalizations can be offered. Puritanism for all its emphasis on the individual’s probing, introspective relationship to God never made a fetish of individualism. Rather, Puritanism emphasized the individual in community, in relationship to other believers, and Puritans did not characteristically strike out alone for the frontier but moved as part of believing church communities. Puritans tended to define their individual callings not only as a personal response to God’s plan for them but also saw their calling in terms of the needs of the larger community.

This powerful identity with one’s community was an outgrowth of the very sense of mission that undergirded the Puritan enterprise in the New World: the mission to create a holy Bible commonwealth in what was called a howling wilderness and the corresponding mission to export that model of the Godly society back to the Old World to complete the Reformation. That is, individual Puritan believers and their individual churches were part of a great Providential plan: even act was filled with transcendent meaning. The community was to be nurtured, disciplined, conditioned to fulfill Cod’s penultimate plan. Puritans thus sought a reformed, educated, moral commnnity, with schools, colleges, printed sermons, and a whole host of institutions and practices oriented toward shaping the community. The faithful were God’s agents primed to communicate and make manifest in the world God’s intentions for the whole society of which they were a part.

Hence Puritans engaged the world; they vised the power and authority of governmental institutions and officials to put into law their interpretations of Biblical commands: ministers employed fast day and election day sermons to instruct their parishioners politicall v. It should be no surprise that Puritans and their intellectual and cultural heirs in New England and across New York State into the Midwest were actively involved in disciplining and “Christianizing” the Northern frontier. Throughout the North and Midwest tin’s Northern religious tradition fueled a variety of reform movements: the revivalism of Charles G. Finney, for example, led to attempts at social perfectionism including abolitionism and a wide range- of ameliorative activities. This Northern Protestant tradition valued theology and education, had a strong social conscience, emphasized human agency, and appreciated the prophetic role of religion in the Amos-like tradition of judging society against presumed Biblical standards). Out of this tradition came not only antebellum reform but the later Social Gospel movement and, in the 20th century, efforts to prevent war, end segregation, and generally advance a moderate-to-liberal social agenda. For much of the 19th century and at least the-first half of the 20th century, this Northern religious tradition was seen as the national religions mainstream. Certainly alter late-19th-century immigration the rise in the number of Catholics modified the theology and practice of the Northern religious tradition, but Catholics have also generally defined the religions life in community terms and have advanced usually moderate-to-liberal reform and political agendas. The Southern religious tradition has, however, been quite different.

The origins of the Northern religious tradition lie in the well-known Puritan migration to New England in the 17th century. The beginnings of the Southern religious tradition are not as well known, and the particular historical context in which it developed largely shaped its character and style. The roots of the Southern Bible Belt lie in the mid-18th-century South, a slaveholding region with a nominal established (state-supported) religious institution, the Anglican Church.

The South in 1740 consisted of but five colonies: Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. While there was a smattering of other denominations and sects in the region, in all five colonies the official religious body was the Church of England. Yet the parishes were geographically large, transportation was primitive, and few of the ministers were very effective at communicating the faith or engendering warm attachments to particular churches. While it was the legally established religion, Southern Anglicanism was mostly a faith adhered to only nominally in the Southern colonies and hardly at all in the backcountry. The English-bred and trained ministers often had a condescending attitude toward their colonial parishioners, and members of the colonial elite dominated the local church vestries. The Southern common folk felt doubly excluded, unmoved by pedantic, read sermons and restricted to the back pews—the upfront paid pews were reserved for the families of the plantation aristocrats whose patriarchs sat on the vestries. Government-imposed tobacco taxes paid the ministers’ salaries, thus insulating them even further from the necessity of appealing to popular needs or preferences. While the colonial elites could experience their church affiliation as a kind of social club that marked both their prominence and authority, the majority of whites—and even more so the slaves—often felt alienated from the established church. The absence of a strong and vibrant religious faith and community meant that there was a potential for a religious awakening, but a dynamic change in the situation would have to occur before this potential could be realized. That change would be the effective introduction into Virginia of three activist denominations in the generation after 1740: in order of appearance, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and the Methodists. Here were planted the seeds that would produce a crop of new converts in what became known as the Great Revival.

There are several prerequisites that must be in place before a widespread religious awakening can occur: there must be a network of churches and ministers, there must be a generally accepted belief system about how God works in history, and there must be the perception of a religious crisis so severe that the faithful believe only direct divine intervention can effect a remedy. The grafting into the Virginia society of strong branches of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches fulfilled two of the necessary requirements for a general upsurge in religious interest and affiliation.

Within a three-decade period, in unlinked but successive movements, Presbyterian, Baptist, and then Methodist churches and networks of ministers were developed in Virginia and, in rudimentary form, throughout the rest of the Southern colonies. At one time the founding of these three denominations in Virginia was labeled Virginia’s Great Awakening, but that was an interpretative overreach. Measured either in terms of intensity or the numbers of people involved, the three separate waves of religious activity in Virginia never reached the threshold of any meaningful definition of “great” awakening. Instead, here were the necessary foundation stones for the later Great Revival that, as a South-wide religious quickening in the decade after 1800, may accurately be described as the South’s “First Great Awakening”—some 60 years after the Northern and more famous First Great Awakening. It is only by beginning with an overblown interpretative construct of a continental great awakening in the 1740’s, whereby the merest evidence of some religious stirrings is seized as proof of a nearly universal awakening, that one can (incorrectly) describe the events of the mid-18th-century South as being a part of the First Great Awakening.

The first Presbyterians appeared in the Valley of Virginia in the late 17th century as Scotch-Irish settlers from Pennsylvania and Maryland migrated southward down the broad valley that lay just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, separated from the older and more populous eastern section of the colony. However, when in the mid-1740’s a group of farmers in Hanover County, just north of Richmond, began meeting together in farm houses seeking the religious fellowship and zeal they had not found in the established Anglican Church, they, absent a minister, began to read to one another from a collection of Martin Luther’s sermons. Hearing of this development and rightfully seeing it as a missionary opportunity, Presbyterian minister William Robinson from the Valley journeyed eastward across the Blue Ridge and began to preach in person to the quasi-Lutherans, gathering them into the Presbyterian fold. In 1748 Samuel Davies, later president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), became the leader of Virginia Presbyterians, and in 1756 the various Presbyterian churches were organized into the Hanover Presbytery. By about 1760 the Presbyterian growth spurt ebbed and a period of what might be called normal church life began, but the result was a network of churches and ministers and a shared belief system that created a Presbyterian culture in Virginia.

As with the Presbyterians, the first Baptists appeared in the South in the 1680’s, and over the next 70 years there developed a scattering of various Baptist sects with names like Particular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, General Baptists, all vaguely descriptive of their attitudes toward the availability of salvation to humankind. But the group of Baptists that would eventually prove to be the predecessors of today’s Southern Baptist Convention were led by two Connecticut Yankee ministers, Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall, who, enthused by the New England Great Awakening, had a vision that sent them on a missionary trek to the Southland. After an intermediary stop in what is now West Virginia, the two, accompanied by a handful of followers, planted a church in Sandy Creek, North Carolina, just below the Virginia boundary, in 1755. From there these two skilled Baptist ministers, firmly Calvinistic but fiercely evangelical, spread their version of the Baptist faith. Unlike the Presbyterians who insisted on educated ministers and organized themselves hierarchically in presbyteries and synods, the Baptists utilized spirit-filled, often unpaid ministers who were at best educated only in a rudimentary sense, and the Baptists made much of the complete autonomy of individual churches (although they did organize regionally into loose associations). These veritable folk ministers were extremely effective salesmen for their faith, and the Separate Baptists spread quickly into Virginia and by the early 1770’s probably outnumbered the Anglicans there. The Baptists in North Carolina were associated with the Regulator movement by Royal Governor William Tryon in 1771 and 1772, and his efforts to squelch the Regulators resulted in Separate Baptists moving into South Carolina, Georgia, and what eventually became Kentucky and Tennessee. By the time the American Revolution broke out, there had been established across the South, but especially in Virginia, an impressive network of Baptist churches and preachers and a powerful system of shared beliefs.

The Methodists began as a pietistic movement within the Church of England, and Charles and John Wesley, their leaders, never intended to create a new denomination. Many Anglicans disparaged the Wesleys and their enthusiastic followers, and indeed the movement’s name originated as a slur against the supposedly hyper-methodical nature of their worship and prayer. The first Methodist missionary in Virginia was Robert Williams, who arrived in 1773. A local Anglican minister who initially approved of the Methodists’ fervor, Devereux Jarratt, assisted their growth by smoothing out obstacles that the civil authorities and more staid Anglican ministers put in the Methodists’ way. The Methodists were, if anything, even more emotionally demonstrative and evangelical than the Separate Baptists, and they pioneered the use of itinerant ministers (often relatively unlettered and willing to serve for almost no salary) who traveled about huge circuits and willingly preached wherever people could be gathered: a cabin or barn, even an open field, Methodist growth took off, but the Wesley brothers’ strong Toryism dampered the sect’s prospects after the American Revolution began. As soon as the revolution was over, the smoldering Methodist flames burst forth, stoked capably by a cadre of ministers and especially the English evangelist specially sent by the Wesleys, Francis Asbury, who truly is known as the father of American Methodism. In December 1784 the American Methodist ministers met in conference in Baltimore, Maryland, and officially established the Methodist Episcopal Church, completely independent of the Church of England and with a printed Book of Discipline. Led by Asbury, the Methodists were primed for very significant growth. A network of churches and itinerant ministers, augmented by lay persons organized in classes and bands, was ready to spread the Methodist doctrine. By the mid-1780’s an enthusiastic Methodist culture reflected the success of the Methodist itinerants at spreading their belief system among pockets of supporters across much of the South.


Had we access to an imaginary time machine and calibrated our destination to the American South in the mid-1780’s, we would witness a very different religious scene from the one encountered in 1740, with the Presbyterians integrated into, and the Baptists and Methodists much less so, the dominant power structure of the society. The Presbyterians appealed to those who were more affluent and sometimes better educated; although in their founding decades at least some Presbyterian ministers were antislavery, by the 1760’s they were beginning to make accommodations to the slaveholding society. The ruling civic and church authorities also recognized the Presbyterians as essentially kindred spirits, and except for the matter of tax support, Presbyterianism soon had the same social cachet as did Anglicanism (after the Revolution, Episcopalianism). The Baptists and Methodists, however, most of whose appeal was to the lower orders (including slaves), were self-consciously and intentionally countercultural. Their sermons were more exclusively calls for conversion, their services were nonliturgical and filled with demonstrable emotion and enthusiasm, and people responded to one another in a more tactile manner, with hugs, foot washings, and clasped hands that contrasted with the austere demeanor of the Anglicans. On rare occasions Baptist and Methodist converts—or those still seeking a conversion experience—became so intense in their religious quest that acquaintances thought they had gone mad.

The ruling authorities feared the evangelicals as dangerous disrupters of the social peace. The Baptists were actually persecuted by the ruling civic and church authorities. Both Baptists and Methodists emphasized plain dress and aversion to conspicuous consumption and display, placing them in opposition to the plantation aristocrats who dominated the Anglican churches. Even many of the common people were put off by the evangelicals’ strictures against such so-called worldly sins as fiddle music and dancing (eventually this asceticism waned as the evangelicals grew beyond a tiny sect and began to reflect a broader cross section of the population). In like manner the Baptists and Methodists were from the beginning open to black worshippers and were often opponents of slavery. Thus in many ways the most fervent of the evangelicals in the last half of the 18th-century South represented an intentionally oppositional culture, which intensified elite condescension and hostility toward them at the same time that it strengthened the evangelicals’ sense of separate identity. Evangelicals were alienated from the dominant culture and focused inwardly and on their immediate church community. But their energy and activism, their powerful evangelical thrust, their use of lay and itinerant preachers and willingness to take the gospel to the listeners rather than expect the listeners to come to single parish churches, insured the growth of the Baptists and the Methodists.

One might expect that, after the conclusion of the American Revolution, the Southern colonies would have experienced a prolonged period of church growth, with the disestablishment and lessened prestige of the Episcopal Church, the freeing of the Methodists from the Tory label, and the exemption of the Baptists from political persecution. Certainly the three denominations that had been dissenters but were now free to compete for converts—the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists—expected to enter a season of sustained growth. Yet these hopes and expectations were dashed by the reality of the decade and a half following the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that ended the conflict with England. Although ministers continued to preach, people joined the churches, and young men joined the ministry in the period immediately after the war, and there was even a very localized interdenominational revival in central Virginia in the mid-1780’s, on the whole these were inauspicious years for church growth.

From a modern perspective it is easy to identify a number of factors that acted to suppress expansion in church membership in the final 15 years of the 18th century. These were years of political turmoil, economic disruption, agricultural transition, and significant population movement. Once the former colonies became states, they had to write, debate, and ratify their new constitutions. A fledgling national government, the Articles of Confederation, had finally been ratified in March 1781, but it proved unable to cope with the multiple demands of a new nation not all of whose constituent states yet fully accepted even this relatively weak central government. The resulting turmoil eventually led to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and the U.S. Constitution, but a stressful series of ratifying elections and conventions in the various states kept political controversy alive until formal ratification in 1788. Even though a strong new centralizing national government had been founded, political problems did not end. There were still controversies over taxation, over national economic policy and whether there should be a national bank, over foreign policy issues: for many citizens, these momentous public issues crowded religious concerns aside.

The South had particular economic and agricultural stresses. When the British troops left aboard their transport ships, as many as 50,000 slaves (and many Tory planters) left as well. Moreover, the vicious fighting in the final years of the war left plantation houses and barns, dikes and irrigation ditches in the Carolina and Georgia Low Country, and public buildings in ruins or disrepair. The former guaranteed markets for Southern agricultural products—tobacco, rice, indigo, cattle—as well as wood products (barrel staves and shingles) and naval stores were ended, for the United States no longer enjoyed automatic access to the markets of the British Caribbean Islands. Soon the development of the cotton gin in 1793 and the spread of green-seed cotton gave the Southern agricultural economy a powerful (and because of the dependence upon slave labor) yet tragic revivification.

Moreover, the opening up of lands far to the west, now that the hated Proclamation of 1763 was voided, meant that Kentucky and Tennessee beckoned farmers and planters who hoped to find better agricultural prospects on the famously fertile lands of the frontier. Revolutionary War veterans had land bounties in partial payment for their military service. Speculators and land companies also bought up giant parcels of land for resale in smaller lots, helping to further fuel the mania for westward settlement. The spread of the cotton-slave economy created visions of quick profits on the virgin land, and many migrating farmers were almost consumed by thoughts of land, slaves, cotton, and riches. The resulting population surge to the West left seaboard communities and churches comparatively depopulated, while the population rush to the West meant that settlers overwhelmed the ability of churches, schools, even local governmental institutions to keep up.

From the comfortable perspective of hindsight, these changes appear the natural and predictable consequences of growth and change, evidence of the dynamic nature of the society of the early national period. For contemporaries, though, the rapid change seemed chaotic and frightening: where would it go, when would it end, how would peoples’ lives be transformed? In the midst of these wrenching changes, church growth halted, lay persons caught up in the throes of agricultural or geographical transition were overwhelmed just with the practical necessities of everyday life, and the religious sphere was, temporarily it turns out, comparatively extinguished from many peoples’ consciousness. Churches and associations were actually declining in membership. Ministers were the first to notice and comment on the languishing fortunes of religion, and in their personal correspondence, diaries, sermons, and public letters began to decry what came to be called a “declension” in religious sentiment and participation. The pessimism about the state of religion was contagious, and by the mid-1790’s ministers and many lay persons seemed fixated on the presumed crisis in the state of religion.

One of the central and universal functions of religion is to supply an interpretative context for life, to provide a meaning system that explains and makes sense out of those events—both tragic and joyful—that transcend everyday and obvious cause-and-effect relationships. In the Christian tradition theologians and ministers take the lead in this explanatory function and communicate to the laity the results of their faithful search for meaning. As one reads the writings of ministers throughout much of the South in the decade of the 1790’s, this clerical quest to understand the causes and remedies for what they almost unanimously labeled a religious declension becomes painfully apparent. While no one letter or document spelled out the entire theodicy, one can put together the thread of their logic.

Since God knows and controls everything, he obviously is aware of the decline in religious interest and somehow must be the cause of it. God does not act whimsically, so why would he allow such a thing to occur? It must be for some divine purpose. Yes, God had sent the declension to teach the nation a hard lesson—when people put politics and prosperity ahead of the matters of the spirit, their lives become barren and they suffer a loss of community and religious purpose. Once they learn that intended lesson, how do they communicate their contrition to God? By fasting and praying. How will God indicate that He accepts their penitence? By sending a providential blessing in the form of a great outpouring of religious enthusiasm, a veritable second pentecost. Agricultural metaphors were commonly employed to describe the expected result: showers of blessings, a harvest time for religion. As one reads the ministerial musings on the nature of their religious condition, one sees the evolution away from religious despair to religious expectation and hope. Sometime, somewhere, probably where they least expected it, God could be depended upon to intervene and produce an explosion of religion. By the late 1790’s the aura of anticipation was almost palpable among the formerly despondent ministers.


It was in this context that a young Presbyterian minister named James McGready, a son of North Carolina and a veteran of a localized but intense interdenominational revival in central Virginia in the fall of 1788, moved to Logan County, Kentucky, in 1796 and organized fasting and prayer societies in his three small churches, motivating his parishioners with promises of providential intervention. In June 1800 at a meeting of the most devout of his parishioners from all three churches in preparation for a three-day sacramental celebration concluding with communion, there were several cooperating ministers present, including a Methodist minister, John McGee, brother of a Presbyterian minister McGready had converted back in North Carolina. It was a sultry Friday evening service, and the faithful, weary but hopeful as always that the much anticipated divine intervention would occur, were listening to a series of sermons. The visiting McGee asked to preach, and because of his family ties to the Presbyterians, he was allowed. McGee as a Methodist preached with a degree of enthusiasm and emotional abandon never seen in a Presbyterian church, and the worshippers—their springs of expectation wound almost to the breaking point—sensed that this was an unusual occasion, perhaps even extraordinary. McGee too saw the opportunity as special and threw himself into the spirit of the occasion, breaking into tears and uttering his conviction that God was present in a powerful way.

Suddenly a woman at the back of the church began to shout and cry, and her emotional ecstasy like a shock of electrical current flashed across the pews, producing an instant religious fervor unlike anything that McGready and his fellow Presbyterians had ever witnessed. Finally the services ended, and the exhausted worshippers returned home stunned by what they had seen and abuzz with excitement about the next sacramental service McGready had planned for August 1800 at his Gasper River church. No doubt those present in June spread the word of what to them seemed a miraculous event, and one even today can imagine the fever of anticipation as the August meeting neared. Hundreds of worshippers made preparations to attend, coming with tents and food prepared to stay until they again experienced what was being called the presence of the Holy Spirit. More than a dozen ministers arrived too, and again, stoked by heady expectation fueled by months of organized prayer and fasting, the faithful came ready to experience a miracle— ready to interpret what they experienced as a miraculous intervention by God into space and time. Hundreds were overcome by emotion, falling to the ground; others cried with joy, shouted with excitement, groaned with conviction—the very size of the crowd helping to create a scene that lent itself to being understood as a miracle. Never had these people on the frontier been part of such a large crowd, with teams of ministers, and people camped among the trees ready to witness a providential event. Scholars today might employ such concepts as crowd psychology or mass hysteria to explain what happened in August 1800, but the participants were sure they had just experienced a mighty act of God on the Kentucky frontier. While there had in the past been large gatherings of Presbyterians for several days in preparation for communion—in fact, the practice can be traced back to Scotland—and Methodists in England and along the eastern seaboard had held large outdoor services, the size, duration, and multidenominational format of the Gasper River event was unprecedented. It and similar religious exercises quickly came to be known as “camp meetings,” a descriptive term created for the phenomena.

Word spread quickly throughout the transappalachian South of these huge meetings with their dramatic physical evidence of emotional ecstasy: people were said to shake uncontrollably, fall unconscious, engage in “holy laughter” and all manner of unusual behavior that was mostly interpreted to be valid signs of the miraculous nature of the revival sweeping across the region. Of course, the more the camp meetings were unlike regular religious services, the easier it was for the faithful to read them as a providential intervention to heal the so-called religious declension. Given that the remnant of active church-goers across the South, along with the persevering preachers, had long hoped for and confidently expected a divine interposition, news of events on the Kentucky frontier flew throughout the region, often eliciting imitative camp meeting revivals elsewhere. Spreading like an epidemic, highly emotional responses to the perceived work of God became a self-fulfilling demonstration of the validity of the religious interpretation of events. The most famous of the subsequent camp meetings was that held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801, with at least several thousand in attendance (contemporary estimates ranged as high as 20,000, surely too high), but within two years camp meetings had occurred in every Southern state, often erupting almost immediately after word was received of the religious awakening taking place to the west.

Literally thousands were attending the camp meetings, new converts by the hundreds swelled church rolls, sometimes increasing the members three- and fourfold. Women and adolescents made up the majority of new converts, but dozens of young men, caught up in the heady movement, felt called to join the ministry. Clergy who for years had bemoaned the state of religion in the South were now tremendously energized, and they for a while submerged theological differences in order to forward the interdenominational progress of the revival. Soon denominational differences and rivalries reemerged, with the Presbyterians first withdrawing from the camp meeting excitement, then the Baptists (soon instead making use of more church-centered annual revivals or protracted meetings), leaving the camp meeting as the quintessential Methodist institution in the South, where it persisted—calmed down and regularized—into the 20th century. But even though the Great Revival accord among the denominations did not persist, the practical, results-oriented style of preaching became a Southern staple.

What worked were direct, hard-hitting sermons aimed more at the emotional faculties than the reasoning, employing language unencumbered with complex theological ideas or vague metaphysical abstractions. It was effective to paint vivid word pictures of the sinful nature of the hearers and the frightening consequences of death and hellfire for the unredeemed versus the palatial pleasures of heaven. The point of the sermon was not to advance a set of doctrinal propositions but to convict and convert. The vocabulary, the delivery, the imagery of the sermon and the entire worship service was directed to that one end. The essence of the religious service was a conversion experience, fixed in time and space so that one could know and describe precisely when it happened, and recognizing that moment came close to being the totality of religion in the American South.

The focus on personal conversion was so all-consuming that southern Protestantism was an intensely individualistic, privatistic faith. Certainly converts gathered together in warmly supportive church communities, but seldom did Southern white Christians conceive of their religion as having a social or reform dimension other than the reformation of individual sinners (which, it was believed, would translate into a better society). But a prophetic element—a willingness to judge the institutions of society as opposed to condemning the behavior—was woefully underdeveloped. This tendency of ministers and churches not to become engaged with societal institutions was the result of more than just a practical emphasis on seeking converts. The evangelical churches in the first decades of their existence in the South had been critics of slavery, but following the development of the cotton gin in 1793 and the strengthening thereafter of the slave-labor economy, and such slave insurrection scares as that of Gabriel Prosser in 1800, the planter elite, upwardly mobile plain folk, and the governmental authorities acted promptly to suppress all criticism of slavery. The evangelical ministers, who conceived of their task primarily to preach the gospel and effect conversion, faced a moral dilemma: should they stick to their antislavery guns and risk ostracism and perhaps a complete prohibition against preaching, or should they soft-pedal their antislavery concerns in order to be allowed to spread their message? From a modern perspective it is easy to say that they were hypocrites and discarded their principles in return for denominational growth. They saw it differently: what did it prosper the slaves to gain earthly freedom yet lose the chance for eternal life? Better to compromise on political issues if that were the price of being able to preach more freely across the region. The evangelical ministers were less concerned about the institution of slavery than they were the state of the souls of individual blacks.


So the Southern way of religion that successfully emerged from the maelstrom of the Great Revival was conversion-centered, more concerned to convert individuals than the society, oriented around individual congregations and hence localistic in focus, and practically devoid of complex theological doctrines—their theology consisted of a series of vivid tropes describing the path leading from sinful life through conviction to conversion with the promise of heaven after death. Old Testament images of divine wrath and punishment were blended with New Testament homilies about the friendly Jesus dying a substitutionary death to purchase their salvation. All the theology one needed could be summed up in a paragraph. Here was an easily learned, quickly described, and immensely effective religious message, a sure-fire strategy that made possible the almost complete domination of the South by the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. Even the Episcopalians borrowed the strategy, the planter elite (many of whom began their lives as plain folk) soon followed the evangelical pattern, and by the middle of the second quarter of the 19th century the Old South had become the most emphatically Protestant section of the nation. In terms of religious style, evangelicals had won the battle for the mind and heart of the South. The evangelicals at first had been despised outsiders, but within three generations they had moderated their sharp edges, honed their organizational strategies, and become culturally dominant. Ironically, the evangelicals may have changed more than did the society, but their imprint on the South was indelible nonetheless.

The Southern way of religion was decidedly moralistic, with ministers more apt to attack individual moral failings than social evils. One of the real attractions of evangelicalism to Southern women was the extent to which it sought to rein in the behavioral excesses of Southern men—notoriously individualistic, hedonistic, and prone to violence. But Southern revivalism, unlike that, for example, of Charles G. Finney in the North, did not lead to a wave of reform activity. Later Southern ministers joined the temperance movement and thundered against alcoholics, but the late-19th-century Social Gospel was anemic in the Southern states. Southern white ministers did not lead attacks against sharecropping, or one-party politics, or segregation, or rampant racism in general. And while the South turned out creative writers and musicians, to date no great theologian has emerged. In addition to being moralistic, those of the Southern evangelical persuasion have also often been fatalistic. Since God controls events, little other than the state of one’s soul is subject to personal agency. Southern ministers during the Civil War comforted believers by saying that God controlled the path of every bullet, and He would be sure to protect the faithful even in a hail of rifle fire. Actually, after several battles, experienced soldiers came to know otherwise, witnessing as they did the frightening impartially of death. In the 20th century agents of the U.S. weather service noticed the statistically higher death rate from tornadoes in the South and concluded that fatalism led Southerners, unlike Midwestern farmers, to neglect building storm cellars. If it was your time to go, a storm cellar would be of no avail; and if it were not your time, then building one would be wasted effort.

Observers of the South have long noted the personalism of the folk culture of the region. That too may well be at least partially a result of the evangelical tradition as expressed through the agency of women. As in most Christian populations, women made up roughly two-thirds the regular attendance at church services; and they were assumed to be, and in fact were, more actively religious than men. One of the widely accepted social roles of women was to be a purveyor of religious values, and of course Southern evangelicalism was intensely individualistic and personalistic. A careful scholar of the women of antebellum Petersburg, Virginia, discovered that women more frequently made out wills (suggesting that their faith made them more willing to face the prospect of death and plan accordingly) and distributed their estate in a more personalistic manner, rewarding those who had greater need or who had demonstrated more affection or assistance to the will writer. Southern men, in contrast, tended to employ an almost mechanistic equality in their wills, giving the same to each category of inheritor. In other words, Southern women revealed a more personalistic attitude in their wills than did men, and very possibly it is the action of Southern women that produces the vaunted personalism of the region.

The one great aberration in the history of mainstream evangelical Protestantism in the South was the reaction of the churches to the perceived threat of abolitionism and their consequent support for secession and the Confederacy. The history of Southern religion is filled with irony, but none greater so than the shift of the evangelicals from being countercultural dissenters, despised and even persecuted for their opposition to slavery and the planter lifestyle in the mid-18th century, to fervent defenders of slavery and the idea of a separate Southern nation. In the 18th century both the Baptists and Methodists had been bruised by their involvement with government and political issues and had made almost a fetish of noninvolvement with political causes. But that stance changed. As evangelicalism accommodated to Southern society in order to be allowed to preach the gospel in the slave quarters, and as more and more slaves became Christians, Southern white ministers and their flocks came to see slavery as a divine institution—the process God devised to introduce Africans to Christianity. The presence in their midst of devout black Christians, rather than being evidence that slavery was evil, became in the minds of white Christians the clearest justification for bondage. Hence when Northern abolitionists began attacking slavery as a sinful institution and charged the Southern churches with neglecting their spiritual duties, the Southern churches felt rebuttal was necessary.

In short order the churches became active defenders of slavery and its role in Southern society. Most nonclerical apologists for slavery also employed the Bible to justify their cause. And it followed, in this line of reasoning, that if slavery was a Providential institution, then the South as a region was carrying out God’s plan. White Christians came to argue that the South was the most Christian portion of the nation, that it was the only region that interpreted the Bible literally, and that Christians had an obligation to support secession in part to save the South from the corrupting, even blasphemous influences of the North. Southern churches became primary defenders of the Confederacy, confident of victory.

But of course victory did not come. Defeat was a shock to many Southern white Christians, and for some it shook the foundations of their faith. But most worked through the problem, coming ultimately to believe that God was the author of their defeat. By this reasoning they came to believe that, among other things, God was punishing them for not being sufficiently Christian slaveholders, and they eventually convinced themselves that God was chastising them, molding them on the anvil of sacrifice, for a higher cause: to lead the nation back toward an individualistic, privatistic religion. The aberration in corporate religion—heavy investment in defending the institution of slavery and the political experiment of the Confederacy—was a mistake, a delusion. The result was a return to the older form of purely personal evangelism with a vengeance. Owning a responsibility for the larger society, they determined, had been a profound error. More than ever before, mainstream Southern evangelical Protestantism emphasized the necessity of converting individuals almost to the complete exclusion of everything else. Southern religion came to conform to norms of “proper” society—its founding sense of being countercultural abandoned and its words of condemnation aimed at infractions of personal morality. And that has been the basic mode of the Southern way of religion to our own time.

Space does not permit an analysis of the powerful role of Christianity in the black community, which is an important story in its own right. Suffice it to say that religion was probably the most important cultural agent in the lives of many slaves and freed persons, and more than any other factor it enabled the oppressed to find meaning for their lives, infused them with courage and even at times unsuspecting joy. Because of the different social condition that slaves and then freed persons found themselves in, black Christianity had a far stronger social dimension. In the black community, the church was concerned with more than just the state of one’s soul. The black church ministered to all aspects of its people and eventually gave moral power to the Civil Rights Movement, Not until the 1960’s did the white churches in the South begin to learn from the black that Christianity had a powerful and redeeming social dimension.

It should also be stated that in spelling out in such stark outline the individualistic, personalistic, and localistic features of the Southern way of religion, I do not by any means wish to deny the many positive contributions of that religion to the lives of white Southerners. Countless thousands have in their faith found a meaning system that gave structure and purpose to their lives, found moral guidelines for good behavior, found fellowship and love that reached across countless congregations. The result has been many acts of Christian charity, comfort in times of grief, direction in times of confusion and loss. Women have found avenues of service and leadership in times when the larger society excluded them from positions of leadership, and many Southern people whose lack of affluence and education left them powerless in secular society have found strength and leadership roles in their churches. Much good has resulted from the sway of evangelical Protestantism in the South, particularly in the lives of individuals. Acts of charity have constructed colleges and hospitals and ministered to the needs of those who hungered or suffered. One could only wish that the prophetic role of Southern Protestantism had been stronger and it had challenged the larger society more forthrightly. In the last two decades many Southern white evangelicals have gotten involved in politics, but their influence on the whole has been more narrowly moralistic than broadly prophetic.

There are many complexities that could be added to this brief overview of Southern white religion, but I think these large-scale generalizations, especially vis-a-vis the Northern way of (Protestant) religion, provide useful insights into the nature of religion in the nation. The three Protestant denominations that have been most dominant in the South—Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, and particularly the latter two—have proved to share more with one another in their emphases in the South than they have with their Northern denominational counterparts. The Southern churches have been more prone to scriptural literalism, more concerned with personal morality in a traditional sense, more evangelical than socially reformist. An Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on April 5, 1997, spoke of a major shift occurring in American Protestantism, with the great divide being North versus South. According to this essay, “these two religions—the Church of Law [i.e., strict moralism], based in the South, and the Church of Love [i.e., relativistic, forgiving, and reformist], based in the North—differ on almost every big theological point.” This editorial no doubt exaggerates the differences—for example, Jimmy Carter is a Southern Baptist evangelical fully engaged in social reform—but it accurately identifies a difference in basic approach whose origins lie deep in the Southern past.

Consider two very prominent women in American politics whose approach to religion I suggest exemplifies the distinction I have been trying to make between the Northern and Southern ways of religion. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a representative of the Northern Methodist Church. Personally devout, her orientation is in the social gospel tradition. She wishes to identify and reform the institutional structures that produce poverty, child abuse, poor health care, and other such maladies. She sees a vital partnership between churches and the government to shape and discipline the society. Elizabeth Dole is a representative of the Southern Methodist Church. An avowed evangelical, Ms. Dole is more oriented toward conversion, in leading others to being born again. She is not blind to social evils, but her approach is aimed less at structural reform and more toward charity: she advocates feeding the hungry through local church-run agencies but not critiquing the institutional or economic structures that produce or contribute to poverty. In her former role as director of the Red Cross, she operated one of the largest helping charities in the nation.

We should neither exaggerate the differences nor be blind to the similarities between these two emblematic women. Both Clinton and Dole are educated, articulate, interested in government; Dole is committed to social improvement and Clinton is quick to speak about how her faith motivates her life. But despite their many similarities, they, in their basic attitudinal differences, illustrate the divergent traditions in American religion. One fundamentally wants to remake individuals, the other wants to remake society. These two interrelated impulses have existed for a long time, and the tension between the two has often been creative and not always mutually exclusive. In a sense, however, they represent the ends of a spectrum along which many well-meaning Christians have sought to position themselves. And in a very real way they suggest the Northern and Southern styles of religious impulse. Much has been written about the role of religion and reform in the Northern states. It is time to recognize that the Southern way of religion is different and has been one of the most important and durable characteristics that sets Southerners apart in this nation.


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